Thursday, April 2, 2015

2015 March 12-13: Kandy: Part 1

On March 12 we left the blazing sun of Negombo for an overnight trip to the cool hill country of Kandy. 

Found in the very centre of the island, it is the second largest city in Sri Lanka. It is a beautiful city with a rich cultural and religious heritage, and is surrounded by tea plantations, hills, and spectacular views. 

Kandy has been - and still is - known by many names since its founding in the mid-1300s, It is an old city - the Kandyan Kingdom was founded in the late 1400s. After the Portuguese conquered all the coastal kingdoms in the 1500s, Kandy was the last remaining kingdom on the island, and repelled all attempts by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British to overthrow it until a treaty called the Kandyan Convention was signed between the Colonial British and the Kandyan aristocrats in 1815; the last king of Kandy was captured by the British and, along with all other claimants to the thrown, was taken to Tamil Nadu in southern India, where the area where they were incarcerated is still referred to as the Place of the Kandyan Kings.

The treaty did not lead to peace. As stated here, "The story of English rule in the Kandyan country during the rebellion of 1818 cannot be related without shame...Hardly a member of the leading families remained alive...Those whom the sword and the gun had spared, cholera and small pox and privations had slain by the hundreds...Others became ignorant and apathetic. Any subsequent development efforts of the government for many years were only attempts begun and abandoned."

The tea and rubber plantations that one passes on the way to Kandy are beautiful agricultural marvels that hide a troubled past. During the 32 years of British rule following the signing of the treaty, many tea and rubber plantations were established in and around the city and villages of the surrounding hills through the expropriation of land owned by the people, who were then forced to abandon their traditional way of life to become waged workers for the British. The Kandyans refused to accept this, resulting in the British bringing hundreds of thousands of unskilled Tamils from southern India to work in the appalling conditions found on the plantations. The Kandyans revolted, and with their leaders dead, their land gone, their way of life destroyed, they rebelled by electing for the first time non-aristocrats to lead them.

Of course, we knew little of this as we traveled by bus to get there. We were taken in by the beautiful views, especially as we slowly climbed the winding mountain roads that lead to Kandy. The view of Bathalegala Rock, a 1688 foot tall volcanic mountain surrounded by lush rain forest, was breathtaking. 

Kandy is also home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This is one of the most holy places in the world for Buddhists. They believe that one of the Buddha's teeth was rescued from his funeral pyre, and eventually made its way here to Kandy. It - or a replica so that the original remains safely tucked away - is found in one of the shrines in the complex, encased in seven boxes reminiscent of Russian nesting dolls. The temple is situated in the former Kandyan royal complex, and includes this island which is reportedly where the king kept his favourite concubine.

After finding a hotel we went for a walk around the lake. Kandy Lake is completely artificial, constructed so that the royal family would have a place to go boating and bathing. The city surrounds the lake, and a well-maintained walkway makes a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

The next morning we went to a natural area found in the hills behind the temple.

Lush and serene, it seems a different world from the hustle and bustle of the city. We spent several hours here, walking the pathways. 

We saw over 130 toque macaques in three family groups as we walked along the sun-dappled roads. One group of 63 individuals passed in front of us. Steve and Elanor sat on the ground in the midst of another large troupe as the monkeys crossed all around them. Several large black millipedes were entertaining to watch and for Steve and Elanor to hold. A Buddhist monk in his orange robes passed us on his way to some nearby caves to meditate. A barking deer - the size of a dog, sounds like a dog - startled us just as much as we startled him. Elanor was bitten by her first leech, and bled her white sock red. 

After a passing light rain, common in the higher elevations in the hill country, we headed back to busy Kandy. Numerous websites and travel guides talk of the seedy underside of Kandy - warnings against lone female travelers, staying inside at night, avoiding the alleyways that contain seedy gambling dens, and the ever present touts trying to encourage you to spend your money at one or another establishment...for a small fee, of course.

The coolness of Kandy was a welcome respite, and while we will probably visit there again before we leave, I am glad that we decided to stay in Negombo for our five months in Sri Lanka.  Negombo is home, with its sizzling heat and blood red skies that signal more hot weather to come.