“Over the Knuckles to Kandy and the sacred Temple of the Tooth.” Day 5 of cycling in Sri Lanka.
This is the fifth in the series about cycling in Sri Lanka. My story is featured in “Travellanka Magazine”. Click on the image below, visit their site* or read an extended version below.
Reading time: 3 minutes. Extended version: 9 minutes.
Over the Knuckles to Kandy and the sacred Temple of the Tooth.
Day 5 Cycling in Sri Lanka: Wasgamuwa to Kandy.
Out of my window this morning, beyond the hotel pool and hotel grounds, is a beautiful lake and, further out, the mountains. The safari lodge is basic but it is in an amazing location. I really didn’t appreciate this yesterday. It’s so quiet and still at six o’clock in the morning.
I’ve had a good night’s sleep and feel fit and ready to cycle. I have stretched and put electrolytes in my water bottle and, most importantly, found my bandana to protect against the heat. We leave at a good pace and it’s an enjoyable ride so far. I cycle along with a few of the others and chat a while, then I cycle alone. We’re in the paddy fields again. The mountains loom ahead in the blue sky. People stand at their doorways and wave to us. I’m enjoying it again today.
The terrain is up and down and it is beautiful again for a short stretch before the hills start. I catch up with Susannah. Erin has dropped back too. We are all feeling the heat today. We have a stop by a fast-flowing river and it’s good to get refreshments and momentarily rest. Our guides work their way down to the bank and jump into the river. Some of us do the same. By the time everyone has caught up, we’re all sitting on the river bank, cooling ourselves in the cold water. My knee is swollen slightly from the climbs and the icy water is good for it.
Away from the hills, it is fantastic riding. I ride awhile with Jack when we restart, before more challenging hills arrive, so a few of us jump into the support van. Up ahead, a man and his wife with their tiny baby are climbing aboard the back of a tractor’s trailer. Chathura, the driver of the support van, waits patiently. I get a sense of his long, slow days driving behind us, ready with food and water and to scoop up the losers.
At the next stop for Sprite and muffins, a few of the more adventurous cyclists (or those with good knees) take on the big ten kilometre climb in the area known as the Knuckles. I remain with the losers in the van. We pass a bus containing orange-robed Buddhist monks, perhaps they will provide divine intervention for the brave riders. As we wait at the top, the summit is covered with leaches.
We all join in for the downhill. I’ve never had a free downhill before, so I use the opportunity to stretch my knee after an hour sitting in the bus. It seems there is no such thing as a free lunch, as it’s a steep descent on gravel and so we all cling tightly to the brakes. We stop after a few kilometres to view the tea plantations and then it’s another two kilometres until lunch.
For the afternoon, we have a beautiful twenty kilometre ride through some small villages. Everybody has enjoyed the riding today, some with more tired legs than others. I wish the whole day was like this last section. The kilometres that I have done have been perfect but we are done for the day.
We have a short bus ride to a natural Ayurveda medical centre. It’s the first time that I tell the others of my planned stay in an Ayurveda retreat in India for the two weeks after cycling. They can’t believe it. They think this is hilarious and promise to send me pictures of steaks, beer and wine. The group has gathered for the Ayurveda medicine man to explain his lotions and potions. He will demonstrate his wares on us. Stuart lets him put hair removal cream on his leg. It looks like I’m in line to be his next victim. He asks me to take off my shirt to be ready for a massage. I joke, “No way, buy me dinner first.” When I look behind me, most of the gang have their shirts off already. Susannah and Linda are sitting in their sports bras. They all get shoulder and head massages. I’m so sweaty in the heat that I don’t fancy the oil in my body hair. I’m amazed how quickly the others have jumped in.
It’s quite a bus ride, over two hours, to our final destination of Kandy. On arrival, some of the group immediately leave for the international T20 cricket match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand. The rest of us have dinner leisurely in the hotel, relaxed in the knowledge we have a rest day tomorrow so we can visit the sacred Temple of the Tooth.
After the long days on the bicycles, the after-dinner beers feel deserved. The girls and boys dance while I enjoy the rest, resisting their demands to join in. (I have a bad knee after all). We are winding down for the evening when the cricket gang arrive back just before midnight. They join us for more drinks and dancing until late. Every previous night I’ve been in bed by nine or ten o’clock, so I’m very thankful that it’s a rest day tomorrow.
After a day of leisure (and laundry), at five o’clock in the afternoon, I rejoin the gang for the walk into Kandy and we attend a show of traditional dancing. Whilst the drummers perform, various dances are carried out. There’s some solo drumming before everybody gathers closer to witness the fire walkers. We go from there to the Temple of the Tooth. At the entrance, we wait as Prab gives us a short history lesson. Behind us, the city is lit up in the darkness and the lights are reflected in Bogambara Lake, with the huge, golden Buddha visible on the hillside beyond.
