Sarong-Dipity: 18 March 2024

Kandy, Sri Lanka

Michael and Kyle awoke in Kandy, the last royal capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka.

The country's second-largest city is located in the center of the country on the Kandy Plateau and is surrounded by rolling hills and misty green mountains. Today the capital of the Central Province, Kandy is both an administrative center as well as an important Buddhist holy city and pilgrimage site.

Because we had pushed ourselves yesterday to go farther than we had originally planned, we had a full day to explore Kandy before we move on tomorrow. After breakfast, we descended the steep hills where our hotel was located and the valley below.

Kandy is a UNESCO World Heritage City, and nearly every building in the city center is some sort of point of interest - an old palace, an important temple, a colonial-era hotel or administrative building... 

It's a beautiful and vibrant city, and far more bright, colorful, and laid-back than Colombo had been.

The first site that we wanted to visit this morning was Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which is located inside the Royal Palace Complex of Kandy. This historic temple is not only one of the most sacred places in Sri Lanka, but one of the most important holy sites in the Buddhist world.

Men and women alike must cover their shoulders and legs to be allowed inside this holy place, so Michael and Kyle had to purchase sarongs just outside the temple gates. 

We had packed light on this trip. Michael had only brought two pairs of shorts with him, and while Kyle did pack a pair of pants, he didn't think to wear them this morning and had left them at the hotel.

Sarongs, long, tubelike garments that wrap around the waist, are a traditional clothing worn in and around the Indian subcontinent. While Western-style trousers are definitely more common to see nowadays, many people in Sri Lanka still wear sarongs and there's been a cultural movement in recent years to bring them back.

Kyle felt awkward wearing the sarong, but Michael found it remarkably comfortable.

Our sarongs donned, we made our way past the vendors selling prayer beads and baskets of fruit and flowers to give in offering and approached the front gates of the temple.

While Sri Lanka is perfectly safe nowadays, it hasn't always been that way. A 25-year civil war ended in 2009, and during the conflict the Temple of the Tooth was bombed twice by extremists. We had to pass through a metal detector and bag x-ray before entering the compound, and we definitely noticed the presence of armed soldiers patrolling the temple. It's the only hint of the past conflict we've seen during our time in the country, and today Sri Lanka is once again unified and moving forward.

The Temple of the Tooth houses one of the most important holy relics in all of Buddhism - the left canine tooth of Siddharta Gautama, the historic Buddha himself.

Siddharta Gautama was born into a royal family in present-day Nepal around the 5th century BC. After witnessing the suffering outside his palace walls, he renounced his princely life to seek enlightenment and understand the causes of suffering. Buddha's teachings, known as Dharma, are aimed at overcoming desire and ignorance, leading to the ultimate spiritual liberation from suffering.

After his death, the body of the Buddha was cremated on a sandalwood pyre, and his unburnt tooth was retrieved from the ashes by a nun named Khema, one of the Buddha's disciples.

Like at most Buddhist temples, shoes are not permitted to be worn inside so as to preserve the cleanliness and spiritual purity of the holy place. After removing and checking our sandals, we followed groups of white-clothed pilgrims into the temple.

Kandy is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Buddhist world, and we saw signs for pilgrim hostels in languages ranging from Hindi to Japanese. Buddhists from all around the world come to Kandy to pray and make offerings at the temple.

The tooth relic is housed inside seven golden caskets placed within the temple's inner sanctum, the holy of holies, which may only be entered by high-ranking Buddhist monks and the custodians of the relic.

Worship rituals are held three times daily at the temple at 6:30am, 9:30am, and 6:30pm. The rituals last for an hour and a half and are a really spectacular sight to see. 

The morning service begins with the beating of ritual drums followed by a procession in which fragrant jasmine flowers are given in offering.

The midday service is puja, an ancient Hindu ritual of offering.

