Kandy Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Occupying the island’s southern heartlands, the sublime green heights of the hill country are a world away from the sweltering coastal lowlands – indeed nothing encapsulates the scenic diversity of Sri Lanka as much as the short journey by road or rail from the humid urban melee of Colombo to the cool altitudes of Kandy or Nuwara Eliya. The landscape here is a beguiling mixture of nature and nurture. In places the mountainous green hills rise to surprisingly rugged and dramatic peaks; in others, the slopes are covered in carefully manicured tea gardens whose neatly trimmed lines of bushes add a toy-like quality to the landscape, while the mist and clouds which frequently blanket the hills add a further layer of mystery.
The hill country has been shaped by two very different historical forces. The northern portion, around the historic city of Kandy, was home to Sri Lanka’s last independent kingdom, which survived two centuries of colonial incursions before finally falling to the British in 1815. The cultural legacy of this independent Sinhalese tradition lives on today in the city’s distinctive music, dance and architecture, encapsulated by the Temple of the Tooth, home to the island’s most revered Buddhist relic, and the exuberant Kandy Esala Perahera, one of Asia’s most spectacular festivals.
In contrast, the character of the southern hill country is largely a product of the British colonial era, when tea was introduced to the island, an industry which continues to shape the economy and scenery of the region today. At the heart of the tea-growing uplands lies the town of Nuwara Eliya, which preserves a few quaint traces of its British colonial heritage and provides the best base for visiting the misty uplands of Horton Plains and World’s End. To the south, in Uva Province, a string of small towns and villages – Ella, Bandarawela and Haputale – offer marvellous views and walks through the hills and tea plantations. At the southwestern corner of the hill country lies the town of Ratnapura, the island’s gem-mining centre and a possible base for visits to the Sinharaja reserve, a rare and remarkable pocket of surviving tropical rainforest, Uda Walawe National Park, home to one of the island’s largest elephant populations, and Adam’s Peak, whose rugged summit, imprinted with what is claimed to be the Buddha’s footprint, remains an object of pilgrimage for devotees of all four of the island’s principal religions.
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.
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.
Posed artistically against the steep wooded hills of the Udawattakele Sanctuary, Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist shrine, the Temple of the Tooth, or Dalada Maligawa, sits on the lakeshore just east of the city centre. The temple houses the legendary Buddha’s Tooth, which arrived here in the sixteenth century after various peregrinations around India and Sri Lanka, although nothing remains of the original temple, built around 1600. The main shrine of the current temple was originally constructed during the reign of Vimala Dharma Suriya II (1687–1739) and was rebuilt and modified at various times afterwards, principally during the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747–81). It was further embellished during the reign of Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, who added the moat, gateway and Pittirippuva; the eye-catching golden roof over the relic chamber was donated by President Premadasa in 1987.
The temple was badly damaged in 1998 when the LTTE detonated a massive truck bomb outside the entrance, killing over twenty people and reducing the facade to rubble. Restoration work was swift and thorough, however, and there’s little visible evidence left of the attack, although crash barriers now prevent vehicular access to the temple, and all visitors have to pass through stringent security checks.
The paintings of hares in the moon shown on the exterior of the Tooth Relic shrine refer to one of the most famous of the Jataka stories, describing the previous lives of the Buddha before his final incarnation and enlightenment. According to the Jataka story of the Hare in the Moon, the future Buddha was once born as a hare. One day the hare was greeted by an emaciated holy man, who begged him – along with a fox and a monkey, who also happened to be passing – for food. The fox brought a fish, the monkey some fruit, but the hare was unable to find anything for the holy man to eat apart from grass. Having no other way of assuaging the ascetic’s hunger, the hare asked him to light a fire and then leapt into the flames, offering his own body as food. At this moment the holy man revealed himself as the god Indra, placing an image of the hare in the moon to commemorate its self-sacrifice, where it remains to this day.
The Jataka fable may itself be simply a local version of a still more ancient Hindu or Vedic myth – traditions referring to a hare in the moon can be found as far away as China, Central Asia and even Europe, while the story also appears, in slightly modified form, in one of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
Legend has it that when the Buddha was cremated in 543 BC at Kushinagar in North India, various parts of his remains were rescued from the fire, including one of his teeth. In the fourth century AD, as Buddhism was declining in India in the face of a Hindu revival, the Tooth was smuggled into Sri Lanka, hidden (according to legend) in the hair of an Orissan princess. It was first taken to Anuradhapura, then to Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya and Yapahuwa. In 1284, an invading Pandyan army from South India captured the Tooth and took it briefly back to India, until it was reclaimed by Parakramabahu III some four years later.
