One of the most revered sites in Buddhism, it is said to contain one of the Buddha’s teeth.


H undreds of people, many dressed in white, stand barefoot, shoulder to shoulder, eagerly awaiting a blessing.

They are crammed into the Temple of the Tooth, a lavishly decorated 16th-century Buddhist sanctuary renowned throughout Asia and said to contain since antiquity a tooth from the Buddha himself.

Colorful murals depict the Esala Perahera, Kandy’s elaborate annual 10-day pageant that celebrates various deities and the revered tooth itself, including the story of how the tooth arrived here in 1592. The Perahera has become one of the biggest, most colorful religious pageants in Asia, which accounts for the thousands who have packed this ancient city, many of whom are desperate to get inside  the temple.

The murals, echoes of Sri Lankan culture, reveal intricate patterns on both the clothing of the worshipers and the ornate drapes decorating elephants marching in the grand parades. Even now, dozens of elephants, very much alive, stand chained around the temple, as if to protect it from invaders. Inside, the ceiling is painted a light blue, like water. In the “water” float numerous lotus flowers.

In quiet reverence, worshippers hold a lotus flower, similar to the people shown in murals deeper within. In the Buddhist faith, lotus flowers represent the act of ascending above all desires and attachments, believed to be the key to achieving spiritual enlightenment.

Inside, burning incense instantly overwhelms your senses. The ground floor houses an array of Buddha statues, many of which are gifts from other countries. There are many flights of stairs leading to a higher floor. Each floor holds large groups of people kneeling to meditate or standing in front of small shrines.

On the highest level, in the main shrine, movement is extremely limited. Two lines lead to a room where monks accept offerings. Behind them is a small opening. Through the opening loom rows of elephant tusks, arched like a gate. Beyond can be glimpsed a shiny golden case decorated with gems and pearls.

This is the home of the ancient tooth relic of the Buddha.

“Unless you are Buddhist, you cannot imagine the grounding, the calm, the serenity I feel in that temple,” Ravindu Dhanapala said. An engineer in England, he has been to the temple many times. “I teach my sons our culture. But some things can best be felt. That is why I am here, to feel what I am and where I am from,” he said.

The Sri Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, regularly draws tourists and Buddhists from around the world.

There is no admission fee for locals, but foreign tourists are asked to fork over a few bucks, and freelance guides offer their services around the sprawling temple complex for around 600 rupees (about $4). Free audio guides are available at the ticket office. An elevator is provided for travelers with disabilities. Visitors must wear clothes that cover legs and shoulders, and you must remove your shoes to enter. Even then, visitors must be careful to heed signs that warn against stepping into various areas.

Inside are four to five small shrines where Buddhists can give thanks and meditate. Some hold glass cases with ancient books and scrolls such as the Pansiya Panas Jathaka Potha, a 1,600-page collection of Buddhist tales written on ola leaves, a type of palm. Said to be hundreds of years old, the books are supposed to have been written by sages who inscribed horoscopes of people not yet born.

Another shrine hides in a small rectangular room with a golden curtain designed with bo leaves. That same room holds a large glass case holding the golden Buddha, where donations are dropped off.

Unless you are Buddhist, you cannot imagine the grounding, the calm, the serenity I feel in that temple. I teach my sons our culture. But some things can best be felt. That is why I am here, to feel what I am and where I am from.

-Ravindu Dhanapala

During Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam set off a bomb at the temple in 1998, badly damaging it. It has since been restored, to the great delight of the people who flock here every year. It is easy to see that the moonstone at the Maha Vahalkada, or Great Gate, that marks the entrance to the temple is new. The original was destroyed in the bomb blast.

Once, this was part of a sprawling palace grounds when Kandy was its own kingdom. The main shrine of the temple is where the royal palace was located. A pavilion adjacent to the temple was used by Kandyan kings to hold court. In fact, the treaty that ended the sovereignty of the kingdom and ceded power to the British was signed here in 1815.

An octagonal tower at one end of the temple houses a valuable library where a number of ancient ola-leaf manuscripts can be seen. And at the back of the temple grounds, visitors can see the Raja Tusker Museum, which contains the taxidermic remains of Raja, the massive elephant that carried the Tooth Relic casket during the Esala Perahera for 50 years until he died in 1988. Photos detailing the life of the popular pachyderm line the walls.

You don’t have to look long at the enormous crowds who quietly make the pilgrimage to the temple before you realize how important this is to them. The people of Kandy consider themselves fortunate to live where the tooth and its temple reside.

Wasana Kumari Abeykoon, 26, and Damith Dananjaya, 23, are workers at a tea factory in Kandy. They said residents go to the temple when they feel the need for a blessing. Sometimes, they go as part of birthday celebrations.

“When we are staying there, we can feel very fresh,” Danajaya said.  

Many leave offerings varying from nicely scented flowers to dishes such as rice, red rice and midi midi, a dish with rice and bananas, in hopes of enhancing blessings.

In the newest shrine toward the back of the temple, photos and video recording are prohibited.

Large wall paintings tell how the Buddha statue and the sacred tooth got here after being smuggled out of India centuries ago, hidden in the hair of a princess. The pillars in the room are decorated with carved dragons breathing fire and golden elephant heads help support the ceiling.

At the front of the room lies another vast shrine with a tall golden Buddha. A golden case, similar to the other relic, sits in front of the Buddha statue as well as statues of golden elephants. The temple is the focus of the final day of the Esala Perahera, when an elaborate parade including extravagantly decorated elephants makes its way to the temple and surrounds it. A replica of the tooth is carried on an elephant while the real tooth remains in the temple.

Rather than attending every day during the festival, some Buddhists have specific days that are special to them and their culture.

“I like to go to first day,” Abeykoon said. “People believe if you see the first festival, it’s good for us. Like, you get little bit more blessed like that.”

Author William H. Kelly III

More posts by William H. Kelly III