Top 10 Temple Experiences In Sri Lanka
There are temples everywhere in Asia, but Sri Lanka offers arguably the most varied temple experiences for whether you are an avid scholar, an active adventurer or a peace seeking holiday-maker. Here are our top 10 temples to include in your tour of Sri Lanka:
1. Temple of the Tooth, Kandy
Nowadays, this is the daddy of all Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka and as home to the Buddha's tooth, it one of the most important Buddhist sites anywhere in the world. If you can time it right, the highlight of a visit to the Temple of the Tooth is to see the evening ‘Puja' or ceremony. This happens daily and lasts for around an hour, involving lots of noisy drumming and excitement. Most of the ceremony actually takes place behind closed doors, but at the end, the tooth relic is opened to the public gaze and you can join the queue to shuffle past for your glimpse! For a truly mind-blowing experience plan your trip to coincide with the 10 day Esala Perahera Festival in July or August each year.
2. Dambulla Cave Temples
Perhaps a less strenuous climb than the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, but those who visit the Dambulla Cave Temples will also have to clamber up some fairly steep steps. Once at the top however, you are richly rewarded with 5 large caverns which make up the largest cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. The walls are clad with over 2000 square metres of ancient Buddhist murals and there are 157 Buddha statues, including an impressive 47 foot ‘recumbent' Buddha. We recommend planning your visit to avoid the hottest time in the middle of the day.
The ruined ancient city of Anuradhapura is the spiritual centre for all Sinhalese Buddhists and somewhere that any visitor with an interest in archaeology will love. It covers a huge area, much larger than that of Polonnaruwa, and is in varying states of decay. But, with an expert guide to help you bring the old buildings (including the original Temple of the Tooth) back to life, it is one of Sri Lanka's real highlights. At the heart of the site is the Sri Maha Bodhi, a sacred Bo tree rumoured to have grown from a cutting of the original Bo Tree in India, under which Buddha obtained enlightenment. The special spiritual atmosphere surrounding the tree is really something remarkable to behold. For me personally, the most amazing part of my visit to Anuradhapura was visiting the magnificent and ginormous Dagobas (Ruvanvalisaya, Abhayagiri, Jetavanarama and Mirisavatiya) - perhaps the most iconic structures of this ancient wonderland.
4. Nainativu Nagapooshani Amman Temple
The Amman is a delightfully colourful and busy Hindu temple on the island of Nainativu, a short ferry ride off the Jaffna Peninsula. This temple gets thousands of visitors daily, more during festivals and has been a very important symbol for local Tamils for centuries. The current structure dates back to the 18th century after the original temple was destroyed by the Portuguese and contains thousands of intricate sculptures and statues. When the sun is shining - and it usually is - the display of colour from afar or close up is truly marvellous
5. Adam's Peak
As well as being one of the highest mountains in Sri Lanka (at 2243m), Adam's Peak is a sacred place for Buddhists who hypothesize that ‘Sri Pada', the rock formation near the summit, is a footprint of Buddha. Hindus suggest that perhaps it is the footprint of Shiva, whilst in Muslim and Christian traditions, it is regarded as the footprint of Adam or of St Thomas. Whatever your beliefs this is a holy place and somewhere that the active traveller will love. There are a number of different climbing trails that can be taken and the relatively tough climb is usually undertaken by night. We recommend starting the climb at about 2am in order to reach the summit by sunrise. Views on a clear day are breath-taking and stretch for miles.
6. Arankele Forest Monastery
The ruins of Arankele Monastery are hidden away off the road between Colombo and the Cultural Triangle and visitors will very often find that they have these charming ruins all to themselves. We love the tranquillity here, just as the long-since dispersed monks must have done when they chose this spot for their home centuries ago. The jungle has reclaimed much of the monastery complex but the more you look around, the more you will notice the intricate rock carvings poking out. This is a great stop off for anyone travelling up from Negombo or Colombo to the Cultural Triangle and we can arrange for you to take with you a picnic lunch to enjoy at the site or a substantial meal at the nearby Brook Boutique Hotel.
13km to the east of Anuradhpura and easily combined on a day trip, is the mountain of Mihintale. Another very important site for Sinhalese Buddhists, Mihintale is believed to be the place where the Buddhist monk, Mahinda, on a mission from India, met with the Sinhalese King, Devanampiya Tissa and laid the foundations for Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Visitors can chose to climb from the bottom, tackling the 1850 steps, or be driven half way up and climb from there. At the summit you are rewarded, not just with stunning views, but with a large Buddha statue, an imposing Dagoba (Maha Seya) and the precariously balanced Aradhana Rock. On the way down, your guide will walk you around the ruins of the old monastery complex that was here, including the refectory and the hospital at the foot of the mountain.
The other major ruined city in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, along with Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa is smaller and in better condition, making it easier for the visitor to picture how the city used to be. Wonder around the old hospital, the royal baths, the Kings council chamber and the old royal palace before visiting the huge Buddha carvings of Gal Vihara and the statue of King Parakrambahu. For those interested in discovering Polonnaruwa by bike, we can arrange a guided bicycle tour - the area is relatively flat and lends itself very well to exploration on 2 wheels.
Kataragama is a pilgrimage town on the outskirts of the Yala National Park and is another important sight for Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindus. Of the many shrines in the town, the most important is the one dedicated to the god Kataragama. We would mostly recommend visiting as a trip from your accommodation near Yala or on the South Coast, but those with a keen interest might want to consider staying in a simple hotel in the town itself in order to enjoy the evening Puja which takes place daily. In July or August there is a big festival here and one that has fewer western visitors than the Esala Perahera in Kandy. Beware thought, the festival is perhaps not for the faint hearted as it is famous for acts of self-mutilation with pilgrims piercing their cheeks or tongues with skewers and walking over hot coals!
The amazing temple monastery at Milkirigala makes for a wonderful half day trip and is very easily accessible for those staying in a south-coast beach resort neat Tangalle. The complex is made up of a series of temples carved out of the face of an enormous rock (also known as ‘Little Sigiriya'). The experience is, if you like, a bit like a cross between Dambulla and Sigiriya, though certainly worth a visit, even if you have already seen them both.
* See our full selection of holidays in Sri Lanka.