During these turbulent years the Tooth came to assume increasing political importance, being regarded not only as a unique religious relic but also as a symbol of Sri Lankan sovereignty – it was always housed by the Sinhalese kings in their capital of the moment, which explains its rather peripatetic existence. After being reclaimed by Parakramabahu III, it subsequently travelled to Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. In the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese captured what they claimed was the Tooth, taking it back to Goa, where it was pounded to dust, then burnt and cast into the sea (Buddhists claim either that this destroyed Tooth was simply a replica, or that the ashes of the Tooth magically reassembled themselves and flew back to Sri Lanka). The Tooth finally arrived in Kandy in 1592 and was installed in a specially constructed temple next to the palace, later becoming the focus for the mammoth Esala Perahera.
The exact nature and authenticity of the Tooth remains unclear. Bella Sidney Woolf, writing in 1914 when the Tooth was still regularly displayed to the public, described it as “a tooth of discoloured ivory at least three inches long – unlike any human tooth ever known,” unconsciously echoing the sentiments of an earlier Portuguese visitor, a certain de Quezroy, who in 1597 claimed that the Tooth had actually come from a buffalo. Whatever the truth, the Tooth remains an object of supreme devotion for many Sri Lankans. Security concerns mean that it is no longer taken out on parade during the Esala Perahera, though it is put on display in the Temple of the Tooth for a couple of weeks once or twice every decade.
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.
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.
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.
The hill country east of Kandy remains largely off the tourist map and far less developed than the area to the west of the city – a refreshingly untamed area of rugged uplands which still preserves much of its forest cover. Two main highways run east from Kandy to Mahiyangana. The more circuitous but smoother southern road meanders around the south side of the Victoria Reservoir and Dam, opened in 1989 as part of the huge Mahaweli Ganga Project and one of the island’s major sources of electricity. A visitor centre, just off the highway, offers fine views of the spectacular dam itself. Much of the densely forested area around the reservoir is protected as part of the Victoria-Randenigala Sanctuary (no entrance), and you might even spot the occasional elephant sticking its trunk out of the forest while you’re travelling down the road.
The Wanniyala-aetto (“People of the forest”), more usually known by the name of Veddhas (meaning “hunter”), were the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka, and are ethnically related to the aborigines of India, Sumatra and Australia. The Veddhas may have arrived in the island as far back as 16,000 BC, and developed a sophisticated matrilineal hunter-gatherer culture based on ancestor worship and an intimate knowledge of their forest surroundings, the latter allowing them to coexist in perfect harmony with their environment until the arrival of the Sinhalese in the fourth century BC. Veddhas feature extensively in early Sinhalese legend, where they are described as yakkas, or demons, and this common perception of them as demonic savages has persisted through the centuries. One memorably smug Victorian colonial official described them as a:
strange and primitive race [whose] members are but a degree removed from wild beasts. They know nothing of history, religion or any art whatever. They cannot count, know of no amusement save dancing, and are popularly supposed not to laugh. During the Prince of Wales’s visit, however, one of those brought before him managed to grin when presented with a threepenny piece. The Veddhas have, however, of late years shown some signs of becoming civilised under British influence.
Faced by successive waves of colonizers, the Veddhas were forced either to assimilate with the majority Sinhalese or Tamils, or retreat ever further into their dwindling forests. Despite the best attempts of successive British and Sri Lankan governments to “civilize” them, however, an ever-diminishing population of Veddhas still cling obstinately to their traditions – about 350 pure Veddhas are now left in seven villages, mainly in the area east of Mahiyangana, and a small number have attempted to continue their traditional hunter-gatherer existence (even if they now use guns rather than bows and arrows), and also farm rice and other crops to supplement their diet and income. The creation of national parks, alongside government development and resettlement schemes and agricultural projects, have further encroached on traditional Veddha lands – in recent years they have campaigned vigorously for recognition and for the right to continue hunting on land now protected by the Maduru Oya National Park. Some “reserved” areas have now been set aside for their use, though their struggle for proper recognition continues.
The southern hill country is the highest, wildest and in many ways the most beautiful part of Sri Lanka. Although the area was an integral part of the Kandyan Kingdom, little physical or cultural evidence survives from that period, and most of what you now see is the creation of the British colonial period, when the introduction of tea here changed the economic face of Sri Lanka forever. The region’s attractions are self-explanatory: a whimsical mixture of ruggedly beautiful scenery and olde-worlde colonial style, with sheer green mountainsides, plunging waterfalls and mist-shrouded tea plantations enlivened by quaint British memorabilia – clunking railways, half-timbered guesthouses, Gothic churches and English vegetables – while a further, unexpected twist is added by the colourful Hindu temples and saris of the so-called “Plantation Tamils”, who have been working the tea estates since colonial times.
