Sacred Kandy Temple of the Tooth
The Kandy Temple of the Tooth or the Palace of the Sacred Tooth ( Singhalese: ශ්රී දළදා මාළිගාව – Sri Dalada Maligawa) is a must-visit place in Sri Lanka. It houses the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha, the religious leader of Buddhism. This historic palace is also a UNESCO world heritage site with historic, cultural, and spiritual importance. Each year, thousands of local and foreign Buddhists visit this place to pay their respect. So, while you are in Sri Lanka, we highly recommend you visit this place to experience the best of Sri Lankan culture and Buddhism.
The Amazing Tale of the Sacred Tooth Relic
♦ The aftermath of Lord Buddha’s Parinibbana
The sacred tooth relic has a long and exciting history dating back to 543 BC. After the cremation of the Lord Buddha, the remains were divided into 8 parts including the 4 canine teeth. Accordingly, they were taken out of the ash and distributed among 8 states of Maha Bharat ( Ancient India – Including Pakistan, Nepal & Bangladesh ). The subject left canine holy Tooth of the lower jaw was reserved for Ajatasath, king of Magadha( modern-day Bihar). Likewise, the rest were to the Lichchavis of Vaishali, to the Shakyas of Kapilavasthu, to the Bulis of Allakappa, to the Koliyas of Ramagrama, to the Mallas of Pava, to the Mallas of Kushinagar, and to the Brahmin of Vethadipa.
The topic relic was later received to the Kingdom of Kalinga ( Modern Andhra Pradesh). After the destruction of the Magadha kingdom due to heavy floods, the relic was retrieved by the nagas of Kalinga. For more than 800 years, it was kept with all the respects in the city of Danthapuram( city of The Tooth). In the 4th century CE, during the reign of King Guhasiva, then king of Kalinga, was facing many threats from regional Kingdoms due to the overwhelmed attraction to the Tooth, his kingdom possesses. These threats quickly became major attacks ( Tooth wars).
♦ Tooth Wars
Tooth wars emerged mainly due to the long-held belief of the rightness to rulership. People of Kalinga truly and strongly believed that, whoever possessed the Sacred Tooth, has the right to rule the country and only accepted him as their leader if he posses the precious relic. The Non-Buddhist Hindu regional Kings wanted to break this belief and destroy the holy relic. On the other hand, the Buddhist kings wanted to possess the sacred tooth and win the rightness to rule the Kingdom.
♦ Fleeing to Sri Lanka
Considering these unavoidable threats, King Guhasiva knew the kingdom’s peace is on the brink. Therefore, in order to protect the holy tooth from any harm, he safely and secretly sent the relic out of the Kingdom, under the possession of his trustful and loving daughter, Princess Hemamala, and his noble son in law, Prince Dantha. Princess hid the Holy relic in her hair bum and started fleeing. Facing enormous difficulties on the midway, after 8 years of a long journey, the holy relic was brought to Lankadweepa( Ancient Sri Lanka) in 302 CE and handed over to King Guhasiva’s diplomatic relation and a close friend, King Sri Meghawanna of Anuradhapura.
Being a Buddhist and a Sinhalese, the king knew the importance and responsibility of having gifted the highest possible, and most precious artifact in the world. He built a separate palace for the Holy tooth right beside his palace and kept it there. Furthermore, with all the respect, protection, and the heartiest rituals, the king took all the steps to maintain worships of beliefs kept by his friend King of Kalinga.
Meanwhile, the irenic kingdom of Kalinga was easily destroyed by Hindus, and the land was annexed to their kingdoms. Holy relic could never be found or traced by the Hindus. Which became fully owned property to the ruler of Lankadweepa. It was always kept along with the King’s sight, and once the kingdom of Lankadweepa also started facing attacks from Southern Indians, the relic was also shifted with the Kingdom capital. However, the relic was always given respect over the King and most of the rituals were carried out by the ruler of the nation himself.
♦ The Journey of the Holy Relic in Sri Lanka
Even though the sacred relic now rests in Kandy in the holiness’ own Palace, it was previously kept in 11 devoted Palaces or temples with the change of Kingdoms over time. Indeed, for 715 years, the relic was in the Kingdom of Anuradhapura; then brought to Polonnaruwa kingdom (365 years), later to Dambadeniya ( 36 years), again smuggled to Madurai, after an Indian invasion by Pandyas of Maha Bharat ( Pandya Dynasty); recovered by Parakramabahu III of Yapahuwa / Kurunegala Kingdom in 1288 CE( 57 years), then to the Kingdom of Gampola ( 63 years), Kingdom of Kotte ( 130 years), and Kingdom of Seethavaka ( 52 years). Finally until today, in the Kingdom of Kandy since 1595( 425 years).
Only during the reign of Polonnaruwa, the holy relic was shifted to 3 different newly built palaces due to the fact of overwhelmed respect by the Kings. They were always unsatisfied with the dignity they have paid towards the priceless relic during their time, hence always wanted to outpace the previous honors paid by past kings.
With the first tooth relic ( right canine tooth of the lower jaw) gifted by Mahinda Thera in 307 BC at the time of introducing Buddhism to Lankadweepa, Island now owns two tooth relics of Lord Buddha. One enshrined in the Somawathi Stupa located in Polonnaruwa, and the topic relic in the Temple of Tooth, Kandy.
Things to do at the Kandy Temple of Tooth
Witness the sacred Tooth
While you cannot actually see the sacred tooth itself due to security reasons, you can still get to see the golden casket where it is deposited. The tooth is safely enshrined in 7 golden caskets and these are only opened briefly throughout the day. The sacred relic used to get paraded around the city during the Esala Perahera. But this was stopped due to terrorist attacks and the fear of the tooth getting harmed. There were two times throughout history when this temple was attacked. The first time was in the 18th century during colonial wars led against the Dutch and the Portuguese. The second time was in 1998 by LTTE terrorists. The relic was unharmed both times.
