It involves a princess on the run smuggling across land and sea. It had the protection of kings, eager to retain power over their kingdom. With an air of mystery surrounding it, it is one of most well-protected sites anywhere in Sri Lanka. This is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth relic, also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa, sits north of the lake, within the palace complex of the former Kandyan kingdom. Thanks to its historical, cultural and spiritual significance, the temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of eight sites across Sri Lanka.
A bit of history
What gives the temple its unique name is the belief that it holds the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. Originally preserved in the ancient city of Kalinga, it was eventually smuggled by two of his disciples – Prince Dantha and Princess Hemamali. Legend has it that, on their way back to the island, the princess hid the tooth relic in her hair. Once in Sri Lanka, it was handed over to the king, who had a special purpose temple built within the royal complex to house the relic between 1687 and 1707.
Over time, a legend was born. It was said that whoever was in possession of the tooth relic would have the right to rule the land. To make sure that it stayed safe, several replicas were created and placed all over the kingdom. How far it is true, I don’t know. But what is known is that Kandy was the last capital of the Kandyan kingdom.
To add intrigue, you never actually see the tooth relic. It is supposedly kept in a small golden casket, which in turn is kept in a larger casket, which in turn is in a larger casket – a total of seven. If you are thinking of the Russian Matryoshka dolls, you aren’t far off. This in turn is safely kept in the innermost shrine at the temple.
Unfortunately, they temple, originally built of wood, was badly damaged during the 18th century when the Portuguese, and after them the Dutch, were waging a war against the Kandyan kingdom. It once again came under attack in 1989 and again in 1998, during the height of the civil war that had engulfed Sri Lanka. While the temple itself was damaged, thankfully, the tooth relic remained safe.
Today, while no one really knows where the original tooth relic is housed, the temple has built its reputation and continues to be the focus of Buddhists who strive to make a pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. It also draws thousand of visitors from around the world, making it the most visited site in Kandy.
Visiting the temple
No visit to Kandy is complete without paying your respects at one of the most important Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka.
When we reached the main gates around 11 am, there was already a line at security. While it didn’t strike me then, they were all Sri Lankan devotees from around the country, come to pay obeisance. Before setting out from the guesthouse earlier on, our tuk-tuk driver had wisely recommended that we don’t wear shorts. While I was in a track pant, my friend unfortunately, in shorts, didn’t have too much of a choice – either buy a lungi somewhere close to the temple complex, or wear one that I had carried as nightwear. It was only after he had somehow worn the lungi that we finally made our way through security.
The first sight that greets you is a long pathway ahead, with lush green grass on either side. At the end of the pathway, the temple beckoned. While the sun was up and bright, thankfully, it wasn’t as hot as I expected it to be. I took my time ambling along slowly, stopping to admire the view while also admiring the statue of Prince Dantha and Princess Hemamali. Done in bronze, I immediately took a shine at this beautifully crafted statue, standing tall and gleaming in the late morning sun.
Upon reaching the temple, we saw everybody milling around another security checkpoint. Presuming it was the general entrance, we walked up too, only to be told that we had to buy an entrance ticket at the other end. Once there, it finally struck me. The main entrance that we had walked in through is mostly used by Sri Lankans. Foreigners walk in through another entrance, which is closer to the temple. There is also a separate entrance for foreigners directly into the temple. Thereby bypassing the throng of Sri Lankans who were patiently queuing up on the other side – the very same spot we had previously stood in line.
After purchasing tickets and leaving our shoes at the counter, we made our way into the temple. Now, it you think this is another ordinary temple, that is where you are mistaken. The outer walls, painted in white, may come across as a little too sober for a temple such as this.
However, the moment you step through the main entrance and walk up into the steps into the Pallemaluwa. Located at ground level, the main temple rituals are held here. As your eyes wander around, the sheer beauty of the temple begins to hit home. Look above and you will see a golden canopy that protects the shrine below it. That is when you begin to appreciate the detail that has gone into the structure of the temple. As you walk up the flight of stairs, it leads to a wooden gallery filled with devotees with their floral offering.
Walk a little further and you come to the Pattirippuwa, or Octogan. It was used by Rajasingha, the last king of Kandy, to view the temple festivities, speak with his subjects on important occasions, and if the need ever arose, exhibit the tooth relic to them. Today, it houses ancient manuscripts.
While we didn’t step beyond the main temple, the complex includes a few smaller temples, shrines and museums.
Information you can use
It is in the heart of Kandy city. Depending on where you are staying, it is best to rent a tuk-tuk to drive you around. We had hired a driver for about four hours, and the temple was our first stop of the day. It is best to agree on an amount before you hop in.
Make sure you are suitably dressed when visiting the temple. This is applicable across Sri Lanka. No shorts at all.
The temple is open every day from 5:30am to 8pm. While Sri Lankans have free entry to the temple complex, all foreigners pay LKR 1,000 per person. You will also need to make a small donation when you are collecting your footwear.