Kandy – the spiritual heart of Sri Lanka

Kandy, the second-largest city in Sri Lanka and it’s capital between the 16th and 19th century, is a surprisingly small and peaceful city. The lake and green hills around it make it very picturesque as well. What will most likely draw you to Kandy is a massive Temple of The Sacred Tooth, a UNESCO site. However, small, less known temples scattered all around Kandy might be equally worth a visit. Kandy is a very budget-friendly destination, so unless you don’t like sightseeing, you won’t be disappointed.

White, external walls of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy illuminated at night
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth by night

Getting to Kandy from Colombo on a 3rd class train

On my first visit to Kandy, I travelled there from Colombo with two friends on a 3rd class train. This 3-hour long journey was among the most extreme I’d ever taken. Never take a commuter train on a Friday evening! After two stations we got tightly squashed against the bodies of other people, mostly men. Mimicking the locals, I passed on my backpack which travelled from hand to hand and disappeared somewhere inside the compartment. There wasn’t any space, but people urged us to move forward as the others were hanging outside.

Author with a friend squeezed among Sri Lankan commuters on the 3rd class train
Incredibly crowded train Colombo-Kandy

Eventually, we entered the carriage and stayed suspended, fixed between other bodies. I was amazed by the expressions of mutual help among the passengers. Those standing in between of seated people would periodically swap places with them so that everybody would have a moment of rest. After one hour of this ordeal, the first people started getting off. Soon I was invited to have a seat, too. Our co-passengers -middle-aged office workers -were extremely kind. Towards the third hour, it was spacious enough for the sellers to start walking through the train. Two of the passengers were singing beautiful ballads in Sinhalese. I did enjoy this journey, although it was exhausting. Still, I’d strongly discourage you from taking this train at peak hours.

Author sitting on the steps of the 3rd class train from Kandy to Colombo
Sitting on the stairs of the train Kandy – Colombo

The way back to Colombo (on Sunday afternoon) was more pleasant. We tried getting on the 3rd class reserved carriage. A security guard in the uniform told us we shouldn’t enter the compartment. We promised we wouldn’t take a seat and stay near the doors, so he let us in. Over time, the space around us filled up, so I made sure to sit at the doors. Thanks to that, I could enjoy the views and breathe fresh air. Every time we went through one of the numerous tunnels, I’d tuck my legs up to avoid hitting an invisible object. I enjoyed the views at the rocks, hills, lots of greenery and later paddy fields and villages. However, the train route between Ella and Kandy is by far more beautiful. 

Green hills seen from the train on the route Kandy - Colombo
Views from the train Kandy – Colombo

Kandy on a budget

Kandy has plenty of budget accommodation options, including super cheap capsule bed dorm. However, on both my visits I used Couch Surfing and stayed for free. Our Couch Surfer host not only picked us up from the station but also drove us around the city. He also invited us for a kottu to a simple eatery. Eventually, we reached our hippie accommodation. We slept in a tent set up inside a room. The bathroom was very spartan but fully functional. We spent most of the first day driving around in his tuk-tuk, discovering places where tourists usually don’t go. 

A small tent with bedding inside set up inside a room for Couch Surfers
A tent inside a room where I slept hosted by a Couch Surfer

On my second visit to Kandy, with Sayak, we stayed with the same Couch Surfing host. We had a long chat with him in the evening and got lots of good advice on further journey. He took us for breakfast and raced crazily in his tuk-tuk to help us catch a bus to Dambulla. He was quite an eccentric but helpful and kind man.

A Sri Lankan tuk-tuk (of Indian production)
Our host in his tuk-tuk

Kandy was for me the best place in Sri Lanka to eat cheap and well. I was getting bored with Sri Lankan food, so I was super happy to find quite a few South Indian cuisine restaurants. Some of those eateries around the lake were a bit fancy. Luckily, we found an incredibly cheap Tamil vegetarian eatery at the bottom of the road leading to the Kandy City viewpoint. I also came across a few inexpensive juice parlours near Katharagama devale. Among narrow alleys in that part of the city, it was easy to find eateries with very affordable, typical Sri Lankan fair, including my favourite green porridge (kola kenda).

