Nestled amid rolling green hills, veiled by wispy white mists, and perfumed by the very scent of tea, majestically sits the last kingdom of ancient Sri Lanka – Kandy. Assailed by the Portuguese, barely subdued by the British, but mostly venerated by Buddhists as the custodian of the tooth relic of the Lord Buddha, the history of Kandy is replete with the defining narratives of the Sri Lankan nation. Its cool salubrious climes provide a soothing escape from the sometimes stifling heat of the tropical lowlands. From colourful religious pageants featuring traditional drummers, dancers and beautifully caparisoned elephants, to gleaming sacred palaces, Kandy represents the grandeur of Sri Lankan history and culture, and even one visit, is bound to leave an indelible impression in the imagination of the visitor.
Places/Activities in Kandy
This temple, known as the Dalada Maligawa, is one of the most sacred places of worship for Buddhists the world over. It can be compared to what the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is to the world’s Catholics. Buddhists are expected to visit this temple at least once in their lifetime. It is believed that a tooth of the Buddha lies there, and annually hundreds of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims visit Kandy to pay homage to this tooth relic.
The tooth relic is securely enshrined in this temple, and its exposition happens during the famous Kandy Esala Perahera every July (see below). Intricate Kandyan era carvings and brightly painted frescoes adorn this grand temple, along with numerous skillfully drawn paintings and exquisitely carved statues of the Buddha. The scent of white blossoms sold by wayside florists perfumes the air, while monks in saffron robes move around serenely, engaging in their daily activities and rituals to the rhythm of temple bells.
The Kandyan kings used to preside over their courts in a grand audience hall, a large building with a wooden roof supported by thick wooden pillars, adjoining the temple. The wood carvings not only highlight the skills of ancient Sri Lankans, but also provide a historical insight into Kandyan architecture. It was here that the accession of Sri Lanka to the British Empire was signed via the Kandyan Convention of 1815 and later on, the country’s independence was celebrated. To this day, many of Sri Lanka’s significant national events are held at this temple.
The misty hills of Hanthana are the source of many a bubbling stream that gush down to the surrounding plains. Located in the outskirts of Kandy, a spectacular view of the entire city can be obtained from atop their rolling green thickets. The 90-minute climb is quite challenging, however the cooler climate of the hill country in contrast to other parts of Sri Lanka, makes the trek appreciably more comfortable. A popular camping destination for locals and foreigners alike, the Hanthana mountain is a must visit, especially if you are a nature enthusiast or looking for a hill climbing adventure. The mountain is home to various species of amphibians, with a few leopards and other feline species prowling about.
This temple is the abode of one of the country’s two most venerated chief monks, entrusted with the protection of the sacred tooth relic, and has a large statue of the reclining Buddha.
Fancy a game of golf on the hillsides of Kandy? Surrounded by the Victoria Reservoir and the silhouette of the Knuckles mountain range, lies a challenging 18-hole game. Work on your swing at the acclaimed Victoria Golf and Country Resort or just drop by for lunch at the clubhouse. The view itself is a feast for the eyes. In 2005, the Victoria Golf Course was voted the ‘Best Golf Course’ by Asian Golf Monthly Magazine and is ranked among the top 100 ‘Most Beautiful Golf Courses in The World’ by Golf Digest Magazine.
This modern botanical garden was developed over the site of the older Royal Gardens made for the queens of Kandy, and to this day it retains its regal air. The elegant, immaculately kept lawns hold over 4000 species of plants, both local and foreign. Do look out for the soaring bamboos that grow 2-3 cm a day and take over five years to produce fruit, which weigh over 10 kgs each! Also keep an eye out for a mass of roots that look like venomous snakes and cover an area of some 1600 square feet!
Many a monarch and dignitaries from across the globe, from King Edward VII to Yuri Gagarin have planted trees in this famous garden to mark their visits. Being one of Asia’s finest gardens, almost all the schools in the island take their students on field trips to this garden. And do try to stay out of the way of the numerous ‘umbrella couples’, lovers that flock to the park for a bit of romantic privacy.
