Kandy, the old world capital of Sri Lanka, is several gentle nudges of serendipity in a beautiful journey through time. Unlike the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Kandy is historic but not antique. Despite its majestic preservation of culture, the ‘Royal City’ is inclusive in its modernity. Historic symbols eternalizing the history of its kings; streets lined with stalls and little one-stop shops offering everything from fragrant local spices to intricately worked local jewelry; yearlong festivals that fill the streets with colourful processions and parading elephants in traditional dress; an imposing white Buddha dominating most vistas; a timeless tradition of performing arts and crafts are only some of the features that make Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city, one of the most visited tourist destinations of the island.
Kandy seems at first to be a sleepy, laid back town, resting complacently on the splendour of its rich cultural heritage… but as the festival season ushers in the festival of the August Moon, known locally as Esala Perahera (named after the lunar month it occurs in which is called esala) out of this very town bursts forth the other side of serendipity, the chaos and colour of an island nation in festival mode - full throttle!
Established by the King Wickramabahu III during the period of his reign from 1357-1374 AD, Kandy was ruled for 2500 years by Kandyan kings until they succumbed to the British in 1815. The city was occupied briefly during this period by foreign invaders - the Portuguese (1505-1656) and later the Dutch (1656-1796), only soon to be overrun and ruled again by the local Kandyan kings.
When the British intervened in 1815 the Kandyan chiefs who were dissatisfied with the Nayak King Sri Vira Parakrama Narendra of South Indian descent, welcomed it. As per the 1815 Kandyan Convention the Kandyan king was deposed, and exiled to South India. Though sovereignty was shared by the British the rights of the Kandyan chiefs were largely maintained. The Kandyan chiefs eager to depose the British rebelled in 1817 but were crushed. In 1818 Kandy was the last city to join those conclusively controlled by the British. It marked the first time in many centuries when the whole country was under unified British rule. Kandy was no longer a capital but due to its favourable geographical location almost 500m above sea level was popular amongst the new rulers. In the years that followed, Kandy became central to the coffee industry until a deadly fungal infection destroyed practically all the crucial tea and coffee plantations. Even today though Colombo is the commercial capital of the country, Kandy is regarded as the cultural capital rich in its heritage of the performing arts and majestic monuments.
Senkadagala or Senkadagalapura was what Kandy was originally called. As most historical accounts of the island’s history overlaps it offers many avenues of interpretations. Available historical accounts say the area got its name Senkadagala from a Brahmin named Senkada, a wise man who lived in a nearby cave, some others say it was the name of one of the kings Queens and still other records maintain that it was named after a coloured precious stone called Senkadagala. Kandy is the pithy anglicized name from the colonial era of the term Kanda Uda Rata, land of the mountains, in native Sinhalese.
It is also referred to by Sri Lankans as Nuwara – the town. A surefire way to elicit the famous warm Sri Lankan smile is to call Kandy Nuwara yourself (pronounced Nu-wa-rer)!
Kandy, for all its myriad offerings, spans just 9.22 sq miles (25.4 square kilometers) in extent. It lies at an altitude of 488.6 meters above sea level in the very heart of the island, surrounded by ranges of mountains and a river. Fortified by mountains Hanthana in the south, Udawattekelle to the East and Bahirawakanda towards the North West, the western, northern and eastern boundaries of the city are bound by the Mahaweli Ganga. The large forest reserves bordering Kandy city namely Udawattekele and Malwatte are rich resources in indigenous animal and plant life.
Historically Kandy has served as a veritable natural fortress, a refuge to the Sinhalese in the interior and others such as Christians, Hindus and Mohammedans from the coastal areas suffering persecution by European invaders.
How to get there
116 km from Colombo, Kandy is conveniently accessible through road and train.
The Sri Lankan railway network became operational in 1864. Comprising of 9 lines the most beautiful of them radiates from Colombo and runs deep into the hills to Kandy and beyond, terminating in Badulla, way up-country. Road traffic between the two cities is rather heavy mid mornings and late evenings, but the journey shouldn’t be longer than 120 – 150 minutes, and is refreshingly lush green right through.
At the centre of town is the tree lined picture perfect Kandy Lake where cormorants bob in and out of the water. Built by the last monarch of the Kingdom of Kandy Sri Wickrama Rajasinha in 1807 to house a pleasure garden it housed an island in the centre with a harem accessible by barge. The Lake was commissioned and built eight years before the British invasion. The British used it to store ammunition and hence erected a parapet railing around the lake fortifying it.
Kandy is synonymous with The Tooth Temple or Dalada Maligawa, the octagon shaped national Palladium which houses the Tooth Relic of Buddha, an object of veneration for Buddhists worldwide.
Mornings at the Tooth Temple are beautiful. Drummers beat out a tattoo while pilgrims dressed in white stream into the temple offering pink lotus blossoms and frangipani. The murmur of prayers and fragrance of incense creates a moment that offers to a visitor that famed taste of paradise. Ritualistic prayer is offered three times a day morning, noon and evening. The tooth relic is placed in a casket or Karanduwa which is placed on a silver table, on view only on special occasions. This is the casket that is borne by the temple elephants during the Esala Perehera or the Festival of the August Moon when tourists and visitors when all parts of the world throng the hill capital especially for this event. Shops and hotels pile up stock and cater to the scores of people who visit the city. The temple premises including the esplanade are gaily decorated and lit all through the night. On the fifth day of the festival a procession called the Kumbal Perahera begins continuing for 10 consecutive nights. This is when the casket with the sacred relic is taken round the streets of Kandy amidst costumed dancers and vigorous drummers.
