The Brits were not the first westerners to establish a foothold on the island, but they were the first to conquer all of it. The Dutch had come before the British, and before them the Portugese, but neither had been able to conquer the inland areas of the island. When the Portugese first arrived in 1505 the island was split into 7 warring kingdoms. Following their armed invasion only one independent kingdom remained, the hill kingdom of Kandy. Kandy remained independent until the British finally overran it in 1815, despite repeated attempts by the Portugese and the Dutch to bend the entire island to their will. Kandy was our destination that morning.
Getting tickets at the train station went without a hitch and helpful mute staff of the station assisted us in finding the correct train and seats. The train quickly filled up and the long journey began. Trains are without a doubt the best way to travel in Lanka. You avoid the traffic and potholes and are get to enjoy the sights while experiencing some local culture on the way, from the loud conversations of people to the smells of train food and the incessant “VadeVadeVadeVadeVadeeeee!” shouting of the snacks vendor walking up and down the isle. The open doors and windows of the train let in a cooling breeze that helped with the increasing heat of the day. Time passed quickly as we took it all in.
Kandy is a lovely little town, snuggled between green forested hills, hugging the sides of a blue blue lake that bears the same name. We stocked up on our supply of fresh fruits and sunscreen, left our backpacks at the hotel and spent the rest of the day walking around. Kandy is a very walkable town, with lots of trees providing shelter from the scorching sun and small fruit stands to help you rehydrate and take a rest while gazing out on the lake. The air is also less humid in the hills, making for a very enjoyable and relaxing stay.
Even without knowing anything about Kandy it would not take long to understand that the most important place in town is Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth Relic. This UNESCO Heritage site is one of the holiest pilgrimage destinations for Buddhists, protecting and venerating a tooth of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. During special ceremonies it is possible for visitors to get a glimpse of the relic, a small golden intricately decorated stupa into which the tooth has been placed, and bring offerings for good fortune.
By the time the ceremony finished it was already dark outside, which made the temple, by now covered in candles, a sight to witness.
Sri Lanka is considered to have the longest uninterrupted history of Buddhism of any nation. Impressive considering the wilful import of Catholicism and Protestantism by westerners and how other areas nearby have become overrun by Hinduism or Islam. It was brought to the island by the children of India’s famed emperor Ashoka around 200 BC and remains the dominant religion of the island even today. In Kandy this is particularly evident with the massive white Buddha statue of Bahirawakanda temple watching over the town from its hilltop. It was the first, but not the last of giant Buddha statues that we would see on this trip.