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The sacred toothache

sunny 29 °C
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Kandy, Sri Lanka

Thursday, 14 February 2019

I started the day with another tiring, uncomfortable walk down the hill to Katugastota Bridge to catch a bus into town. The sub-arterial road the guest house is located on has some buses but they don't seem to be very frequent. I saw some coming in the opposite directions and committed their route numbers to memory so I would know which buses to catch back to my lodgings in the evening.

A fifteen-minute bus ride crowded with commuters along a busy dual carriageway with deafening traffic brought me to Kandy's city centre. On the eastern edge of the compact city centre was my next UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

This temple is one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism, one of the world's major religions and the majority religion in Sri Lanka. The temple is the home to one of Buddha's teeth, somebody told me it was one of his molars.

I walked up to the temple gates on the northern shore of Kandy Lake shortly before ten o'clock. I paid the entrance fee, went through a security screening station, and when I emerged some official-looking man in a uniform came up and greeted me and shook my hand.

"Welcome to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Here, you respect Buddhism," he admonished.

"Yes, yes, I know, I respect all religions," I answered.

"Good." I walked on and he followed me. "And this temple was built during the Kingdom of Kandy era and has been home to the Sacred Tooth since--"

"OK. So you are a guide?"

"Yes, I am."

"Very well then. How much do you charge?"

"We can talk about that later."

"No, I would rather settle the price first. So how much do you charge?"

"Three thousand rupees."

That was about twice the entry fee. "No, thanks."

He got desperate and wouldn't leave me alone. "Please, sir. Please. You need a guide. You can't enter without a guide. Please!" Eventually he gave up after he got the hint that my silence meant I didn't want his services.

There is another counter off to the side in front of the temple moat where all visitors are required to leave their shoes, visitors are given a card with three handwritten digits to claim their shoes back later.

I entered the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. There is a large open-air central hall surrounded by galleries and in the hall there is a timber two-storey shrine. Outside the closed door at the bottom of the shrine drummers and a piper were playing some traditional temple music. Everyone went upstairs to the top gallery where there was already a massive queue.

The queue kept growing longer, fatter, denser. The temple was hot and airless. The body heat from thousands of people pushed up against each other made the conditions even worse. It was so bad that even the normally dry and clean Sri Lankans were dripping with sweat.

I joined the queue at ten past ten. The Sacred Tooth Relic was open for viewing at half past ten. I watched the second hand on my watch tick down ever so slowly. If it went any slower it would have been going backwards.

Then on the dot at half past ten - the aperture in the shrine opened. There was a crush. It made the Boxing Day sales at Myer on Pitt Street in Sydney look like a paragon of order and decorum. Such was the devotion among the Buddhists in the crowd, their anxiety to prove their veneration to Buddha's sole bodily remains, that I and all other non-Buddhist visitors were kicked, pushed, tripped and shoved. Even eighty-year-old ladies showed no restraint as I was subjected to what in any other context would be called "aggravated assault" in a court of law.

The torrent of humanity carried me up to the shrine. For all of three seconds - lomg enough for me to throw forty rupees into the offering tray and clasp my hands together in a gesture of respect - I got to see Buddha's tooth.

Or rather, a container which held the tooth. Nobody ever gets to see the actual tooth. It is contained within a golden casket shaped like a Prussian spiked helmet, perhaps a metre tall, with gold threads hanging off it and embellished with gemstones. This casket contains another casket, which contains another casket, and so on, like Russian dolls, and it is only the smallest casket that contains the tooth.

It was underwhelmingly underwhelming. Have you ever heard from people who have visited Copenhagen about how underwhelming the Little Mermaid statue is? The Sacred Tooth was even more underwhelming by many orders of magnitude. I came to Kandy, giving up two nights in a place that I might actually like, for this?

There is, however, more to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic than the sacred tooth relic. At the back of the temple is a long hall, Alut Maligawa, with a large Buddha statue, and the hall is lined with dozens of smaller Buddha statues donated by Thai devotees. Behind that hall on the upper floors is a museum, the Sri Dalada Museum, full of dull yet worthy exhibits relating to the history of the Sacred Tooth.

In a separate building behind the temple, a nineteenth century law court building erected by the British, is the World Buddhism Museum. This museum contains all sorts of artifacts amd reproductions from around the Buddhist world, with each room dedicated to a particular country. All the exhibits were accompanied by dense explanatory notes full of Buddhist jargon that might have made sense to the devout, to the people who have studied for seven years to become a Buddhist monk. But my knowledge of Buddhism is rather introductory level, and consequently the museum bored me out of my wits.