It is said that the tooth was taken from the Buddha as he lay on his funeral pyre. It was smuggled to Sri Lanka in 313 AD and the relic became an object of great reverence and was handed to the king for safeguarding. The legend goes that Sri Lanka was chosen as the destination for the tooth relic as the Buddha had declared that his religion would be safe in Sri Lanka for five thousand years. Over time, the custodianship of relic came to symbolize the right to rule. The reigning monarchs built temples to house the relic, usually close to their royal palaces. The tooth would be displayed on special occasions and there were many attempts to capture and destroy the relic. A period of turmoil for power ended with the ascent to the throne by King Vimaladharmasuriya I, who reigned from 1590 to 1604. When he moved the capital to Kandy, the tooth was placed in various temples in the city. After renouncing Christianity and embracing Buddhism, Vimaladharmasuriya constructed a shrine housing the relic close to his palace in order to sanctify his new capital. The temple was severely damaged during the wars against the Portuguese and Dutch. The present day Temple of the Tooth was built by Vira Narendra Sinhna in the early eighteenth century and various structures have been added since. The distinctive octagonal library, Patthirippuwa, and the moat were added during the reign of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, who was the last King of Kandy and who was deposed by the British in 1815, ending over two thousand years of Sinhalese monarchy on the island. Incredibly, Prab explains that the Patthirippuwa was attacked as recently as 1989 by the People’s Liberation Front and in 1998 by the Tamil Tigers.
We attend for the evening offerings. Monks conduct daily worship in the inner chamber of the temple and the rituals are performed three times a day, at dawn, at noon and in the evenings. There are food offerings all day but the evening is beverages only, thirty two of them. (It reminds me of last night at the pool bar). I watch the intricate ceremony. The old temple is made from dark, carved wood. There are colourful frescoes and Buddhist flags flying. The traditional drummers are dressed in red. The offerings are made into a silver door at the front of the ancient temple. The new temple has been built protectively around the old one. We then funnel slowly toward to the tooth relic. Prab is in front of me and he makes an offering of flowers as we pass the chalice holding the tooth. The chamber is known as the Handun kunama. Seeing such relics, like at Topkapi in Istanbul, I have to suspend my disbelief and I absolutely act with all due respect, yet I have to acknowledge there is something at work here and, like at the Taj Mahal or, say, at Medjugorje in Bosnia, there’s a unique atmosphere in existence in these places. Is this because of the relic or is it because of the collection of people acting spiritually and respectfully? Whatever it is, I can feel it.
The moment is over and I join the mass of humanity to see the other various shrines and ancient manuscripts. On the way out, we pass through the Royal Palace, where Sri Vikrama Rajasinha was the last king to reside here before ceding his kingdom to the British, and the King’s Audience Hall, where the Kandyan Convention was held and the treaty with the British was signed.
The early modern period of Sri Lankan history begins with the arrival of the first Portuguese explorers in 1505. Quickly, the Portuguese won control over the coastal areas, including Colombo. By 1619, succumbing to attacks by the Portuguese, the independent existence of the Jaffna kingdom, the northern kingdom, came to an end. Next was the turn of the Dutch explorers and, in 1638, King Rajasignhe signed a treaty with the Dutch East India Company to eliminate the Portuguese from the coastal areas. The Dutch won the resultant war and took control of Colombo. The Dutch remained and, to this day, the island has a strong Dutch presence. The Napoleonic Wars followed and, in 1796, the British occupied the areas the Dutch had, which they called Ceylon, in fear the Dutch may hand their territory over to the French. Various invasions by the British were repelled by the young king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, but, by 1815, Kandy was occupied by the British, which finally ended Sri Lanka’s independence. The Kandyan Convention formally ceded the entire country to the British Empire and it became known as British Ceylon.
We collect our shoes and wander back towards the hotel. Lightning flashes over the lake. Prab continues with the Sri Lankan history lesson. In 1915, the Ceylonese Riots took place, which was an ethnic riot with its origins in commercial-ethnic rivalry between Sinhalese Buddhists and the Ceylon Moors. The British colonial authorities reacted heavy-handedly. The timing of riots meant the British government was occupied with World War I and so terminated the Ceylonese Riots with executions and other atrocities. Hundreds of Ceylonese, including many prominent figures, were arrested and imprisoned without charges. Up until World War II, opposition to British rule grew but the difficulties of the times kept the unrest manageable. In the immediate post-war years, there were waves of strikes from local workers which led to the general strike of 1946 and a second one a year later. The British authorities were forced to use military reserves to contain the uprising. The use of force, including the killing of one trade union official when using open fire to control the crowds, broke the strike, but the damage had been done and maintaining government was untenable for the British. As Prab tells his tale, I am back to questioning how Prime Minster Cameron can chastise Sri Lanka on their ending of the war with the Tamils, when the British behaved in this way. Independence for the dominion of Ceylon came in February 1948, when the constitution of 1947 went into effect, whereby the British handed over control to the elected Ceylonese government. In May 1972, Ceylon became an independent republic and was renamed Sri Lanka.
We stop at a bar on the way back that overlooks the city. Steve and I chat over dinner. We discuss whether the schoolchildren waving as we cycle by are stage-managed for the purposes of tourism. Kannan often races ahead and we wonder if he does this to warn them of our impeding presence. If this is the case, my guess is that this will soon be gone as and when tourism increases, so we decide to enjoy it for what it is. Staged or not, I think it’s wonderful.