Sri Dalada Maligawa – or The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – as it is more commonly known is situated in the northern hill country of Sri Lanka, in Kandy. With only two weeks to see as much of the country as possible, I’d only allocated twenty-four hours in the cultural hub so had to be picky about what we visited, saw and ate! But this temple was a must, with its’ stunning location on the man-made lake that dominates the city. The temple is within the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy; the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings before falling to successive Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule from 1600’s onwards. The structure you see today was built by Vira Narendra Sinha with later additions by Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, as well as extensive reconstruction following the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) bombing in 1998 during the country’s civil war. Historically it was believed that whoever housed the tooth relic (tooth of Buddha) held governance of the country, and today the temple continues to be venerated by local and international Buddhists, politicians, and tourists alike. Everyone is invited to remove their shoes before entering the sacred land, you then cross a moat littered with locals selling lotus flowers and other offerings, and enter via an archway flanked by elephant sculptures and decorated with vivid red, blue and yellow murals. An elaborately carved two-floor structure of wood and ivory bedecked with gem-stones, elephant tusks and traditional paintwork, topped with a gold canopy enshrining the tooth is breath taking. We were also fortunate enough to visit early and catch the morning Tevava ceremony with Puja drummers and pipes accompanying the ritual offerings to the tooth. The grounds add to the experience and are filled with the smell of incense, burning ghee lamps, jasmine and lotus flower – and a slightly tired but informative museum on the upper floors of an adjoining building helps give context to the significance of this temple.
In the heart of the bustling city lies Wat Phra Kaew – the temple of the Emerald Buddha – and the Grand Palace complex. Cited as the most sensational and significant Buddhist temple in Thailand, a throng of international tourists swarm the site from the moment it opens until its 4pm close each day. Once you have literally fought your way past coach loads of tour groups, a sea of parasols protecting the fair skinned from the heat, and the army of aggressive selfie takers (by now synonymous with the big attractions of Bangkok!) – it is truly breath taking. The complex dates to 1782 when King Rama I ascended the throne as founder of the Chakri Dynasty and remained the royal home until 1925. It is not a single structure, but a vast site spanning 218,400 square metres and houses palatial buildings as well as administrative offices including the country’s war ministry, state departments, and mint. A strict modest dress code is enforced throughout the site, with additional measures such as the removal of shoes to enter certain buildings such as the Royal Chapel or ‘Ubosoth’ of the Emerald Buddha which is stunningly carved from a single piece of jade. Enormous gold domes, tiled stupas, intricately carved columns, mythical gold leaf figures, animal and anthropomorphic statues, phenomenal use of precious stones and rich mural paintings all vie for your attention, and a beautiful hand carved stone miniature of the complex helps orientate you. The site also contains a small museum displaying original architectural elements, Buddha statues, Chinese figurines, a mother of pearl seating platform dating to King Rama I, and even elephant bones. Inevitably a site of this date and magnitude will have undergone numerous renovations and repairs, however viewing so much original material in the museum did leave me questioning how authentic the buildings are today.
If you can cope with 34 degree heat, wearing multiple layers of clothing to ensure you are not exposing any skin as a mark of respect in such temperatures, and handle hordes of eager tourists clambering over a UNESCO World Heritage site in pursuit of the ultimate selfie – a visit to Wat Pho should rank highly on any Bangkok must see list. The complex stands on the site of an older temple dating to the Ayuthaya period and more specifically the reign of King Phetracha (1688 -1703), but did not exist in its current form until the time of King Rama l who ordered the renovation of the site in 1788. It underwent further development under Rama III and Rama IV in the 1800’s including extending the site and the construction of the fourth great chedi building. Today the site is most famous for housing the giant statue of the Reclining Buddha which measures a staggering 46 metres long and 15 metres high and is covered in gold leaf. The temple itself is also decorated in detailed murals and contains 108 bronze bowls (representing the 108 characters of Buddha) along the walls, and visitors can purchase a jar of coins to drop into these bowls which rings through the hall adding to the atmosphere. In addition to this giant statue, the complex is home to a further 394 Buddha images collected from various sites across Thailand which are positioned in impressive rows under various colonnades. There are also 91 stupas (or chedis); 71 containing the ashes of the royal family and 20 larger ones clustered in groups of five containing the relics of Buddha, all of which are wonderfully colourful and elaborately decorated with ceramic tiles and flowers which glisten in the sunlight, making it an extraordinary complex to explore.