The hill country of Kandy has always been the beating cultural heart of Sri Lanka. Although the paradise island of sun-kissed beaches and tea-carpeted hills has no dearth of ancient monuments and relics standing testament to its proud millennia-old history, Kandy holds an unrelinquished pride of place in the hearts of Sri Lankans by reason of having been both the last stronghold to stand against centuries of European invasion as well as being the home of the internationally-revered Tooth Relic.
The tale of what is considered by historians and the Buddhist public at large to be one of the last remaining relics to have originated from the body of the Buddha, is a long and fascinating one. The tooth relic was held sacred for many years after the death of the Buddha, and was protected by the royal families. However, as Buddhism gradually waned in India after the fall of the Asoka Empire, the last custodian of the sacred tooth, the King of Kalinga, asked his children to smuggle it out of the country before it could fall into the hands of invading forces. Thus, Princess Hemamali is said to have secreted the Tooth in her hair and fled to the protection of Sri Lanka, over which the teachings of Buddhism still reigned supreme. The then-ruler of the island welcomed the royal children with great honour and swore that he and his successors would take responsibility for the safeguarding of what the entire nation considered the most precious object in their possession. Thus, the possession of the Tooth Relic became intricately tied with the politics of the land, as it came to symbolize the right of sovereignty over the Sri Lankan populace – a facet of governance that is officially recognized even today.
The Tooth Relic was shifted from kingdom to kingdom as dynasties were overthrown and fortunes changed, being enshrined at various richly built palaces near to the king's residence, from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa and the successive lesser kingdoms that followed. It finally found a permanent home in the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, the capital of the last kingdom, which was built and enshrined there by the last Singhalese King Sri Veera Narendrasinghe during the 17th century.
Today, the temple teems daily with throngs of tourists, Buddhist devotees from all over the world and Sri Lankans of every faith who come to pay homage to their shared heritage. The temple itself was once the recreational palace of the Kings which was later offered as the storehouse of the Tooth Relic and also as the base of operations for the Asgiri and Malwathu monastic orders, to whom the entire Buddhist priesthood of the nation defers. Thus, the architecture of the Temple of the Tooth Relic, or the Dalada Maligawa, is a curious combination of the conventional simplicity of a Kandyan temple and the rich and elaborate décor favoured by nobility.
The temple premises are surrounded by a moat and are situated in the middle of a lake. Its exterior of gleaming white walls and octagonal red-tiled roofs do not present an imposing picture, albeit a very serene one. The low-lying white wall which runs around the perimeter of the palace is adorned with life-like tuskered elephant images and at the entrance is found an elaborate moonstone which bears the classic hallmarks of Kandyan-era artwork.
Inside, however, one is inundated by elaborate frescoes depicting both the life and former incarnations of the Buddha as well as graphic renderings of the torments of hell. The heavy wooden doors are inlaid with precious metals, ivory and lacquer and an assortment of priceless statues and gifts from foreign dignitaries, dating from centuries gone to the present-day, are all housed within the museum inside the former royal residences.
The relic itself is never exposed to the public, but rests within six jewelled caskets that are in turn seated upon a throne atop a lotus crafted from solid gold. This is enthroned in the innermost chambers, guarded by imposing stone tuskers flanking the entrance. This casket is never taken out for public display except at the annual Esela procession, which falls somewhere between July and August.
This procession is perhaps the grandest and proudest institution of the country, and indubitably one of the world's largest Buddhist celebrations. Over a million people throng the streets of Kandy to witness this wondrous spectacle, where a lengthy company of whip-crackers, dancers, acrobats, fire-breathers, torch-bearers, standard-carriers and over a hundred richly-garbed elephants takes to the streets in a dazzling pageant unrivalled by any other in the land. The golden casket which holds the sacred Tooth is enthroned upon the largest caparisoned elephant, who follows at the very end of the royal procession, projecting all the dignity and majesty expected of the beloved beast which plays a major role in both Buddhist and Hindu ideology.
To best view the serene beauty and pageantry of this UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site, visitors are recommended to stay at a quality hotel in Kandy. The Jetwing Hunas Falls is a well-reputed Sri Lanka honeymoon hotel ideal for discerning travellers expecting a high standard of service and accommodation.