During my month exploring Ceylon, I visited the historic towns of Kandy, Dambulla, and Sigiriya. These sacred locations serve as a living testimony of Sri Lanka’s rich Buddhist heritage. They are treasure coves of ancient societies and religious artifacts. Sri Lankan folklore believes that the tropical island is actually Lord Buddha’s teardrop. It is widely believed that Buddhism was first introduced in Sri Lanka all the way back to 236 BC. Buddhism is the leading belief system in Sri Lanka, the 2011 census gathered that 70.19% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist. The particular sanction of Buddhism that is practiced in Sri Lanka is known as Theravada. In short, this branch of Buddhism is all about following the doctrine of elders, aka senior Buddhist monks. There are over 30,000 monks living in Sri Lankan Buddhist temples. Buddhism goes beyond a religious practice and is the root of Sri Lankan lifestyle and immense love and respect for nature. Here’s how to experience Buddhism in the heart of Sri Lanka.
My quest to learn more about Buddhism in Sri Lanka began in the country’s UNESCO Sacred City, Kandy. Kandy was the last capital of Buddhist political power and remains the Buddhist capital of Sri Lanka. Here even riding the local bus can be a spiritual experience. As we swerved around traffic at top speed everyone on the bus maintained a calm composure and bowed their head over their hands in the prayer pose as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic quickly came in and out of view. As the name suggests the temple houses the relic of the tooth of Buddha. I found that dozens of temples across Sri Lanka make similar claims, Lord Buddha must have had an extraordinary amount of teeth. However, I don’t discredit this fragment of bone as it is one of the most powerful items in all of Sri Lanka. It is said that the tooth was taken from Buddha’s funeral pyre and later smuggled to Sri Lanka in 311 AD. It’s believed that whoever holds the relic has the right to govern the entire nation. The relic is kept under close watch to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. It is kept in a golden stupa, so visitors actually see the tooth. This is one of the holiest places of worship for followers of Lord Buddha; over one million pilgrims visit each year.
Across the lake from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic a massive white Buddha statue watches over Kandy from Bahirawakanda hill, also known as Gnome Mountain. The 85-foot tall image of Lord Buddha is not nearly as famous, or as old, as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. While the Bahirawakanda Temple seems to have existed since the beginning of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the sparkling white statue was only erected in 1993. The views from the temple are spectacular offering sweeping panoramic views of the town, lake, and many Buddhist temples below and the rolling hills that surround Kandy. Visitors are actually allowed to climb the staircase that runs up the statues back for an even higher vantage point and an amazing vista over Kandy.
Another one of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage sites can be found in Dambulla which can easily be accessed from Kandy using via public bus for the 2 ½ hour journey. The Buddhist Temple of Kings, otherwise known as the Dambulla Cave Temple or Dambulla Rock Temple, is unlike any other temple I’ve ever visited. It’s the largest cave temple complex in the country, and likely one of the best preserved. This is especially impressive considering the site has been hosting pilgrims for over twenty centuries. It is perched 520 feet above the plains with sweeping views of the surrounding hills including Sigiriya and Pidurangala. Each of the five sanctuaries in the cave monastery are intricately designed with over 150 massive stone statues, mostly of Lord Buddha, and detailed Buddhist frescos covering the rock ceiling. The murals depict moments from Lord Buddha’s life and teachings. There are also statues of the Hindu gods Vishnu and Ganesh. Buddhism and Hinduism seem to cross paths often in Sri Lanka. During my visit, there was a large group of local school children visiting the temples from a local Buddhist school. The tiny children were dressed in stiff white uniforms and the girls wore their hair in long braids tied into loops. They giggled sweetly as they approached the spectacular shrines to pray and place fresh lotus flowers on the altars. I was lucky to see the cave as unfortunately the Archaeological Advisory Committee in Sri Lanka has recently announced the site will be closed to visitors indefinitely for conservation.
From Dambulla I visited Sigiriya. I didn’t hike the famous Lion Rock fortress as it goes against my responsible tourism beliefs to visit a place that is falling apart due to mass-tourism. Instead, I opted to climb Pidurangala. Both peaks were formed by volcanic activity! According to local legend, the Buddhist monks who lived at the Sigiriya monastery were relocated here when the King claimed Lion Rock for his palace. As you reach the top of the hill you’ll enter the Royal Cave Temple where the largest brick reclining Buddha in the world lays at over 41 feet! The last part of the trek is the most exciting as you’ll have to scale up boulders to reach the top. You’ll be rewarded with mesmerizing views of the ancient fortress of Sigiriya and a bird’s eye perspective of the surrounding landscape.
These various sites can be visited using Sri Lanka’s public bus system, but it can be a bit difficult to figure out as there is no posted schedule online and most bus stands I went to did not display any information in English. I can personally recommend Sri Lanka Taxi Kosala who lives in the area and drove me from Dambulla to Sigiriya. He was an incredibly safe driver, took very good care of his clean car, and was able to give me unique local insight into Buddhist culture and historical sites. During my quest to learn more about Buddhism in Sri Lanka I was a guest at the Hostels Lanka properties in Kandy and Dambulla. They are excellent budget accommodation options in the area and both have really interesting local murals which gave them a unique ambiance.
Buddhism is the heart of Sri Lanka, geographically, and of the people. Have you visited Sri Lanka? Did you have the chance to experience local Buddhist culture? Tell me about it in the comments!
Thank you, Hostels Lanka, for hosting me in Kandy and Dambulla. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.