It is said that the tooth was recovered from the flames of Buddha’s cremation from Kusinara in 543 B.C. It was brought to Sri Lanka from the Kalinga province in 4th century A.D. The story goes that Arahat Khema retrieved Lord Buddha’s left canine from the fire and presented it to King Brahmadatte for veneration. When safely in royal possession, there grew a belief that the possessor of the Sacred Tooth Relic possessed the divine right to rule the country. Thus ensued wars for the possession of the Relic. The Sacred Relic was sent to Sri Lanka by King Guhasiva of Kalinga, in the custody of his daughter and son-in-law, because he feared his enemies would snatch it. Disguised as Brahmins, they set sail to Sri Lanka. The relic was received with great joy by the King w Kirti Sri Megavanna (301- 328) who ordered an annual perahera (grand procession) be held in honour of the Sacred Relic. The Sacred Tooth Relic, over history, became a symbol of the living Buddha.
Other Temples – at a glance
A Buddhist and Hindu temple that features fine examples of Kandy period paintings, images in rock, elegant rock figures and sculptures.
Built in 1344 by King Wicramabahu, visiting this one entails a climb up to a hilltop. You are rewarded with the sight of a stunning moonstone, a typical entrance marker at the main shrine, and the large stone pillars which support a roof of huge stone stand testament to superior Dravidian architecture.
Kandy's most important Buddhist monastries are Malwatte and Asgiriya. The Asgiriya temple houses a gigantic reclining statue of Lord Buddha. The ground at the Asigiriya monastery has been the cremation ground for the Kandyan royalty over the ages. Located on the southern and western side of the lake, they form a sacred and revered center of Buddhism. The priests of both monasteries play a crucial role in the administration and operation of the Temple of the Tooth.
The Kandy Museum
The Kandy Museum or ‘Sri Dalada Museum' is the latest addition to the Tooth Temple. Over the centuries, the gifts offered at the temple by visitors ranging from royalty to the common public have become so many and so varied that they now merit preservation and display. Careful records of the history of the Sacred Tooth relic too have been protected and preserved at the Museum by generations of head priests.
The Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya
Situated 4 miles off Kandy, Peradeniya Gardens date back to the 14th century rule of King Vikrama Bahu III. The gardens flaunt an amazing display of the large variety of plants, herbs, creepers and useful machines that produce the special spices at Sri Lanka – a must see for those who seek the spice gardens in other parts of the hill country The garden boasts numerous tropical trees and varieties of exotic bamboo in one place. The Orchid House in the garden houses over 300 varieties of exquisite orchids. Added to this is a spice garden that visibly enumerates the plants used for the traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
Once a forbidden forest ‘tahansikele’ as it was once known was a royal forest reserve into which no one was allowed to venture. The pond in the heart of the jungle was where the queens bathed and the Royal armies used the forest as cover during wars to escape through the thick foliage. The forest was impenetrable and seems so even today.
Located behind the sacred Dalada Maligawa, Udavattekale sanctuary remains veritably untouched. Amazing Bio diversity in this tract of rainforest - rich in indigenous species, it has remained a protected site over time though it stands now considerably diminished. A silent walk and several deep inhales recommended.
Kandyan Art is an indigenous, distinct school of expression in Sri Lanka. Associated with Buddhist temples it includes frescoes, wall paintings, lacquer wood painting, wood carving, stone carving, metal work, jewelry, furniture, Kandyan architecture and much more. Art and the artist – dancer, craftsman, musician, weaver all contributed to the economic life of society second to agriculture. Artistic knowledge and proficiency of skill was passed on from generation to generation. They all enjoyed the patronage of the King, with the most talented ones employed by the royal household and rewarded with land in return for services.
The Kandyan Dancer has always been a symbol of the culture of the Sri Lankan people. Dancers performed in the temple, at religious festivals and weddings etc. These different types of dances performed at different occasions are represented in the perahera like the August Moon festival. The traditional dance forms on display are Ves, Udekki, Pantheru, Naiyandi, Hewisi, Savang Leekeli. The Drummers are another distinct group pf artists who play very unique drums indigenous to Sri Lanka.
A mere stroll down any by-lane in Kandy would treat you to several genres of art:
• Wood Carving
• Sesath Work
• Kandyan Jewelry
• Reed Ware
• Brass, Silver and Mixed Metal work
• Lacquer Work
• Leather Products,
• Dumbara Mats
Kandyan food is considered the most superior of island food by the Kandyans themselves! Kandyan food is typical Sri Lankan Sinhalese food. The food is rich, cooked in coconut milk and often fried in coconut oil. The diet is inclusive of many vegetables in dry and wet preparations often tempered with fried fish. Rice and curry are indispensable. Meat fish and vegetables are made into curries. Breakfasts for tourists are lavish spreads with many varieties including pastries.
Sliced onions, green chilies, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and saffron are used to add flavors.
The ability to order local dishes is an experience by itself, the language exotic and tongue twisting for a visitor - brings home the island in an instant!
kiribath (milk rice)
Where to stay
Swiss Residency Kandy
Hotel Amaya Resorts, Kandy
Mahaweli Reach Hotel, Kandy
Earl’s Regency Hotel, Kandy
Hotel Suisse, Kandy