First impressions of Colombo are of a noisy construction site, as the modern capital busily reclaims land from the sea and erects new skyscrapers, five-star hotels and shopping centres. It seems a far cry from the tranquillity of the beaches on the south coast, the scenic hill country and tea plantations inland, and low-rise indigenous or historic Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial buildings dotted across the rest of the island. Head inland from the Fort district and coastline, and into The Pettah (bazaar) and you will find something completely different and far more seductive… the streets narrow, the humid air thickens, and there is barley room for pedestrians to squeeze through the buses, tuk-tuks, bicycles and manually pulled carts all sharing each narrow road. Following years of civil and religious unrest, it was also reassuring to see Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Muslim mosques and Christian churches all sharing these tight spaces in much the same way as the various modes of transport do. The largest thoroughfare through the district is aptly named Main Street and houses the stunningly kitsch red and white Jami ul-Aftar mosque built in 1909. A few roads on brings you to both the New Kathiresan and Old Kathiresan kovils; Hindu temples which could easily have been taken from the set of an Indian Jones film, both dedicated to the war god Skanda and pyramid shaped adorned with innumerable colourful carved sculptures all the way to the tip. Finally you reach Sri Ponnambula Vanesvara kovil – seemingly inconspicuous from the street, but once you remove your shoes and make your way around the building to the main entrance, it again renders you speechless! Whilst it lacks the lively colours of its’ neighbouring temples, instead being constructed from stone blocks and carved columns it has a quiet, regal impact. Inside, ten shrines add hints of colour via painted wooden peacocks and mythical figures, all flickering in the light of ghee lamps and cracks of sunlight.
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.
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