The intellectual atmosphere and physical beauty of the Peradeniya University is clear to anyone who visits this sprawling campus. This pioneering institution owes its existence to the vision and zeal of its founder Sir Ivor Jennings. The Senate building is constructed on hundreds of stone pillars, each of which features the distinctive carvings of the Kandyan period. The seven-floor library and open-air theatre are aesthetically inspiring, and visitors passing by, should definitely drop in for a short tour.
This treasure trove of wooden carvings and infrastructure has lead the UNESCO to term Ambakka (also known as Embakke) as one of the finest products of woodcarvings to be found in any part of the world. Legend has it that a drummer built this place of worship, after the God of Katharagama appeared in his dreams and instructed him to do so.
The rich heritage of Sri Lanka can be seen in the wood carvings which include dancers, musicians, plants, vines, wrestlers, mythical characters, beasts and birds. Although sufficient steps were not taken to protect them, surprisingly, the carvings are still in good condition.
Nothing is spared from the carver’s ardour. The rafters, beams columns, brackets, door-ways, doors and windows all are covered with elaborate carvings.
The roof displays are a fine testament to the quality of medieval carpentry. With no central beam, it holds together 26 rafters by means of a giant wooden pin.
The architecture of this temple is slightly different to many of the ones surrounding it, as it was designed by South Indians. The temple lies on a small rock projection, thereby providing a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. Ancient inscriptions carved on the stone floor have been cordoned off by a fence for preservation. An adjoining shrine of the God Vishnu portrays the nexus between Hinduism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
The town surrounds this beautiful lake which was built by the last king of Kandy – Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. The lake was literally built over the dead bodies of chieftains who protested their people being used as labour to build it. The island in the centre of the lake was used by the King as his personal harem. The fortress- style parapet seen around the lake today was built by the British who used the King’s harem to store ammunition. A cement footpath dotted with benches encircles the lake, and an evening stroll is the perfect way to connect with the town’s buzz, while you work up an appetite for dinner. The Kandy town is actually quite small, and a walk around the lake gives you pretty much a thorough view of the town, its people and their lifestyles.
The sight of a massive white Buddha statue overlooking the city will surely arouse your curiosity if the ancient tales of the temple that lies there are spoken of. The belief is that Bahirawa, an elusive demon who resided there, used to prey on humans, especially young women. Legend also has it that hundreds of pretty girls were sacrificed by kings to satisfy the demon’s hunger. With time, this chilling reputation faded into obscurity, perhaps due to the mesmerising view of the city that this mountain top offers. Adjoining this mountain is the historic Bogambara prison, which was closed down in 2014. Its future is uncertain and there is speculation that the prison building would either be converted into a museum or a hotel.
This museum was a much later addition to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, and displays over 5000 artifacts, most of which are items that various visitors and devotees had brought as offerings to the temple. The artifacts range from those offered by royalty to those offered by the peasantry and include thrones, scepters, swords, daggers, and different grindstones used to prepare medicine etc. dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The museum also contains historical records from the time when the Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka to the time of British rule.
The Knuckles mountain range is one of nature’s most astonishing beauties. Firstly, the name is derived from its contours – that’s right, the Knuckles mountain range resembles the shape of your knuckles when clenched into a fist (do remember to hold out your fist when you spot this mountain range on your way to Kandy – it actually does fit!). No two fingers are the same and similarly, among its various peaks, the Knuckles mountains contain an array of climate zones which allows one to experience every type of climate the island has to offer – all within a matter of minutes.
As you move through dense forests with amazing flora and fauna, you will be amazed by the unpredictable climate changes – for one minute you will be applying sun screen prevent you from the scorching sun and the next you will find yourself confronted by sudden downpours. Hopping from one climate zone to another, while experiencing various forms of wildlife, the unique scent and freshness in the air around streams and waterfalls as well as the breathtaking scenery, makes Knuckles a natural paradise.
Knuckles is home to mammals like leopards, sambur, deer, monkeys and squirrels. Besides these, many species of amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, spiders, fish and birds can be found as well.
Trekking through the small villages in this area allows you to connect with a lifestyle untouched by the fast-paced modernity we see today. The villagers are humble and still practice what they were taught by their ancestors, i.e. ancient farming techniques combined with the use of animals for transporting their produce.
The mountain is home to some of the world’s rarest wildlife and plants, and to protect it in its purest form, most of the wilderness has been cordoned off by UNESCO as a Conservation Site which would otherwise have been viciously harmed by the invasive practices of the spices (cardamom) industry.
