Thursday, December 3, 2009
at Thursday, December 03, 2009 | |
"Maybe in 2009, 2010, Sri Lanka will be busy because of the tourism," said Tuan Rizan Jamel, front-office executive of Kandy's posh Theva Residency hotel. "Everything is over. We are very happy."
Down the hill from the Theva, at the Temple of the Tooth (or Sri Dalada Maligawa), Prabo Wijetunge agreed.
"People are so relaxed," said Mr. Wijetunge, a Sri Lankan expatriate who was visiting home for the first time in three years. Mr. Wijetunge and his family were among the throngs paying homage inside the 18th-century temple on the north side of Kandy Lake.
The temple, the city's star architectural attraction, takes its name from the relic it houses: a tooth of the Buddha, kept in a stupa-shaped gold casket. Crowds of Sri Lankan devotees jostle past, carrying offerings of jasmine, lilies or lotus flowers. The tooth is also the focus of Kandy's famedperahera, or procession, held for 10 days in the month of Esala (which runs from July into August). The perahera features Kandyan dancing and drumming, and this year drew about 500,000 people on its final day -- more than in previous years.
The dates of next year's Esala Perahera haven't been set. But there is ample opportunity to hear Kandyan drumming and watch local dance -- Kandyan dancers and drummers are some of Sri Lanka's emblematic symbols -- at any time. At the Kandyan Art Association and Cultural Center, a quick walk from the tooth temple on the lake's northeast shore, the sound of a conch shell welcomes visitors to a show. Bare-chested men emerge in blue- and red-fringed white sarongs, with diamond-shaped headgear, beating geta bera with their hands. Women dancers pay graceful tribute to guardian deities and to their gurus. Before the evening is over, the dancers will enact the taming of a cobra and move like peacocks.
While the population is only about 112,000, Kandy is called Maha Nuwara, or Great City, by the Sinhalese. It has the feel of a town. Many of its temples, performances and shops are within walking distance of one another. But it's worth hiring a car or tuk-tuk (a motorized three-wheeler) to see, for example, the three temples on the outskirts, Embekke, Lankatilaka and Gadaladeniya. Buddhism came to Sri Lanka from India in the third century B.C., and these 14th-century structures display distinctive Buddhist statuary and paintings -- but also honor Hindu gods. The temples are still very much in use, with thrice-daily puja and drumming at the Embekke temple, for instance, and devout Buddhist worship at all three.
The Buddha practiced asceticism before achieving enlightenment, and famously preached that the root cause of suffering is desire. But tourists in Kandy can easily avail themselves of a steam bath or reflexology at one of the city's ayurvedic spas. And while many accommodations in town tend to be pretty basic, there are high-end alternatives. The rooms at the concrete, wood and glass Theva Residency, two kilometers from downtown, are adorned with modern Kandyan art; some are equipped with Jacuzzis. Little more than a year old, it's a world away from much of the other lodging in the area, and that seems to be the idea. Other high-end hotels include the Kandy House and the Kandy Panorama Resort.
Kandy isn't without its hassles for tourists, including persistent touts and unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers. But escape is as near as the 59-hectare Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, where a visitor can find serenity broken only by the song of one of Sri Lanka's 430-plus species of bird. "Maybe the entire climate -- the flora and the fauna -- makes people more peaceful" in Kandy, says Bridget Halpé, a longtime resident and music teacher. "There's a soothing influence about them."
Still, Kandy did not emerge from the long Sri Lankan conflict unscathed. In 1998, Tamil Tiger suicide bombers struck at the Temple of the Tooth, damaging the holy building and killing more than a dozen civilians.
But that, a Kandyan might say, was then, and the future is now. Sri Lanka is aiming to attract 2.5 million visitors by 2016. That would be more than five times the number that the country's tourism authority says came last year.
And war, in fact, is the last thing that comes to mind in Kandy, where the best thing to do may actually be nothing at all. Just close your eyes. Count your breaths. And listen to the heartbeat.