Sri Lanka - Getting to know Kandy
A sacred destination for Buddhist pilgrims since the 16th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ancient city of Kandy used to be capital of Sri Lanka, ruling the island from deep within a green valley in the central hills. The city is vibrant, full of history and culture, and worthy of exploration before you head off into Tea Country or the Cultural Triangle.
Established around 1357 CE, Kandy was the capital of independent Sri Lanka from 1592 until the British took over during the 19th century. It has a picturesque setting, with pastures and woodland running down towards elegant buildings, which cluster around a pretty lake. The climate is attractive too, hovering around the mid-20s all year round, ideal for respite from the arid heat of the Cultural Triangle, which spreads north from Kandy. The city is lovely to simply stroll around, even when you’re not doing anything in particular.
Kandy is famed as being in possession of the Buddha’s tooth, which is housed within the impressive Temple of the Tooth Relic (or 'Sri Dalada Maligawa'). The relic, reputedly taken from Buddha’s funeral pyre, acquired potent symbolic power over the centuries, until people believed that whoever had the tooth had divine right to rule their land. It draws thousands of pilgrims each year, especially during Kandy’s lavish Esala Perahera festival, which honours the tooth in all-singing, all-dancing style during July or August each year.
What to do in Kandy
- Visit the Temple of the Tooth Relic, which has daily ceremonies, readings, and a Buddhist Museum.
- Saunter around Kandy’s Royal Botanical Gardens, styled on London’s Kew and worth at least half a day of any casual nature lover’s time.
- Go shopping at the bustling central market. Kandy also offers good antique shopping.
- Eat! Kandyian cuisine is quite distinctive, with popular local dishes like sour fish curry served alongside Sri Lankan favourites like short eats, in Kandy's numerous good cafes and small restaurants. Sweetmeats are traditionally eaten during the festivals, and are a delicious highlight in their own right. The eateries are scattered through the city centre, and offer a good opportunity to mix with the locals.
Where to stay in Kandy
Many of the hotels and residences that we recommend in Kandy are located on the steep valley sides around the city, usually little more than 5 or 10 minutes tuk-tuk drive from the city centre - always select one with a sturdy motor! Or you may prefer to stay in a plantation house on one of the region's famed tea estates.
Getting off the trail
- Much of Kandy's immediate valley-side is lush and uncongested, which is pretty good going considering this is Sri Lanka's second largest city. Its beautiful surrounding countryside offers excellent light trekking - or even just gentle meandering.
- Experience the thrills and spills of whitewater rafting on the Kelani River at Kitulgala, where Bridge Over the River Kwai was filmed. Here the Kelani is flanked by lush forest, with views of the mountains beyond. With its warm water and a 6.5 km stretch of quality class II and III rapids, it's excellent fun for beginner and experienced rafters alike. Along with running the rapids, you'll be able to enjoy a refreshing swim in calmer stretches and natural plunge pools.
- About 1.5 hours drive north of Kandy sits the atmospheric Ridi Viharaya temple, also known as the ‘Silver Temple’. The story goes that one King Dutugemunu lacked the funds to complete Ruwanwelisaya - now one of the largest stupas in Sri Lanka – until silver ore was discovered here in the 2nd century BCE. Grateful for this new found wealth, the king built a temple to mark the spot.
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Temple of the Tooth Relic
Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth, is situated inside Kandy's royal palace on the riverbank, and holds the sacred relic of Buddha's canine tooth, supposedly retrieved from his funeral pyre and venerated throughout Sri Lanka. Whoever holds the tooth has divine right to rule the land, according to the traditional belief - this single tooth has been the object of many wars.
Now, it is worshipped daily by Buddhist monks, who maintain rituals at dawn, noon and dusk.Visiting in the afternoon tends to guarantee fewer tourists, but you will usually encounter a throng of eager pilgrims pushing for a view of the relic doors, as they open. The Royal Palace is fascinating in its own right, especially if you're interested in Sri Lanka's history.
Once a year (in July or August) the Buddha’s tooth is removed from the temple and paraded through the town during the famous Esala Perahera festival. Whilst we appreciate this is an important festival, there are concerns for the welfare of the elephants that take part in the Perahera celebrations and as such we do not arrange tickets to the event. These can be booked independently online. Click here for details on our policy on elephant projects.