I had always wanted to go to Kandy, for no other reason than that I was in love with the name: so airy, fanciful, and obviously suggestive of sweet things. I first found Kandy on a map of what was then called Ceylon, decades ago as a young man. Little did I know that it would one day have urgent revelations for me, more dark and poignant than sweet.
My journey began at Colombo’s crumbling train station, with its white facade like a cake about to melt. The first-class ticket cost a little more than $3 for the three-hour journey from Sri Lanka’s steamy Indian Ocean capital, through deep forest, to an altitude of 1,650 feet. The rusted railway car rattled and groaned its way uphill. Soon banana leaves were slapping against the train as we entered a relentless tangle of greenery.
The forest thickened with the crazy chaos of dark hardwood foliage. Vines choked every tree. The torrential rain of the southwest monsoon invigorated the pageant, shrieking and beating against the leaves as sheets of mist moved across the jungle. Then came swollen brown rivers, with water buffalo half sunk in mud near the pottery-red banks. Here and there the forest would break to reveal a shiny, rectilinear carpet of paddy fields, only to close in again, denser than before. I saw scrap-iron hutments and tiled rooftops the color of autumn leaves, and smoky blue hillsides creased by waterfalls and half-eaten by gray monsoon clouds. Other breaks in the forest revealed the occasional bell-shaped Buddhist dagoba, or stupa, with its soaring-to-heaven whiteness against the otherwise fungal-green tableau. As we drew near to Kandy, we passed through several narrow tunnels. In the pitch black, the creak of the train reverberated against the rock walls.
Kandy in early evening was a study in rust and mildew, with a crawling-uphill line of food stalls and other storefronts, so tattered and musty they seemed about to disintegrate. Yet that was only a first impression. Later ones would reveal how I had misjudged the scene. The storefronts—eateries, jewelers, mini-supermarkets, five-and-dime shops—were merely in need of new windows and paint jobs; they were in fact doing a brisk business. The streets were clean, the overhead fans worked in every shop I entered, and few beggars were visible. The middle class was evidently thriving, as demonstrated by the number of lavish, assembly-line weddings at my hotel during these auspicious days at the beginning of the monsoon.
A motorized rickshaw brought me to the Hotel Suisse, a seedy, dark-wooded British-colonial pile built in the mid-19th century. It had a well-stocked bar with boxy sofas and a billiard room, and was half empty: a cliché, in other words. My room cost $50. It lay off a portico overlooking a garden and Kandy Lake, which at dusk was tinted a mystical gray and dotted with lizards that crawled out onto the rocks. A thing of rare beauty, the lake was created by the last king of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, at great cost. After a stretch in Colombo’s punishing heat, I sat on the portico, yes, with a gin-and-tonic, and enjoyed the energizing coolness of a higher altitude, watching and listening to the rain on the lake.
Kandy defines quaintness, to such an extent that you begin to see the town in the black-and-white of a photo negative. But Kandy is also gaudy and magical. Within this forest town are Sri Lanka’s principal Buddhist shrines, swimming in gold and Technicolor. Across the lake from the Hotel Suisse is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, or Sri Dalada Maligawa, a shrine complex that was built in the 17th and 18th centuries by Kandy’s Sinhalese Buddhist kings and holds a tooth of the Buddha—Prince Siddhartha Gautama—said to have been taken from his funeral pyre in 543 B.C.
The Temple of the Tooth is a site of mass pilgrimage, where the tourist instinctively knows to dress modestly, remove shoes, stay quiet, and lurk in the background. Within the mottled stone walls of the complex is an immense layout of gardens lined with striped Buddhist flags: the blue stripe signifying loving-kindness, the yellow the middle path away from extremes, red the blessings of practice, orange the Buddha’s teachings, and white the purity of the dharma, or universal truth, leading to liberation. Hundreds of Sinhalese sit in a two-story room in meditative positions, softly chanting and offering up mountains of pink lotuses, purple waterlilies, and white jasmines in front of the gilded casket that holds the tooth. Babies are everywhere, remarkably silent, held tightly against the chests of women in long cotton wraparounds. Leaf monkeys watch the whole scene from the massive, fanlike roofs.
From this and the other temples and monasteries around Kandy radiates the overwhelming and studied richness of the two chief colors of Buddhism: a rich, maroon-like red and a dazzling gold, painted on stone statues and sumptuously draping the giant sitting Buddha in each temple. The murals in these temples are faded and blackened with age. Only in the Eastern Orthodox churches in the Balkans have I come across a clutter of magnificence to match what I have seen in the Buddhist sanctuaries of Sri Lanka. Even as you experience this whole sensual feast, your bare feet press against cold and wet stone, since the rains are constant during the southwest monsoon.
Here, you are alone with your thoughts. Sri Lanka is in general a less panicky, less frantic, less intrusive version of India. Only rarely are you hassled. And Kandy, up in the hills, away from the crowded coastal highway, is a concentrated version of the country’s charms.
Alas, when you fall in love with a place, you encounter its history, which is often tragic. In fact, Kandy has remained seedily quaint, its monuments and ambience unravaged by mass tourism, only because Sri Lanka has experienced more than a quarter century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils. And the origins and conduct of that savage conflict have drawn, in many ways, from the same emotional wellsprings as the tradition of worship at Kandy’s tranquil Buddhist shrines.
Buddhism holds an exalted place in the half-informed Western mind. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism are each associated, in addition to their thought, with a rich material culture and a defended territory, Buddhism, despite its great monuments and architectural tradition throughout the Far East, is somehow considered purer, more abstract, and almost dematerialized: the most peaceful, austere, and uncorrupted of faiths, even as it appeals to the deeply aesthetic among us. Hollywood stars seeking to find themselves—famously Richard Gere—become Buddhists, not, say, orthodox Jews.
Yet Buddhism, as Kandy demonstrates, is deeply materialistic and demands worship of solid objects, in a secure and sacred landscape that has required the protection of a military. There have been Buddhist military kingdoms—notably Kandy’s—just as there have been Christian and Islamic kingdoms of the sword. Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.
Kandy may be the Buddhist world’s best example of this. From the late 16th to the early 19th centuries, the kingdom of Kandy sturdily held out against European invaders: the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British in their turn. “Like many other armies in peasant and tribal societies,” writes Channa Wickremesekera in Kandy at War: Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka 1594 to 1818 (2004), “the Kandyan army fought in loosely organized and highly mobile units depending on a flimsy logistical base,” making optimum use of its rugged, jungly terrain. It was very much like a 21st-century guerrilla insurgency, in other words—inspired, in this case, by the need to defend faith and homeland against heathen Europeans. The dense forest through which I had passed on my train ride constituted the graveyard of European attempts to reach Kandy, with many a Portuguese, Hollander, and Briton dying or giving up, exhausted and demoralized, afflicted by disease amid the cruel jungle so well described by Leonard Woolf in his 1913 novel, The Village in the Jungle:
For the rule of the jungle is first fear, and then hunger and thirst. There is fear everywhere: in the silence and in the shrill calls and the wild cries, in the stir of the leaves and the grating of branches, in the gloom, in the startled, slinking, peering beasts.
Eventually, the improved muskets and light artillery developed in Europe proved too much for the Kandyans. The British, explains Wickremesekera, unlike the Portuguese and Dutch, had the added advantages of “mastery over the neighboring Indian subcontinent and an army of over 100,000 soldiers when they clashed with Kandy.” They toppled King Wickrama of Kandy in 1815. He may have dug the lake, but he had been a tyrant and torturer. At least that was how the British rationalized their actions.