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.
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.Read More
No single elephant has yet proved itself able to fill Raja’s considerable boots, and at present the role of Maligawa Tusker is shared between various different elephants. All Maligawa Tuskers must fulfil certain physical requirements. Only male elephants are permitted to carry the relic and, most importantly, they must be Sathdantha elephants, meaning that all seven parts of their body – the four legs, trunk, penis and tail – must touch the ground when they stand upright. In addition, the elephant’s tusks must be formed in the curved shape of a traditional winnow, and it must have a flat back and reach a height of around twelve feet. It has proved increasingly difficult to find such “high-caste” elephants locally, although the temple already owns several suitable beasts, including ones donated by notables including various prime ministers of Sri Lanka and India, as well as the king of Thailand.
Pattini (originally named Kannaki) was a humble Indian girl from the city of Madurai who married a certain Kovalan, an errant spouse with a weakness for dancing girls. Despite Pattini’s considerable charms, the feckless Kovalan abandoned his wife and bankrupted himself in pursuit of one particular amour until, ashamed and penniless, he returned to Pattini to beg forgiveness. The pliable Pattini welcomed him back without even a word of reproach and handed over her last possession, a golden ankle bracelet, for him to sell. The unfortunate Kovalan did so, but was promptly accused of stealing the bracelet by the king’s goldsmith and executed. The distraught Pattini, legend states, descended upon the royal palace, tore off one of her breasts, caused the king to drop dead and then reduced his palace to ashes before being taken up into the heavens as a goddess.
Pattini’s cult was originally introduced to Sri Lanka by King Gajabahu in the second century BC, but enjoyed its heyday during the Kandyan era, when the kingdom’s Hindu rulers revived her cult and built her Kandy temple. Pattini is now revered as the ideal of the chaste and devoted wife: pregnant women come here to pray for a safe delivery (rather inexplicably, since Pattini was childless), while she is also thought to protect against infectious diseases such as chicken-pox, smallpox and measles.
Hassles in Kandy
Hassles in Kandy
Kandy formerly had a well-deserved reputation for hassle, touts and con artists. The situation has now improved markedly, although it still pays to be aware of potential set-ups. Touts traditionally hang out along the south side of the lake en route to Saranankara Road, where you may still potentially be approached by opportunistic scroungers. Some con artists may attempt to embroil you in conversation by pointing out the splashes made by “water-snakes” in the lake (the splashes actually being created by a hidden accomplice chucking stones into the water) as a way of getting into conversation with you and gaining your confidence before setting you up for one of various wallet-emptying schemes. Popular local scams include offering tourists the chance to meet a “dancing teacher” or the “head priest” at the Temple of Tooth, as well as all the old islandwide favourites (see Common scams).
Kandy is the best place in Sri Lanka to study meditation, with numerous centres dotted around the surrounding countryside (though none right in the city itself). The Buddhist Publications Society has a full list of all the various centres in the area.
Robert Knox and seventeenth-century Kandy
Robert Knox and seventeenth-century Kandy
In 1660, a party of English sailors who had gone ashore near the mouth of the Mahaweli Ganga were taken prisoner by soldiers of the king of Kandy, Rajasinha II. Among them was a 19-year-old Londoner named Robert Knox. Knox’s subsequent account of his nineteen years as a hostage of the king was eventually published as An Historical Relation of Ceylon, a unique record which offers a fascinating snapshot of everyday life in the seventeenth-century Kingdom of Kandy. The book later served as one of the major sources of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and something of Knox’s own industrious (if rather dour) character may have crept into Defoe’s self-sufficient hero.
Upon arriving in Kandy, Knox was surprised to discover that he and his shipmates were not the only European “guests” being detained at Rajasinha’s pleasure – also in Kandy were prisoners of war, shipwrecked sailors, army deserters and assorted diplomats. Knox seems to have admired many of the qualities of his hosts, though he did object (as have so many subsequent Western travellers to Asia) that “They make no account nor conscience of lying, neither is it any shame or disgrace to them, if they be catched in telling lies; it is so customary.” He also recorded (with puritan disapproval) the kingdom’s liberal attitude to sex: “Both women and men do commonly wed four or five times before they can settle themselves.” Married women appeared free to have affairs with whoever took their fancy, so long as they were of an equal social rank, sometimes even leaving their husbands at home to look after the children. When important visitors called, husbands would offer them the services of their wives and daughters “to bear them company in their chamber”. Men were allowed to have affairs with lower-caste women, but not to sit or eat with them. Polyandry, in which a wife was shared between two or more brothers, or in which one man married two or more sisters, was also accepted, while incest was reputedly common among beggars. If nothing else, the kingdom’s sex drive was impressive. As Knox observed of the Kandyan women: “when their Husbands are dead, all their care is where to get others, which they cannot long be without.”
