Seated on top of Bahirawa Kanda hill, barely two kilometers from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, is the tallest statue in Sri Lanka – Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha statue, keeping a watchful eye on the people of Kandy.
A visit to Sri Maha Bodhi Temple, where the statue is located, is among the highlights when visiting Kandy. In fact, as you shuttle around, his omnipotent presence if felt and seen from most parts of the city. However, if superstitious beliefs and internal politics would have prevailed, this statue would never have seen the light of day.
A bit of folklore…
Centuries ago, there were plenty of myths surrounding Bahirawa Kanda hill. Among them is a popular story that tells of the ancient temple of Bahiravar being used for sacrifices. While animal sacrifices were a common practice across the ocean in India, somehow, the local priests managed to convince the local populace that the only way to appease the gods would be if they sacrificed 100s of virgins.
Thankfully, when the fiancée of the Chief of the Royal Mahouts was taken as sacrifice, that is when the chief showed his political clout within the palace and used all his power to have her released. Obviously, the priests weren’t too happy with these developments, but the superstitious cycle was broken. In time, the practice was abandoned.
… And history
Cut to the early 1970s. A monk by the name of Ampitiye Dammarama Thero, from the Amarapura Nikaya monastic fraternity, used to live in a makeshift hut on the hill. He tried to collect funds to build a proper temple. However, the senior monks at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic would have none of that. They feared that should the temple structure proceed; it would overshadow their temple down below. However, Dammarama continued to persist.
His efforts finally bore fruit. It was finally the personal intervention of the chief monk of Amarapura Nikaya that helped get the temple built. The chief monk Heenatiyana Dhammaloka petitioned the then President of Sri Lanka, R Premadasa, to grant land for the construction of the temple.
Now that Dammaramau had the approval from the highest office in Sri Lanka, he went about enhancing the temple, choosing to build a statue of the Buddha on the temple site in the 198s. When construction was finally completed in 1992, it was President Premadasa himself who was invited to officially open it. If this isn’t poetic justice, then what is.
Sure, you can walk, which I had every intention of not doing. Besides, with the sun already high up in the sky, I had no intention of walking for an hour, or longer. Instead, I had rented a tuk-tuk to go see the main sites in and around Kandy. And the Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha statue was part of the day’s itinerary.
After the tuk-tuk has navigated the sharp incline and finally come to a stop at the steps of the temple, I opted to leave my footwear in the tuk-tuk itself. A word of caution though. When I was there, it was late morning, and the steps leading to the temple were hot. Mercifully, the temple authorities had placed mats all the way to the top, which helped keep the feet from getting roasted.
Exploring the temple compound
As you walk up the last flight of stairs into the temple, the Buddha seems to invite you, watching your every step all the way till you make it to the top.
Once in the temple compound, that is when the size of the statue hits you. Towering at 88 feet, this beautiful white statue shows the Buddha in the Dhyana Mudra position, the meditative posture associated with his first enlightenment.
Explore the temple complex and you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the Kandy city down below, including the football stadium, lake and the mountain range behind. Look down from under the bell pillar and there is a gold-leafed statue of the monk Ampitiye Dammarama Thero looking up to the Buddha with folded hands.
A walk behind the statue leads you to a small temple, with intricately painted designs on either side of the door. Next to it is, a flight of stairs will lead you all the way to the top, and more views of the city down below. Unfortunately, while I was there, the flight of stairs to the top-most level were closed. I am not sure if that was temporary.
There is also a small donation office if you choose to make one and a souvenir shop if you are looking for mementos to take back. However, what caught my eyes was a young monk standing around, smiling at guests and obliging them with photographs. Of course, I was going to ask him too.
While I can only imagine, I believe that the temple comes alive at night, when the lights are switched on and the statue takes on a life of its own. I have only seen it from down in the city, and it looks fabulous, making for an excellent backdrop.
Information you can use
The hill is at a steep incline. For those adventurous and fit enough, it is about an hour’s walk uphill. However, remember that if you attempt to walk during the day, it can get extremely hot.
I had hired a tuk-tuk for a city tour and had negotiated a rate for about four hours. However, if you were to hire a tuk-tuk from the city centre to the temple, expect to pay around LKR 250 for a one-way trip on an average. Unfortunately, tuk-tuks aren’t metered and you will need to agree on a rate before hopping in.
There is an entry fee of LKR 250 per person, which I thought was modest, especially when you match it the entry fees paid at other tourist sites.