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.
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.
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.
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.
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.