On a flying visit to Kandy, Royston Ellis explores
Sri Lanka’s medieval hill country capital.
Most visitors to Kandy journey by tour bus, Intercity Train or taxi and only get a few hours to see the city before heading onto the next spot on their tour itinerary. In March I tried another method, by SriLankan Airlines float plane for a day trip from Bentota River to Kandy’s great Mahaweli Ganga. It took only 40 minutes flying time each way, and gave me eight hours to discover Kandy’s beguiling charm.
Kandy was founded by Vikrama Bahu who ruled this part of the country from Gampola during 1474-1511. The region formed a sub-kingdom known as Kanda-uda-pas-rata (the five ratas, or districts in the hills) or the uda rata (hill district). It became known as Kanda, soon corrupted by Europeans to Kandy.
In 1592, the sacred tooth relic (that had arrived in the island in AD331) was brought to Kandy. Its presence confirmed Kandy as the capital of the island, in spite of the Portuguese occupying the coast. In 1658, when the Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch, the kingdom was able to co-exit, albeit uneasily, with the new occupiers. The British, however, wanted the island in its entirety and conquered Kandy in 1815. Signs of the British presence can still be seen in colonial buildings.
While the Temple of the Tooth is on the itinerary of every visitor to Kandy, I wanted to pack in as much as possible during my day trip, so I went first to the Travel Information Centre in the Kandy City Centre, a new air-conditioned shopping mall in the main street, Dalada Veediya.
There a young lady with a winsome smile of welcome that seems typical of young Kandyan belles, spoke enthusiastically of all I could see in one day. She marked the sights, opening times and admission prices on a street map and, armed with this, I set off.
It was a short walk up Dalada Veediya to the embankment surrounding Kandy’s king-made lake. I declined an offer of a 20-minute boat trip around the lake for Rs2,500 and instead paid Rs1,000 entrance fee to visit the Temple of the Tooth.
On leaving the temple, I turned right then right again up the road running parallel to the temple park and was confronted by the extraordinary sight of The Prince of Wales Fountain. Rich in Rococo cherubs, some of which have lost their heads,
and floundering cast iron fish, this was erected ‘by the coffee planters of Ceylon’ to commemorate the visit to Kandy by the Prince of Wales in 1875.
No longer majestic, and no longer spouting water, it remains a tribute to the Victorian foundry man’s art.
A short walk along the Deva Veedya is another steadfast reminder of the British presence, St Paul’s Church built in 1846. Some 200m from the church is the Garrison Cemetery, containing graves of 19th century Britons, including Sir John Doyly, a pioneering British government official who learned and spoke Sinhalese fluently.
The cemetery borders the Udawattakele Royal Forest Sanctuary but since it would take a long time to walk uphill to its entrance, I took a three-wheeler. This patch of tropical rain forest surviving from when it was part of the Royal Palace complex, is delightfully lush and a contrast to the heat of the city. Admission was Rs622, and I longed to linger longer.
However, there was much more to see. The young lady at the tourist office had recommended a walk to the site of the Bahirawakanda Buddha Statue that overlooks the town. Instead I took another three-wheeler (Rs600 there and back) as the climb up narrow roads would probably have taken me the whole day. The statue exudes an air of peace and commands a magnificent view of the town, the lake and the golden dome of the Temple of the Tooth.
Another site recommended to me was the Tea Museum created in an abandoned tea factory at Hantana Estate, a three-wheeler ride up the hills and back again (Rs700). The museum is a tribute to the tea planters of Sri Lanka, the foremost of whom was Scotsman James Taylor, whose bust welcomes visitors and who planted the first field of Ceylon tea, harvested in 1867.
There are several places to eat in Kandy, ranging from pastry shops with rice-and-curry lunches to the tourist hotels and one old tavern, in King’s Street, restored to the days of its colonial glory, with a cobbled courtyard café serving snacks.
After lunch there of hill country devilled beef, I went shopping down a cobbled alley where a knife grinder practised his ancient trade with a bicycle-like machine. Below the roundabout at the end of Dalada Veediya, I was delighted to discover lots of kiosks selling saris and souvenirs underground.
Then suddenly it was time to leave. But my flying visit had left me with an indelible impression of a hospitable city of character, worthy of a longer visit.Back to Featured Articles