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The Stony Temples of Ridi Vihara and Aluvihara

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Because of shoddy roads and slow buses, distances in Sri Lanka can be deceiving. When we looked at the map and saw that Matale was just twelve miles north of Kandy, and Ridigama another eleven miles from there, we thought: easy day trip. We’d probably be back home in time for lunch. Oh, poor fools! Poor, optimistic fools!!

We left Kandy on the 7:20am train and barely made it back home in time for dinner. Almost the whole day was spent on the road, packed into stinking buses and trains full of sweaty human flesh, rumbling along at an agonizing pace through the hilly countryside. At least the drives were scenic, and the temples we got to visit were spectacular.

Jack Fruit Temple

Ridi Vihara or the “Silver Temple” was originally built in the 2nd century BC by the great Lankan King Dutugamunu, whose kingdom was enriched by a vein of silver found here. We reached the gates after a grueling 15-minute hike uphill from Ridigama, and discovered a sprawling temple complex filled with shrines, lookout points and temples. Ridi Vihara is far off the beaten track, hidden among rocky hills and palm tree forests, and the views from atop the temple’s hill are unbelievable.

We spent an hour exploring the temple’s various buildings. The small “Jackfruit Temple”, closest the entrance, was named for the fruit which a traveler shared with a local monk, before discovering the mountain’s silver deposit. Further on is the main cave temple, in which we found a massive resting Buddha, at least nine meters in length, and wall paintings over 2300 years old. Very atmospheric, especially in this remote corner of Sri Lanka virtually unseen by tourists.


On our way back into Matale, we got off the bus a couple miles early to visit Aluvihara. This temple is famous around the Buddhist world as the site where scripture was first put down in writing. Before this monumental task, which was completed in the 1st century BC by a force of 500 monks, Buddhist doctrine had been passed down orally.

We didn’t see any plaques or monuments commemorating this important achievement at Aluvihara, but we did see a lot of gore. Within the cave temples were graphic depictions of Buddhist Hell — it was the first time I’ve seen gruesome violence depicted in a Buddhist temple. Just when I thought I’d finally found a religion which celebrates life and embraces non-violence, here comes an image of some poor sinner being disemboweled by demons. Or being eaten by snakes. Or being bent over, and having a demon shove a hot poker up his butt.

The freakshow continued in another cave, which a malicious little man ushered us into. Here the simple drawings of hellacious torture were supplanted by sculptures. I had just been remarking to Jürgen that, though the paintings were lovely, what I really needed to see was a full-sized model of a man being torn apart at the groin. And, joy! Here it was!

Unless you have private transport, it’s hard to recommend Ridi Vihara and Aluvihara as a single day trip from Kandy — it was a very long journey, and we were exhausted by the time we got back home. But if you find yourself near either spot, both temples are definitely worth a detour.

Location of Ridi Vihara on our Map
Location of Aluvihara on our Map
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March 2, 2012 at 5:36 am Comments (4)

The Archaeological, National, and Elephant Museums of Kandy

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Just behind the Temple of the Tooth are a couple museums which might be worth a visit, depending on the degree to which looking at piles of old stuff turns your crank. The Archaeological Museum, hosted in the former King’s Palace, and the adjacent National Museum are stuffed to the gills with artifacts and treasures from days long gone by.

Kandy Royal Palace

We had just left the Vishnu Devale, which sits across the Temple of the Tooth’s moat. A hundred yards away, an old man was frantically waving at us. Curious and a little apprehensive, we approached him. With every step closer, the guy’s excitement level increased … at 50 yards, he started hopping up and down. At 25, he grinned and began directing us as though he were on a runway, holding glowing sticks. And when we were 10 yards away, I swear he started convulsing. As soon as we were within striking distance, he grabbed our hands and dragged us into the Archaeological Museum.

This museum is hosted in the former palace of the Kandyan Kings. Most of the palace has been destroyed, though the front door and some supporting structures remain intact. The museum displays artifacts found in and around the city, in a dusty and poorly-presented collection. If not for our guide, we wouldn’t have understood anything we were looking at — and even with him, it wasn’t all that interesting. Pots. Moonstones. Other, larger pots. Most of a statue. But, the museum was free (apart from a small tip) and we enjoyed the opportunity to step inside the former royal palace.

Sri Lanka Antigues

The nearby National Museum is far more compelling, though it costs 500 rupees to enter. Here, we found Kandyan-era weapons, like spears and bows, masks and ceremonial costumes, and a lot of information about the lives of the native people. There were ancient, but still legible, ola leaf manuscripts, as well as a copy of the 1858 Kandyan Treaty which ceded power to the Brits.

We should also mention the nearby Raja Tusker Museum, found inside the Temple of the Tooth complex. This is almost certainly the only museum I’ll ever visit which is dedicated to a single elephant. Raja Tusker was beloved by Sri Lankans and his death in 1988 sparked a period of national mourning. This bizarre museum is nothing more than a room decorated with photographs and, in the center, Raja Tusker’s enormous, taxidermied corpse.