In terms of material possessions, the life which Knox recorded was simple. Most Kandyans contented themselves with the bare necessities of life, encouraged in a life of indolence by the fact that the moment they acquired anything it was taken away by the king’s mob of tax collectors. Justice was meted out by a court of local chiefs, but appeared to favour whoever was able to present the largest bribe – those convicted of capital offences were trampled to death by an elephant.
Kandyan dancing and drumming
Kandyan dancing and drumming
Kandyan dancing and drumming is Sri Lanka’s iconic performing art, and you’re unlikely to spend long in the city without seeing a troupe of performers going about their (rather noisy) business, clad in elaborate traditional costumes, with dancers twirling, stamping and gyrating to a pulsating accompaniment of massed drumming. The art form originated as part of an all-night ceremony in honour of the god Kohomba, an elaborate ritual featuring some fifty dancers and ten drummers. This ceremony flourished under the patronage of the kings of Kandy and reached such heights of sophistication that it was eventually adopted into local religious ceremonies, becoming a key element in the great Esala Perahera festival. Many temples in the Kandyan area even have a special columned pavilion, or digge, designed specifically for performances and rehearsals by resident dancers and drummers.
There are five main types of Kandyan dance. The four principal genres are the ves, pantheru, udekki and naiyandi, all featuring troupes of flamboyantly attired male dancers clad in sumptuous chest plates, waistbands and various other neck, arm and leg ornaments which jangle as the dancers move about. The most famous is the ves dance, which is considered sacred to the god Kohomba. It’s at once highly mannered and hugely athletic, combining carefully stylized hand and head gestures with acrobatic manoeuvres including spectacular backflips, huge high-kicking leaps and dervish-like whirling pirouettes. In the more sedate pantheru dance, the turbaned performers play small tambourines, while during the udekki dance they beat tiny hourglass-shaped drums.
The fifth and final style of Kandyan classical dance is the vannam. This began life as songs, before evolving into stylized dances, each of which describes a certain emotion or object from nature, history or legend – the most popular are the various animal-derived vannams, including those inspired by the movements of the peacock (mayura), elephant (gajaga), lion (sinharaja) and cobra (naga). Vannams are usually performed by just one or two dancers (and sometimes by women), unlike other Kandyan dances, which are ensemble dances featuring four or five performers, always men.
As well as the traditional Kandyan dances, the city’s cultural shows usually include examples of a few characteristic southern dances such as the kulu (harvest dance) and the ever-popular raban dance – for more on which, For more information, see Low-country dancing.
All genres of dance are accompanied by drumming, which can reach extraordinary heights of virtuosity – even if the finer points pass you by, the headlong onslaught of a Kandyan drum ensemble in full flight leaves few people unmoved,. The archetypal Sri Lankan drum is the geta bera (literally “boss drum”), a double-headed instrument carried on a strap around the drummer’s waist and played with the hands. Geta bera are made to a fixed length of 67cm, with different types of skins (monkey and cow, for example) at either end of the drum to produce contrasting sounds. The double-headed daule drum is shorter but thicker, and is played with a stick in one hand and the palm of the other. The tammettana bera is a pair of tiny drums (a bit like bongos) which are tied together and played with a pair of sticks. A horanava (a kind of Sri Lankan oboe) is sometimes added to the ensemble, providing a simple melodic accompaniment.
Like the dancers they accompany, Kandyan drummers perform in traditional costume, dressed in a large sarong, a huge red cummerbund and a white tasselled turban – significant musical points are marked by a toss of the head, sending the tassel flying through the air in a delicate accompanying flourish.
Walking the Three-Temples Loop
Walking the Three-Temples Loop
Embekke, Lankatilake and Gadaladeniya temples can all be visited (albeit with some difficulty) by bus or, far more conveniently, by taxi. The best way to visit, however, is to walk at least part of the way between the three, starting at the Embekke Devale and finishing at the Gadaladeniya (or vice versa).
The Esala Perahera
The Esala Perahera
Kandy’s ten-day Esala Perahera is the most spectacular of Sri Lanka’s festivals, and one of the most colourful religious pageants in Asia. Its origins date back to the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka in the fourth century AD, during the reign of Kirti Siri Meghawanna, who decreed that the relic be carried in procession through the city once a year. This quickly developed into a major religious event – the famous Chinese Buddhist Fa-Hsien, visiting Anuradhapura in 399 AD, described what had already become a splendid festival, with processions of jewel-encrusted elephants.
Occasional literary and artistic references suggest that these celebrations continued in some form throughout the thousand years of upheaval which followed the collapse of Anuradhapura and the Tooth Relic’s peripatetic journey around the island. Esala processions continued into the Kandyan era in the seventeenth century, though the Tooth Relic lost its place in the procession, which evolved into a series of lavish parades in honour of the city’s four principal deities: Vishnu, Kataragama, Natha and Pattini, each of whom had (and still has) a temple in the city.