Experience the devoutness of the Buddhists visiting the temple
Although it is not possible to see the sacred relic, many pilgrims gather around to pay their respects to it. It is common for pregnant ladies and mothers with children to come here looking for blessings. The rituals include offering scented flowers, lighting incense sticks, and more. Usually, people line up and offer flowers on long tables. The floral scent is prominent in the area and the whole atmosphere is very peaceful.
It is okay to take photographs here. But, be careful to be respectful to the rituals of the locals. When taking photos, never face your back to the tooth relic or any statue of Lord Buddha. This is considered to be rude. If you want to participate in these rituals yourself, go ahead! You can buy flowers, incense sticks, and any other offering at the temple grounds. If you can’t seem to find your way around, just follow the slow-moving line of pilgrims. Other than that, you are free to enjoy the beautiful temple to your heart’s content.
Explore the temple
Outside, the temple of the tooth is only plain white walls and red roofs. The one building with a golden roof is where the sacred tooth is enshrined. There are some carved openings in the temple walls. But these may not seem as striking or especially beautiful.
The true magnificence of this palace is seen inside. Every wall is covered with detailed paintings depicting stories of the sacred tooth and the Lord Buddha. If you can, take some time to look at these paintings and read the stories. They are all very entertaining, not to mention beautifully depicted.
All columns in the temple are also intricately designed with beautiful carvings. While inside, take a good look at the beautiful moonstones at the foot of staircases. These are carved with unique patterns of animals, lotus flowers, and so on. The royal hall located in the temple grounds is also famous for its wood carvings.
At the exit, there is a little garden with a fountain. A large bronze bell is rung during worship times which was donated by the government of Japan. There is a dedicated place for lighting oil lamps in this area. This is another ritual done by Buddhists and it represents the light of knowledge defeating the darkness of ignorance.
Visit the museum
The temple also includes a museum dedicated to the history of the sacred relic. And, because some buildings of the temple used to belong to the last Kandyan king’s palace, there are quite a lot of royal artifacts to see here as well. There are plaques in English for everything here. So, you can read and get to know everything yourself.
One of the main highlights of the museum is the tusker “Raja” who used to carry the sacred tooth in parades for more than half a century. After his death, the skin was preserved and stuffed to look like he was alive. Other than that, you will get to see different other artifacts including jewelry, garments worn by the king, other items like a silver lamp and pot offered to the temple by Kandyan kings in the past, a replica of Lord Buddha’s footprint sent by a king of Thailand, and so on.
During the British rule in 1815, King Sri Vickrama Rajasinha used the temple as a palace. So, there are a lot of historical sites within the temple grounds. Some of these places are the queen’s bathing pavilion and royal hall. You can also see the royal palace of the last king of Sri Lanka on the temple grounds. However, the public is not granted access inside the palace. The oldest building is the Natha Devalaya which is said to have been built even before the sacred tooth was brought to Sri Lanka.
Watch Esala Perahera ( Seasonal )
This yearly event is the largest Buddhist festival in the world. And it is also the most beautiful. Esala Perahera is held to celebrate and pay respect to the sacred tooth relic. Ever seen pictures of beautifully dressed elephants? Chances are that they belong to the Esala Perahera.
In this procession you’ll get to see several elephants, all dressed and looking elegant. These elephants carry the casket of the sacred tooth (the real sacred tooth is not included in the parade anymore due to security reasons). Other than the elephants, there are adults dressed in royal outfits and many traditional dancers performing in the procession.
This colorful tradition has been going on since the 3rd century BC. And, it is truly something you should not miss out on. To watch the Esala Perahera, visit Kandy in July. This ceremony lasts 12 days and it will awe you with its unique vibe and undeniable beauty. And, you can only ever experience this in Sri Lanka!
How to get to the Kandy Temple of Tooth?
The temple of Tooth, Kandy is only about 8 minutes away from Kandy city. The walk from the town lies along a lake and is quite a scenic walk to enjoy. You will soon be within sight of the red roofs and the white walls of the Temple of Tooth. You can also take a tuk-tuk to get to the temple. When you arrive at the temple, beware. Don’t buy entrance tickets from any individual ‘claiming’ to sell tickets. There are automatic ticket vending machines available at the entrance.
What to wear to the Kandy Temple of Tooth?
Because you are visiting a religious place, you have to take care to cover up. Try to wear white or light-colored clothing. While this is not a rule, Buddhists usually avoid wearing bright clothing to temples. Sleeveless tops, short dresses, shorts, and crop tops are not allowed. You have to cover your shoulders and legs. If you happen to wear shorts for the day, you can borrow a sarong at the entrance and wear it. Wearing hats and hijabs are also not accepted. As for footwear, you don’t need them. You can safely deposit your footwear at the entrance and get it back when you leave. Wear socks if you visit at noon because the gravel path can heat up.
The Temple of Tooth, Kandy should definitely be on your checklist of things to do in Sri Lanka. Everything about this temple is interesting. This is why the Kandy Tooth relic temple is ranked top out of almost all temples in Sri Lanka. When visiting the temple, please avoid illegal tour guides. The temple has its own official guides who will tell you everything you need to know.
After you visit this temple, make sure to visit other popular attractions in Kandy including, but not limited to, the Peradeniya botanical garden, Udawatta sanctuary, Bahirawakanda temple, and amazing cultural shows of Sri Lankan traditional music and dances. Kandy is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka so, never miss this magnificent destination while you are here!