Living in Kandy with no tooth decay

The day after our restless, mosquito-filled night in Trincomolee, the group had an itchy ride to Kandy filled with switchbacks as we climbed into the hill country. The roads were often narrow and filled with pot holes. Regularly we would round a corner to encounter a lorry overladen with cargo heading squarely towards us. Both drivers would use their horns and both vehicles would quickly swerve to avoid collision. Or, when the road was too narrow, one driver would yield and pull suddenly to the side. I could not figure out how they determined which vehicle had to give way, but the decision had to be made instantly. Other times we would pass a bus with three times the number of passengers than seats. Around a blind corner the driver would honk and pass the packed bus on faith. My father told us that less than 4% of drivers in Sri Lanka at that time had been driving for more than five years. Janelle was not at all upset by the driving conditions. She would stand on a small ledge separating the front from the back seat and hang on with both hands to bars that extended up between the headrests and sway back and forth. She loved to ride in such a way and grew excited every time she saw we were going in the van. The “bye-bye van” she called it. She was either standing gripping the bars or sleeping on a lap. Only rarely did she ride in traditional seated position. I was not as enamored with long-distance travel as my sister. The thing I tended to say bye-bye to was the contents of my stomach. However, I was becoming more adept at reading the signs of impending carsickness, and the driver no longer even needed to pull over as I deftly had learned to use the window and aerodynamics to my advantage.

When we arrived in Kandy, the home my family was to live in for the rest of the year was still inhabited by its previous tenants who had two more weeks on their lease. So, we settled in an amazing guest house overlooking the Mahaveili River. The accommodations were surrounded by lush jungle with rice paddies and mountains visible in the distance. I had my own large room and my sister and Mom and Dad shared another. Each morning we would be served breakfast on the expansive terrace that overlooked the river gorge. The beautiful dwelling was the film location for the British headquarters in the 1957 Academy Award-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai starting William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa.


Although the story takes place in Burma and Sri Lanka, the bridge was built in Sri Lanka. The terrace at our accommodation was covered but open on three sides and was a most amazing porch on which to enjoy our morning meals. I grew accustomed to a daily cup of milk tea. This sweet mixture is often made with white sugar, tea and milk, but sometimes it is served with jiggery, a dark brown lump of sugarcane or palm sap. Either way it was a sweet delicious mixture that allowed me to drink tea on the terrace with adults and feel very grown up as well.

While we stayed at the beautiful guest house, the students were placed with local host families and began to settle in for our extended stay in Kandy. Summer was over now at home, and my friends had already started their 5th grade year. It was time for me to start school as well, and we visited an international school located in Kandy. My mother and I met with Principle Perera and made a plan to begin immediately. The school was fairly small and several ages were grouped together in multi-grade classrooms. My classroom was located on the second floor of the building which was built into the side of one of Kandy’s many hills and opened to an outdoor paved terrace where recess would be held. As I was touring the facility, the administrator asked which language I would like to take and I replied Sinhalese. “We don’t offer Sinhalese, I’m afraid,” she replied. “You can choose between German, French or Latin.” At home I had taken some classes in Spanish and had no experience with any of the other alternatives. I nervously opted for French and was introduced to several students who would be in my class. Many classmates were in Sri Lanka because one of their parents was working on Victoria Dam, a long-term project on the Mahaweli River to supply irrigation and hydro-electric power to the country.


As I traveled around Sri Lanka, folks I encountered often assumed my family was associated with the undertaking. The fact that I was neither a tourist nor with a family working on Victoria Dam was confusing to many. When I told people that my father was studying Buddhism, there was inevitable enthusiasm and many interesting conversations ensued as most found it fascinating that a person who was not Buddhist would want to learn about the religion. Victoria Dam was not completed until several years after we left the country, but approximately 30,000 people required resettlement because of the enterprise. I recall some grumblings about this, but at age 10, I was never sure about the politics or issues surrounding the project.

So I got to enjoy another trip to purchase fresh school supplies and I began attending the international school. It was clear that many of my classmates were world travelers. Most had lived in multiple countries around the world following usually the jobs of their father. I met a girl older than I with a Japanese father and a Mexican mother. I had a classes with two very blond siblings from Germany, a boy from India, brother and sister twins from Canada and a handful of students from England. All of them seemed to me to have led such exotic and varied lives, yet they all seemed quite at home at this International school in Kandy, Sri Lanka.