Midway between Ella and Haputale, the scruffy little town of BANDARAWELA lacks either the rural charm of the first or the dramatic setting of the latter. The only real reason to stay here is to spend a night at the time-warped Bandarawela Hotel, although you might well find yourself changing buses (or money) here en route to somewhere else.
One of the most spectacularly situated of all Sri Lankan towns, HAPUTALE (pronounced “ha-poo-tah-lay”) is perched dramatically on the crest of a ridge at the southern edge of the hill country with bird’s-eye views in both directions – south to the plains and coast, and inland across the jagged lines of peaks receding away to the north. The town itself is a busy but fairly humdrum little commercial centre with a mainly Tamil population, though the mist that frequently blankets the place adds a pleasingly mysterious touch to the workaday shops that fill the centre.
As with Ella, the principal pleasure of a stay in Haputale is the chance to get out and walk in the surrounding hills – most notably up to (or down from) the magnificent viewpoint at Lipton’s Seat. Specific sights around town include the tea factory at Dambatenne, the evocative old country mansion of Adisham and the impressive Diyaluma Falls. The major drawback to Haputale is the weather, exacerbated by its exposed position. The marvellous views usually disappear into mist by midday, while the town receives regular afternoon showers of varying severity for much of the year – September to December is the wettest period.
Views excepted, Haputale has little to detain you. The town comprises a small but lively mishmash of functional concrete shops and cafés, while a small fruit and vegetable market straggles along the approach to the train station, offering the slightly surreal sight of crowds of loquacious Tamil locals in saris and woolly hats haggling over piles of very English-looking vegetables.
Sadly little remains of Haputale’s Victorian past. The principal memento is St Andrew’s, a simple neo-Gothic barn of a building with a homely wooden interior which lies just north of the town centre along the main road to Bandarawela. The churchyard is full of memorials to nineteenth-century tea planters, along with the grave of Reverend Walter Stanley Senior (1876–1938), author of the once-famous Ode to Lanka, Victorian Ceylon’s great contribution to world literature.
A fine walk leads west from Adisham along the ridgetop towards the village of Idalgashina through the Tangamalai (or Tangmale) nature reserve (open access; free), home to plentiful birdlife and wildlife including lots of monkeys. The path starts just to the left of the Adisham gates and runs for 3km through patches of dense subtropical jungle full of grey-barked, moss-covered weera trees alternating with airy stands of eucalyptus. The track is reasonably easy to follow at first, though it becomes indistinct in places further on (the directions below should suffice, though). After about 1km, the path comes out to the edge of the ridge with panoramic hill views stretching from Pidurutalagala and Hakgala near Nuwara Eliya to the left, Bandarawela below, and right towards the distinctive triangular-shaped peak of Namunakula, south of Badulla. Below you can see Glenanore Tea Factory and (a little later) the rail tracks far below (they will gradually rise to meet you).
From here on, the path sometimes sticks to the edge of the ridge, sometimes turns away from it, undulating slightly but always keeping roughly to the same height. After a further 1.5km you’ll see the rail tracks again, now much closer. Over the next 500m the path winds down the edge of the ridge to meet the ascending rail line, at which point there’s a wonderful view south, with impressive sheer cliffs to the left framing views of the lines of hills descending to the south, and the flat, hot plains beyond. From here you can either continue along the tracks to Idalgashina (about 6km) and catch a train back, or return to Haputale along the tracks (about 4km).
Nestled among verdant hills at the southwestern corner of the hill country, RATNAPURA (literally “City of Gems”) is famous for its precious stones, which have been mined here in extraordinary quantities since antiquity. Naturally, the town makes a big deal of this, with plenty of touts offering trips to gem mines and stones for sale, though unless you have a specialist interest in gemology, this alone isn’t really a sufficient reason to visit the place. If you are interested in learning more, your guesthouse or touts in town may be able to arrange a visit to a working mine. Ratna Gems Halt also run a convenient trip combining a visit to a gem mine, gem museum and Saviya Street, and even run a ten-day gem-cutting course if the subject really grabs your imagination.