The only thing I found interesting at the temple was a little pavilion off to the side containing the stuffed remains of Raja, a tusker elephant who was captured on the east coast in 1925, sold to the temple in tje 1930s and became a much-loved resident of the temple until he died in 1988. Raja was so popular that when he died the hat was passed around and enough money was raised to preserve him for the enjoyment of future generations.

I spent a long time on the temple grounds not because I enjoyed it, but because the museums and pavilions were quiet, cooler and a respite from the madness outside. It was well into the afternoon when I put my shoes back on and went back out.

I walked a little while along Kandy Lake, past the Queen's Bath, a bathing pavilion built on the lake shore for the personal use of the Queen of Kandy, and back into the city centre.

How could I possibly describe Kandy's city centre? "Lunatic asylum" doesn't even come close. It's a heaving, roaring, dusty, blazingly hot cacaphony of motor vehicles, blaring horns, touts, hawkers, people arguing on the pavements, exhaust fumes and grotty, ill-kempt buildings. Kandy's town centre is about as pleasant as a visit to a council rubbish tip. Being in a valley surrounded by hills, the air pollution here is the worst I have seen in Sri Lanka.

I had some lunch in a food court and I went looking for a bookshop. I wanted to buy an English-Sinhala dictionary. I am falling in love with the Sinhala language and wouldn't mind learning a little bit more of it before I leave. You can't find Sinhala dictionaries in Sydney for love or money.

I found a bookshop, on the top floor of a building down a narrow corridor and up a flight of stairs between a church and what looked to be some sort of service club. I entered a little tiny bit of paradise. With its dark, heavy timber shelves and soft, cool air and soothing paper smell, Expographic is the kind of bookshop they have in heaven.

I found some perfect pocket dictionaries that would fit easily in my backpack without adding much weight. I paid for my purchase and got an unusual coin in my change. I remarked upon it and the young woman behind the counter said she collected coins too. She opened the till and found more older coins that have been superseded by newer designs or alloys. She smiled and I was forever grateful.

I decided to go for a walk to check out the railway station. This is harder than it sounds. Kandy is impossible to walk around. The city council has installed pedestrian barricades along the kerbs of every street in the city centre. I suppose this prevents pedestrians from getting killed. It also prevents pedestrians from participating in simple activities like reaching their destination or getting into a tuk-tuk taxi.

I got lost. The shockingly poor cartography in my Lonely Planet guide conspired with all those stupid pedestrian barricades to send me well off course. I felt like I was a sheep in a shearing shed's pen, unable to go anywhere except where supposedly more intelligent beings determined I was allowed to go.

I ended up in this neighbourhood west of the railway station, lost in a labyrinth of blind alleys and Escher-like staircases that went nowhere. I was walking down one staircase when I saw about one metre in front of me a dangling wire. I looked at it, it was an electrical connection from a nearby power pole to a house on the other side of the staircase. It was at about forehead height. A live wire, strung across a public stairway at forehead height. Seriously, do they hire electrician's apprentices in Kandy from the graduate pool at schools for the intellectually challenged? I watched what others were doing, they all just ducked by instinct, they all long knew the wire was there. If I survive the remaining week of this holiday, I shall be doing well.

I emerged from the stairway into one of Kandy's three bus stations and the main one for longer-distance services, the Goods Shed bus station. I have never seen a bus station like it. It was a logjam of buses going left, going right, going forward, reversing, but with no bus able to move because too many other buses were in the way. The only way pedestrians could move through the station was to wriggle their way between the buses. This is what I was doing when a bus driver decided to chuck his gears into reverse and start moving back even though there was another bus a few inches behind him, with me between the two vehicles. I jumped out just in time.

I took some photographs of the station from the outside and then went to a nearby tourist information centre. I had two questions which I assume would be quite common queries from visitors:

(1) What bus routes go to where I am staying and where do they leave from?

(2) Where can I top up my mobile SIM card?

There were four employees in the tourist information centre. I had committed the bus route numbers I saw outside my guest house that morning to memory but I had forgotten them. It was that kind of hot, sultry, intense, tiring day where my brain starts short-cifcuiting. When I asked about the bus routes, I got four different answers. Try the 691 from the Goods Shed! The 538 from Senanayake Street! The 632 from the Clock Tower!

It was the same with my mobile phone recharge. My Sri Lankan mobile provider, Dialog, is one of the largest and most popular. Usually in most towns you can find a place that has a Dialog sign on every street corner, but I hadn't seen any in Kandy city centre. I thought the tourist information centre might help but I got the same useless, conflicting, inaccurate information. There's a Dialog kiosk opposite the Temple! No, there's a newsagent on Dalada Vidiya! There's one at the Clock Tower bus station! I decided to try the Clock Tower bus station right behind the information centre but I couldn't see anything. I propose that we rename that office the Kandy Tourist Disinformation Centre. Absolutely bloody useless.