The festival took shape in 1775, during the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinha, when a group of visiting Thai clerics expressed their displeasure at the lack of reverence accorded to the Buddha during the parades. To propitiate them, the king ordered the Tooth Relic to be carried through the city at the head of the four temple processions: a pattern that endures to this day. Sri Rajasinha’s own enthusiastic participation in the festivities, and that of his successors, also added a political dimension – the Nayyakar kings of Kandy (who were from South India) probably encouraged the festival in the belief that by associating themselves with one of Buddhism’s most sacred relics, they would reinforce their dynasty’s shaky legitimacy in the eyes of their Sinhalese subjects. The Tooth Relic itself was last carried in procession in 1848, since when it’s been considered unpropitious for it to leave the temple sanctuary – its place is now taken by a replica.
The ten days of the festival begin with the Kap Tree Planting Ceremony, during which cuttings from a tree – traditionally an Esala tree, though nowadays a Jak or Rukkattana are more usually employed – are planted in the four devales, representing a vow (kap) that the festival will be held. The procession (perahera) through the streets of Kandy is held nightly throughout the festival: the first five nights, the so-called Kumbal Perahera, are relatively low-key; during the final five nights, the Randoli Perahera, things become progressively more spectacular, building up to the last night (the Maha Perahera, or “Great Parade”), featuring a massive cast of participants including as many as a hundred brilliantly caparisoned elephants and thousands of drummers, dancers and acrobats walking on stilts, cracking whips, swinging fire pots and carrying banners, while the replica casket of the Tooth Relic itself is carried on the back of the Maligawa Tusker elephant.
Following the last perahera, the water-cutting ceremony is held before the dawn of the next day at a venue near Kandy, during which a priest wades out into the Mahaweli Ganga and “cuts” the waters with a sword. This ceremony symbolically releases a supply of water for the coming year (the Tooth Relic is traditionally believed to protect against drought) and divides the pure from the impure – it might also relate to the exploits of the early Sri Lankan king, Gajabahu (reigned 114–136 AD), who is credited with the Moses-like feat of dividing the waters between Sri Lanka and India in order to march his army across during his campaign against the Cholas.
After the water-cutting ceremony, at 3pm on the same day, there’s a final “day” perahera, a slightly scaled-down version of the full perahera. It’s not as spectacular as the real thing, though it does offer excellent photo opportunities.
The perahera is a carefully orchestrated, quasi-theatrical event – there is no spectator participation here, although the astonishing number of performers during later nights give the impression that most of Kandy’s citizens are involved. The perahera actually comprises five separate processions, which follow one another around the city streets: one from the Temple of the Tooth, and one from each of the four devales – a kind of giant religious conga, with elephants. The exact route changes from day to day, although the procession from the Temple of the Tooth always leads the way, followed (in unchanging order) by the processions from the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini devales (Natha, as a Buddha-to-be, takes precedence over the other divinities). As its centrepiece, each procession has an elephant carrying the insignia of the relevant temple – or, in the case of the Temple of the Tooth, the replica Tooth Relic. Each is accompanied by other elephants, various dignitaries dressed in traditional Kandyan costume and myriad dancers and drummers, who fill the streets with an extraordinary barrage of noise. The processions each follow a broadly similar pattern, although there are slight differences. The Kataragama procession – as befits that rather unruly god – tends to be the wildest and most freeform, with jazzy trumpet playing and dozens of whirling dancers carrying kavadis, the hooped wooden contrivances, studded with peacock feathers, which are one of that god’s symbols. The Pattini procession, the only one devoted to a female deity, attracts mainly female dancers. The beginning and end of each perahera is signalled by a deafening cannon shot.
There’s a huge selection of accommodation in all price ranges in and around Kandy, although guesthouses in the city are no longer the bargain they once were. Note that the temperature in Kandy is markedly cooler than along the coast – you probably won’t need air-conditioning, but you may well want hot water . In general, the better the view, the further from town – and the more taxing the walk from the centre.
Three places in town put on nightly shows of Kandyan dancing and drumming. All are touristy but fun, with a fairly standard range of dances, generally including snippets of both southern as well as Kandyan dances and usually culminating in a spot of firewalking.
Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s main artesanal centres: many local villages still specialize in particular crafts (metalware, lacquerware, leatherwork and so on) and the city is perhaps the best place in the island to pick up traditional souvenirs, even if some traditional arts are being increasingly adulterated to suit the tourist market. As well as the places listed below there are also several big crafts shops (and many jewellers) along Peradeniya Rd en route to the Botanical Gardens. More modern shopping opportunities are provided by the Kandy City Centre (entered from Dalada Vidiya near Devons restaurant), a shiny new a/c complex bang in the heart of the city, although not all the shops in the centre had opened at the time of writing.