Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka


Sri Dalada Maligawa

Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri LankaTemple of the Sacred Tooth is the holiest Buddhist site in Sri Lanka. The temple is located within the old Palace complex. When we visited, we needed to go through a rigorous security checkpoint due to the bombing by the Tamil Tigers on January 25, 1998. Once again we were also treated to a guide who took us through the complex, explaining the rooms, history, customs and best place to stand to get a picture of the tooth casket as the door was opened briefly to allow devotees to see the casket.


The belief since ancient times that the protector of the tooth also holds the right to govern the country has made for some colorful history involving kings, wars, and a exciting tale of how the last king of India, Guhasiva, employed his daughter, Hemamala, to secretly transport the tooth to Sri Lanka in her hair. She was accompanied by her husband, Danta, both dressed as pilgrims on a long adventurous voyage filled with miraculous events attributed to the tooth, bringing them safely to Sri Lankan capital Anuradhapura. The tooth eventually made it to its present location in the mid 16th century after being transported between kings and protected by monks. If you are interested in reading the story in more detail, visit this link on Wikipedia.

When we arrived, our driver introduced us to our guide at the far end of the sidewalk leading to the palace complex. We passed several statues, one of them being a large statue of Hemamala and Danta as we walked to the building. After being searched, and leaving our shoes and shopping bags, we entered the complex. Our guide took us through the main hall where drummers were playing under overhanging tusks, then upstairs into the sanctuary where the tooth is kept.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy, Sri LankaWhen we got there we wanted only to experience being there with no talking. This was not to be! We stood in line with dozens of Sri Lankans waiting to walk past the door when the monk opened it revealing the outermost gem encrusted gold casket containing the tooth. We waited about a half hour, all the while watching people make offerings of fragrant flowers, including tuberose and frangipani along a long table directly opposite the door and gated area. 



Women with babies were let into the gated area, about 8 foot square, enclosed by elegantly carved timber railings. It’s important for mothers to bring their babies to the temple of the tooth before they are a year and a half old to be presented to the Buddha.





After this we toured the library housing a very old Buddhist manuscript, and finally a large main worship hall which was recently constructed. The walls were lined with numbered paintings telling the story of the movement of the tooth leading up to its current home.

All in all this was a wonderfully blessed and memorable visit.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka






Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

Sigiriya Lion Rock rises 360 meters above sea level. While it is not a Buddhist pilgrimage site, it is very important historically and archaeologically and is one of the UNESCO Cultural Triangle sites. As described later in this post, it was also home during separate periods of hundreds of years to Buddhist monastic orders.

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

The Winter Palace at the very top rises another 200 meters from the water gardens at the base of the rock. As usual, when we arrived, Aslam introduced us to another excellent guide, who’s name was Ruwa.

Ruwa explained in picturesque language how the first king of Sigiriya came to built his kingdom here in 477 AD. His name was Kasyapa I. Being the illegitimate son of King Dhatusena I (459-477 AD) by a non-royal consort, Dhatusena had no plans to make him heir to the throne or any kingdom, for that matter. According to Ruwa, one day his father brought Prince Kasyapa to a pool on the palace grounds to tell him what was coming to him. He took a handful of water and threw it up into the air and said, “This is what is yours.” Kasyapa killed him on the spot and fled to Sigiriya to build his kingdom.

In truth, Dhatusena was a despicable character and had many enemies, so Kasyapa had help in dispatching him. His brother, Mugalan, however, who had a legitimate claim to the throne fled to India at the time but eventually came and battled Kasyapa, who committed suicide when it was clear he had lost an important battle. He was the only king who ever ruled Sigiriya.

Sigiriya is one of Asia’s major archaeological sites, with a history extending from prehistoric times to the 18th century. We walked through urban ruins, including architecture, gardens, art, and hydraulic technology dating back to the 5th century AD when Kasyapa arrived.

Historically, Sigiriya goes back much farther in time, to the 3rd century BC when a Buddhist monastic settlement was established in the area, evidenced by 30 rock shelters dated by inscriptions on the rock face, recording the granting of these caves by the crown to the Buddhist monastic order to be used as residences. Then again, for hundreds of years after the Kasyapan empire ended, Buddhist monastics again settled into the area until about the 13th or 14th century.

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

The climb to the top is 1202 steps. Because the steps are broken up into short terraces, it didn’t feel nearly as difficult as either one of us had feared. Halfway up are another set of stairs leading to the Aspara paintings. Originally there were 500 paintings but in 1967 a vandal destroyed all but about 50 of them. Since then security has been very tight.

