Culture in Kandy (1) – SL#39.

Hello again and welcome to another post in my Sri Lanka 2014 series, my first visit to that wonderful country. A quick word as always to tell new readers that if you want to read the whole story from the beginning, you can do so here.

This is a busy day so get yourself comfortable and please do read on.

24th March, 2014.

I did not wake up too early this day but thankfully that was not a result of my slight incapacity the day before but rather more that I am just a lazy brute when I am on holiday. Actually, I am a lazy brute most of the time. I had a leisurely coffee in the nicely cool foyer which was welcome as it looked pretty hot outside and so it proved to be. I should add that it was my normal coffee with milk instead of lime juice, I still think that is weird.

It was about 1300 when I got a move on and with no clear plan of what to do, as is my wont. I had not paid particular attention to the exact route to my guesthouse on the tuk-tuk ride up before and there is a bit of a maze of tiny little tracks and narrow winding roads up this hillside but I knew that if I just kept going downhill I’d get into town eventually and who knows what I might chance upon along the way?


There are two great advantages to being up the hill a bit. One is that it is marginally cooler and two is the choice of tremendous views you get virtually wherever you walk. The right hand image was taken from the designated viewpoint and I hope they give some idea. At this point it might be a good idea to tell you a little about Kandy from notes I actually wrote on a return visit a couple of years later, but the history doesn’t change.

“The name Kandy has about as many possible origins as there are people to promulgate them so I am not even going to try to pick one here except to say that it is most likely a contraction of some much longer name which was adopted during colonial times.

The city was probably established in the mid 14th century by Vikramabahu III (1357 – 1374) although it was not originally a capital. That designation came later, most notably when Vimaladharmasuriya I brought the tooth relic (allegedly a tooth from Lord Buddha himself) from elsewhere and the temple which houses it remains the “main draw” in town to this day.

By 1592, Portuguese colonial rule was well established on Sri Lanka, conveniently situated as it was on the spice routes, and Kandy was the last independent capital of the country. Perhaps this is why the local people love it so much. This situation existed for about 200 years until the Dutch, wishing to have complete control of the island, launched several attacks at which the Kandyans, in the manner of so many guerrilla fighters before and since, simply abandoned the place and literally took to the hills.

If the Dutch were having a bad time in their colonies they were having an equally bad one at home and Britain basically took over their foreign possessions whilst the Dutch were engaged with the French in Continental Europe.

The British fared much more successfully militarily than the Dutch and effectively walked into Kandy unopposed on February 10, 1815. I suppose the troops involved in this were subsequently relieved that they had not been engaged in the bloody and brutal Battle of Waterloo a scant few months later.

With the advent of British colonial rule, Kandy was going to be pretty well defined as the place the traveller will see today. It bears all the hallmarks including a British cemetery. Due to resistance form the native people in the area, the British imported many Tamil “coolies” from the Southern part of India (which they also controlled) and this has altered the ethnic makeup of the place forever.

Fast forward now to the Second World War where the HQ for South East Asia Command of the Allied Forces was transferred to Kandy following the Japanese invasion of (then) Malaya and Singapore. HQ for SEAC, as it was known, was set up in a very pleasant and still extant hotel on the shores of the lake. It’s most famous Commander was Lord Louis Mountbatten, a member of the British Royal family whose life was to end some years later when he was murdered on a fishing trip in the Republic of Ireland by the IRA along with some Irish civilians including a young boy.

We have not even touched on the music and dance yet. Kandy has a particular style of dancing and the costumes to go with it which are stunning to say the least. There are at least two nightly dance shows in town, normally at about 1700 hours and I do recommend the traveller visits one of them as they truly are an experience. They last about an hour, may well finish with a bit of fire-walking and the entrance fee is, to be honest, a pittance for the entertainment provided.

I do not particularly like the term but Kandy simply has to be a “must see” on any trip to Sri Lanka especially as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the whole city.”

That is what I wrote at the time and I did grow to be very comfortable in Kandy. I would still say I prefer Ella but that is one of my favourite destinations in the world. As for the dancing and fire-walking, don’t worry, it is coming in a later post.

A few final little snippets of information about Kandy before I get properly into my walk. Firstly, most of the film “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was filmed in and around the city and two of the all-time stars of world cricket, “Murali” and Kumar Sangakkara come from Kandy. It is obviously a sporting city as their rugby team have won the national championship just about every year since Noah was a sea cadet! I have seen them in action and they are impressive.

Sangaraja Temple.

The Temple of the Tooth is one of the main reasons for the UNESCO designation and, by association, the entire city is of huge significance to Buddhist which means that there seem to be even more temples in a country where you never have to go too far to find one. This was the first site of interest I reached on my way down the hill, the Sangaraja Temple and other than that I can tell you very little.