The evening service at the Temple of the Tooth involves clearing away the wilted flowers from earlier in the day and offering fresh flowers and various juices to Lord Buddha. Additionally, Sukiri (a type of sugar), and Althelijja (the sugary sap of the Kithul palm) are presented in three small goblets. Honey, ginger juice, and ghee are also offered in gold and silver goblets.

We were lucky enough to arrive just before 9:30 to witness the second daily ritual.

It began with the sound of ritual drums played by temple attendants.

The custodian of the relic came forward and pulled back the heavy red curtain and unlocked the door to the inner chambers where the tooth is stored.

 The custodian then rolled out a long red carpet and the monks began processing in.

As the monks reached the carpet, the custodian washed their feet in holy water. This way, the monks would enter the inner sanctum of the temple without their feet having touched the ground.

The attendants lit oil lamps, and flowers from the morning's offering were removed and an official brought forth a silver tray with fresh jasmine flowers. 

Following this, another musician began playing a high-pitched horn to accompany the drums. This musical offering is common throughout Sri Lanka, and we learned that it is an invocation to the gods as well as an offering in and of itself.

Finally, the puja meal, a large pot of white rice in an elaborate container, was carried into the sanctum, and the door was closed behind them.

The music was still playing and would continue to do so until 11am. We admired the ritual and ceremony of it all and listened for a few minutes before heading upstairs to another part of the temple.

Upstairs, devotees had covered an altar with more offerings of fresh flowers, purchased from outside the temple. At this point, we really began to notice how crowded the temple was! We had to stand in a queue to process through the temple, guided by frazzled attendants who tried to keep the line moving along.

While the temple was beautiful, and the experience was interesting, as it got more and more crowded, Michael and Kyle decided that it was time to move on away from the throngs of tourists.

While there were certainly many Buddhists who were there to pray, it seemed like the vast majority of people who we saw were pushy tourists, which did end up subtracting from the specialness of the experience.

We left the temple and began exploring the surrounding area. We first came to the Church of St. Paul which stood just outside of the old palace area.

St. Paul's is an Anglican church, and from the architecture to the stained glass inside looks like it came right out of the English countryside.

Hot and tired and ready for a rest, Michael and Kyle walked over to the Olde Empire Hotel, a colonial-era UNESCO-designated building that was built in the 19th century as a coffee factory before being converted to a hotel around the turn of the 20th century after a coffee blight destroyed the country's crop.

We stopped in at the hotel's open-air cafe for a rest and an iced coffee before heading back out into the streets of Kandy.

The heart of Kandy centers around Kandy Lake, also known as Kiri Muhuda or the Sea of Milk. This artificial lake was dug in 1807 upon the orders of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinha. It takes about an hour to walk around the lake at a leisurely pace, so after we finished our coffee, we decided to explore on foot.

Walking along the lake was really relaxing. Local people and tourists alike were enjoying the shade and beautiful views.

As we walked, we came to the Queen's Bath, a historic bathing pavilion built for Queen Venkatha Ranga Jemmal, the consort of the last King of Kandy.

The luxurious bath was converted to a library during the British colonial era, and now houses a police station on its second floor.

Even though we had our tuk-tuk, we decided to spend most of our time in Kandy on food. There's so much to see, and we were constantly stopping to take photos of the sights in the colorful city.

Buddhism is the official religion in Sri Lanka, and it's practiced by approximately 70% of the population. There is a large Hindu minority in the north, and sizable Christian and Muslim communities throughout the country as well.

Sri Lanka is a deeply spiritual country, and there seems to be a temple, church, mosque, or shrine of some sort on every street.

Lunch was excellent, as everything we've had in Sri Lanka has been.

We ate at Cafe 1886, a Sri Lankan fine dining restaurant located in a historic colonial-era building above the Salgado Bakery, opened by a Portuguese baker in 1886. The family-run bakery is one of the most famous in Sri Lanka, and after lunch we took a few of their crumbly Portuguese-style cookies to go.