The tea museum is the result of the conversion of the 1925 vintage tea factory of Hanthana, which was left abandoned for a decade until authorities undertook the responsibility of sprucing it up. The exhibits consist of old machinery and other artifacts relating to the tea industry, and the telescope on the top floor lets you zoom in on the surrounding mass of rocks and greenery that together constitute Sri Lanka’s central highlands. There could not be a more perfect place to enjoy a cup of Sri Lanka’s finest tea.
The annual Esala Perahera is one of the biggest cultural events for Sri Lankans, especially Buddhists. A large, colourful procession of dancers, drummers, fire throwers and other performers dressed in traditional ceremonial garb enliven the streets of Kandy – among them a majestic elephant, grandly attired in shining gear carries the inner casket that guards the sacred tooth relic. The ceremony is held annually around July and August, and the city is flooded with locals from all parts of the island and foreigners, many of whom have planned their trip to coincide with this extravagant pageant. Kandy is a busy town, almost as noisy and crowded as Colombo, and especially so during this festival period. The streets are packed by the large influx of locals and tourists. Therefore, the Kandy town itself is less than ideal for those seeking a quiet getaway.
Craftsmen influenced by the unique tradition of Kandyan art can be seen working at the Arts and Cultural Centre. The government-run salesroom at the centre protects you from falling prey to lopsided deals as the prices are fixed. Artwork, handicrafts, paintings and other souvenirs such as hammers, items cast out of bronze, wood and the like are displayed, mostly for sale. Since credit and debit cards are not accepted, you can reserve any item that interests you and return with cash later.
A cultural show is held daily around 5.30 pm and an inexpensive ticket allows you to truly soak in the cultural symbolism communicated through a set of flamboyant dance routines. A fabulous one-hour programme includes shows such as the beating of the ceremonial drums, the Peacock Dance, the Devil Dance, the Fire Dance, the Harvest Dance and the Drum Orchestra.
Kandy was first established as the capital of Sri Lanka by King Vikramabahu III in 1357 AD and was ruled by various Kings thereafter. Despite the invasion of the island’s coastal areas by different European colonial powers, the natural high contours of Kandy provided an almost impenetrable defence that prevented, or rather delayed, the British takeover.
This prolonged isolation from colonial influence allowed Kandyan culture and architecture to foster unhampered, until finally the British took over in 1815. During their rule, the British made drastic changes, the remains of which are seen today in the arts, architecture and culture of this historic city.
Travel Tips and Planning Information
The climate in Kandy is generally cooler and wetter than most parts of the country due to its high elevation. The annual temperature averages between 20-25oC and rainfall is common throughout the year. Average day time humidity is about 75% while at night it increases to approximately 90%. Keep in mind that the climate of the hill country is famously temperamental and unpredictable rainfall could have you abruptly locked indoors for hours.
- The Kandy town is crowded, and its best to go sightseeing by avoiding the rush-hour times. The morning rush-hour is from 07.30 to 09.00 am, after which there is rush hour when schools close between 12.00 noon and 2.00 pm, and finally from 05.00 to 07.30 pm when the workforce heads back home.
- Most of the Temples are open only from 08.30 am-6.00 pm, and there is an admission fee for foreign nationals.
- For trekking, mountain climbing, camping, biking or any other outdoor activity make sure to pack enough water, leech proof socks and mosquito repellent.
- Be mindful of what you wear to places of worship. Most places do not allow visitors to enter wearing skirts, shorts, strapless blouses etc.
- Remove your shoes/slippers when entering temples and other places of worship (if you are unsure, just look around if the locals are barefoot or not).
- Pack a few bottles of mosquito repellent as most hotels provide mosquito coils and the fumes they emit can be unpleasant and irritate the throat.
- Carry your hotel contact information with you and do not listen to locals who claim they can offer you a better deal.
The town is lifeless after around 11.00 pm and there is no nightlife unless it’s the festival period. It is generally not safe to wandering about alone at night, so try where possible to move around in small groups.
Monkeys are up to mischief all over the city. So be sure to lock all doors and windows of your hotel room to avoid nasty surprises during your tour of Kandy!