Hippies, Hikers, Hookahs and Harems #3: Up in the Hill Country: Kandy – Sri Lanka

Up in the Hill Country: Kandy

Not quite as sweet as it sounds, the capital of the ‘Hill Country’ will leave you choking in a fog of exhaust fumes, and battered and bruised in the Temple of the Tooth.
December 2002

Exchange rate: (�1 = Rs150)

Escaping to the relative coolness of the hill country, I imagined a magical oasis in the countryside, set beside the calm waters of a lake, underpinned by the legendary Temple of the Tooth. I was in for a rude awakening. Kandy is the second biggest city in Sri Lanka, marred by belching clouds from vehicle exhausts, traffic jams amidst an orchestra of honking horns, a grey dreary lake and crowded streets. Even the view of the Temple of the Tooth from across the lake was unremarkable and hampered by scaffolding still in place from the 1998 bomb blast.

At least the food was something to write home about. Kandy has a wealth of cheap restaurants and scores of bakeries selling what is locally known as ‘short eats’. These cakes and savoury snacks make excellent breakfasts or picnic lunches. The self-service buffet in Devons along the main street Dalada Vidiya provides good, inexpensve hot and spicy meals. There’s always a dish of sambol (a red hot combination of grated coconut, chilli and spice) available if you really want to set your mouth on fire. Rice and curry is the local dish, often the hotter the better, and the quantity of rice far outweighs the curry. No wonder bingeing on rice causes the pot-belly phenomena among the Sinhalese.

Another plus was that our train journey from Colombo to Kandy was as smooth as silk. We reserved seats in the first class observation carriage which lived up to its luxurious billing. Comfy, reclinable seats awaited us with bags of leg room. Unless you book rows 10 and 11, you don’t really benefit from the end of the carriage full window view, but at least you’re spared from the stream of hawkers and beggars. They are not allowed to enter this inner sanctum. It was worth the paltry extra Rs50 each, rather than travel in ordinary first or second class.

We made our first mistake in staying in the charmless Starlight Guesthouse run by an obsequious little man. His wife conjured up bland and tasteless home cooked curries that were on the expensive side while he existed in the shadows, waiting to pounce on us. Did we want breakfast or dinner, did we want tickets to the Kandyan dances, a three-wheeler into town, a taxi to the ancient cities for a three day tour? What we really desired was to be left alone – we always sensed he was spying on us. Our room was hardly private, it opened into a sitting area where every word of our conversations could be heard through the flimsy door.

To distract ourselves, we escaped the hustle and bustle of Kandyan life by visiting the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens. Yet again, a two tier pricing system exists for foreigners and locals. We paid a hefty Rs300 each while the Sinhalese enjoy the gardens for a fraction of our ticket price, Rs20 (a 100% price hike in the last year). The gardens occupy a horse shoe shaped peninsula around which the Mahaweli river flows. On the surface, it would appear to be a great place to relax, to stroll through the wide avenues lined by coco de mer and royal palms, potter through the orchid house and marvel at the giant Javan Fig Tree on the Great Lawn. It sounds positively gentille.

But it wasn’t. Even though we visited on a week day, busloads of Sinhalese, including parties of school children, had the same idea. Half the courting couple population of Sri Lanka were there too, canoodling on every available park bench. Physical contact is strictly frowned upon in Sri Lankan society, so the lovers have little choice but to hide under umbrellas and bury themselves in the foilage, so that they can hold hands and whisper sweet nothings to each other.

Back in Kandy, it was time to visit Temple of the Tooth that houses Sri Lanka’s most sacred relic – Buddha’s tooth. Not that you ever see the fabled tooth – it is kept in a golden casket containing a series of smaller caskets to maintain the aura of mystery. Having deposited our shoes outside, we entered the temple along with crowds of Sinhalese clutching lotus petals and muttering under their breath. Unremarkable externally, parts of the temple included the gilded roof are still covered in scaffolding, a consequence of the 1998 bomb detonated near the main entrance.

We deliberately timed our visit to coincide with a puja (offering or prayers) to allow us to view the golden casket. Pujas begin with Kandyan drummers beating a rhythm outside the relic house while shifty looking monks hastily open the ornate relic house doors and disappear within. I had a theory that the relic house was like Doctor Who’s tardis, larger on the inside than the outside.