Ratnapura does have other attractions, however. The town makes a possible base for visits to Sinharaja and Uda Walawe national parks; trips to both involve a long (4hr+) return drive, making for a big day, but this does avoid the considerable bother of getting to Deniyaya, Kudawa or Embilipitiya. Several guesthouses in town can arrange trips: the going rate for a minivan or jeep is around $50–60 to Sinharaja and $60–70 to Uda Walawe – try Travellers Halt guesthouse or Ratna Gems Halt. Ratnapura is also the starting point for an alternative ascent of Adam’s Peak, though it’s significantly longer and tougher than the route up from Dalhousie. The path starts from the village of Palabaddale, from where it’s a climb of five to seven hours to the summit. Buses run to Palabaddale via Gilimale during the pilgrimage season.
Ratnapura also has the distinction of being one of the wettest places in Sri Lanka, with an annual rainfall sometimes exceeding four metres – and even when it’s not raining, the climate is usually humid and sticky.
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most important sources of precious stones, and its gems have long been famous – indeed one of the island’s early names was Ratnadipa, “Island of Gems”. According to legend, it was a Sri Lankan ruby which was given by King Solomon to the Queen of Sheba, while Marco Polo described a fabulous ruby – “about a palm in length and of the thickness of a man’s arm” – set in the spire of the Ruvenveliseya dagoba at Anuradhapura. The island also provided the “Blue Belle” sapphire which now adorns the crown of the British queen, while in 2003 a 478-carat Sri Lankan sapphire – larger than a hen’s egg – fetched $1.5m at auction.
Gems are actually found in many parts of Sri Lanka, but the Ratnapura district is the island’s richest source. The origin of these gems is the geological rubble eroded from the central highlands, which is washed down from the hills along the valleys which crisscross the area – a gravelly mixture of eroded rock, mineral deposits, precious stones and muddy alluvial deposits known as illam. Gem mining is still a low-tech, labour-intensive affair. Pits are dug down into riverbeds and among paddy fields, and piles of illam are fished out, which are then washed and sieved by experts who separate the precious stones from the mud. The mining and sorting is traditionally carried out by the Sinhalese, though gem cutters and dealers tend to be Muslim.
The most valuable precious stones found in Sri Lanka are corundums, a mineral family which includes sapphires and rubies. Sapphires range in colour from blue to as clear as a diamond. Sri Lankan rubies are “pink rubies” (also known as pink sapphires); the better-known red rubies are not found in the island. Garnets, popularly known as the “poor man’s ruby”, and ranging in colour from red to brown, are also found. Cat’s eyes (green to brown) and alexandrite (whose colour changes under different light) are the best known of the chrysoberyl group of stones. Tourmalines are sometimes passed off as the far more valuable cat’s eyes. Other common stones, found in varying hues, are quartz, spinel and zircon. The greyish moonstone (a type of feldspar) is a particular Sri Lankan speciality, though these are not mined in the Ratnapura area. Diamonds and emeralds are not found in Sri Lanka, though aquamarine (like emerald, a member of the beryl family) is.
The largest surviving tract of undisturbed lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka, Sinharaja is one of the island’s outstanding natural wonders and a biodiverse treasure box of global significance (recognized by its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989). This is the archetypal rainforest as you’ve always imagined it: the air thick with humidity (approaching ninety percent in places) and alive with the incessant noise of birds, cicadas and other invisible creatures; the ground choked with a dense understorey of exotic ferns and snaking lianas wrapped around the base of towering tropical hardwoods, rising towards the forest canopy high overhead.
According to tradition, Sinharaja was formerly a royal reserve (as suggested by its name, meaning “Lion King”). The first attempts to conserve it were made as far back as 1840, when it became property of the British Crown. Logging began in 1971, until being banned in the face of national protests in 1977, when the area was declared a national reserve. Sinharaja is now safely protected under UNESCO auspices, using a system whereby inhabitants of the twenty-odd villages which surround the reserve have the right to limited use of the forest’s resources, including tapping kitul palms for jaggery and collecting rattan for building.
Sinharaja stretches for almost 30km across the wet zone at the southern edges of the hill country, enveloping a series of switchback hills and valleys ranging in altitude from just 300m up to 1170m. To the north and south, the reserve is bounded by two sizeable rivers, the Kalu Ganga and the Gin Ganga, which cut picturesque, waterfall-studded courses through the trees.
A staggering 830 of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of flora and fauna are found in Sinharaja, including myriad birds, reptiles and insects, while no less than sixty percent of the reserve’s trees are endemic too. The reserve’s most common mammal is the purple-faced langur monkey, while you might also encounter three species of squirrel – the dusky-striped jungle squirrel, flame-striped jungle squirrel and western giant squirrel – along with mongooses. Less common, and very rarely sighted, are leopards, rusty spotted cats, fishing-cats and civets. There’s also a rich reptile population, including 21 of Sri Lanka’s 45 endemic species, among them rare snakes and frogs. Many of the reserve’s bountiful population of insects are yet to be classified, although you’re likely to see various colourful spiders and enormous butterflies, while giant millipedes are also common.