None of these museums is essential during a trip to Kandy, but all are worth a peek if you have a few extra hours, or a deep interest in the history of the city.

Location of the Archaeological Museum
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Location of the Raja Tusker Museum
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The Raja Tusker Museum
Raja Tusker Museum
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February 29, 2012 at 6:29 am Comments (0)

A Great View at Kandy’s Hotel Casamara

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Guesthouses in Kandy

Kandy is surrounded by mountains and steep hills, so it’s no surprise that there are a number of places from which to gain commanding views over the city. The Bahirawakanda Buddha is one of the most obvious. The viewpoint on Rajapihilla Mawatha (location) offers an unbeatable perspective over the lake and the Temple of the Tooth behind it. The Slightly Chilled Lounge on Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha (location) serves up great Asian food and sports another excellent view from the east. But for us, the best lookout over the city is right downtown at the Hotel Casamara.

The Casamara doesn’t look like much from the outside but is the tallest building in its immediate vicinity and makes good use of its height with a top-floor bar. The view of Kandy is different from here, less romantic and more lively, because you’re in the middle of the city. Though the tuk-tuk-clogged chaos of the streets can be stressful when you’re down in it, it provides endless entertainment from above.

This was our favorite spot in town for a drink, and it’s largely ignored by both locals and tourists. We were almost always the only people inside. So if you’re in the mood to relax, and look down on the street life of Kandy like a haughty god, check out the Hotel Casamara.

Location on our Map
Views from Hotel Casamara

Hotel Casamara
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Another fun viewpoint, discovered while we were lost during our final days in Kandy, is at the Panorama Resort high up on a hill, on the eastern side of the city. You don’t actually have a view of the city here, but of the verdant valley to Kandy’s northeast. It’s a great place for a drink — I don’t know if I’ve ever had a more generous gin & tonic — and the view is amazing.

Location on our Map
Views from the Panorama Resport

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Panorama Resort Kandy
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February 28, 2012 at 12:33 pm Comment (1)

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

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February 22, 2012 at 12:42 pm Comments (2)

The Buddha of Gnome Mountain

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The giant white Buddha which sits atop Bahirawakanda hill is visible from all over Kandy, and a visit, whether by tuk-tuk or foot, is worth the effort for an unbeatable view. From atop Bahirawakanda, the city and its lake are laid out beautifully before you, and you’ll feel secure underneath the big Buddha’s benevolent, protecting presence. You might need the protection more than you realize. The spot on which you’re standing has an evil past…..

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Bahirawa Kanda is Sinhalese for Gnome Mountain. Centuries ago, this hill was believed to be in possession of a wicked gnome with an insatiable thirst for human flesh. According to legend, the Kings of Kandy would reluctantly provide a human sacrifice to the cruel creature once a year. The chosen was always a beautiful young virgin of noble blood, who would be taken to the top of the mountain, tied to a tree and left for the gnome to ravage at his whim.

Though the legends of Bahirawa Kanda are more fiction than fact, sacrifices do appear to have been made. Most likely, the abandoned girls would die of fright or exposure, or be torn apart by wild jackals. The last such sacrifice came during the troubled reign of Kandy’s final king, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe. According to the story, after the girl was chained and left for dead, her boyfriend stole up the mountain and freed her. They escaped to Colombo, and wouldn’t return to Kandy until after the British took over.

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February 20, 2012 at 2:00 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.


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)

Monkeyshines with the Toque Macaques

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After a morning marked by clouds and humidity, it finally started to rain yesterday afternoon. We didn’t mind much. A nice shower provides a welcome breath of fresh air here in Kandy, and we were safe under the roof of our porch. But creatures who live out in the open don’t much appreciate the rain. They’re forced to seek shelter, and our veranda seems to be an irresistible refuge. It’s monkey time!

Three brave monkeys were the first explorers. Two youngsters and an older one appeared on the railing and soon approached us, while we were sitting on the balcony chairs. The little ones were skittish, but the large male was almost too bold. These are Toque Macaques, only found in Sri Lanka, and otherwise known as the Temple Monkeys. Indeed, when we visited the Temple of the Tooth, a large number of them were hanging around, listening to the chanting. They’re cultured.

They’re also endangered. Toque Macaques have been dying out at a alarming rate due to human encroachment on their lands. Their biggest predators are dogs. According to the IUCN Redlist, their population has decreased by 50% in just three generations.

But at least in the area immediately surrounding our house, there seem to be plenty of the cute, fluffy-haired guys. Minutes after the courageous explorations of the three conquistadors, a cadre of refuge-seeking monkeys arrived in force. Now a little skittish ourselves, we brought the chairs inside, shut the doors and sat down at the window to enjoy an hour of literal monkey business. These macaques are…

Crazy Cute! – They’d wrestle with and playfully attack each other. One monkey was leaping up to the railing, until another little bastard grabbed his tail, yanked him back down to the ground, and leaped upon him with glee. The babies are super-curious, and would come to the window to stare at us, staring at them.