What I can tell you is that it is immaculately maintained and on the afternoon I visited I had the small temple compound entirely to myself. I suppose most worshippers were busy at work or at home. As is invariably the case in places of worship, I found it very peaceful and spent some minutes in quiet contemplation in my “temple pose” which I had just about perfected over the years. If this does not make sense, it is considered sacrilegious to have your feet pointing towards a Buddhist image so the done thing is to either sit on your knees or else draw your legs up to your side so they point behind you. Just a little tip.

I suppose what I was mostly contemplating in that quiet sanctuary was my own extreme good fortune in being there at all and, suitably calm and a little reflective, I continued down the hill but I did not have far to go until I encountered my next point of interest and, like much else in Sri Lanka, it has more than one name.

Royal Palace Park.

There is a decent sized park towards the bottom of the incline which is known as either Royal Palace Park, Wales Park, Wace Park or Rajawasala Park. I know it is confusing, especially as the names Wace and Wales are so similar so allow me to explain.

The Royal Palace is easy to explain as this site was the grounds of the former building which served the purpose during the reign of King Vimaladharmasuriya I of Kandy (reigned 1590 – 1604). Although his reign was comparatively short he managed to humiliate the Portuguese military forces not once but twice in that period and he, like his park, has a bewildering four different names but I am not even going to start on that.

By the late 19th century the palace was a ruin and the British were in control of the country. Herbert Wace was Colonial Secretary for Central Province in 1880 and had the land cleared and made into the park more or less as you see it today. After it was opened and originally named for it’s creator it was soon renamed to honour the Price of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Confusion reigns not least for the poor local people who perhaps did not have much English. As for the Rajawasala name I have no idea.

If you are wondering why there is a field gun given pride of place on it’s own little island in the middle of an attractive water feature I shall tell you. This is a Japanese piece which was captured by the British 14th Army in Burma and presented to the city by Lord Mountbatten who had his HQ here as I mentioned above. I couldn’t help but think about my poor Uncle Tommy who was murdered by the Japanese in the notorious Changi POW camp in Singapore but whilst it made me even more reflective, it was going to take a lot to dampen my spirits on that lovely peaceful day.

The park is beautifully kept as you can see and very peaceful except for the occasional giggles of the young “courting couples” who seem to use the Park as a place for their trysts. Although not nearly as high as the viewpoint there are still lovely views over the lake and city and I did notice one very large and somewhat forbidding building which I had to go and investigate. It turned out to be the city jail and there will be much more of it in a future post. Just look at that wall!

Central Market.

Having managed not to get thrown in the jail, the next structure I saw put a spring in my step, it was the Municipal Central Market which is unsurprisingly located in Market Street if you want to find it. I have a strange relationship with shopping, I generally loathe it but I could, and often do, spend hours nosying around markets, especially Asian markets.

The exterior was impressive enough, obviously a colonial structure but it is only when you go through the arch into what can only be described as a formal garden in a quadrangle that you realise how special it is, judge for yourself. I have honestly seen less impressive displays at European “grand houses” and this is just the daily market complete with all the bustle and interest that entails.

Needless to say, I had a good look round before I exited to almost fall over my next item of interest, again beautifully maintained as you can see but perhaps not as old as you might imagine.

Clock Tower.

Although this lovely structure looks as if it should actually be a colonial edifice it only dates to 1950 and has rather a sad story attached to it. Do you remember in one of my numerous posts about Ella I published an image of a landslide warning sign? These are not just put up to give the local authority something to do. With the often torrential rainfall in the Central Highlands that I have also mentioned previously, they are a very real danger.

In August (the rainy season) 1947, a young man called Mohamed Zacky Ismail, son of am important local businessman called Haji Mohamed Ismail, was travelling in a car with his brother-in -law, a work colleague and the driver when a huge boulder crushed the car killing the younger Ismail outright. His distraught Father had this tower erected and I think it makes a fine memorial.

The tower is to the design of Shirley de Alwis, a local architect who took time out from her work on the nearby Peredinaya University campus which she was in the process of designing alongside British architect Sir Patrick Abercrombie. Sir Patrick was a busy man having previously redesigned Plymouth, Edinburgh, Hull and Bath amongst other projects.

Apparently de Alwis included facets of the design of the Temple of the Tooth and the local Royal Palace into the design but I am afraid my untutored eye cannot spot them. Let’s move on and, as you can see, you do not have to walk far to find things to look at, photograph and subsequently research for blog posts.

War memorial.

In my case the next object of interest was the war memorial and regular readers will know that, apart from a great interest in military history generally I also have a fascination for war graves and memorials so I was immediately drawn to this.

