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’s History

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. The king of Kandy received numerous embassies from the West, and was compelled to tolerate the presence of a Dutch Resident, but was successful in maintaining his independence until the arrival of the British in 1815.

The Town

Although Kandy has few buildings of any great age, it is a picturesque and attractive town, particularly at the time of the festivals which attract large numbers of worshippers and visitors. A pleasant feature of the town is the Kiri Muhuda or Milky Sea, an artificial lake created by the last king (1803-1807), set in a circle of hills. As well as the stronghold of Ceylonese independence, Kandy is the sacred town of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Its chief religious shrine is the Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth.

The temple is reached by crossing a bridge over a moat in which sacred turtles wait hopefully to be fed by pilgrims. Visitors must leave their shoes at the entrance to the temple under the vigilant eye of an attendant.

The Tooth (the kings of Sri Lanka believed their fate depend on the sacred relic) was apparently brought to Ceylon for safety in the 4th century A.D. hidden in the hair of a Princess of Kalinga (Orissa, India) on the orders of a Buddhist king who feared attack by a Hindu neighbour. It is also said that the first Temple of the Tooth was built in the reign of Megavanna, Maha Sena’s son: these kings belonged to the Mahayana school and favoured the cult of relics which was proscribed by the pure Hinayana doctrine.

Each successive capital of Sri Lanka had its Temple of the Tooth; for each time the country was invaded the relic was carried off to safety in the south. In 1285 it was seized by the troops of a Pandya king and taken to Madurai in southern India: whereupon Parakrama Bahu III made his way to Madurai and recognised his allegiance to the victorious king in order to secure the return of the palladium of his dynasty. During the 16th century the Tooth went through a troubled period, being transferred from Kotte to Sitawake and from there to Kandy: apparently at this time each king claimed to possess the authentic Tooth.

In 1593 the Tooth was solemnly enthroned at Kandy by Wimala Dharma Suriya. During the 1817-1818 rising it was confiscated by the British authorities, but was restored to the monks of the old capital in 1850, when the pacification of the country had deprived it of any political or dynastic significance.

This supposed relic of the Buddha is kept in an innermost shrine which is reached after a tortuous passage through many corridors and staircases. It is contained in a nest of seven bell shaped shrines, gilded and set with gems, resting on a lotus flower of solid gold. The lay keepers of the temple stand guard over the precious relic night and day, and every evening a service is held at which the faithful are admitted to venerate the Tooth, to the accompaniment of singing and music. Visitors can attend these services, provided they maintain a properly courteous and respectful demeanor.

There are those who claim that the Tooth, which was examined while it was in British hands between 1818 and 1850, cannot, anatomically, be a human tooth. But whatever the truth of the matter the Tooth is now an established institution, with a recognized legal existence, possessing its own temple, its estates, its elephant stables and its staff of servants and attendants. The stricter sects of Buddhists, however, maintain an attitude of some reserve, recalling that the Buddha himself condemned the cult of relics.

The present temple dates in part from the 16th century. It was built by Wimala Dharma Suriya, destroyed by the Portuguese and later rebuilt on the original foundations. The great King Kirti Sri (1747-1780), a fervent Buddhist, had it restored and enlarged. The upturned corners of the roof point to cultural contacts with Siam, which at that period was the moving force in Ceylon’s Buddhist revival. Near the main temple is the Octagon, which contains a library of old Oriental books.

The street which runs alongside the Temple, to the east of the entrance, leads to the Kandy Museum, with numerous stone slabs, statues and carved woodwork from ancient buildings. At the far end of a rectangular open space is the Kachcheri (the term applied since Moghul times to the administrative buildings and law courts of a capital city). This was the seat of the royal government until 1815. The Audience Hall (Magul Maduwa) of the last king (Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe) is a wooden building with fine carved pillars.

Although Kandy is a great Buddhist centre it has also preserved ancient cults dating back to the early historical period dedicated to the worship of various deviyos or dewas, assimilated to Hindu divinities and interpreted as servants of the Buddha. These deviyos have been venerated at Kandy since time immemorial; and it was only after Kirti Sri’s religious reform, under the influence of Siamese monks who disapproved of these pagan cults, that they were relegated to a secondary role. In spite of this they are still very popular, being regarded as the protectors of Kandy and of Sri Lanka; and orthodox Buddhism has had to reach an accommodation with them.

The temples of these indigenous divinities are known as dewalas. The four main dewalas in Kandy, all near the Temple of the Tooth, are: the Natha Dewala, opposite the entrance to the Dalada Maligawa, the oldest temple in Kandy (14th c.); the Maha Vishnu Dewala, dedicated to the Lord of Elephants, whose processions no doubt gave rise to the Esala Perahera; the Kataragama Dewala, dedicated to the god of victory in war; and the Pattini Dewala, dedicated to a virgin water goddess.

