I could spend hours walking around temples marveling at the architecture and design. Like I’ve said before, I rarely get templed out when I travel. So when an opportunity came up to experience not only one of Sri Lanka’s most holy temples but also one of it’s most important rituals, you better believe I was there.
In fact, attending an evening puja at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy was one of my favorite experiences in all of Sri Lanka.
The Temple of the Tooth is important to Buddhists as it is home to one of Buddha’s teeth. (Clever name, huh?) The story goes that when the Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama) was cremated in India, one of his teeth was recovered from the pyre. The tooth made its way to Sri Lanka hidden in a woman’s hair piece and was given to the king at the time. Over the centuries, each king held on to the tooth and built palaces in their capital city to house it. Eventually, it ended up in Kandy, the last capital of Sri Lanka’s ancient kings, at the Temple of the Tooth.
Everyday there are ceremonies (at 6am, 10am and 6pm) during which the tooth, kept in an ostentatious golden case, is taken out of its chamber for devout Buddhists to see. Offerings of flowers are laid before the sacred tooth’s chamber, prayers fill the room, and drummers fill the air with rhythmic song. People line up for the chance to catch a glimpse the golden case up close. While the room is sticky with sweat and humidity and the space is tight with both devotees and tourists, it is worth every second of your time. You really get a feel for the ritual, the tradition, and the importance of this place.
Per usual with foreigner entrance fees in Sri Lanka, the price to get in is steep. It’s about USD$10 – exponentially more than the locals pay. While I balked at the unfair tourist pricing every time we arrived at a new temple or site, I always decided to pay the fee. I knew that later I would regret the choice to pass. (If you are on a strict budget and do not want to pay, there are some beautiful temples right next door that are free.)
If you go, make sure your shoulders and legs are fully covered. I had on a mid-calf length skirt, a tank top, and a scarf to cover my shoulders and they let me in just fine. Matt had on shorts and a t-shirt and he was turned around. We had to buy him a sarong to cover the rest of his legs. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake we did.
Once you get in, make your way upstairs if you want to get an up close view at the ceremony itself. (We arrived a little early just to be sure we would not get stuck behind long lines of devotees.) Sit or stand along the wall to keep out of the way but to also have a clear view at what is happening.
It was intensely hot and humid the night we visiting the temple, and I was sweating profusely the whole time. But once the drums began to sound downstairs, my discomfort melted away (no pun intended). Along with the booming drums, a meandering high-pitched melody sliced through the thick air as people began to fill in the room.
I did not understand everything that was happening in front of me at the time, but when faced with this kind of devotion, the details don’t always matter. All that mattered were the expressions of respect and love on the faces on those who had come to pay their respects. The excitement was almost palpable. I was humbled and inspired watching everyone go through the rituals of this important tradition.
After the ceremony, we took a walk around the rest of the temple building and grounds. (If I’m gonna pay $10, I’m gonna wanna take a look around.) My favorite place was a little glass room out on the terrace that enclosed a lattice of prayer candles. Inspiring devotion here as well.
Yes, the Temple of the Tooth is a touristy tourist attraction (though in low season when we visited, there were very few tourists). But it is also extremely important for Sri Lankan Buddhists. I don’t think it’s worth the time and money if you can’t attend a ceremony, but I can say that attending the puja was hands down one of the most worthwhile things we did in all of Sri Lanka.
I walked away from this experience feeling inspired – inspired to be a better and more honest version of myself as well as inspired to keep traveling and keep challenging myself.