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Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city and cultural capital, is the home of the Temple of Lord Buddha’s Tooth and the site of the island’s most impressive annual festival. Protected for centuries by its mountains and forests, as well as by a fierce desire to retain its independence, Kandy was the last bastion of Buddhist political power against colonial forces and today stands as one of the most important symbols of Sinhalese national identity.
Kandy is also the gateway to the higher hills and tea plantations. The clarity of the air and the city’s verdant, hilly outlook around the sacred lake make it a pleasant escape from the heat of the coast and a good base from which to explore the surrounding countryside, which is dotted with a number of important temples and contains the magnificent botanical gardens at Peradeniya.
Its architectural monuments date mainly from a surge of grandiose building by King Vikrama Rajasinha in the early 19th century. More interested in palaces and parks than temples, he set about demonstrating his kingly power with massive building works, including the construction of the artificial lake, with a pleasure house in the middle, connected by drawbridge to the palace. The king’s edifices were so opulent and achieved at such a great cost to the people of Kandy that, in the end, his nobles betrayed him to the British rather than continue enduring his excesses. The final fall of Kandy to the British in 1815 signalled the end of independence for the whole island.
The area with the Temple of the Tooth and associated buildings is a World Heritage Site. The Tooth of Buddha was brought to the city in 1542 and a temple was built to house it next to the palace. Most of the present buildings were constructed in the early 19th century; the oldest part is the inner shrine which dates from 1765. The relic is not on view but is kept inside several caskets that are displayed to worshipping pilgrims who make offerings of flowers amidst clouds of incense and the beating of drums.
The temple is the focus for the Esala Perahera festival, held in the lunar month of Esala in which the Buddha was conceived and in which he left his father’s home. The festival is a magnificent 10-day spectacle of elephants, drummers, dancers, chieftains, acrobats, whip-crackers, torch bearers and tens of thousands of pilgrims in procession.