Sri Lanka: Kandy – 10 great things to do in the cultural capital
A vibrant city in central Sri Lanka surrounded by mountains and jungle and the cultural heart of the country.
Kandy is a large city in central Sri Lanka. It’s set on a plateau surrounded by mountains, which are home to tea plantations and biodiverse rainforests. The city’s heart is scenic Kandy Lake (Bogambara Lake), which is popular for strolling. Kandy is famed for sacred Buddhist sites, including the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) shrine, celebrated with the grand Esala Perahera annual procession in July and August.
This sacred Buddhist site, popularly known as the city of Senkadagalapura, was the last capital of the Sinhala kings whose patronage enabled the Dinahala culture to flourish for more than 2,500 years until the occupation of Sri Lanka by the British in 1815. It was added to the register of the UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
1. Visit the Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic)
The distinctive golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth is one of the most recognizable places in Kandy. It is home to Sri Lanka’s most important relic – a tooth of the Buddha. The belief is that when Buddha (Siddhãrtha Gautama) was cremated in India, one of his teeth were retrieved from the pyre and made its way to Sri Lanka in a women’s hairpiece and was presented to the king at the time. Over the years each successive king built temples in their capital city to house the tooth. The last king of Sri Lanka was based out of Kandy which is why the tooth is now found here.
There are ceremonies, called “puja”, which happen three times a day (at 6:00 am, 10:00 am and 6:00 pm) when then tooth, which is kept in an ostentatious, stupa-shaped gold container, is taken out its hidey-hole and put on display for the devotees to see, who bring along their offerings of money and flowers to lay before the tooth’s chamber. Security is high – the tooth relic itself is enclosed in a bullet-proof glass chamber and seven caskets. Opening all these caskets happens rarely and three of these caskets are locked and keys are safeguarded by the guardians of the sacred tooth relic.
Many people come to the temple during the puja to get a chance to glimpse the golden casket. As well as the noise of the people the room is filled with the sound of prayers being chanted and the rhythmic beat of drumming. All very evocative and when this is added to by the heat and humidity it is an almost overwhelming experience. When we visited the space was packed with devotees and tourists, so the queues moved very slowly. The sights and sounds were incredible and it was very humbling to see those who had actually come to pay respect with such momentous joy on their faces. As physically uncomfortable as the experience was I would highly recommend this opportunity to see the rituals and traditions of this culturally important place.
Once you have paid to go inside the Temple of the Tooth you can also wander around the outside, where there are some more temples and such like to look at. One of the most striking sights is a long glass room where devotees can light candles, which symbolically represents the enlightenment of Buddha. In the nighttime, this is particularly spectacular. There is also a place close by where incense sticks are light, and the smoke and smells rise into the air.
Things to note:
- It will cost you about $10 USD to get into the Temple of the Tooth
- There are guides around should you need them
- Make sure that you cover yourself up – knees and shoulders covered
- You will need to take your shoes off before entering the temple
- Don’t take any photos with your back towards a statue or image of Buddha
- If visit during July and August check out the Kandy Esala Perahera
2. Spend time exploring the Royal Palace complex
The Royal Palace of Kandy (Maligawa), was the royal residence of the Sinhalese monarchy of the Kingdom of Kandy in Sri Lanka. The last king to reside in it was King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha until he was overthrown by the British in 1815 with the aid of Kandian chieftains. Once part of a large palace complex that included the King’s Palace (Raja Wasala), Royal Audience Hall (Magul Maduwa), Queen’s Palace (Meda Wasala), King’s Harem Quarters (Palle Vahale) and Queen’s Bathing Pavilion (Ulpange), together with the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) that held the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. By ancient tradition, the one who was in possession of the Tooth Relic had a claim to the throne. Adjacent to the Royal Palace is the Victorian-era building that until recently housed Kandy High Court
To visit the Royal Palace of Kandy, opening hours are 5:30 AM – 8:00 PM. The entrance fee is 1000 rupees (about $5.50USD) for adults. It does not long to walk around and see the sights. There is also a small additional charge to take your camera inside.
