In some places you shouldn't take photos, you shouldn't film, you should just be. Maybe more importantly, you should let others be.
That's what I felt when visiting the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, now several years ago. I've updated the post since.
The Temple of the Tooth: facts
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, also known as Sri Dalada Maligawa, is Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist shrine. It is believed to hold the sacred tooth of the Buddha, which was taken from his remains after his cremation in India and smuggled to Sri Lanka, where it eventually ended up in Kandy.
There, a temple was built within the royal palace complex to keep the tooth relic of Buddha safe. Both the temple and the rest of Kandy are now listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
You cannot actually see the relic of the tooth of the Buddha when visiting the Kandy Tooth Temple, as it is kept in the smallest of seven nested golden caskets (think Matryoshka dolls) shaped like a stupa or dagoba, that are kept in an inner shrine inside the temple.
The Temple of the Tooth was heavily damaged in 1998 when members of the LTTE (Hindu Tamil separatists) performed a truck bombing at the entrance. The temple was swiftly restored, but if you want to visit it now you have to pass through a security checkpoint.
The sacred tooth relic used to leave the temple in Kandy once a year, during Esala Perahera. It would then go on a 10-day parade with torches, dancers, drummers, and elephants. The relic itself – still hidden away inside the caskets – was carried by a royal male elephant accompanied by two smaller elephants. Because of tensions with the Tamil Tigers, however, the sacred tooth has remained in the temple since 1990 and now only a casket is brought on the parade to represent the tooth.
“The Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, the temple which houses the Sacred Tooth Relic of The Buddha, is possibly the most sacred Buddhist shrine in the world. It is venerated not only by Buddhists in Sri Lanka but by Buddhists all over the world.”
– AmazingLanka.com –
Visiting the Temple of the Tooth Relic
After getting an entrance ticket and passing through the security checkpoint, I find myself on the Maha Vahalkada, some sort of lane leading to the temple, offering a great view on the structure.
Having walked the lane I see the entrance to the temple, but I can't go in just yet. I first need to leave my shoes in the shoe boot (kind of like you would leave your jacket in a cloakroom).
After that, I have the chance to buy flowers to later leave in the temple. I see other non-Buddhist visitors do this, but I choose not to. They probably want to participate out of respect, while I feel it would be disrespectful of me to participate in something I don't know enough about, nor fully understand.
Leaving the flowers, I passed through the Ambarawa, a tunnel with painted walls, before arriving on the first floor of the temple.
It wasn't that crowded here. Everyone seemed to be heading up one floor, and so I followed. And then my breath was taken. I was standing in a room full of people offering their flowers and praying, meditating, or chanting.
Those of them who were not standing in line to place their flower on a table in front of the shrine that holds the tooth just sat on the ground around the “altar”. Some of them looked at me and I felt like an intruder.
What was I doing here?
I haven't often experienced true devotion or deep belief during my travels. In a lot of Western European countries “active” religion has taken a step back in favor of cultural, historical, and maybe even touristic religion. Not so in Sri Lanka. Not so in Kandy.
I understand that the Temple of the Tooth is a place foreigners want to see and can actually visit. I think it can take an important place in understanding the culture and traditions of the Sri Lankan people. But while I was there it just felt wrong. I had the feeling I was disturbing people. I felt like I was being exposed as an imposter.
So I stopped filming. I stopped taking photos. I just quietly shuffled on, following the line of people placing flowers, to the other side of the room and the exit. I felt relieved when I reached the first floor again and spend some more time looking around while I let the experience I just had sink in.
It was soon time to end my visit though. My group was leaving. As I walked down to the exit I couldn't help but see the faces of all those people praying again. Such devotion and belief. It's something I don't think I'll ever have.
(You can also watch this video on YouTube)
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
Sri Dalada Veediya, Kandy
You can visit Kandy and the temple on a day your from Colombo.
Temple of the Tooth dress code:
- As mentioned before, you should take your shoes off and leave them in the shoeroom (a.k.a. cloakroom for shoes).
- Wear long loose trousers or a long skirt that covers your legs.
- Make sure your shoulders and cleavage are covered.
- It's best not to wear black or other fully dark clothing.
Three times a day, at dawn, at noon and in the evening, monks perform rituals in the inner chamber of the temple. Once a week, on Wednesdays, the casket with the tooth receives symbolic bathing in healing water.