Aspara Cave Paintings


H.C.P. Bell, the British archaeologist who studied the paintings from 1894 onwards, describes them as portrayals of the ladies of Kasyapa’s court. Senerath Paranavitana suggested that they represent Lightning Princesses and Cloud Damsels in an attempt to identify Sigiriya as a representation of divine kingship, an interesting theory considering Kasyapa’s history. The third hypothesis belongs to Ananda Coomaraswamy, who identifies the women as asparas or celestial nymphs.

Mirror Wall

Just below these is the Mirror Wall, full of very ancient graffiti. Some of it is so old that the language is no longer decipherable and has no relationship to modern day Sinhalese. The aspara paintings brought pilgrims from all over the world, many of whom left messages and poems to the ladies on this wall. One example cited in The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, published in 1993, is this touching ditty,

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka mirror wall




“I am Lord Sangapala
I wrote this song
We spoke
But they did not answer
Those ladies of the Mountain
They did not give us
The twitch of an eye-lid”

Lion’s Paw & Winter Palace

The climb from the Lion’s Paw to the Winter Palace at the top was a difficult, although energizing, climb along very narrow metal stairs with railings attached to the side of the rock. Guessing, I’d say it was about 200-300 steps with no break.

Sigiriya Lion Rock, Sri Lanka

The top was spectacular for the views it afforded, where you can see Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura off in the distances. The palace was terraced with the very top housing the main hall going down to the pool, then the kitchens and finally the dance hall at the very bottom.

A Tour of Sri Lanka Buddhist Sites

A Tour of Sri Lanka Buddhist Sites

We visited Sri Lanka in November, 2007. Sri Lanka has been a Buddhist country for the past 2000 years, 2nd only to India. Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Indian Buddhist Emporer Asoka’s pen-pal, King Tissa of Anuradhapura. 236 years after the death of the Buddha.

Sri Lanka, a stunningly picturesque island nation, boasts having the oldest written history in the world and this is derived from a Buddhist canon and historical epic Mahavamsa begun during the reign of King Tissa. It was continuously updated up until about 1959, a feat of cooperation through the ages that feels amazing to even contemplate.

We hired a driver for the entire ten days we were there through a company called Boutique Sri Lanka. Our driver’s name was Aslam and we would recommend him in a heartbeat. He was not only a wonderful driver, always hooking us up with the best tour guides at each site we visited, but he was also just a dear, honest young man making a living as best he can in a country currently torn apart by war and a non-supportive conservative government. It seems they often go hand in hand.

We chose to do a tour of The Cultural Triangle, a 6 site project created by UNESCO in 1978 to preserve the ancient ruins and cultural history in Sri Lanka. The Cultural Triangle is bounded by Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. The other three sites are Dambulla, Jetavana and Sigiriya. We visited all except Anuradhapura, due to the ongoing conflict in the north, and Jetavana. One day we plan to return.

I have written (and am currently in the process of completing) four posts on the Buddhist sites we visited. I have provided links to each post here.

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

In 1978, UNESCO approved a project to safeguard the centuries of cultural achievements of six exceptional sites in Sri Lanka. They called the sites, bounded by Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Kandy, the Cultural Triangle.

When South Indian invaders sacked the early capital of Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the second medieval capital of Sri Lanka, from the 11th century to the end of the early part of the 13th century. The early history of Polonnaruwa, before it became the capital, is a story of reservoirs.

Being located in the dry zone, water was a much needed commodity and no city could ever be built without it. Once the reservoirs were built in the 4th century AD, agriculture took hold and Polonnaruwa became a flourishing city. From around the 7th century the royalty from the then capital Anuradhapura built their residences here on this thriving ancient highway.

On our second day in Sri Lanka, we visited the ruins of Polonnaruwa. When we arrived, our driver, Aslam, introduced us to our hand-picked guide, Nihal, a young man extremely knowledgeable about the ancient cities.

He took us through the museum first, especially explaining about the different buildings that existed and why shown by models. The wood structure has completely burned up, lost in the 13th century after the South Indians invaded during a time of weak kingship. In a period of 50 or so years prior to this there were 20 kings.

Once we were finished getting an education in the museum, we spent about 2 hours walking through the ruins, in astonishingly good shape considering their age. Visit Wikepedia for a more complete chronology and history of Polonnaruwa..

According to the UNESCO publication, The Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, published in 1993,

The Buddhist monasteries of Polonnaruva provide the best surviving examples of image shrines, stupas, chapter houses, hospitals and ponds. Three colossal brick-build shrinds: the Thuparama, Lankatilaka and Tivamkapatimaghara, throw much light on teh vaulted viharas (gedige) type described in commentaries from the thirteenth century.