Visitors interested in Buddhist monastic life can obtain permission to visit the Malwatte monastery, on the south side of the lake. This monastery for novices, which follows the Siamese rule, was founded by Kirti Sri to aid in the revival of Buddhism which he promoted.


Visitors will find much to interest them both in the colourful Central Market and in the government-managed Emporium, in which beaten copper articles, bronzes, wrought iron, ivories, wood-carving, lacquer-work, precious stones and other craft products can be bought at fair prices without the haggling normal elsewhere.

About 7 km away from Kandy is the Craft Village (Kalapura) in Nattaranpotha. This village was established as settlement for local craftsmen and their families. Here one can observe craftsmen as well purchased their product on site.

Surroundings of Kandy

1. North-east of the town, beyond the Dalada Maligawa, is the wooded park of Udawattekele, overlooking the lake. This is a sanctuary for large numbers of birds, covering an area of 100 hectares and traversed by roads and paths.

2. Just outside the town to the north, on the banks of the Mahaweli near an old ford, is the Katugastota Elephant Bath, where you can watch these huge creatures being bathed and brushed by their mahouts, docilely obeying their guttural words of command. For a suitable payment (which must be agreed in advance) visitors can have a ride on one of the elephants or can have the privilege of feeding them. These elephants are objects of veneration, since they are attached to the Temple of the Tooth.

3. In the suburb of Ampitiya is a Benedictine monastery, specialising in the study of Buddhism, Sanskrit, Sinhalese and methods of Oriental meditation. Nearby is the much venerated tomb of a Buddhist monk who was appointed as Sangharaja of Sri Lanka, Sri Saranankara, who was Kirti Sri’s right hand in the revival of Buddhism in the 18th century.

4. 3 km east of the town, near the river, is the Gangarama, a rock-cut temple with handsome pillars and a standing figure of the Buddha.

5. Beyond the Mahaweli, 1.5 km from the Lewella Bridge, is the Degaldoruwa, a rock temple with a porch worthy of a Romanesque church (monolithic pillars). In the dark interior (torch necessary) are 18th century paintings of episodes from the Jatakas, which also depict life in Sri Lanka before the British occupation.

6. 5 km from Kandy on the Teldeniya road a road goes off on the left to the Galmaduwa, a stone-built temple of Tamil type with vaguely Gothic windows: a curious composite style which betrays the hand of a European builder.

To see these last three temples, all built by Kirti Sri, it is advisable to ask the Tourist Office in Kandy for a guide.

Excursions from Kandy

1. Mahiyangana. 24 km from Kandy, on a hilly road, is Teldeniya, a centre of cacao-growing (introduced into Ceylon in about 1830). From here a road runs north to the foot of the Knuckles (1862 m). The road to Hunnasginiya (32 km from Kandy) follows the Hulu Ganga and then one of its tributaries. 28 km from Kandy, 300 m to the right of the road beyond the third bend after a bridge, is a Buddhist temple. Near here the last king of Kandy was captured in 1815. Hunnasgiriya is the highest point on the road, with a magnificent view.

From Hunnasgiriya a track leads to the rocky hill of Medamahanuwara (1340 m), the site of an old fortress which was Vikrama Rajah Sinha’s last refuge before his capture. The descent continues over some 30 km of winding road, with 18 sharp bends within one stretch of 7 km. Earlier travellers followed a rocky track which descended sharply for 500 m, with roughly cut steps at the steepest parts, known as the Galpadihela (the stony descent or stony ascent). At the foot, 64 km from Kandy, a rough track goes off on the left to the Ratna Ella falls (110 m high).

The old ferry at Weragantota has now been replaced by a wide modern bridge over the Mahaweli at Mahiyangana or Alutnuwara (75 km from Kandy). This historic old town at the foot of the central mountain massif, formerly known as Mahanaga (Royal Cobra), was a sacred place in pre-Buddhist times.

According to Buddhist legend the Buddha came here for a meeting with the yakshas at which he explained his teaching, nine months after his Enlightenment. Having converted the local people, he left them a lock of his hair, which was preserved in a stupa on the site occupied by the present dagaba. The modest original building was enlarged by King Datta Gamundi (107-177 B.C.). Ptolemy refers to a Maagrammon or metropolis, a term which would be easy to explain if Mahanaga were also Maha nagara, the Great City. All these indications point to the sacred character of the site, which is still a great pilgrimage centre. Until the 18th century the Mahaveli was regarded as navigable as far up as Mahiyangana, which was also known as Bintenne or the world.

Alutnuwara (the New Town). This transshipment point accordingly became known as the gateway of Kandy, and many embassies passed through Bintenne. 3.5 km from the town is the Horabora Wewa, an artificial lake formerly celebrated by the poets for the beauty of its red lotuses.