What to see in Kandy?

Four Devale and Kandy Lake

I started my exploration of Kandy by visiting four devale, Sri Lankan Buddhist shrines, where Buddhist or Hindu deities are worshipped. Four devale in Kandy were built for the ‘protectors’ or ‘guardians’ of Sri Lanka. Three of the shrines are in close vicinity of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, and the fourth one is in the old town.

Kataragama devale is the only shrine outside the Temple of the Sacred Tooth complex. It is also the only one charging the entrance fee for tourists (under the disguise of shoe-minding facility). I was not allowed inside the main shrine, but could roam around the compound, watching the devotees and the priests. The 6-headed Murugan, the god of war, is worshipped there. In the Hindu pantheon, the same god is called Kartikeya or Skanda.

The inner patio of Kataragama Devale in Kandy with a whitewash building of a temple with a tower
Kataragama Devale

The other two devale are located within the main temple’s compound, so I had to pass a security checkpoint to enter. The guard told me I was not dressed decently enough. It came as a surprise as I was wearing skirt till the knees and a T-shirt covering shoulders. Luckily, I was prepared. I changed into long trousers and put a long sleeve shirt on. The time of evening prayers was near, so the temples were bustling with white-clad devotees.

Women in white dresses walk around one of the temples near Natha Devale in Kandy
Evening prayer time gets really busy around devales

 A large bodhi tree grew on top of a hill at the centre of a large compound. Devotees were climbing the stairs and walking around the tree, pouring the water on it.

To the right from the entrance stands Pattini devale, a shrine of the Tamil goddess of chastity, worshipped here by the Sinhala Buddhist. It is housed in a small building with not much to see inside. 

A small crowd gathers in front of Pattini Devale in Kandy for the evening prayer
Evening workship at Pattini Devale

I walked through another gate to the compound of Natha Devale, with another bodhi tree in the centre. Natha devale is the most important one of the four shrines. Natha is another name of Avalokitesvara, the compassionate Buddha.  The 14th century Natha devale is also the oldest and the most important of the four. Natha devale is a beautiful building with a collonade entrance and frescoes.

People sit athe portico of a small square shrine with frescoes on outer walls, at Natha Devale in Kandy
Natha Devale

The gate to the left leads out of the main compound to the Vishnu devale, devoted to Hindu god Vishnu. You have to cross the street and climb up a fleet of stairs to get there. The building looked very pretty from the outside but wasn’t very interesting inside. Looking straight on from devale, I could see the entire Temple of the Sacred Tooth. Hundreds of devotees carrying lotus flowers were heading to its entrance for the evening puja.

A bodhi tree, stands for candles and the white-washed Vishnu Devale in Kandy
Vishnu Devale

I left through the gate leading to Lake Kandy. It is an artificial lake made in the 18th century. If you look closely, you can see inside many turtles. A white building at the lake in front of the Sacred Tooth temple is the former royal bathhouse.

A white two storied building with a tiled roof of Royal Bath stands on a peninsula at Kandy Lake
Royal Bathhouse at the Lake Kandy

The temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Next morning I rushed to see the puja ceremony at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which starts at 9.30 am. Devotees dressed in white, interspersed with tourists, were approaching the main gate. I paid the 1 500 LKR ticket and went towards the entrance. A shoe minding facility costs 100 rupees but you can simply drop your shoes together with other devotees’ shoes near Natha devale.

White double walls and an octagonal tower of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy
Temple of the Sacred Tooth

I entered through a beautifully painted corridor to the ground floor. There was already a long queue standing on the stairs leaading to the upper floor. The rest of the temple wasn’t crowded. I walked around a 3-storeyed main shrine housed within the temple, watching beautiful paintings on wood and intricately carved doors adorned with ivory tusks.