The shrine room next door had the usual array of shiny gold Buddhas and the story of the ‘tooth’ told using twenty pictures hanging from the roof. I noted that the temple’s version conveniently omitted any Portuguese meddling. Legend has it that the tooth of Buddha was saved from his sandalwood funeral pyre in 543BC, smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess and kept in Anuradhapura. After this it seemed to change hands more times than dodgy goods flogged by Del-Boy, before eventually finding a home in Kandy. Then the Portuguese showed up and put a spanner in the works by claiming that they had seized the tooth and burnt it in Goa. Refuted by the Sinhalese who announced that they still had the original incisor, they counter-claimed that the Portuguese had been fooled by a replica.

To have any chance of seeing the golden casket that probably doesn’t contain anything, you have to contend with the Sinhalese clawing their way to the relic chamber. Just to get within twenty metres of the casket seems to induce mass hysteria in the devotees. We were swept up in a sea of worshippers presenting their flowers on a table five metres in front of the casket window. After this, we joined a queue to pass in front of the window for a mere second. I was horrified to find the Sinhalese displaying their worst behaviour. Rather than queueing in a dignified manner in their most sacred temple, jumping to the front of the queue appeared to be a matter of life or death and was to be achieved at any cost, even if it meant beating the foreigners to a pulp.

Having witnessed how the Sinhalese barge their way onto buses and trains, the same tactics were put to good use in the temple. We were elbowed, kicked, prodded and pummelled. Children trod on our bare feet and old women ducked and dived to push in front. Why did we bother queueing to see the casket ten metres away rather than fifteen metres away in a throng of hysterical people? I guess I was hoping the mist of cynicism would lift from my eyes and I would be enlightened; their unnerving blind faith would rub off on me. Instead, the fervour had the opposite effect, leaving me feeling far more confused than ever about religion. Why is everyone so desperate to bow their heads before a golden casket and offer their lotus petals? Isn’t Buddhism a philosophy where people are in charge of their own destiny, need to work out their own salvation and forsake earthly desires? Why are the image of Buddha and relics of Buddha worshipped like a God? Answers on a postcard please. Oh and if anyone can tell me what the meaning of life is I’d be eternally grateful.

I left the temple disgruntled, declining to visit the bizarre stuffed remains of one of the long serving temple elephants including photos of the taxidermy process, and decided to do something a little more frivolous with my time.

We joined a mainly Western audience for a performance by the Kandyan Dancers and Drummers. Held at the Kandyan Arts Association, for Rs300 each we got front row seats for an extravaganza of colour and movement set to the beat of drums. The drums used are known as ‘geta bera’ and are double-sided; one end is covered in cow hide, the other in monkey hide to produce different tones. Kandyan dance is the national dance of Sri Lanka and flourished under the patronage of Kandyan Kings.

The most spectacular versions are the Raban, Pantheru Netum and Ves. The former involves skillful plate spinning on fingers and poles. The Pantheru Netum revolved around playing tambourines while performing giant leaps and back flips across the stage. The Ves dance requires full traditional costume comprised of 64 ornaments. The men wore wide, skirt-like garments, their bare chests adorned in silver and ivory. Bangles of beaten silver are worn on the arms and ankles. The costume is completed by a head dress that jangles with every movement. We were disappointed by the jerky, unsynchronised female dances – I might have made an unfair comparison between these dances and the graceful movements of the Balinese.

The next day, we undertook a pleasant diversion to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Unlike the elephant camps in Thailand, the orphanage doesn’t have a gimmicky show where the elephants are required to perform tricks and kick a football to entertain the tourists. Approximately seventy elephants live here in a wide open space, spending the day bathing in the river and feeding on the timber. I was amazed at how much smaller these elephants were to African elephants. Tom, as always, was drawn to the tiny baby elephants and managed to stroke one as it was bathing – the baby’s trunk curled up round his hand.

To reach the orphanage requires some knowledge of the Sri Lankan local bus system. First we had to find a bus to Kegalle from outside the post office. This entailed just shouting “Kegalle” at every bus that went past and hoping for the best. Then we had to get off at a certain junction. The road north leads up to the orphanage. We had no idea where we were going and the bus was packed to the ceiling with bodies. An old guy took pity on us and explained to the lady next to him where we wanted to get off, so that she could tell us. I am eternally grateful to him.

At the junction, it’s a case of guessing again whether the bus goes up to the orphanage. On our return journey, I finally became a fully fledged Sri Lankan bus traveller. I had perfected my bus wave down – the brakes of the Kandy bus shrieked to a halt to pick us up. Up until then, all bus drivers had ignored me as another stupid tourist.

It was time to leave the dull drizzle of Kandy and inhale some fresh sea air. It was time to head for the West Coast.