2. Hanguranketa (28 km south-east). The road runs alongside the Mahaweli for 17 km, amid cacao plantations, coconut groves and occasional fields of tobacco.

Hanguranketa, situated close to the forest in an inhospitable region of poor soil and terraced fields, was a royal capital for a short period in the 17th century, when Rajah Sinha II sought refuge here during a rebellion by the people of Kandy in 1644. Kirti Sri also found safety here during the Salt War, when Kandy was sacked (1765). The town was again sacked by British forces in 1803, and disastrously ravaged during the 1817 rising. It is not surprising, therefore, that practically nothing of historical interest survives apart from two temples a Buddhist temple with door guardians from earlier buildings, and a dewala dedicated to Vishnu, with hangings presented by Rajah Sinha II to commemorate his victories over the Portuguese, celebrated in the Parangi-hatane, the War of the Franks.

3. Royal Botanic Gardens (6 km from Kandy on the Colombo road). The Peradeniya Botanic Gardens or Royal Botanical Gardens was first established on a former royal estate a century and a half ago and carefully maintained since then. They are considered as among the finest in the world. They contain not only the whole of Sri Lanka’s flora but also tropical plants from all over the world.Among the species represented, all carefully labelled, are giant bamboos, palms of all kinds, banyans, pipals, arecas, ebony and mahogany trees, tulip-trees, nutmeg trees, frangipanes, catechus, camphor trees, breadfruit trees and cashew trees. Here too are all the various spices coveted by the early Europeans vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom and many more. Botanists, whether professional or amateur, anyone will be tempted to spend many days in the gardens. The kilometres of motor roads and paths make it easy to see the beauty of nature in a relatively short time.

A visit to the Orchid House, with its large and colourful collection, must not be omitted. Many of the trees in the gardens were planted by distinguished visitors from all over the world.

Peradeniya Palace was the headquarters of Lord Mountbatten’s South-East Asia Command during the Second World War.

4. Daulagala (11 km south-west of Kandy). At Daulagala are two Buddhist temples, the Gadaladeniya and the Lankatilleka Vihares, and the Dewala of Embeke.

The Gadaladeniya, built on a rocky hill to the north of Daulagala, is a low straggling structure which dates from the 14th century. An inscription records that it was built to the plans of a monk who had spent some time at Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh), one of the centres of Indian Buddhism. It has the usual Sinhalese decorative features (frieze of lions, dancing dwarfs, pillars of typical Ceylonese form).

The Lankatilaka or Glory of Lanka, like the Gadaladeniya, was built by one of the king of Gampola’s generals about 1340. It stands on the top of a hill of grey gneiss. Its tiled roofs, on different levels, seem alien to Ceylon: like some similar roofs in Kerala (South India), they point to a connection with Malaysia. They have the usual door guardians flanked by elephants’ heads and lions rampant.

The oldest part (14th c.) is the innermost chamber, which is surrounded by six chapels dedicated to pre-Buddhist divinities Vishnu, the goddess Pattini, the warrior God Kataragama and others. The roofs were added in the 19th century. There are 17th century wall paintings of episodes from the ascent of Pidurutalagala (2530 m).

The Dewala of Embeke, south of Daulagala, is dedicated to Kataragama. The porch and entrance hall have wooden pillars with typical Ceylonese carving in the upper part; double roof, slightly curving. The village of Embeke is occupied by craftsmen specialising in art metalwork silver, brass and bronze cast by the cire-perdue method. Typical of their work are candlesticks imitating the form of temple pillars.

5. Nuwara Eliya (77 km from Kandy, 2 hours driving). 21 km from Kandy is Gampola, capital of Ceylon for almost a century, with two temples as the only relics of its past.

From 1830 onwards the mountain of Nuwaraya Eliya (alt. 1890 m) was the hill station used by British residents of Ceylon; it now serves the same function for the wealthy citizens of Colombo: bungalows, hotels; lawns, golf courses, tennis courts; racecourse; artificial lake. The place still has a very British atmosphere.

As a result of the altitude -it is quite cold at night the vegetation is of temperate type, and European fruit and vegetables are grown. The town is situated in a small depression at the foot of three of the highest peaks in the central mountain massif. Before the British conquest it was a royal estate under the direct authority of the king of Kandy: hence its name Plain of the City (Kandy being the Great City).

Nuwara Eliya is the starting point of a number of interesting excursions: the Botanic Gardens at Hakgala (10 km). Here are wide views of rugged hills and a more distant view of the lower country. In the gardens, European plants are acclimatized. Hakgala takes its name from the hill above it, which is in the shape of a jawbone (hak); Horton Plains, at the foot of Totapola (2360 m) and Kirigalpota (2177 m).

The scenery of the surrounding region is very typical of southeastern Sri Lanka a great dark green sea of tea plantations, dotted with specks of a brighter color, the saris of the women and girls picking the tea.

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