Inside the complex, just a short walk away from the Temple of Tooth is the National Museum of Kandy, which explores the history of Kandy prior to the British taking power. The displays include ancient weapons, household items and clothing from the era of kings. The museum is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and is closed on Saturdays and Sundays. The entry fee is around 600 rupees ($3.00 USD).
Another place in the Palace complex worth visiting, whether you are a Buddhist or simply wanting to learning more about Buddhist culture from around the world is the International Buddhist Museum. Housed inside the former high court building the museum shows how Buddhism is developed and is celebrated across the entire Asian continent. Among the major artefacts showcased in this museum are the recreated versions of the famous temples of Buddhism starting from Java’s splendid Borobudur to the iconic Angkor Wat. There are numerous relics and images of Buddha, which are interesting as they depict how the Buddha’s image has changed across the centuries and how this varies from country to country.
3. Take a stroll around Kandy Lake
Another hard to miss sight is Kandy is the large man-made lake that sits proudly in front of the Royal Palace complex. The lake, also known as Kiri Muhuda or the Sea of Milk, is not a natural lake it was built in 1807 as a lavish symbol of his wealth by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. As the demand for prime real estate, especially in the centre of the city, has grown the lake has been shrunk from its original dimensions.
Today, the lake is a welcome respite from the crazy city life of Kandy, it is a wonderful place to come and gain some peace from the traffic and enjoy a few moments of tranquillity. It is especially magical as the sunsets and the thousands of flying foxes take to the air.
You can walk around the outside of the lake, it is about 2.1 miles around and will take about an hour depending on how many stops you make along the way.
4. Explore the delights of Peradeniya Botanical Gardens
Located just 3 miles from the centre of Kandy in the suburb of Peradeniya, is the spectacular Peradeniya Botanical Garden which dates back to 1371. This stunning 147-acre garden is enclosed on three sides by a large bend in the Mahaweli River. A Kandyan Prince’s residence during the 18th Century, in the early 1800s the leafy green tangle became one of the greatest Botanical Gardens in the British Empire. For a short spell during the Second World War, it was used as the Allied Forces Headquarters for the Asian region.
Today, it is home to the largest of Sri Lanka’s botanical gardens displaying over 4000 different species of trees and plants, attracting 1.2 million visitors annually. The nice thing about visiting a garden like this in a tropical climate is that plants we see back home in greenhouses and houses actually quite happily grow outside.
It was lovely to wander along the gorgeous tree-lined avenues with huge palm trees bearing double coconut (the largest seed in the plant world), massive jackfruit and dense groves of thick bamboo. It is incredible to see how big the palm trees and bamboo grows in this climate. Along the way, we passed along the boundary with the Mahaweli River where thousands of fruit bats were roosting in the trees waiting for nightfall before setting out to forage.
There is also a rope suspension bridge across the river that gives you views up and down. You cannot get all the way to the other side of the bridge as it is blocked about two-thirds of the way across. So, it is an out and back journey.
Another interesting area close to the suspension bridge is a grove of trees planted over the years by visiting dignitaries including members of the British Royal Family including George V, Edward VIII and Queen Elizabeth II. Other notable celebrities included Indira Gandhi, astronaut Yuri Gagarin and revolutionary Che Guevara.
Other areas of note in the botanical garden included a large collection of medical and spice plants and superb Orchid collection.
All in all the Peradeniya botanical garden in Kandy is a great place to spend a couple of hours meandering exploring and enjoying the amazing variety of flowers, trees and assorted plants.
Things to note:
- It can be very exposed so bring a hat and wear sunscreen
- Bring plenty of water
- Opening Hours 7.30 AM – 6.00 PM
- Ticketing Hours 7.30 AM – 5.00 pm
- Open 365 days
- Restaurant Open 10.00 AM -5.00 PM
- Entrance fees: Adult (12 and older) 2000 rupee
5. Three temple loop
Located in the central highlands, just a few kilometres south-west of Kandy is Sri Lanka’s ancient capital of Gampola where the are three revered Buddhist temples – Embekke, Lankatilaka and Gadaladeniya.
