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Notes on the Geography of Sri Lanka: Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth

Kandy was the country's last royal capital but was never as spectacular as Sri Lanka's earlier capitals, especially Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa.  There's a lot of patriotic pride centered on the place, however, and Kandy is also the home of the greatest treasure of the Sinhalese, a reputed tooth of the Buddha.  As such, it attracts a daily river of the faithful.

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Sri Lanka: Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth picture 1

Established as a capital in 1511, Kandy had two dynasties and a total of 12 kings before the British took over in 1815.  Then, as now, the town was surrounded by hills (those to the east, in the distance here, are the Udawattakele): flat land has always been at a premium.  The Temple of the Tooth can be made out just below the dark-roofed white building to the left of the lake and nestled against what in Kandyan times was a royal forest preserve.  The British made it into a park, which it remains. The name Kandy, by the way, is a Portuguese corruption of Kanda, or "Mountain," from Kanda Uda Pasrata, or "mountain kingdom." To the Sinhalese, the town has always been Maha Nuwara, "Great City," or simply Nuwara. Many of the local buses, for example, are run by (and labelled in English as) the Maha Nuwara Bus Company.

Sri Lanka: Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth picture 2

Kandy Lake--shown here during a shower--was built late in the city's history: until 1810, its 46 flooded acres were paddy fields.  The lake was then created at the order of and for the pleasure of the last Kandyan King, the ill-fated Sri Raja Wickrama. Capricious demands for the labor of his people, combined with a cruelty appalling even in a society used to it, weakened their loyalty and finally allowed the British very nearly to walk in and take over. 

 

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A clear day at the lake, with the Temple of the Tooth under a golden canopy.  On days like this, the traditional name of the lake seems perhaps as literal as poetic: "kiri muhuda" or milky sea.

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Gate into the Temple of the Tooth, or Dalada Malagawa (literally, the "Tooth Palace.")  At the entrance, flowers are regularly for sale as temple offerings--especially Plumeria and jasmine.  (Yes, the seller's T-shirt has a picture of Eminem. Some of the local radio stations play nothing but Western pop.)

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The main approach to the temple focuses on the octagonal pattirippuva that once served as the king's viewing platform.  It's a Kandy icon, figuring even on the city's coat-of-arms.  The Tooth itself is under the small goldenish roof behind the octagon.

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A view of the octagon from the side.  The stupa at the left lies in an adjoining enclosure, of which more momentarily. The temple entrance is through the gate beyond the octagon.

 

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Another perspective, showing the golden-topped tooth temple, surrounded by 20th century additions.

 

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Still another perspective, this time from the north. A corner of the old council chamber is at the left and shows two of the characteristic features of Kandyan architecture: a steeply pitched tile roof and supporting stone columns.  When privacy isn't an issue, walls are often omitted, even in important buildings like this one.

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The original temple stands in a courtyard.   Build of wood, though supported by granite columns, it rests on a granite-block platform.  The stairs have a semicircular moonstone at the base but lack the classic guardstones characteristic of staircases at Anuradhapura and Polonnuwara. Old photographs, such as one in Henry Cave's The Book of Ceylon (c. 1908, p. 333) show the two-story temple in a wider courtyard, rimmed with one-story buildings.

Sri Lanka: Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth picture 10

The stone columns are characteristically carved to look as though they are chamfered timbers. Up close, the ornamentation on each column is unique. Even this core, by the way, is not particularly old: it was built during the reign of King Kirtisrirajasimha (1747-1782).  The tusks at the lower center mark the maharamadula, a room directly under the vedahitina malagawa, the room containing the relic.

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The core is protected now by a steel-supported golden umbrella.

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The temple wall has a classic profile.  It was once plastered and whitewashed, unfortunate as that may seem to modern eyes fond of the underlying color and texture.

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A restored wall.

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Another stone wall rims an enclosure around devales or temples for three protective deities: Natha (taken as equivalent to Avalokiteshvara), Vishnu, and Pattini, a goddess associated with the cure of disease.  A fourth deity, Kataragam, has a shrine in the city's downtown.  Since the 18th century reign of Kirti Sri Rajasingha, these four gods have been part of Sri Lanka's syncretic blend of Buddhism and Hinduism: it was this king who brought them together by enlarging the annual procession of these gods to include the Tooth relic.  

The building rising behind the wall is the Natha Divala, a 15th century structure that is judged the oldest building in Kandy.

 

 

Sri Lanka: Kandy and the Temple of the Tooth picture 15

The same temple from the other side of the wall.  The Sinhalese fondness for tiled roofs extends to setting a tiled cap on top of domed.  It's an esthetic preference, though defensible on the purely functional grounds that such roofs resist rain damage better than domes, with their inevitable cracks and leaks.

 

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Age notwithstanding, the oldest building in Kandy has been kitted out with linoleum and fluorescent tubing. 

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Here's another temple in the compound: it's the Maha Devale, dedicated to Vishnu.

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The interior.

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Like the Natha Devale, the Maha Devale has a peaked roof of clay tiles.  The balcony is purely decorative and in fact inaccessible.

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Outside, there's a small bo-tree shrine.

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The Temple of Kataragama, a guardian deity considered the son of Shiva, is a few minutes' walk away and in the town proper.  (The temple is run by Tamils, among whom this god is called Skandha and is known as the god of war.  The name Kataragama comes from a town of that name in southeastern Sri Lanka, where there is an especially important Skandha devale.)

The temple can be distinguished from the other buildings by its sharply peaked tile roof.  To its right is the echoing peak of Hantane, a famous mountain to Kandy's south.  Its lower slopes are in tea plantations.

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A closer view of the devale entrance.

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And here's the temple seen from its courtyard, unbelievably calm compared to the street on the other side.

 

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Entrance to the shrine.

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The shrine, none too subtle.

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Closer.

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Prayers.


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