I went back east trying to find a place that sold Dialog mobile phone recharges but all I could see was useless junk of the sort you find at weekend flea markets in suburban Sydney - beads, mobile phone covers, plastic booby pins and the like. Eventually the heat got to me and I had to go and sit down for a long time in a bakery with an ice cold bottle of water. The temperature in Kandy wasn't that hot, 29 °C, but combined with the humidity, the exhaust fumes, the unrelenting sun and the sheer mass of people on the streets, it was too much.

I eventually found a Dialog retailer, a watch repair joint. I went up to the counter. "Hello, I'd like to top up my Dialog SIM card, please."

"No, we do not sell SIM cards here, we only sell recharges."

"Yes, and I would like to recharge my SIM card, please."

"I am sorry, but we do not sell SIM cards here."

"No. I don't want to buy a SIM card! I just want to recharge my SIM card with more data."

"I said, we do not sell SIM cards here."

I snapped. "Listen! I. Do. Not. Want. To. Buy. A. SIM. Card! I. Only. Want. To. Buy. More. Data!"

"Very well. Ninety-nine rupees for two gigs."

I had turned into the very thing that I hate - the ignorant tourist who shouts condescendingly at the locals. But you would understand if you went through what I go through when communicating with some of the locals.

I headed even further east. About a kilometre east of the city centre is a forested hill, the Uduwattekelle Forest Sanctuary. I paid my admission of nearly seven hundred rupees and entered into the cool, moist rainforest. This is just what I needed. There was a large pond, the Royal Pond where the King of Kandy used to bathe, and a lookout over the city - from a distance Kandy is very pretty with its jewel of a lake and its temple complex and its situation in a bowl of jagged green hills fringing the urban area - as well as an extensive network of forest paths.

I stayed in there until closing time at half past five. My Lonely Planet warned me about muggers in the park but the only scary thing that happened was some monkey high up in a tree dropping something heavy that landed on the ground right behind me - I think it was a breadfruit.

I left the park and caught a bus back up the Katugastota Road. I got off before the bridge to have a burger dinner - I crave Western food every now and then - and buy some water, fruit and snacks at Cargills. I waited for a bus back to the guest house but every time a bus came the conductor would say it wasn't going there. I tried asking other waiting passengers which bus I needed but they couldn't help me.

In some respects public transport in Sri Lanka is far better than in Australia. During the day at least, buses are so frequent that wherever you are in the country you do not need to wait longer than ten minutes. But in most respects Sri Lankan public transport is far worse - antiquated, uncomfortable and unsafe buses; shocking driving standards; no disability access; and perhaps most importantly for the traveller, bugger-all public transport information.

No maps. No timetables. No lists of routes. No websites. No displays at bus stops showing which buses go where. Nothing. All one can do is ask other people at bus stations which buses go where and hope that they are telling the truth.

The only information I have been able to find is one website, routemaster.lk, which I presume is the personal project of a public transport enthusiast. It lists the major destinations of each route with a low-resolution Google Maps screenshot zoomed right out. But even it is missing many routes, the search function is sketchy at best, and it doesn't tell you which bus station or stand a route leaves from.

After waiting twenty minutes I gave up and waved down a tuk-tuk.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Drummers and a piper playing at entrance to Sacred Tooth shrine

Drummers and a piper playing at entrance to Sacred Tooth shrine

The shrine that contains the Sacred Tooth on the upper foor

The shrine that contains the Sacred Tooth on the upper foor

See that bright golden bell-shaped thing? The Sacred Tooth is in that.

See that bright golden bell-shaped thing? The Sacred Tooth is in that.

Buddha statue in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Buddha statue in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Raja the tusker elephant

Raja the tusker elephant

Queen’s Baths on Kandy Lake

Queen’s Baths on Kandy Lake

Kandy Lake

Kandy Lake

Kandy railway station

Kandy railway station

This is why pedestrians can’t have nice things

This is why pedestrians can’t have nice things

Royal Pond in Udawattakelle Forest

Royal Pond in Udawattakelle Forest

Udawattakelle Forest Sanctuary

Udawattakelle Forest Sanctuary

Kandy from Udawattakelle Forest Reserve

Kandy from Udawattakelle Forest Reserve

I don’t think that’s how “Colgate” is spelled

I don’t think that’s how “Colgate” is spelled

Posted by urbanreverie 21:50 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged temples rainforest buses sri_lanka kandy sacred_tooth

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