Kandy, located in the hills of central Sri Lanka, was a departure from the coastal city we had just left. Colombo is the commercial capital of the nation and had many modern Western shops and restaurants. Located near the sea, the Colombo topography was largely flat, and although it appeared tropical and lush when I arrived, once we arrived in Kandy I better understood what a real jungle could look like. Kandy is nestled in the hills and spreads out from around a lake and the city center. The beautiful artificial lake was created in 1807 by the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha just before he was captured by the British in 1815. The lake and the Temple of the Tooth on its banks are the heart of the city. Before his capture the King was building a decorative wall around the lake now called the cloud wall, but he was unable to finish it. The section of the lake near the Temple of the Tooth was the first place we visited when exploring Kandy center and was always the first place we took guests as well. The afternoon of our first full day in Kandy, we were driven downtown by the guest house driver. Arriving at in the heart of Kandy we waited to cross the street from the Queens Hotel toward the lake.


The British colonial style hotel building had its grand entrance on the corner and extended down the street in both directions. Its white balconies gave it a palatial appearance. As we waited for a gap in tuk tuk, lorry and bicycle traffic I saw that across the street a stand of trees overhung the walkway along the water. Many of the pedestrians used umbrellas despite the sunny day, and I noticed that when they reached the end of the trees they would leave their umbrellas behind. Other strollers headed in the opposite direction would take the discarded umbrellas as they walked along the path. It took me several minutes to determine that there was a large flock of birds in the trees and that the umbrellas were protection from the rain of bird droppings. I don’t know who provided the initial supply of screens, but one by one each passersby would take protection at one end and leave it at the other. I only saw this phenomenon a few times during my stay in Kandy. I’m not sure if the birds were seasonal or if the umbrellas disappeared, but whenever I walked that short section along the lake my pace quickened.

After we maneuvered past the birds, we arrived at the Temple of the Tooth. The temple was not the most grand we had seen, but to me had a certain magic to it. The white stone contrasted with the terracotta colored roof of the predominant part of the structure, the octagonal Patthirippuwa. It appeared to me that the building was wrapped in lace as the stone walls that surround the complex were replete with rectangular openings that imparted a filigree effect. When we arrived it was just dusk and they turned on hundreds of tiny lights which lined some of the angular architectural features of the building. The small lights made the complex appear to glow pink to me. Although from every picture I see of the famous Buddhist temple, the stones are white, I remember the buildings as pink perhaps from that rose colored radiance it had when lit at night. The place was especially magical during festival times when many of the stone wall crannies were filled with small lighted coconut oil lamps.


I immediately assumed the temple got its name from the surrounding white wall which was constructed in series of triangular shaped waves. However, I soon learned that the temple of the tooth was so called because it houses a tooth relic from the Buddha. The tooth was recovered from the Buddha’s funeral pyre and was brought to Sri Lanka sometime in the 4th century. The tooth was revered and for many years moved around the country with various kings so that eventually possession of the tooth became a symbol for the right to rule. So, there were temples built around the tooth in several locations in Sri Lanka. The final resting place of the tooth and the most recent temple is in Kandy. The idea of a relic was a new concept for me. I had not grown up in a religious tradition in which relics were important, and here was an entire complex built around the canine tooth of a religious leader. Living in Kandy I saw the temple nearly every day, and the tooth began to take on a kind of mysterious mythical quality, so when my father and I joined a line of worshipers one evening to go in and see the tooth I had a very grand vision of what it would be like. The night we went was packed with pilgrims to see the relic of the Buddha. We waited for some time in line, slowly shuffling towards the entrance with the crowd. Outside Kandian drummers were keeping a beat and the flames from oil lamps could be seen peeking out from the cutouts on the outside wall. We removed our shoes and entered the inner area which usually was cooler than outside, but on this evening was warmed by all of the bodies. Even the usually cool floor was warm under our bare feet.


The inside of the temple is much more ornate than the simple stone façade. The crowd steadily pushed us down the gold painted arched hallway lined with painted portraits. The air was filled with the perfumed smoke of incense mixed with the aroma of many people crammed into a muggy temple. As we followed the throng towards our destination I saw a large set of ivory tusks framing the entrance. Finally we shuffled past a set of open doors and craning to see, I caught a glimpse of a small golden stupa though a haze of smoke. We were ushered past by the insistent crowd from behind so quickly I wasn’t even certain that what I had seen was the relic but after we passed the golden stupa the urgency of the crowd lessened and thinned. When we had retrieved our shoes I asked my father if he had been able to see the tooth and he explained that it was inside a series of golden caskets inside the small stupa we had seen. “How does anybody know the tooth is really in there if they don’t ever see it?” I asked. My father replied that it didn’t really matter, that Buddhists from all over the world believed it was there and it was an important pilgrimage site. I made a joke about how the tooth should have decayed by now because it was always in Kandy. Dad laughed and so I repeated the joke every time we showed the temple to visitors. I will get a chance to visit the Temple of the Tooth this year with my family. I am not sure the tooth will be on display, so we will likely have to take it on faith that it is there like thousands before us.


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Johanna is a theatre producer who currently lives with her family in New Hampshire.

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