Tooth Relic Shrine of Nissankammala, 12th century

This is a picture of the at least 10 foot standing Buddha off in the distance on the first floor. The Tooth Relic was enshrined on the second floor.

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka


Vatadage or Circular Stupa House, 12th century

The conical timber roof was lost to fire in the 13th century, but the stone and brick remain giving testament to the lives of the people who lived and worshipped in this ancient city.

Lankatilaka Image House, 12th century

Originally brick vaulted with stucco exterior. Pilgrims walked up one side of the shrine’s wall (on a narrow staircase (shown on the left), and down the other wall on an even narrower stairway (shown on the right) so they never had their back to the Buddha.



Krivehera or Milk Stupa, 12th century

While the paintings have long since vanished on this stupa, much of the plaster they were painted on remains, which is a feat unto itself.

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka


Gal Vihara

This is the “Northern Monastery” founded by one of the great kings, Pakramabahu I and is the most celebrated site at Polonnaruwa. Scanning this colossal trio from left to right we have the sitting Buddha, the standing Buddha and the reclining Buddha. The hands crossed on the chest of the standing Buddha are mired in a bit of controversy, but my UNESCO book says that this “probably” represents the second week after Enlightenment.

Dambulla Cave Temples, Sri Lanka

Dambulla Cave Temples, Sri Lanka

We arrived at the Dambulla Cave Temples in the late afternoon. Our driver, Aslam, introduced us to our guide, a middle aged wiry Sri Lankan, who we quickly learned possessed a passionate wealth of knowledge about Buddhism and the Cave Temples.

I had my camera and tripod because I wanted to get good pictures of the amazing Buddhist artwork in the caves. I had no idea we were also going to learn so much from our guide. He was insistent, as most great teachers are, that I pay full attention to him before shooting photographs. I was happy to oblige.

Dambulla Cave Temples is one of the largest cave temple complexes in SE Asia. It is also well visited as a pilgrimage site. In one cave our guide asked, “why do you think there are so many Buddhas side by side lining the walls of this cave?” Being the clueless, non-Buddhist Westerner that I am, I wondered the same thing! It’s very simple. This is so that there are plenty of Buddhas for the pilgrims to pray to. While it was nice to be there when it wasn’t very crowded, being witness to hundreds of pilgrims would have been an amazing experience.

Our guide spoke emphatically of Buddhism being a philosophy rather than a religion with the most important message being the teaching of meditation or “no mind.” Everywhere in the caves are Buddha images in meditation. I felt at peace just being in the presence of such quiet meditative wisdom (or non-wisdom). Not only that, but the artistry on the walls and ceilings of the caves was captivating. All of my senses were alive with the wonder of it all.

Background and History

The cave temples, otherwise known as the Golden Mountain Temple, are located in central Sri Lanka. According to UNESCO, around the 3rd century BC, this area became the location for the largest Buddhist monastic settlements on the island of Sri Lanka.

There are 5 caves with the Maharaja Vihara being the oldest and most architecturally significant. A vihara was an early Sanskrit word for Buddhist dwelling, which took on greater meaning as time went on. Caves 1, 2 and 4 where built in the 1st century BC. The 3rd cave was built during the reign of Kirti Srirajasimha, the King of Kandy, in the 18th century and the 5th is the newest, repainted in 1915.

Nirvana and parinirvana were major elements in each cave temple, as I’ll demonstrate in pictures that follow. The following attributes of parinirvana were explained by our guide. The picture on the left illustrates the feet of the Buddha in parinirvana. The feet are are exactly one above the other in the nirvana pose. The picture on the right shows the flame above the Buddha’s head in nirvana. This is missing in parinirvana.

Characteristics of Parinirvana

  • Eyes are half closed vs. open
  • No flame above the head
  • Open palm
  • Empty (flat) stomach
  • Feet slightly apart

Cave 4: Photography was banned for a time in recent history because a tourist sat on a Buddha statue to have her picture taken. You can see in this picture that this Buddha is more brightly painted than any other in this room. If you visit these sites, you must be respectful.The rule in the cave temples is that while you can take photos of the Buddhas, you cannot take photos of people. This prevents people from taking disrespectful photos of themselves or others with the Buddhas.

The Dambulla Cave temples are a magnificent artistic tribute to the Kandyan artists of the late 18th century, who brought the walls to vibrant life, especially in Maharaja Vihara or Cave 2, the largest of the cave temples. However, some of the surviving art goes back much earlier and has survived amazingly well.