Our next destination was the Sri Maha Bodhi Viharaya, the 88-foot-tall Buddha statue that watches over Kandy from the top of one of the nearby hills. Built in 1992, the towering white seated Buddha is one of the tallest in the country, and one of Kandy's most iconic landmarks.

We checked our shoes at the base of the temple and began climbing up the steps towards the statue.

It was a very hot day, and the steps were tiled. After just a few seconds, the soles of our feet were burning as we tried to sprint up the steps - sunbaked from the bright, direct, tropical sun - to find shade to stand in.

At the top, Kyle desperately tried to cool his burnt feet with a bottle of water to only moderate success.

The views made everything worth it though! 

A set of winding steps led up to a platform behind the statue's head from where we could see out across the entire valley.

It was early afternoon, and we were hot and tired. We headed back to the hotel to rest and cool off for a few hours before coming back out in the evening.

Michael had purchased front row tickets for the daily Cultural Dancing Show at the Kandy Lake Club. 

The open-air theater had waiters and a full bar, so we ordered a serving of spicy roasted peanuts and a couple of beers to enjoy during the show.

During the one-hour show, we were treated to a troupe of elaborately costumed dancers performing thirteen different dances. The dances have special significance in Sri Lankan culture, and a printed English program explained each one.

The show began with drums and horns, an invocation to the gods. This was followed by women carrying oil lamps, signifying that their dance and their skills were to be given in offering.

One of my favorite parts of the show was the "Devil Dance", or Sanni Yakuma. The dance represents a fight between a viper and a rooster and symbolizes the battle between good and evil. This dance is part of an ancient exorcism ritual and is traditionally performed by a shaman. 

In the past in Sri Lanka, illness and ailments were believed to be caused by evil spirits, and the Devil Dance ritual seeks to banish the demons who are causing patients any number of ailments - from stomach trouble to arthritis to bad dreams about snakes (seen as a bad omen).

The Devil Dance is still performed today, especially in the south of Sri Lanka, but is typically done as a cultural show, not as a medicinal practice.

At other times, we were treated to amazing acrobatic displays that felt more like we were at a circus, and one performer amazed the crowd by spinning a series of traditional Sri Lankan drums on his fingers and atop sticks.

A group of women performed a traditional prayer for good harvest, in which dance moves represented gathering rice from the fields.

Near the end of the show, fire eaters demonstrated their skills by spinning and tossing their burning torches.

They touched the flames to their tongues and ran the burning torches along their arms. It's said that their faith protects them from injury, sort of a Hindu version of a Pentacostal snake handler.

After the dancing performance, the spectators were led outside to where a pit of hot coals had been set up in the center of a stone amphitheater. We ran ahead to get seats at the very front. From where we were sitting, we could feel the intense heat of the coals.

The two fire eaters began walking back and forth across the hot coals. At each end of the fire pit, they would reach their hands into a pot of fragrant sandalwood sawdust, toss it into the air, and set it alight in a spectacular display of flame. As it ignited, it smelled like incense.

As the show came to an end, the fire eaters invited the crowd to come up and take photos with them. At first, everyone seemed too shy, but Michael and Kyle stood up immediately to get their picture, not wanting to miss out on a thing.

It turned out that not only did they let us take photos with them, they also let us hold the torches!

The entire show was a blast, and one of the best things that we've done so far. We know that our mom would have loved it, and we felt sad that she wasn't with us. At the moment, she's far away in Nuwara Eliya resting and recuperating from her illness. We hope she will be able to join us on the adventure in a few days. It's really a shame that she had to miss Kandy.

For dinner, we had dosa, a type of lentil crepe stuffed with curry and served with various chutneys and sauces.

We also shared an order of string hoppers, which were served with a sweet and spicy coconut-based curry.

Everything is going so well! We are happy to have made it to Kandy, but we are equally excited to move on tomorrow and head up into the highlands where hopefully our team will be reunited. Here's hoping that our tuk-tuk continues behaving as well as it did for our first two days on the road, because tomorrow's drive is going to be one huge climb up the mountains to a mile above sea level.

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