Known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is the home of culture, faith, and wildlife. Sri Lanka beckons travelers with its vibrant landscapes, warm hospitality, and a cultural tapestry that weaves together centuries of history. From the sacred sites that echo with the chants of devotees, to the colorful festivals that light up the streets, we'll delve into our top 5 Sri Lankan cultural highlights and nearby places to stay.
1. Temple of the Tooth
The Temple of the Tooth, traditionally known as 'Sri Dalada Maligawa', is in Sri Lanka’s second-largest city, Kandy. Said to house the left canine tooth of Gautama Buddha, the Temple of the Tooth is one of the most culturally significant Buddhist sites in the world and one of eight of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Temple of the Tooth attracts thousands of tourists and worshipers from around the world, all eager to be in the presence of this holy relic. For security purposes the tooth remains under heavy guard and is locked away in a series of gold, stupa-shaped cases that diminish in size like Russian nesting dolls.
Located in the northern Matale District, close to the town of Dambulla, Sigiriya is another of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ancient stronghold of Sigiriya dates back to the fifth century and towers 200 meters above the dense jungle floor and 370 meters above sea level.
Sigiriya is of deep archaeological importance and served as both a royal palace and a Buddhist monastery before it was abandoned and the entrance swallowed up by the surrounding jungle. The main entrance of Sigiriya is made of enormous stone lions, the legs of whom are still intact, hence the temple was named Sigiriya or ‘lion’s rock’. The west wall of the rock is adorned with 18 intricate and well-preserved murals which serve as the last visible remnants of King Kasyapa’s rule. The fort features a citadel of upper, lower, and ground-level palaces, ponds, gardens, and fountains. Atop the rock sits a mysterious landscape of manicured grass gardens, pools with water pumps, and staircases to adjoining levels of the rock. The view from the top offers panoramic views of the surrounding jungle.
This sacred city is said to have been established around a cutting from the ‘tree of enlightenment’, the Buddha’s fig tree which was brought there in the 3rd century. A once thriving epicenter, the sprawling complex is another of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is famous for its immaculately preserved ruins of ancient Sinhalese civilization. The city contains multiple giant brick stupas (dagobas) including the Jetavanarama which was once one of the tallest buildings in the world, third only to the two Egyptian pyramids. The city is steeped in history, with many other notable architectural treasures including ancient pools, more stupas, and crumbling temple ruins.
The 18th century mountain temple of Kande Vihara is home to one of the tallest sitting Buddha statues in the world. Unveiled in 2007, the giant Buddha measures 160ft / 49 meters tall and is draped in traditional orange robes while sitting atop a pink pedestal watching over entrance of the temple. The temple beneath houses a museum, library, and figures of Sri Lanka’s past kings and many more Buddha statues. This site is one of Sri Lanka’s most treasured archaeological monuments and is not to be missed!
One of Sri Lanka’s most significant religious sites and another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rangiri Dambulla Cave Temple is the largest and best-preserved cave temple in Sri Lanka. The site has been a sacred pilgrimage site for over 2 centuries and contains 157 statues and countless Buddhist murals. The caves have served many purposes from early shelter in the prehistoric era to housing Buddhist refugees and later inhabited by kings from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa who funded the renovations and added to the collection of statues and murals.