Seeking enlightenment in the Buddha’s tooth, Kandy

The Temple of the Tooth is the most important religious site in Sri Lanka so I’m not going to try, but there is definitely a dental joke to be had about the fact it’s located in a town called Kandy. Legend has it that the sacred tooth of the Buddha, currently housed in a 17th century temple, was taken from the Buddha’s funeral pyre in India in 483 BC. I doubt that’s more ghoulish than most other religious relics involving body parts.

Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka

The tooth is said to have been smuggled into Sri Lanka hidden in the hair of a princess in the 5th century, but an invading army is said to have returned it to India in the 13th century. It finally took up permanent residence in Kandy in the 16th century. As Sri Lanka’s only remaining independent Sinhalese kingdom after the arrival and colonisation of the Portuguese and Dutch, Kandy was the obvious destination for the tooth.

That fact, as well as its religious significance, means that Kandy holds a special status in the hearts and minds of Sri Lankans. The arrival of Europeans on the coast – the Portuguese built a fort in Colombo in 1517 and expanded their control over the following decades – led to conflicts that the Sinhalese kingdoms couldn’t win. As the other main kingdoms on the island fell to the Portuguese, Kandy’s inaccessibility allowed it to defy the invaders.

Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka

In a misguided attempt to liberate the island, King Rajasingha II of Kandy recruited Dutch help. The Dutch duly defeated the Portuguese in 1656 but, rather than handing the island back, they simply replaced the Portuguese as colonisers. Kandy continued to defy the Dutch for 150 years, and the kingdom only fell to the British in 1815 after they had defeated the Dutch in a offshoot of the Napoleonic Wars.

It’s unlikely the British would have had much success subduing Kandy had it not been for internal divisions within the kingdom – often the case with European colonisation. Two years later the British had to call troops from India to end a rebellion across the entire region, finally crushing hopes of independence. Today, a highway and a railway wind their way through the forested hills to Kandy, yet it still feels remote.

Gadaladeniya Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Lankathilaka Viharaya Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Gadaladeniya Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Gadaladeniya Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Lankathilaka Viharaya Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Drummers’ Hall, Embekke Devalaya Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka

It rained for almost the entirety of our time in Kandy, the night we visited the Temple of the Tooth the weather was apocalyptic. I love a World Heritage Site as much as the next person, but being soaking wet took some of the sheen off. We’d hoped for a mystical experience but even priests playing drums didn’t lift our spirits. We filed through the shrine room with numerous pilgrims under the watchful eye of guards.

The Tooth itself has major political symbolism tied to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Consequently, security is tight and the tooth is rarely displayed – especially after a 1998 truck bomb destroyed much of the temple. The next day we set off for Nuwara Eliya but first went to Gadaladeniya, the first of a triumvirate of 14th century Buddhist temples that form a cluster of important religious sites from the pre-colonial Kingdom centred on Gampola just to the south.

Lankathilaka Viharaya Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Lankathilaka Viharaya Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka
Lankathilaka Viharaya Temple, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Gadaladeniya was underwhelming to a non-Buddhist, but the Lankathilaka Viharaya temple sitting atop a rock outcrop and surrounded by stunningly lush countryside, is quite stunning. It wasn’t raining for once, so from Lankathilaka Viharaya we walked on quiet roads to Embekke Devalaya, another 14th century temple with a famed Hevisi Mandapaya, or Drummers’ Hall, complete with beautiful carvings on its ornate wooden pillars.

It was a relief to be able to walk, but the sun was piercing and the humidity vicious. We were happy to get back into the air conditioned car and head to the cool climes and tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya.

9 thoughts on “Seeking enlightenment in the Buddha’s tooth, Kandy

  1. Kandy and the Sacred Tooth of my Lord Buddha. 🙏🏻 This brought back many memories of my parents’ tales of their trip to Ceylon. (Your Ceylon series is impressive my friend). You might be glad to know that the 1952 Ceylon 8mm movie is now duly digitalized with sound added. When I release it no doubt some places will bring back more of your memories. 🙏🏻

    1. That’s brilliant, Brian, can’t wait to see the videos. Did your parents happen to capture any images of the tooth itself? Apparently it’s about 10cm long and those who have seen it claim it comes from a water buffalo!

      1. No, they did not. But my mother always laughed at the number of monasteries across Asia that boast about housing a tooth. She said: “By my reckoning Buddha must have had 72 teeth…”
        (A bit like Christian relics. How many nails of the ‘True Cross’ are there?)

  2. What a facinating culture, your photos are excellent

    1. Thank you. Couldn’t agree more about the fascinating culture, a wonderful place.

  3. thanks for introducing me to a special place in the world. This one is filled with tradition, stories, and interesting architecture. It reminds me a bit of Nepal where the temples were all kind of in need of renovation, cleaning, and refurbishing. But with little income reserved for such things, I don’t think it will happen for years. Always good to see the world in blogs like yours.

    1. Thank you, and I fully agree about Nepal. I lived there for a short time many, many years ago and really loved the culture, people and nature. An incredibly poor country though, and lots of neglect of ancient buildings.

      1. We were sad to see so many in disrepair. Since we were there, major earthquakes damaged what was still standing. I would love to return to see what is left.

  4. Thank you for this historical background, which helps to better appreciate the importance of Kandy, more than a simple tourist stop.

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