The temples are only a short distance from one another and can be easily visited in succession, known as the ‘the three temple loop’. The three temples are revered for their excellent craftsmanship and historic importance to the Gampola era of Sri Lanka and are well worth a visit when close to Kandy.
You can visit the temples by taking a car or tuk-tuk from Kandy. Alternatively, you can take a 20-minute bus ride to Embekke. If you do come by car or tuk-tuk you can get them to take you from temple to temple or if you are up for it you can take a 7.5km path that runs between the temples, passing by lush rice fields and bustling towns.
Embekke Devalaya, is a wooden temple situated in the Ambakka village, three kilometres from the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. This temple was built by King Vikramabahu III to honour King Mahasena who ruled Sri Lanka from 277 to 304 AD. The Devalaya (temple) has three main areas; the Sanctrum of Garagha, Dancing Hall and the Drummers Hall which is beautifully decorated with splendid wood sculptures and carvings of dragons and fierce battles between lions and elephants.
If you take the path between the temples the second temple you will come to is at Lankathilaka. Built high up on a natural rock promontory this imposing temple, this temple was built during the reign of King Buwanekabahu IV who made Gampola the capital of Sri Lanka during the mid-fourteenth century. The temple is constructed from a mixture of plaster and wood and is of a typical Sinhalese architectural style. Inside the temple are numerous ancient painting and the centrepiece is a very large statue of Buddha.
The last temple on the loop is Gadaladeniya Temple, famous for its beautiful stone carvings, this temple was built on a flat rock at Diggala in the 14th Century. Faded paintings from around that time provide many clues as to the manner in which the temple was built. The architecture is South Indian, so the general belief is that the workers were also brought from abroad.
6. Climb to see the Bahirawakanda Vihara Buddha Statue
Rising from a hill adjoining the holy city of Kandy is the giant Buddha statue of Bahirawa Kanda. The statue is a mere 2km from the Temple of The Tooth Relic and was built in 1972.
The Bahirawakanda Buddha Statue is located alongside the Sri Maha Bodhi Temple which is on the top of the Bahirawa Kanda hill, which means gnome mountain. This beautifully sculpted white statue displays Buddha in the seated Nirvana pose and can be seen from the entire city of Kandy that sprawls out before it. It stands at 88 feet in height and is one of the biggest Buddha statues in Sri Lanka.
The climb the top of the hill is well worth it. From here you get panoramic views of the Kandy and the local scenery. The temple of Bahirawa Kanda is open to devotees and visitors alike. To enter you will need to remove your shoes, hats and cover shoulders and legs to below the knee.
There is a set of stairs that runs behind the Buddha statue, taking you even higher for a better view. The best time to visit Bahirawakanda is at night when the statue is illuminated and the lights of Kandy offers a spectacular back-drop.
7. Take a tour of a spice gardens
Sri Lanka is famous for its spices, it has a near-perfect climate to grow a wide range of spices, not all of which are native to the country.
Of all the spices used in Sri Lankan cuisine, the most famous one is Ceylon cinnamon. Also called true cinnamon, this is the crop that put Sri Lanka on the spice map. Apart from cinnamon, Sri Lanka produces all sorts of other spices, some of which are also used for natural Ayurvedic remedies. The most common spices grown here are; real cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom (one of my favourite spices), cloves, nutmeg, turmeric, ginger and curry leaves.
The area around Kandy is ideal for spice growing and there are some spice gardens that you can visit. Be aware that these are primarily there for the tourists so the spices that are sold in the shops at these gardens are at a premium price, although when we visited we did not feel too much pressure to buy anything.
