The ‘candy’ of Lanka

Surrounded by hills and some of the best tea gardens in the world, with its cultural halo and ambience of history, Kandy is worth exploring, writes Ranjita Biswas

The Temple of the Tooth
The Temple of the Tooth was built by Sri Lankan kings, who were the
custodians of the relic. The tooth is said to belong to Buddha.

IF you are in Colombo, a trip to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s former capital, is not to be missed. It is a pretty city, set in the hills at 1,629 feet above the sea level.

As the road winds up from Colombo, in the distance a plateau-like hill called Bible Rock makes a grey watercolour landscape. Perhaps it is raining up there. The hills here have picturesque names like Camel Hill, Balloon Rock, etc.

Despite the beauty, there is not much time to stand and stare — that is if one wants to catch the elephants at the Pinnewela elephant orphanage near Kegalle taking their bath, a huge attraction by itself.

Located at around 80 km from Colombo, the orphanage houses the biggest herd of captive elephants in the world. It is like watching a show on Animal Planet as baby elephants get fed with giant bottles of milk and the big ones pose for photographs with visitors. Some 14,000 kg of food are needed every day to keep the elephants healthy.

Elephants taking bath at the Pinnewela elephant orphanage near Kegalle is a huge tourist attraction
Elephants taking bath at the Pinnewela elephant orphanage near Kegalle is a huge tourist attraction

The orphanage was started in 1975 by the government. Poachers and villagers, bent on driving out encroaching animals into their habitat, had, at times, injured many wild elephants. Without human intervention, these pachyderms, many of them motherless babies, would have been unable to cope on their own in the jungle.

Soon it is time for their almost ritualistic bath. They march along in a procession, the little ones protected by the big ones, to reach the river. It is exhilarating to watch them frolicking in the water splashing at each other with their trunks and having a good time.

After saying goodbye to the gentle giants, the roadside fruit stalls on the winding road beckon. There are mounds of fresh fruits, varieties of bananas, especially the red variety ‘rattukesel’, delicious mangosteens and coconuts.

It is a stroke of luck to travel to Kandy during the famous annual festival of Perahera, (normally it happens during July-August) centring around the holy temple of Sri Dalada Maligava, which contains the sacred relic of Buddha’s tooth.

The excitement of Kandy at its festive best can be pretty infectious for the visitors as well. Rows of stalls selling colourful titbits, food stalls and what not, greet the tourists. The demarcated, fenced-in areas, lining the main street by which the night procession of decorated elephants are to go are usually full of people by lunchtime so that they can get the best view. Such is the popularity of the procession.

The streets of Kandy give the feel of a colonial town and a historical place juxtaposed together. The road to the temple is lined with colonial buildings built by the British. But Kandy was, and still is, a cultural hub of the island country. The magnificent Kandy dance, the elongated drums and colourfully attired drummers that accompany them, are Sri Lanka’s cultural icons. Kandy was made a world heritage site in 1988.

Historians say that Kandy was originally known as Senkadagalapura after a hermit named Senkada who lived there. Many Sinhalese people still call it "Mahanuwara" or the "Great City". However, the name Kandy is derived from the word Kanda, which means mountain. Surrounded by lofty hills, the isolation helped the kings to keep the place safe from invaders.

The Temple of the Tooth was built within the palace by some Sri Lankan kings who were the custodians of the relic. Trays of blue lotus, the national flower of Sri Lanka, line the shiny brass fence of the temple. Upstairs, murals show the story of the journey of the tooth from India in the 4th century AD, when it was secretly brought by Danta and Hemamala, said to be the son-in-law and daughter of Guhasiva, a Buddhist king in Kalinga (present-day Orissa), who feared its destruction at the hand of Hindu zealots and invading kings from neighbouring kingdoms. It is recorded that the prince and the princess dressed as ascetics and carried the relic hidden within the coiffure of Hemamala.

Idols of Buddha in different metals and presented by various Buddhist countries adorn many corners of the vast temple complex. The tooth is now kept beneath six caskets of diminishing size and taken out during the Perahara festival in a procession of decorated elephants, which is simply magnificent. It takes approximately four to five hours to put the finery on the lead animals.

Surrounded by some of the best tea gardens in the world, with its cultural halo and ambience of history, Kandy, even at other times, is worth exploring.