The first thing that caught my eye was the very obviously Celtic nature of the crucifix adorned with similarly identifiable Celtic adornments. This is not to be confused with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery which is a little way away but the purpose of this memorial completely baffles me.

If you look closely you will see that is it a “Roll of Honour 1914 – 1919” and that there are literally hundreds of British sounding names recorded. Ceylon participated in the Great War as part of the British Empire and many and many native Sri Lankans volunteered, many having gained rudimentary military experience in the Cadet Corps of various British administered schools but this is obviously not about them.

I cannot believe that this number of British colonials from the Kandy area would even have served, let alone died, the monument is unclear on this. If it is meant to commemorate all such men from the entire country then why is the monument in Kandy and not Colombo, the capital? The CWGC website, which is meticulous in recording Commonwealth War Graves only indicates one First World War burial, so I am at a complete loss to explain this. As always, any assistance will be greatly appreciated and acknowledged here.

The Bake House.

I continued wandering about with no plan in mind and my eye was caught by a most mouth-watering selection of cakes and pastries in the unimaginatively named “Bake House” and I thought I would take a break from the unrelenting sun. No, beer was not even involved! I do not normally have much of a sweet tooth although I do like my coffee (preferably without lime juice!) and had my usual Americano with a couple of small cakes from a display that would not have disgraced a decent French patisserie.

Everything is made on the premises and it is worth sitting there for the smell of the baking bread alone, I am sure they deliberately pump the kitchen smells into the restaurant to make you hungry and buy more, a trick I have heard supermarkets being accused of before.

The Bake House is the downstairs part of the Old Bakehouse building and was the first bakery in Kandy, opening in 1970. Upstairs is now a pub called “The Pub” (did I mention that Sri Lankan naming lacks a certain something?) and the Knox Lounge and don’t worry, we shall get there eventually but first a bit more walking.

I had caught sight of the lake again and could not resist the image above, framed by the branches and with the surface rippling slightly in the very welcome light breeze. I quite like this image, I think it was one of my better efforts from the day.

Even when I have internet access, which never seemed to be much of a problem in Sri Lanka, I do like a good book to read. I have never bothered with all these electronic books as I probably could not operate one, I like the feel of a proper book and what do you do when the battery runs out? I was running a bit low on reading material and so when I saw the Vijitha Yapa Bookshop I was straight in.

A quick look at their webiste shows that they are part of a chain that now boasts eight branches including one at the airport and there was certainly a huge selection on offer although not so much in the way of English titles except those those teaching English of which there was a large amount.

The friendly assistant guided me to the relevant section where I picked up a couple of titles I might not normally have selected but they filled a gap.

I did mention in my previous post that it was particularly short as this day was going to be a bit of a long one and so it has proved to be. In order for it not to get out of control, which I am all too aware can happen, I am going to break here.

In the next post there is much more of Kandy to visit, so much more so if you want to find out about that just stay tuned and spread the word.

Author: Fergy.

Hello there. I am a child of the 50's, now retired and had been enjoying travelling pre-virus. Now I am effectively under house arrest. Apart from travelling, I love playing music (guitar, vocals and a bit of percussion) as the profile pic suggests and watching sport, my playing days are long over. I read voraciously, both fiction and nonfiction I'll read just about anything although I do have a particular interest in military history of all periods. I live alone in fairly central London where I have been for over 30 years since leaving Northern Ireland which was the place of my birth. I adore cooking and I can and do read recipe books and watch food programmes on TV / online all day given half a chance.

9 thoughts on “Culture in Kandy (1) – SL#39.”

    1. Thanks so much, mate, there is no rush as it is hopefully not going anywhere unless I do something really silly like trashing the whole site (a possibility with me!)

      As for the market, I could wander round Asian markets all day and have on occasion, but this was a particularly wonderful example due to the architecture / garden etc.

      If you do get to SL you will undoubtedly go to Kandy for the Temple of the Tooth. If you get any free time head down here, it is right beside the train station, only about 15 minutes walk from the Temple, you’ll love it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the plan is to visit the Temple of the Tooth for sure, and although we won’t have long in Kandy I’ll certainly try to get to the market 🙂


        1. It is dead easy to find, anyone will tell you. It is about two minutes walk from the train station and it is well worth it even if you aren’t buying.

          I know you will have a complete shutterfest in there and I cannot wait to see your results which will undoubtedly be better than mine.


          1. Don’t put yourself down! Btw, several VTers were asking after you on our zoom on Friday. Are you techie enough these days to join us one week?


        1. That drives me mad so I just stay up and do thing – mostly blog and gorge on history documentaries. I swear I have learnt more this last year than I ever did in 14 at school!


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