Kandy, the political capital of Sri Lanka from the 16th to the 19th century and the religious capital of Sinhalese Buddhism, is built on a number of wooded hills encircled by the river Mahaweli.
Kandy is not the Sinhalese name of the town. It has been known from time immemorial as Maha Nuwara, the Great City, and this is the name given on the signposts at the entrance to the town. It was originally a royal city, in which a king of Gampola (21 km away) built a palace and a number of temples, including the present Natha Devale, dedicated to the Lord (Natha), the tutelary divinity of the town.
About 1542, during the troubled period following the Portuguese invasion, Vikrama Vira, the local governor, proclaimed himself Kande Rajah, or King of the Mountain, and set up as a rival to the kings of Kotte and Sitawake. The Portuguese erroneously interpreted his title as meaning king of Kande, and gave this name to Maha Nuwara.
Vikrama Vira sought Portuguese support to enforce his claims, which were strongly disputed by the king of Sitawake, an irreconcilable enemy of the invaders. Franciscan missionaries and Portuguese technicians were then able to establish themselves in Kande; but after some decades the ill-considered zeal of the priests and the brutality of the Portuguese residents turned the population against them. At the same time Rajah Sinha I, who had occupied the town, began to persecute the Buddhists. Finally, in the Great Revolution of 1590, both the Portuguese and Rajah Sinha's forces were driven out.
There was now a strong Buddhist and nationalist reaction in Kandy. A new dynasty was founded in 1592 by Wimala Dharma Suriya, who declared himself the defender of the Dharma (Law). For the next two centuries Kandy was to remain the centre of resistance to all colonial enterprises. The town was captured and pillaged several times, but on each occasion the victors, whether Portuguese or Dutch, entered a dead city: the king and the whole population abandoned the town and took to the forest, and the invaders were forced to withdraw, harried by the Sinhalese, who lay in wait for them along the forest tracks. The town was sacked for the last time in 1765, in the Salt War during the harsh governorship of Van Eck.