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Kandyan Dance at the YMBA

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Kandyan Dance, an exuberant combination of drumming, costumes and athletic dancing, is the most famous cultural product of Sri Lanka. A few places in Kandy put on a daily show, and we decided to check out the performance at the YMBA. Yep, that stands for “Young Men’s Buddhist Association” — and good luck trying to spell it out with your arms.

Crazy Dancer

We were lucky to get decent seats, because the first fifteen rows had been cordoned off for giant groups of tourists on package holidays. Okay, fine: it wasn’t exactly luck. For a small consideration, the guy selling tickets agreed to get us up front. Bribery is swell. Every chair in the small, sticky, mosquito-infested hall was filled with a white-faced European fresh off the bus. An authentic cultural experience, this wasn’t. Once the incredible show started, though, any annoyance I’d been feeling disappeared.

The style of dance particular to Kandy was actually brought to the region by Indian shamans, who used it to appease the god Kohomba and help cure a mysterious illness under which the Kandyan King had been suffering. After the king’s miraculous recovery, the style caught on, and is today considered the national dance of Sri Lanka.

We were entranced by the performance from the moment the drumming began until the climactic finale. The costumes were beautiful, the drumming skillful, and the dancing far more exciting than I’d expected. The show, which lasted about an hour, included ten different styles. Not all of them were strictly Kandyan Dance — one of my favorites, the thelme dance, came from the low countries of Sri Lanka. This involved dervish-like whirling, only much faster and more intense.

There was plate-spinning and acrobatics and ladies dressed like peacocks, but the highlight was the Ves Dance, which came towards the end of the show. The drumming built slowly in intensity and the dancers wore headgear with long tassels, which they swung about wildly.

I’m happy we decided to ignore our inner cynics and check out a show, especially since the tickets were only about $5 apiece. Well worth your time if you happen to be in Kandy.

Location of the YMDA on our Map
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February 28, 2012 at 11:46 am Comments (2)

The Four Devales of Kandy

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According to popular belief, Kandy is protected by four gods, each with its own temple in the city center. These devales are special temples dedicated to a specific god, besides Buddha. Vishnu, Kataragama, Pattini and Natha. On one busy afternoon, we visited all of them. Yeah, we got that temple fever.

Vishnu Devale
Vishnu Temple Kandy

Vishnu is one of the supreme gods of Hinduism, surpassed in importance only by Brahma and perhaps Shiva. So what’s he doing in a Buddhist temple? Turns out that Sri Lankan Buddhism borrows frequently from Hinduism, because of the country’s closely-intertwined history with India. According to local lore, Vishnu is the god whom Buddha charged with guardianship of Sri Lanka. Probably not exactly what Hindus believe.

Vishnu’s devale in Kandy is just to the north of the Temple of the Tooth. Its most striking features are a large dancing pavilion (or digge) and a long set of stone steps which lead to the main shrine. Given its proximity to the Temple of the Tooth, this was a surprisingly serene and quiet place. The few worshipers present were sitting in the digge, quietly reading prayer books. We liked it.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

Kataragama Devale
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Kataragama is another god worshiped by both religions, and his temple in Kandy is definitely more Hindu than Buddhist in appearance. He’s one of the more popular deities in Sri Lanka, for the rather shallow reason that he grants wishes.

Hey, I’ve got a wish for you, Kataragama. I wish you’d force your little acolytes to stop hounding me for money! From the moment we stepped inside this devale, we were beset by schemers, offering to lead us on tours (for cash), asking to have their photos taken (for cash), and trying to tie wristbands on us (for cash). While I was checking out the temple’s Bo Tree, it magically spoke to me, asking me where I was from! I shouldn’t have been surprised when a sneaking orange-robed monk popped out from behind the tree with a beatific smile on his face. I lost all enthusiasm, knowing what was coming. “You like make donation?” Sigh.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

Pattini Devale

One of the most popular temples in Kandy is dedicated to the Indian goddess Pattini. A normal girl of humble origins, she was made a goddess after showing unwavering fealty to her no-good, cheating husband. When he was falsely accused of robbery, she protested his execution by tearing off her own breast and burning a city down with her pure, fiery rage. Today, she’s visited by pregnant women and those hoping to ward off disease.