Kinda Gross! – I’ve never seen so much shit and piss. They seemed to delight in peeing all over our balcony. Or pooping, and then wrestling in it. Nasty freaks!

A Little Creepy! – Eventually, we had about twelve macaques on the veranda, trying to gain entrance to our house. Tapping on the windows, gnawing on the door frame. It was like a cuter version of Night of the Living Dead.

After about an hour of excrement and play, they left. And although mopping up their pigsty wasn’t the funnest task in the world, we are hopeful that they’ll return. Who knows… the next day was supposed to be rainy, too!

Other Cute Monkeys

Monkey Munch
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February 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm Comments (9)

Kandy’s International Museum of World Buddhism

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Nearby the Temple of the Tooth is the International Museum of World Buddhism. Hosted in the former High Court building, this comprehensive study of Buddhism throughout Asia only opened in May, 2011, and has rooms dedicated to sixteen nations, from China to the Maldives.

International Buddhism Museum

As soon as we entered the museum, a helpful guide attached himself to us. Our intention had been to quickly skip through the rooms and be on our way — cameras were forbidden, and Jürgen has no interest in sights he can’t photograph. Besides, we had just finished a couple hours walking around the Temple of the Tooth, and were fairly exhausted. But our guide was having none of it, and led us on a long tour through the subtle variances in Buddhism throughout the world.

What were were supposed to say? “Sorry, bud, but we’re not interested in your enthusiastic, free tour of the fascinating new museum celebrating your religion. We’d rather go sit down and drink a cold beer.” No, we affixed smiles onto our faces, put phrases like “Ah” and “Interesting” on an endless playback loop, and followed him for nearly an hour.

Regardless of our poor attitudes, the museum is really fantastic. Recreations of famous temples, from Angkor Wat to Java’s amazing Borobudur, joined gifts of relics, paintings and Buddha statues from nations like Laos and Japan. It was funny how Buddha’s facial features change to match the various ethnicities of the countries who worship him. The objects on display where almost uniformly interesting, from ancient scrolls to strange musical instruments, and despite ourselves, we really enjoyed the tour.

If you have any interest at all in Buddhism, this museum provides one highlight after another. And the guys working there are great; helpful and eager to answer any questions. Just make sure you’re fully rested and ready to learn, before stepping inside!

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

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February 15, 2012 at 2:59 pm Comment (1)

Sweet as Kandy

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Budget Stays in Kandy

Though our initial stop in Sri Lanka was Colombo, we only spent a few days there, saving the first extended stay of our 91-day itinerary for Kandy. Strategically situated high in the hill country, almost exactly in the middle of the island, Kandy was the last bastion of Sri Lankan independence during the colonial period. Today, the smallish city of just over a hundred thousand pulses with life and a heavy tourist presence, for which it can thank its unique culture, history and unbelievable natural beauty.

Clock Tower Kandy

The Kandian Kingdom resisted the Europeans for over a hundred years, thanks to its natural surroundings and crafty defenses. The capital was difficult to reach and nearly unassailable, and brave Kandians successfully repelled the Portuguese and Dutch before succumbing to the British in 1818. As we approached Kandy from Colombo, we understood how the kingdom had been able to resist for so long. This is rough terrain, protected by thick forest and a dizzying inclination.

Kandy is almost ridiculously gorgeous. The city’s centerpiece is a large artificial lake, constructed in 1808 by one of the last kings. On the lake’s northern shore, you can see the golden-roofed Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka’s most important temple, which holds a canine tooth of Buddha. The city proper extends west from the temple, along one main road and just a few periphery streets behind that.

Apart from the requisite tuk-tuks, Kandy is a world away from Colombo. Lushly green, quieter, slower and happier than the bustling capital. It seems to belong to another time. Our first evening, as we were walking back to our apartment, we fell fully into its bizarre vibe. The sun was setting, turning the sky a light purple, and the 6:30 puja had started. Swarms of white birds soared overhead while the unintelligible sounds of Buddhist chanting emanated from speakers set up along the lake. It was warm, but a cool breeze was coming off the water, and we felt blissfully out-of-sorts. This was to be our hometown for the next three weeks? We could live with that.

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February 14, 2012 at 8:31 am Comments (7)

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)
The Stony Temples of Ridi Vihara and Aluvihara Because of shoddy roads and slow buses, distances in Sri Lanka can be deceiving. When we looked at the map and saw that Matale was just twelve miles north of Kandy, and Ridigama another eleven miles from there, we thought: easy day trip. We'd probably be back home in time for lunch. Oh, poor fools! Poor, optimistic fools!
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