A long queue of devotees dressed in white wait to give their offering inside the Temple of the Sacred Tooth
Queue for making an offering at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth

Since there was still time till 9.30 am, I walked around the compound first. I went to see the octagonal tower and to Tusker Raja museum, a building showcasing a stuffed elephant. The poor creature had a very miserable life, judging from the photos. Near the tusker hall, there was a small museum showing the remnants of the old Royal Palace. I refilled my bottle with drinking water and went back to see the ceremony.

I walked through the Drum Beating Corridor and stood in front of the doors of the main shrine, adorned with elephant tusks. A group of undoubtedly important politicians went inside, accompanied by flashes of the press. Then, the musicians turned up. Three drummers and one trumpet player wearing white dhotis and white headwear were playing in front of the closed doors for a longer while.

A drummer and a trumpeteer dressed in white dhotis, white headwear and play in front of the doors adorned with ivory at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy
Musicians in front of the lower level of the main shrine

As nothing else was happening, I turned my attention back to the queue. On the left side stood people with sacrifice. The queue on the right moved much faster as it was just for those who wanted to climb to the second level. Supposedly those who queued with sacrifice could get a glimpse of the golden reliquary for storing the Buddha’s tooth. I could see only closed, elaborately carved doors and a never-ending file of devotees leaving flowers and rice on a long bench.

Flowers and clay bowls with rice offered in front of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy
Offerings of the devotees

Finally, I went to see a free Temple of the Tooth Museum, showcasing over two floors various sacral objects, mostly the votive offerings. There was one more museum within the compound: the World Buddhism Museum. I entered undisturbed by anyone even though there was a board informing about 500 rupees entrance for foreigners. I saw the exhibitions of all Buddhist countries (past and present) in the world. The museum explained the doctrine of Buddhism itself and presented Buddhist art and architecture.

Right next to the Worl Buddhism Museum stands a white building which used to be a part of the royal palace and now serves as Kandy National Museum. There is a 500 LKR fee to enter (as compared to 30 LKR to locals) which is certainly not worth the price. I gave it a miss.

Viewpoints

Kandy City Viewpoint can be easily found thanks to a giant Buddha statue. The road leading on the top starts just above the bus station. It is a short and easy walk up. Unfortunately, the entrance fee to the top is 250 rupees. I wasn’t expecting that but as I was already there, I paid to get in. The sunset was actually on the other side than the city, behind the Buddha’s back. However, we could climb a staircase up just next to the Buddha statue for quite a good view of the lake and the Temple of the Tooth, nicely illuminated at night.

Nighttime view at Lake Kandy and Kandy center from Kandy City Viewpoint
Lake Kandy from Kandy City Viewpoint

There is another viewpoint within the Udawattakele Sanctuary (natural forest which covers the hill just behind the Temple of the Sacred Tooth). However, the entrance to the park is ridiculously expensive for foreigners (650 LKR in 2019). I don’t know how he managed that, but our Couch Surfing host took us with his tuk -tuk to that viewpoint for free the night we arrived.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Kandy?
Kandy, being second biggest city in Sri Lanka is well connected with the capital, the Up Country and the Cultural Triangle area. If you’re coming from the coast, you have to pass by Colombo.
You can get to Kandy from Colombo both by train and bus (around 3h each).
Best way to get from the Up Country (Ella, Haputale, Nanu Oya, Hatton) is by train.
The closest of the Cultural Triangle cities is Dambulla (2h). You can get there by a direct bus.

Prices [in Sri Lankan rupees as of Dec 2018/Feb 2019]:
1500 entrance to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth
250 Buddha viewpoint
150 masala dosa and parathas with curry at a cheap eatery
150 light lunch at Tamil eatery near the Kandy Lake
140 3rd class train Kandy – Colombo
120 3rd class train Nanu Oya – Kandy
100 entrance to Kataragama Devale
100 breakfast of hoppers, dal, parathas and 2 vadas at a cheap eatery in shopping area of Kandy
80 pineapple juice
40 traditional green porridge

One Reply to “Kandy – the spiritual heart of Sri Lanka”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s