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Of Temples and Towering Trees

Exploring Kandy and the surrounding area

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Kandy's Temple of the Tooth is Sri Lanka's holiest place

The number one sight to see in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth. So, it was first on my list of things to do on my second day of sightseeing in Sri Lanka. I took a tuk-tuk down from my hilltop hotel, stopping off at an ATM for more cash. Overnight, I'd heard rain battering my balcony, and the view had been cloudy when I awoke. As I walked towards Sri Lanka’s holiest sight, blue skies began to peek through the gray clouds. Why is it called the Temple of the Tooth? The Buddhists believe that an inner chamber of the temple houses a tooth from Buddha himself.

Throngs of worshippers jam the Temple of the Tooth daily to lay offerings before Buddha's tooth

Crowds of worshippers jam the sprawling temple, with 90% of them funneling up the steps, through a fresco-decorated passageway, turning left at the Hall of Drummers, who hammer out a celebratory rhythm, and then squeezing toe-to-toe up a staircase. The fervent worshippers mix with uneasy tourists, pushing their way through the line to deposit their offering of lotus flowers in front of the gilded doors leading to the casket containing the tooth. The actual tooth is displayed only at certain times, when the sweaty mob scene is multiplied several times over.

The lower level of the Temple of the Tooth

There are plenty of other rooms to explore after squeezing past the temple’s main sight. There are a couple museums, an open air wooden audience hall, and even a shrine to the elephant who carried the tooth in the religious processions for 50 years before dying of old age. Crowds surged and thinned out during my visit, which ended somewhat maddeningly with a wandering quest for the unmarked exit. I had to work my way back to where I started to pick up my hiking sandals. The entire temple is considered sacred, so I hobbled through it barefoot the whole time.

The towering Cabbage Palm Trees at the Royal Gardens

After a refreshing iced tea in a cafe, I hopped in another tuk-tuk to Kandy’s train station to buy tickets for train rides later in the trip. Maddeningly, the observation car and first class were sold out on the date 5 days away. And the final train ride (the day I leave) they couldn't sell me, they said. I purchased second class tickets for the one and hoped for the best. My tuk-tuk driver had waited for me and presented me with a program for the rest of the day. It sounded good, the price at $12 for a full day was worth it, plus I really hadn't planned for anything else.

If you're carrying a bag of fruit, beware of these guys!

The first stop was a hike through the Royal Botanical Gardens. Most of the trees, flowers, and bushes were well labeled. The grounds were sprawling and attractively laid out. My favorite part were the kingly rows of palm trees - both Palmyra Palms and towering Cabbage Palms. There were monkeys here and there, too. I shouted a warning to Kate when one snatched a bag of fruit from another visitor and darted up a tree. I'd seen monkeys at the temple earlier, and would continue to see them in Sri Lanka. It is definitely a good idea to keep your distance from the viscous little buggers!

Gadaladeniya Temple - my first stop on Three Temples Loop

Next up was the three temple loop, all built during the 1300s. The first was Gadaladeniya — Sri Lanka’s largest granite temple. The caretaker took some time to describe the carvings and frescoes I would see. He is an artist, as well, and has been drawing and sketching the temple’s features for more than a decade. The first building had four small niches that you could duck down to enter, facing a statue of Buddha and gorgeous wall frescoes. The larger building had mythical animals carved along the stairway entrance. Two main pillars supported the entranceway, one carved by a master from India and the other by his Sri Lankan student. It was a quiet complex next to the teeming throngs of the Temple of the Tooth.

The carved entranceway to Gadaladeniya Temple

The next temple, Lankatilaka, was bigger, but undergoing some renovation and reconstruction. It's exterior was painted brightly white, so it looks newer, even though it is more than 700 years old. Inside, a Buddhist monk was holding a class for a group of visiting school kids and their parents. An electric light flickered with an almost strobe light effect, illuminating the leering demons and creatures carved into the walls with an eerie glow. The colors were muted by time, but must have been vibrant when freshly painted. Parts of the temple were closed off due to reconstruction, unfortunately.

The images carved into the temple walls of Lankatilaka

The final temple was known for its elaborately carved wooden pillars along its elevated open air, drumming platform. Figures of animals, mythical beasts, wrestlers, warriors, and floral designs covered each of their four rectangular faces. Upon arriving at the temple, I had breezed right past them, going straight to the small, and less impressive shrine inside the temple. It was only after circling the somewhat ramshackle building, wondering what the big fuss was, that I read a sign which talked about the carvings. Once I noticed them, Embekke Devale proved much more interesting.

The carved wooden pillars of Embekke Devale

By the time the three temple loop was completed, I was a little ways south of Kandy. That meant diving back into the maelstrom of city traffic. If I thought yesterday's taxi driver was aggressive, my tuk-tuk driver had him beat easily. If I had 100 rupees every time he weaved into oncoming traffic to get around a bus or car, I could have paid for the trip! I had forgotten to take a card with the hotel’s phone number, so it was a bit of an adventure navigating my tuk-tuk driver back home. He knew the general area of the road it was on, and eventually I spotted it looming on a hill above us.

Closeup of one of the carved pillars, showing wrestlers

The evening ended with my final night of spectacular hilltop views, for tomorrow I was off to Sigiriya and new adventures!
A graceful walkway lined with plants at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Posted by world_wide_mike 00:28 Archived in Sri Lanka

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