Hidden away amid precipitous green hills at the heart of the island, KANDY is Sri Lanka’s second city and undisputed cultural capital of the island, home to the Temple of the Tooth, the country’s most important religious shrine, and the Esala Perahera, its most exuberant festival. The last independent bastion of the Sinhalese, the Kingdom of Kandy clung onto its freedom long after the rest of the island had fallen to the Portuguese and Dutch, preserving its own unique customs and culture which live on today in the city’s unique music, dance and architecture. The city maintains a somewhat aristocratic air, with its graceful old Kandyan and colonial buildings, scenic highland setting and pleasantly temperate climate. And although modern Kandy has begun to sprawl considerably, the twisted topography of the surrounding hills and the lake at its centre ensure that the city hasn’t yet overwhelmed its scenic setting, and preserves at its heart a modest grid of narrow, low-rise streets which, despite the crowds of people and traffic, retains a surprisingly small-town atmosphere.

Brief history

Kandy owes its existence to its remote and easily defensible location amid the steep, jungle-swathed hills at the centre of the island. The origins of the city date back to the early thirteenth century, during the period following the collapse of Polonnaruwa, when the Sinhalese people drifted gradually southwards (see The Sinhalese move south). During this migration, a short-lived capital was established at Gampola, just south of Kandy, before the ruling dynasty moved on to Kotte, near present-day Colombo.

A few nobles left behind in Gampola soon asserted their independence, and subsequently moved their base to the still more remote and easily defensible town of Senkadagala during the reign of Wickramabahu III of Gampola (1357–74). Senkadagala subsequently became known by the sweet-sounding name of Kandy, after Kanda Uda Pasrata, the Sinhalese name for the mountainous district in which it lay (although from the eighteenth century, the Sinhalese often referred to the city as Maha Nuwara, the “Great City”, a name by which it’s still sometimes known today).

The rise of the Kandyan kingdom

By the time the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505, Kandy had established itself as the capital of one of the island’s three main kingdoms (along with Kotte and Jaffna) under the rule of Sena Sammatha Wickramabahu (1473–1511), a member of the Kotte royal family who ruled Kandy as a semi-independent state. The Portuguese swiftly turned their attentions to Kandy, though their first expedition against the city ended in failure when the puppet ruler they placed on the throne was ousted by the formidable Vimala Dharma Suriya, the first of many Kandyan rulers who tenaciously resisted the European invaders. As the remainder of the island fell to the Portuguese (and subsequently the Dutch), the Kandyan kingdom clung stubbornly to its independence, remaining a secretive and inward-looking place, protected by its own inaccessibility – Kandyan kings repeatedly issued orders prohibiting the construction of bridges or the widening of footpaths into the city, fearing that they would become conduits for foreign attack. The city was repeatedly besieged and captured by the Portuguese (in 1594, 1611, 1629 and 1638) and the Dutch (in 1765), but each time the Kandyans foiled their attackers by burning the city to the ground and retreating into the surrounding forests, from where they continued to harry the invaders until they were forced to withdraw to the coast. Despite its isolation, the kingdom’s prestige as the final bastion of Sinhalese independence was further enhanced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the presence of the Tooth Relic, the traditional symbol of Sinhalese sovereignty, while an imposing temple, the Temple of the Tooth, was constructed to house the relic.

The Nayakkar dynasty

It had long been the tradition for the kings of Kandy to take South Indian brides descended from the great Vijayanagaran dynasty, and when the last Sinhalese king of Kandy, Narendrasinha, died in 1739 without an heir, the crown passed to his Indian wife’s brother, Sri Viyjaya Rajasinha (1739–47), so ending the Kandyan dynasty established by Vimala Dharma Suriya and ushering in a new Indian Nayakkar dynasty. The Nayakkar embraced Buddhism and cleverly played on the rivalries of the local Sinhalese nobles who, despite their dislike of the foreign rulers, failed to unite behind a single local leader. In a characteristically Kandyan paradox, it was under the foreign Nayakkar that the city enjoyed its great Buddhist revival. Kirti Sri Rajasinha came to the throne in 1747 and began to devote himself – whether for political or spiritual reasons – to his adopted religion, reviving religious education, restoring and building temples and overseeing the reinvention of the Esala Perahera as a Buddhist rather than a Hindu festival. These years saw the development of a distinctively Kandyan style of architecture and dance, a unique synthesis of local Sinhalese traditions and southern Indian styles.

Kandy under the British

Having gained control of the island in 1798, the British quickly attempted to rid themselves of this final remnant of Sinhalese independence, although their first expedition against the kingdom, in 1803, resulted in a humiliating defeat. Despite this initial reverse, the kingdom survived little more than a decade, though it eventually fell not through military conquest but thanks to internal opposition to the excesses and cruelties of the last king of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha (ruled 1798–1815). As internal opposition to Sri Wickrama grew, the remarkable Sir John D’Oyly, a British government servant with a talent for languages and intrigue, succeeded in uniting the various factions opposed to the king. In 1815, the British were able to despatch another army which, thanks to D’Oyly’s machinations, was able to march on Kandy unopposed. Sri Wickrama fled, and when the British arrived, the king’s long-suffering subjects simply stood to one side and let them in. On March 2, 1815, a convention of Kandyan chiefs signed a document handing over sovereignty of the kingdom to the British, who in return promised to preserve its laws, customs and institutions.

The colonial era and after

Within two years, however, the Kandyans had decided they had had enough of their new rulers and rebelled, an uprising which soon spread across the entire hill country. The British were obliged to call for troops from India and exert their full military might in order to put down the uprising. Fears of resurgent Kandyan nationalism continued to haunt the British during the following decades – it was partly the desire to be able to move troops quickly to Kandy which prompted the construction of the first road to the city in the 1820s, one of the marvels of Victorian engineering in Sri Lanka. Despite the uncertain political climate, Kandy soon developed into an important centre of British rule and trade, with the usual hotels, courthouses and churches servicing a burgeoning community of planters and traders. In 1867, the railway from Colombo was completed, finally transforming the once perilous trek from the coast into a comfortable four-hour journey, and so linking Kandy once and for all with the outside world.

Post-colonial Kandy has continued to expand, preserving its status as the island’s second city despite remaining a modest little place compared to Colombo. It has also managed largely to avoid the Civil War conflicts which traumatized the capital, suffering only one major LTTE attack, in 1998, when a truck bomb was detonated outside the front of the Temple of the Tooth, killing over twenty people and reducing the front of the building to rubble.