Sinharaja has one of Sri Lanka’s richest bird populations: 21 of the country’s 26 endemic species have been recorded here (although some can only be seen in the reserve’s difficult-to-reach eastern fringes). The density of the forest and the fact that its birds largely inhabit the topmost part of the canopy means that actually seeing them can be tricky, especially if entering via the Mederipitiya entrance, where the forest is particularly thick – as ever, a good guide (see Birds of different feathers) is of the essence.
Sinharaja is home to one of the world’s finest examples of a “mixed-species feeding flock”, as it’s technically known, or bird wave, as it’s popularly described: a memorably colourful and noisy rainforest spectacle during which myriad different species can be seen flying and foraging together, “scouring the forest from top to bottom like a giant vacuum cleaner, devouring animals and plant matter in their path” (as Sri Lankan wildlife expert Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne puts it). From an evolutionary point of view, such collective feeding has clear practical advantages. Safety-in-numbers is one benefit, with members of the bird wave sometimes flocking together to beat off larger predators, while increased feeding efficiency is another.
Different species fly at different levels (ground, rainforest under-storey, canopy, and so on) with mutual benefits – a species feeding in the under-storey, for instance, may disturb insects which fly up and become easy prey for birds in the canopy above, while fruit and seeds dislodged by birds in the canopy may fall to species foraging on the ground.
Bird waves in Sinharaja may consist of over a hundred birds from dozens of different species. The crested drongo is the accepted leader of the pack, calling to other species to begin flocking and also taking responsibility for collective security, sounding an alarm call when danger threatens – at which point the whole flock will suddenly, silently freeze until the drongos give the all-clear. Other species also commonly join in with the wave as it passes through their territory, sometimes offering the remarkable sight of half-a-dozen rare endemics flocking together, while other animals including giant squirrels and mouse deer are also often seen following along.
Perched on the very edge of the hill country midway between Nuwara Eliya and Haputale, Horton Plains National Park covers a wild stretch of bleak, high-altitude grassland bounded at its southern edge by the dramatically plunging cliffs that mark the edge of the hill country, including the famous World’s End, where the escarpment falls sheer for the best part of a kilometre to the lowlands below. Set at an elevation of over two thousand metres, Horton Plains are a world apart from the rest of Sri Lanka, a misty and rainswept landscape whose cool, wet climate has fostered the growth of a unique but fragile ecosystem. Large parts of the Plains are still covered in beautiful and pristine stands of cloudforest, with their distinctive umbrella-shaped keena trees, covered in a fine cobweb of old man’s beard, whose leaves turn from green to red to orange as the seasons progress. The Plains are also one of the island’s most important watersheds and the source of the Mahaweli, Kelani and Walawe rivers, three of the island’s largest.
The park’s wildlife attractions are relatively modest. The herds of elephants which formerly roamed the Plains were all despatched long ago by colonial hunters, while you’ll have to be incredibly lucky to spot one of the 45-odd leopards which are thought to still live in the area. The park’s most visible residents are its herds of sambar deer, while you might see rare bear-faced (also known as purple-faced) monkeys. The park is also one of the best places in the island for birdwatching, and an excellent place to see montane endemics such as the dull-blue flycatcher, Sri Lanka bush warbler, Sri Lanka whistling thrush and the pretty yellow-eared bulbul. You’ll probably also see beautiful lizards, some of them boasting outlandishly fluorescent green scales, though their numbers are declining as the result of depredations by crows, attracted to the park (as to so many other parts of the island) by the piles of litter dumped by less environmentally aware visitors.
The journey south from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is spectacular both by train and by bus. The bus is far more direct and significantly quicker, cutting up through the hills and swinging round endless hairpins, passing the magnificent waterfalls at the village of RAMBODA en route, which plunge over the cliffs in two adjacent 100m cataracts. From Ramboda, it’s a short drive on to Labookelie Tea Factory and Nuwara Eliya.
The train is significantly slower, but makes for a quintessentially Sri Lankan experience, as the carriages bump and grind their way painfully up the interminable gradients towards Nuwara Eliya (and occasionally lose traction and slither a yard or so back downhill again). The track climbs slowly through pine and eucalyptus forest into a stylized landscape of immaculately manicured tea plantations which periodically open up to reveal heart-stopping views through the hills, nowhere more so than above the village of Dimbula, at the centre of a famous tea-growing area, where the line passes high above a grand, canyon-like valley between towering cliffs.
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).