It’s Colombo’s oldest Hindu temple, having stood on these very grounds for more than two centuries. It’s also one of the most beautiful and colourful temples you will see. This is Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam.
The first time I remember seeing colourful temples was when I was travelling through the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu as a kid. The, many years later, on visits to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, I did see the local temples there, making for a beautiful mental picture with their bright colours against the blue sky. Until I landed in Colombo.
Sri Kailasanathar Swamy Devasthanam is sometimes also called Captain Gardens Temple. While the main deities are Shiva and Ganesh, there are other smaller shrines dedicated to other gods and goddesses. Over the decades, owing to its religious significance, it has become the main venue for Thai Pongal – the annual harvest festival.
A bit of history
Centuries ago, Chetti traders, known as Thiruvilanga Nakarathar, moved from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to the coastal regions of Sri Lanka. One of the places that they decided to make home was Colombo. As Hindus, they only had a small Shiva linga to worship, which was kept protected under a tree.
It wasn’t long before the community got together to discuss building a temple so they could pray in the right environment. In 1783, the foundation was laid on land that was owned by Sri Veerapathran, who was also entrusted with finding the finances and construction of the temple also. Being rich traders, that was hardly an issue with the community, and it wasn’t long before the temple was constructed. For inspiration on its design, they only had to revisit their ancestral homes in Tamil Nadu. It’s from here that they hired the best architects and sculptors who promptly went about constructing a temple so colourful and intricately designed, it is unlike any other temple you will see in Sri Lanka. Upon completion, it wasn’t long before the Hindus from the area started to visit the temple regularly.
What’s in a name
Interestingly, it was initially known as Captain Gardens Temple. In those days, Kandy used to be the centre of power, ruled by King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha from his kingdom in Kandy. The Dutch meanwhile had to satisfy themselves with the coastal areas, including Colombo. It so came to be that a Dutch officer responsible for the area around the temple was simply called Captain. Naturally, the area he stayed in came to be known as Captain Gardens.
Exploring the temple
On a tour of the city, riding a tuk-tuk, it was our first stop. Sadly, it was early afternoon and the main temple itself was closed. My friend, who had landed in the city a day before me, was luckier as he did manage to step inside and say a little prayer the day he arrived.
Standing in front of the temple, you can’t help but admire the details of the colourful sculptures on the main tower, or the attention to detail on the intricately carved door.
Walk to the rear of the temple and, with good luck, you will be greeted by the resident bovine. While I was attempting to take a few snaps, its caretaker came along, untied it from the shed and invited it to smile at my camera. Sadly, for me, it obviously had other things on its mind and refused to acknowledge me.
Walking around the backyard, my friend spotted a discarded statue of Saraswati, which made for a depressing conversation later, when he was telling me about his visit. That, and the fact that the priest insisted on being paid to have his photograph taken. Sneaky fellow that he is, my friend still got a shot of him anyway.
Once you enter the temple though, photography is prohibited, unless you pay a small donation. While I only had a shuttered gate to welcome me, my friend wisely chose to keep his camera in the safety of his back pocket.
All in all, I would highly recommend this temple – as a tourist eager to explore or as a devotee making at offering.
Information you can use
While it was closed when I went there, make it in the morning between 6 and 10am, or later in the evening from 5 to 8pm and you should be in for a visual treat.
While there is no official entry fee, you are encouraged to donate a small amount of LKR 100 if you wish to take photographs inside the temple.
To move around, we had hired a tuk-tuk for that afternoon for about six hours. We had negotiated a price of LKR 2,000, which is excellent value for money and beats moving around in an air-conditioned car. It’s a lot more fun too.