While you can see the main sights of Colombo in a few hours if you are rushed, and about half a day if you want to do it at a leisurely pace, there is one place that will surely take up a couple of hours of your time to see and explore – Gangaramayana Temple.
It is one of the oldest temples and among the most important Buddhist temples in Colombo, Sri Lanka. With a blend of architectural styles from across Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, China and even Indonesia, it brings in plenty of local worshippers while attracting eager tourists every day.
While the main part of the temple dates to the 1880s, today, it is a series of interconnected buildings that include a Vihara (temple), Cetiya (pagoda), a protected Bodhi tree, museum, residential, alms and educational halls and finally, a short walk away, the Seema Malaka (assembly hall for monks) on the Beira lake, which you can read more about here.
A bit of history
The original temple was founded by the famous scholar-monk Hikkaduwa Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera towards the end of the 19th century, on marshy land that was purchased by Don Bastian (de Silva Jayasuriya Goonewardane, Mudaliyar), a 19th century shipping merchant. When he bought the land, Don Bastian immediately went about filling it up and constructed a temple. A bodhi sapling was also planted.
However, the temple really came into its own when Sri Jinaratana Nayake Thera took over administration. He proceeded to add several wings to the original temple, turning it not just into a temple for worship, but also a place for learning and a cultural museum to showcase the best of Buddhism.
The main temple
Once you have paid the entry fee and removed your shoes, the first stop is at the Vihara, by far the most colourful and interesting part of the complex. Walk in and what greets you is a feast of bright colours – something I haven’t seen in any Buddhist temple anywhere. Across the walls and on the ceiling are tastefully designed murals that depict the Buddha and his teachings, as devout followers look up to him. While all around the temple are large statues of the Buddha, in various meditative poses.
Once you exist the hall and step into the courtyard, look around as there is lots to see. The first think that will catch your eyes will be a stuffed tusker. There is also a bodhi tree that has been fenced off. It is the very same one that was planted as a sapling over a century ago.
Within the courtyard is also a statue of the Buddha shown in a meditative pose usually associated with his first enlightenment. This statue, chiselled in white jade, was specially crafted by an artisan from Myanmar.
As your eyes wander upwards, you can’t miss the rows of Buddha statues, neatly positioned one behind the other, with a stupa acting as a backdrop. It is modelled on Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple in Indonesia.
Walk up the staircase on the right of the courtyard, in front of the main temple, and you will come to the Chinese section of the temple. Besides a statue of the Buddha, it also has number of wooden cabinets within which are many Buddhist figures and sculptures.
Along the outer walls of one of the buildings, take the walkway along the outer walls of one of the buildings, and you will be greeted by two rows of the Buddha, neatly placed in two rows.
Once you have finished with this section, head downstairs to the museum, which among other things, houses a few vintage cars, jewellery, watches, ornaments, huge tusks, ancient manuscripts and a variety of other artifacts. Apparently, most of these have been donated by devotees from around the world. However, the highlight down here is a statue of the smallest Buddha encased in a protective glass case, which you can only view through a magnifying glass that has been thoughtfully placed there. It took me a bit of time to spot it but spot it I did.
Information you can use
When I was there in January 2020, there was an entry fee of LKR 300 per person for all foreigners, though it’s free for Sri Lankans. This same ticket also allows you entry to the Seema Malaka Shrine on Beira lake. Make sure to keep your ticket.
Chances are, the moment you will have hopped into your taxi from the airport, or checked into your hotel, the driver who dropped you off, or another travel agent at the hotel will be politely ask if you would like to avail of the services of a private taxi to show you around. You can opt for that, like my friend who reached the city a day before did. He bargained and paid LKR 3,000 for a four-hour tour of the city’s highlights, including the temple. However, when we were back in Colombo on the last leg of our travels through Sri Lanka, we opted to rent a tuk-tuk as we had previously used his services. At LKR 2,000 for a roughly six-hour tour, I thought it was value for money.
Just remember that while you can finish most of the sites in a few hours, the temple complex will take a good two hours. So, plan accordingly.