Her devale in Kandy is found in the Temple of the Tooth, and is almost always crowded. We happened to visit during a ceremony and, maneuvering around a rooster, stepped inside. A priest at the front of the shrine was shaking a golden bracelet, while on the side, another guy was chanting like a drunk auctioneer. The place was packed full, and it was a cool experience.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

Natha Devale
Oldest Temple in Kandy

Natha is the only purely Buddhist god of the four protectors of Kandy, and his temple is the oldest structure in the city, dating from sometime in the 14th century. Sri Lanka’s Natha corresponds to Avalokitesvara, who is an enlightened being that encompasses all the compassion in the world. Sounds like a nice fella, this Natha.

The Natha temple is one of the most important in Kandy, only eclipsed by the Temple of the Tooth. Because of the god’s importance, new Kings of Kandy were obligated to appear here to claim a name, before ascending to the throne. The main shrine is evidently ancient, and beautiful from the outside, though its interior is a bit of a let-down.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

More Pics from Vishnu Devale
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More Pics from Kataragama Devale
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Peacock Temple
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February 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm Comments (2)

The Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya

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I was a little agitated by the $10 entry fee for the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, but it didn’t take me long after entering to realize that it was money well-spent. Peradeniya’s are the most fantastic botanic gardens I’ve ever seen. Trees the size of sky-scrapers, flower bushes exploding in incredible color, giant palm trees that bloom just once in 45 years, and cannon ball trees with heavy round fruits were just some of the highlights. I’ve never been so bowled over by botany.

Botanical-Gardens-of-Peradeniya

The origins of this 150-acre park stretch back to 1371 when King Wickramabahu III established a residence here, and remained part of the royal grounds until the end of Kandyan independence. But although the British destroyed the palace, they also protected the area by designating it an official botanic garden.

We spent a happy couple hours exploring the park. Alone, the famous orchid house was worth a half-hour. Over 500 varieties of the fragile flower are nurtured here. Outside, we passed under trees with bending branches supporting fruit bats the size of Smart Cars. After venturing onto a wobbly suspension bridge extending over the river which borders the garden, a long avenue lined with royal palms led us to The Great Lawn, whose lone, lonely resident is a beautiful Java Fig Tree.

I’ll stop prattling on in the hopeless attempt to describe the garden’s beauty with words, and let our pictures do the talking. Suffice to say, if you’re anywhere near Kandy during your trip to Sri Lanka, plan in a stop at the Peradeniya Royal Botanic Garden.

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February 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm Comments (8)

The Train from Colombo to Kandy

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The slow-moving, three-hour journey from Colombo to Kandy is one of the most spectacular train rides we’ve ever taken. The track leaves the smoggy metropolis quickly behind, and travels inland through regions of increasing beauty and altitude, until arriving at Sri Lanka’s hilltop jewel, Kandy. Throughout the ride, we were captivated by the ever-changing landscape, and spent the trip poking our heads out open windows, or hanging carefree from the doors like the feckless punks we are (or, would like to be).

Kandy Express

In 1864, the British introduced rail to Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as the island was then known. Steady and reliable transport was needed to bring coffee and tea from the central highlands to the port of Colombo, and trains served the purpose nicely. Colombo-Kandy was the original line and, with the progression of decades, the network expanded. Today, you can travel with train around much of the country — the north, and south-east being the two big exceptions.

We had such a great time on the train to Kandy that we promised ourselves to utilize trains whenever possible. Second class tickets cost around 200 rupees apiece (less than $2). First class, also wonderfully cheap, was unfortunately sold out. I don’t know what kind of difference the class-upgrade would have made; our seats were plenty large and comfortable. And the unforgettable views were the same. Upon arriving, we almost felt like staying on the train, and heading straight back to Colombo.

Location of the train station on our Colombo Map
An other fun train ride we took: From Sucre to Potosi

Colombo Train
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February 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm Comments (3)
Kandyan Dance at the YMBA Kandyan Dance, an exuberant combination of drumming, costumes and athletic dancing, is the most famous cultural product of Sri Lanka. A few places in Kandy put on a daily show, and we decided to check out the performance at the YMBA. Yep, that stands for "Young Men's Buddhist Association" -- and good luck trying to spell it out with your arms.
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