Thursday, July 9, 2009

The majesty and splendour of Kandy

By Raza Elahi
As my vehicle was negotiating numerous hairpin bends and winds upward through increasingly steep hill country — where cinnamon plantations scent the breeze — I was literally on top of the world. Nestling among the misty hills in the central region of Sri Lanka, the emerald teardrop in the Indian Ocean, Kandy gives one the feeling of entering into the lap of nature.
Surrounded by cool, lush mountain scenery, Kandy is the gateway to a very different aspect of Sri Lanka.

The journey of 115km (73 miles) from Colombo takes up to three hours by rail or road. At 500m (1640ft) above sea level, Kandy — the most visited city in Sri Lanka — has a climate that comes as a pleasantly cool contrast to hot and humid Colombo. Amid lush green fields and plantations, the city stands within a loop of the Mahaweli Ganga, one of Sri Lanka's most substantial rivers, on the north shore of Kandy Lake — an artificial reservoir which was completed in 1807 during the reign of the last king of Kandy Sri Wickrama Rajasinha. With its waterfalls, caves and lush woodland sheltering unique animal, bird and butterfly species, Kandy and its surroundings are a delight for walkers and explorers.

The city is a reflection of the variety, harmony and diversity of the people and cultures that make Sri Lanka a great nation. It was once the capital of the Kandyan kingdom, the last bastion of resistance to the colonial domination of the nation. This royal city fell to the British in 1815 sealing the fate of Sri Lanka's long cherished independence. This last seat of the Sinhalese kings, who ceded power to the British in 1815 after many a battle with the western colonial forces, still retains much of the old charm and tradition of the truly Sri Lankan life style.

Among the most picturesque cities in the island, the importance of Kandy is mainly due to it being the home of the Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth - which houses the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha. Here visitors can observe the ancient traditions of drumming and sacred chanting in honour of the Tooth Relic, being performed several times each day. The city is a monastic centre of Buddhism with the two biggest monasteries - the Malwatte and Asgiriya temples located here. Around the city are several other Buddhist temples with special attractions for visitors looking for the cultural traditions of Sri Lanka. The rock temple at Degaldoruwa, has beautiful Buddhist frescoes of the 17th century, while the Lankatilleke and
Gadaladeniya temples are unique examples of the Buddhist construction in brick and stone during the same period.

Kandy is also the venue of the Esala Perahera, easily the most colourful pageant of Asia, held in July/August each year, in honour of the tooth Relic. As the pagentry of the Esala Perahera unfolds through ten nights each year, the city takes on the air of a torch-lit dreamland, complete with a hundred or more colourful caparisoned elephants, drummers, dancers, and chieftains in the rare trappings of the old kingdom. The streets are packed to capacity with spectators during the ten days of the festival. Foreign tourists do not fail to witness the annual pageant, which makes their visit to Sri Lanka a memorable one.

The numerous smaller temples that dot the Kandyan landscape are places of unusual calm and peace, where one could still discover the close link between the temple and the village, which was the mainstay of Sinhalese social organisation. The Kandyan areas are where the crafts of the Sinhalese have been kept alive. From the art of mat weaving at Dumbara, to the silver craftsmen of Nattaranpotha, and wood carvers of Embekke, the Kandyan craftsmen produce the exquisite material which makes up the most sought after souvenirs of Sri Lanka. The Kandy Market is a great bazaar full of the sounds of exciting trade and bargaining. Plenty of gem shops offer good quality gems, while the silver craftmanship is of the highest quality.

Nearby Kandy, at Peradeniya is the Royal Botanical Gardens, part of which was the pleasure garden of the last Queen of Kandy. Later, the Botanic Garden was the operational headquarters of Lord Mountbatten, who was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces of the South East Asia Command, during the Second World War. The Peradeniya Gardens is easily one of the best of its kind in the world. The many beautiful avenues will lead one to sections, which provide a burst of tropical colour. The great lawns highlight huge tropical trees, while you will be surprised at the variety of bamboo that can be found in one place. The best known attraction of the Gardens is the Orchid House, which house more than 300 varieties of exquisite orchids from the rare indigenous Foxtail and Vesak orchids, to many natural
and hybrid species which have made this one of the best known orchid centres of the world.
A visit to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage near Kegalla, 20km (12 miles) west of Kandy on the Colombo highway, where young orphaned or abandoned elephants are cared for, is a must. The herd usually numbers about 50, from tiny infants to hefty adolescents and young adults. Most have lost their parents either to poachers or road accidents, but some have simply become separated from their parental herd. The best time to visit is between 10am and 12 noon, and 2pm and 4pm, when the keepers bring their charges down to the river to bathe and play. On the road from the highway to the orphanage, look out for the scores of flying foxes (fruit bats) hanging high in the treetops beside the river or, at sunset, spreading their wings.

There are several good hotels and guest houses located in and around the city. Stand in the balcony of a room in the landmark Le Kandyan, which has the distinction of the highest point 5-star hotel, and look out to splendour of Kandy, which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the world. Because of the history, pageantry and veneration associated with this exquisite city, Kandy is rightly classed as a World Heritage City by Unesco.

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