In the hills of Sri Lanka, Kandy is ready for tourists
The Wall Street Journal Asia
December 4, 2009
It may be heard rising from the 67-centimeter-long Kandyan drums known as geta bera at the sacred Temple of the Tooth, or during puja (devotions) at the Embekke Temple, just outside the ancient city's center. The centuries-old percussive beats connect one of Sri Lanka's biggest cities with its proud past and are now ready to pound a tattoo into a hopeful future.
Just months after the end of Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war, tourist arrivals to the South Asian island nation are increasing, and Kandyan hoteliers and merchants are hoping to share in the wealth. A Unesco World Heritage site and long a popular tourist destination, Kandy is a showcase of culture, history and religion set in the lush hill country, about 500 meters above sea level.
"Maybe in 2009, 2010, Sri Lanka will be busy because of the tourism," said Tuan Rizan Jamel, front-office executive of Kandy's posh Theva Residency hotel. "Everything is over. We are very happy."
Down the hill from the Theva, at the Temple of the Tooth (or Sri Dalada Maligawa), Prabo Wijetunge agreed.
"People are so relaxed," said Mr. Wijetunge, a Sri Lankan expatriate who was visiting home for the first time in three years. Mr. Wijetunge and his family were among the throngs paying homage inside the 18th-century temple on the north side of Kandy Lake.
The temple, the city's star architectural attraction, takes its name from the relic it houses: a tooth of the Buddha, kept in a stupa-shaped gold casket. Crowds of Sri Lankan devotees jostle past, carrying offerings of jasmine, lilies or lotus flowers. The tooth is also the focus of Kandy's famed perahera, or procession, held for 10 days in the month of Esala (which runs from July into August). The perahera features Kandyan dancing and drumming, and this year drew about 500,000 people on its final day more than in previous years.
The dates of next year's Esala Perahera haven't been set. But there is ample opportunity to hear Kandyan drumming and watch local dance Kandyan dancers and drummers are some of Sri Lanka's emblematic symbols at any time. At the Kandyan Art Association and Cultural Center, a quick walk from the tooth temple on the lake's northeast shore, the sound of a conch shell welcomes visitors to a show. Bare-chested men emerge in blue- and red-fringed white sarongs, with diamond-shaped headgear, beating geta bera with their hands. Women dancers pay graceful tribute to guardian deities and to their gurus. Before the evening is over, the dancers will enact the taming of a cobra and move like peacocks.
While the population is only about 112,000, Kandy is called Maha Nuwara, or Great City, by the Sinhalese. It has the feel of a town. Many of its temples, performances and shops are within walking distance of one another. But it's worth hiring a car or tuk-tuk (a motorized three-wheeler) to see, for example, the three temples on the outskirts, Embekke, Lankatilaka and Gadaladeniya. Buddhism came to Sri Lanka from India in the third century B.C., and these 14th-century structures display distinctive Buddhist statuary and paintings but also honor Hindu gods. The temples are still very much in use, with thrice-daily puja and drumming at the Embekke temple, for instance, and devout Buddhist worship at all three.
The Buddha practiced asceticism before achieving enlightenment, and famously preached that the root cause of suffering is desire. But tourists in Kandy can easily avail themselves of a steam bath or reflexology at one of the city's ayurvedic spas. And while many accommodations in town tend to be pretty basic, there are high-end alternatives. The rooms at the concrete, wood and glass Theva Residency, two kilometers from downtown, are adorned with modern Kandyan art; some are equipped with Jacuzzis. Little more than a year old, it's a world away from much of the other lodging in the area, and that seems to be the idea. Other high-end hotels include the Kandy House and the Kandy Panorama Resort.
Kandy isn't without its hassles for tourists, including persistent touts and unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers. But escape is as near as the 59-hectare Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, where a visitor can find serenity broken only by the song of one of Sri Lanka's 430-plus species of bird. "Maybe the entire climate the flora and the fauna makes people more peaceful" in Kandy, says Bridget Halpé, a longtime resident and music teacher. "There's a soothing influence about them."
Still, Kandy did not emerge from the long Sri Lankan conflict unscathed. In 1998, Tamil Tiger suicide bombers struck at the Temple of the Tooth, damaging the holy building and killing more than a dozen civilians.
But that, a Kandyan might say, was then, and the future is now. Sri Lanka is aiming to attract 2.5 million visitors by 2016. That would be more than five times the number that the country's tourism authority says came last year.
And war, in fact, is the last thing that comes to mind in Kandy, where the best thing to do may actually be nothing at all. Just close your eyes. Count your breaths. And listen to the heartbeat.
The best that is, the driest time to visit Kandy is December to March.
The U.S. State Department continues to caution about uncleared land mines and the possibility of Tamil Tiger remnants in Sri Lanka, especially in the north and east. (Kandy is near the center of the island.) You can find details at travel.state.gov; click on "travel warnings."
The Sri Lankan government, more upbeat, has dubbed 2011 "Visit Sri Lanka year" (see www.srilanka.travel and, for Kandy information, www.kandycity.org).
Several Kandy-bound trains leave Colombo's Fort Station daily, with the first at 5:55 a.m. A first-class seat in the observation car of the 3:35 p.m. express (arrives 6:15 p.m.) costs 360 rupees (a bit over $3).
Higher-end options include the Theva Residency (www.theva.lk), where the penthouse is $400 a night and a suite is $275, and the eight-room Kandy House, which occupies a 200-year-old manor home (www.thekandyhouse.com). The Web site www.kandyhotels.com lists a variety of places to stay.
What to do
Catch Kandyan dance and drumming at the Kandyan Art Association and Cultural Center; tickets are about $4.50. A shop next door offers an excellent selection of local art and crafts.
Admission to the Temple of the Tooth (www.sridaladamaligawa.lk) is about $4.50, with a surchargewww.sridaladamaligawa.lk of about $1.30 for taking in a camera.
Kandy's Tea Museum (www.pureceylontea.com/ teamuseum.htm) explores the history of a key Sri Lankan product.
Travel agent and hotelier Abdul Malik (www.palmgardenkandy.com) rents cars and motorbikes and has four drivers who also act as guides.