Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Tales from Kandy

While Kandy has something of interest for every kind of traveller, it is the culture-aficionado who will be most enamoured by the historical, spiritual and cultural legacy of this city formerly known as Senkadagala.

You can't travel too far in Sri Lanka without passing a niched white parapet enclosing a Bo Tree, the Bodhi Tree as we know it, with an idol of the Buddha under it. Some are humble shrines, where a little oil lamp is the only illumination in the evenings for a modest gold-painted Buddha statue. But on some of the main streets and intersections, there are larger temples that enclose a dageba or domed reliquary, where, in the mornings, passing motorists and parents with school children in tow stop for a quick circumambulation and seeking blessings for a good day. Spirituality is a palpable part of everyday life in Sri Lanka and Kandy, with its rich cultural history is no exception.

All of Kandy, perhaps all of Sri Lanka's spiritual ethos converges around the Dalada Maligawa, also known as the Temple of the Tooth Relic.

While prayers are offered in the morning, noon, and evening, the Dalada Maligawa is a glorious sight to behold at dusk. The temple is most photographed at this time of evening, its illuminated facade glowing white in the gathering inky darkness. The grounds in front of it are sparsely wooded, and there are statues of heroes like the child Madduma Bandara who, in 1814, at the tender age of nine, showed great valour in the face of death at the hands of an executioner. 

One enters the temple through a tunnel-like passage, reminiscent of monastic cave dwellings, with vibrant frescoes on its walls depicting custodians in ceremonial attire and the casket of the Tooth Relic riding atop a temple elephant at the traditional Esala Perahera procession.

In the central courtyard of the temple, stands a shrine, and at its base, Kandyan drummers beat out traditional rhythms that reverberate through the wooden structure that houses the main sanctum on the first floor.

Just outside the sanctum, one can see the devotion that the Relic evokes. A visit to the Dalada Maligawa is a pilgrimage that devout Buddhists in Sri Lanka long to perform. Those of modest means save money over a year, a decade, a lifetime to perform this pilgrimage and, if they can afford it, continue the journey across the sea, to Bodh Gaya in India. Dressed in pilgrim-white, organised groups and multigenerational families whisper prayers as they queue up for even the briefest of glimpses of the golden casket of the Tooth Relic.

Downstairs, in an octagonal manuscript room called Pattiripuwa, an old copy of the Pansiya Panas Jathakaya is stored in a glass encased display. You’re likely to recognise it by its more familiar name - the Jataka Tales. There is also a long meditation hall where monks lead groups of pilgrims in prayer, under the watchful gaze of a larger than life Buddha and the plinking of numerous digital cameras wielded by tourists. A path runs along the periphery of the room and on the adjoining walls, are paintings that narrate the fascinating story of the sacred Tooth Relic.

The story goes that following the death of the Buddha in India, his relics were sent them out to different kingdoms as sacred symbols of worship. One arrived in Danthapura (now, Puri in Orissa, India), and was passed down over the years, with the king as custodian. Various factions vied for the Relic, some to harness the political clout that it is presumed to bestow on the person who possessed it. Some sought to destroy it, as its worship defied the religious mores of the times. The Kalinga king, Guhasiva, fearing for the Relic’s safety, is said to have enlisted the help of his daughter Hemamala and his son-in-law, Prince Dantha to smuggle the tooth to safety by hiding the Relic in Hemamala's tresses. It was finally in Sri Lanka, that the couple handed the  the custody over to the king of Anuradhapura.The Relic is said to have moved to many places subsequently, passed from king to king, until King Vimaladharmasuriya I in the late 1500s-early 1600s built a shrine for it at its present location. The shrine itself has been plundered and rebuilt subsequently. Today, while the Relic itself is kept in safe custody, the reverence it commands is transferred to the casket that held it.

Every year in July-August, Kandy comes alive at the Esala Perahera, a festival to mark the procession of the casket of the Tooth Relic. This year, the festival will be held between July 23 and August 2, 2012 where processions on different days mark specific significances and ceremonies.

The processions themselves have not changed much from the days of yore. The temple is resplendently lit in the evenings. The casket is carried by the lay custodian of the Relic, called the Diyawadana Nilame, who places it in a palanquin atop an elephant. The casket is then led in procession along the Kandy streets lined with the devout and tourists, all basking in the light of several fire-torches. The elephants wear illuminated caparisons, and graceful Kandyan dancers in ceremonial attire sway to the rhythms of the famous Kandyan drums. The dancers use props like ceremonial whisks, whips, swords, fire torches and flags that they brandish acrobatically in step with the music played by traditional pipes and cymbals. There are also dancers with kavadis adorned with peacock feathers, traditionally seen at the Thaipoosam festival worshipping the Hindu god, Muruga at Kataragama.

Viewing galleries are specially arranged along the route that the procession takes, and your hotel should be able to book prime seats for you.

The history of the Dalada Maligawa is inextricably linked to the history of Kandyan royalty. Traditionally, the king was the custodian of the Relic. The Relic was regarded as the determinant of the destiny of the kingdom and this led to many battles and conquests, and all the ingenuity of the monks and the kings over time, in safeguarding it.

It is but natural, then, that the Royal Complex sits right beside the temple. Along with the temple itself, the complex is the best example of traditional Sri Lankan architecture with its humble structures. The complex is comprised of the Royal Audience Hall, the King's Palace, the Queen's Palace, the Queen's Bath and the Queen's island on the lake. Stroll through the Kandy National Museum housed in the precincts of the Royal Complex and see how the Kandyan royalty lived. Behind the Royal Complex, lies Udawattakkele, a lush protected sanctuary right in the heart of Kandy, and home to the avifauna of the region.

The Kandyan royals were also great patrons of the arts, from painting to architecture to music to craft. The one-stop shop for all things cultural at Kandy is the Kandyan Art Association&Cultural Centre. Located near the Dalada Maligawa and the Royal Complex, the Centre conducts demonstrations and sale of handicrafts like the very unique Kandyan jewellery, batik fabric and exorcism masks at extremely Indian Rupee-friendly prices.

The Centre also organises a cultural show every evening at 5.30 p.m., where traditional Kandyan dances are performed by male and female dancers in elaborate headgear and ceremonial vests. Some dances are acrobatic, balancing spinning disks and the like, some depict folktales, and some have their roots in the exorcism rituals of yore. The evening culminates with a fire-walking demonstration, traditionally performed as part of religious ceremonies.

Once you’ve taken in the sights and sounds of cultural Kandy, sit awhile on the banks of the Kandy Lake at night, and be hypnotised by the rippled reflection of the city lights on the water. Listen to the droning of chants from the loudspeakers at the Dalada Maligawa even as the giant white Buddha on the distant Bahirawakanda sits in illuminated repose.

An edited version appeared in the July 2012 issue of Club Class

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