The gardens we visited were the New Ranweli Spice Gardens. We arrived late in the day but we still went on our hour-long tour with the delightful Victor who showed us all the spices they had growing. They also had some tea plants growing which warmed the cockles of our British hearts. For as long as we had been drinking tea there was still a lot for us to learn about the different quality of leaves, such as the silver and gold tips. As well as learning about the cooking qualities of these spices they are also pretty useful when it comes to medicine and are especially important in the ayurvedic treatments that are so popular in the Indian subcontinent. At the end of our tour, we were taken to see a cooking demonstration using some of the spices we had learned about, after which we went to sit down and eat. I thought it felt pretty quiet as we kept our voices low so not to be conspicuous with our presence – it turned out that the restaurant had closed 30 minutes earlier but they kindly kept it open especially for us. Of course, once we had finished and headed to store we felt obliged to make some purchases – but we didn’t go crazy.
There are a lot of shopping opportunities in Kandy from bazaars to exclusive shops. We always like to visit a bazaar, and there is an excellent one right in the heart of Kandy. A lot of clothing is made Sri Lanka for export around the world, some of which finds itself into the country’s bazaars. Whilst the clothes bear brands such as Nike, Patagonia and North Face I wouldn’t swear they are genuine! Anyway, the bazaar, like most in the developing world is a zoo and as a tourist, you’ll be pounced upon and will find it hard to get away from the aggressive sale folks. But there are bargains to be had!
If you fancy something more genteel then try one of the numerous stores around the city where you can try clothes on to your heart’s content without continually being pursued by a pesky salesperson. Our experience of these types of shops is that the staff are in the main attentive without being super pushy. You can have lots of fun playing dress-up with traditional clothing. The polite thing is to buy something but there is no obligation.
If you are looking for something more original you could look into getting some batik. There are some batik factories in Kandy where you can visit to see the fabric being printed. It is a very labour intensive process, building up the layers of colours by using wax as a colour resist. We took a tour of one of these factories which was an interesting experience. Of course, at the end of the tour, we were marshalled into a showroom. There were some nice pieces of clothing and house goods but we were not tempted to buy anything. But it was still worth seeing the fabric production and see some the goods they had turned out.
9. Learn about Sri Lanka’s precious and semi-precious gemstones
Sri Lanka has a strong heritage in the mining of gemstones, both precious and semi-precious. A fun place to learn more about the gemstone industry is at the Natural Gems and Gemmological Museum in Kandy. There is a small museum where you can walk through a reconstruction of a gem mine. The industry is small scale mining, with the mines being still dug manually, in the same way, they have for hundreds of years. The mines are shallow, they are only a few tens of feet below the ground and are tiny. With my large frame, I would not be a good gemstone miner – luckily most Sri Lankans are a lot smaller than I am!
The main museum area houses a collection of gemstones, not only those found in Sri Lanka but from around the world. Before starting our little tour we were treated to a nice cup of Ceylon tea – which was delicious. After looking at the display cases of gems we were taken to a little manufacturing area where the gems are laid into their settings to be sold. This is delicate work at the gems have to be shaped and then set.
After the tour, you inevitably end up in the showroom. We weren’t really in the market to buy any jewellery but there were some lovely pieces. Perhaps next time. The salespeople here are not very pushy so it was not as uncomfortable an experience as we have had in other places.
10. The Kandy Lake Club Cultural show
This is a chance to experience the traditional music and dance of Sri Lanka. There is a lot of rhythmic drumming and chanting, with the ladies elegantly moving around the stage whilst the men, fueled by testosterone, are more lively and there is quite a lot of acrobatics going on. The finale of the show takes place outside with some fire eating and walking on hot coals.
The theatre itself is quite basic, feels like a church hall back home, complete with the uncomfortable chairs! The performers you sense are locals and probably amateurs – but they go about their business with plenty of energy and enthusiasm. The show lasts for about an hour and costs 1000 Sri Lankan rupees. Definitely worth going to.
… In summary
Kandy is a fantastic place to spend a couple of days exploring its cultural heritage and delights. The city is very atmospheric and full of character and mystery. Spend some time walking through its streets and bazaars, enjoy the restaurants and cafes and just watch people go about their daily business. Kandy is a cultural hot spot that is full of wonder and energy.