The Royal land | Sunday Observer

The Royal land

2 August, 2020
The man-made Kandy Lake and niched parapets
The man-made Kandy Lake and niched parapets

To the Buddhists of Sri Lanka and the world over, Kandy is the home of the Temple of the Tooth. The octagonal-shaped Dalada Maligawa, is a national palladium as it houses the Tooth Relic of the Buddha, an object of veneration to Buddhists all over the world.

For over seven years, as a photographer, I had ventured into the city of Kandy just before the day of the final Randoli Perahera. Annually, during a ten-day period in July or August, the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha is venerated with a number of great processions. It is here that a relic of the Buddha is worshiped in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

Unlike in the past, this year the Kandy Esala Perahera is not open to the public due to health restrictions to prevent the spread of the Covid -19 pandemic which has kept many cultural events in the country at bay. However, the Diyawadana Nilame, the chief lay custodian of the Dalada Maligawa has ensured to bring the spectacular pageant to the viewers through the digital format.

Image of the elephant

In July 2007, I made my first trip to Kandy to document this great shrine. That first journey was followed by five more trips in the succeeding 13 years. During that time, I photographed, researched, and wrote about this historic cultural ceremony and documented the architectural marvels of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

In Sri Lanka it is impossible to imagine life without the elephant. It is so intrinsically bound to the work and worship of the island nation that the image of the elephant is everywhere and nowhere more so than in the pageantry of the Kandy perahera.

Wherever I walked in the sacred site, I found images of the elephant. A painted human elephant graced the ceiling of the Hevisi Mandapaya at the Temple of the Tooth which are magnificent creations exhibiting the aesthetic sensibility of the ancient Kandyan craftsmen. At the main entrance, on both sides, the sculptured figure of an elephant welcomes the pilgrims, replaced by the old sculpture that was destroyed in the 1989 terrorist bomb blast. Many remnants of the beautifully sculptured stone carvings of the temple are displayed in the backyard of the Maligawa.

The Dalada Maligawa or the ‘Temple of the Tooth’ is one of the most striking features in the city of Kandy. This temple is the repository of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha. The original temple was built in 1592, and was subsequently built and rebuilt by a succession of kings. The Pattirippuwa, the octagonal addition and the moat was built by King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha, the last King of the Kandyan Kingdom. This provided a place from which he could address his subjects on important occasions. The British, for a short time, converted the Pattirippuwa into a prison.

Kandyan art

The painted ceiling with Kandyan art, wood carvings and silver and ivory doors are the architectural highlights of this building. The two-storey temple has carved timber column beams and rafters, and the roof is covered with cool clay tiles and ‘bo tree leaf’ eaves. The beeralu balustrade on the ground floor, with its off-white walls and hanging foliage pots, comes alive twice a day to the beating of the temple drums. The Magul Maduwa, or Audience Hall, a striking example of the timber architecture of the Kandyan period, was a conference hall of the Kandyan chiefs who ceded Kandy to the British in 1815.

When the legendary tusker Raja died in 1988, at the age of 84, it was a veritable national drama. Raja had paraded the procession with the karaduwa for decades. Today, its remains are somewhat of a curiosity for those who visit a small museum attached to the Temple of the Tooth.

Situated opposite the Maligawa, the Natha devale is considered the oldest devala shrine. It is distinguished by a raised platform made of dressed stone. There are three beautifully decorated entrances to the devale. This stone-built edifice has been modelled on the famous Gadaladeniya vihara of Udunuwara.

The building to the north of the Dalada Maligawa, long and rectangular in shape is called the Mahawasala. This title for the King’s palace dates back to the Polonnaruwa period from the time of Parakramabahu I. The royal palace in Kandy was constructed by Wimaladharmasuriya I. The original palace had been altered subsequently.

The placid Kandy Lake is a highlight of the city. This lake was constructed by the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasingha. He called it Kiri Muhuda or ‘Milky Sea,’ and it is said that the commoners were against this project, for the King used enforced, free labour to construct it. They also did not see much use in a lake that did not irrigate the paddy fields, but the King delighted in feeding boiled rice to the multitude of fish that resided there. On the island in the middle of the lake, the King built a pleasure house, Kreeda Salawa, where some say he kept his harem.

After Kandy surrendered, the British were known to stroll the promenade around Kandy Lake with parasol. It was the British who built the wall around the lake, which is known as Diyareli Bemma or the ‘wave swell’ wall.

Colonial architecture is still very much evident in Kandy. The Queen’s Hotel and some others exemplify some of the British influence here. Yet, the Sinhalese withstood these influences and preserved their unique culture, and the Kandyans in their own style and flair produced a great civilisation that is still very much alive.