The Kandy Cultural Show and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth ceremony have become tourist fodder that many travellers would find low-brow. Here’s our take on these Sri Lankan extravaganzas.

The Kandy Cultural show and Temple of the Sacred Tooth ceremony are very touristy and tourists get a lot of bad press these days. Accused of wanting to see some of the world’s greatest sights, their endless thirst for ticking off the bucket list has landed them in travelling shame. They eat familiar food, travel in bus groups and collect tacky souvenirs.

Much better to be a traveller; the non-tourist who refuses to see anything listed in a guidebook, immerses themselves in culture and regularly engages with locals.

But refusing to see the world’s greatest sights because they are popular feels a bit like a toddler who refuses to play with his favourite toy because his little sister touched it. Sometimes it pays to brave the crowds and tourist tack. But is the Kandy Cultural Show and Temple of the Sacred Tooth ceremony traveller bliss or tourist hell?

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Kandy Cultural show, temple of the sacred tooth relic.

KANDY CULTURAL SHOW

Kandy is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka and a must on any 10-day Sri Lanka itinerary. It sits at the foot of the highlands, is surrounded by rolling tea fields and is the beginning of one of the greatest train journeys in the world. There are plenty of things to do in Kandy as well as numerous day trips like having breakfast with elephants, but the iconic sights of Kandy are the much visited Temple of the Sacred Tooth ceremony and the Kandy Cultural Show.

The Kandy Cultural show is held in what looks like an indoor netball stadium of a local public school. Tourist touts offer to guide us to the venue, even though we are standing right in front of it. Once inside we run past an influx of bus groups wearing their “I love Sri Lanka” t-shirts to grab some seats. The front 40 seats are reserved for some people that never turn up.

The hall is filled with anticipation thanks to the traditional Sri Lankan music blaring out of low-quality speakers, waiters offering refreshing Sri Lankan snacks, and hundreds of tourists who have no idea what’s about to happen.

10 day Sri Lanka itinerary Temple of the Sacred Tooth
Beautiful interior of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy

TEMPLE OF THE SACRED TOOTH CEREMONY

After being thoroughly entertained at the Kandy Cultural Show, the next stop is the nearby Temple of the Sacred Tooth ceremony. A more sombre celebration of Sri Lankan culture. Located in the royal palace complex, this impressive temple is surrounded by a brick moat, topped with a massive golden canopy.

The tooth is said to belong to Siddhārtha Gautama, Buddha himself. When he was cremated in India, one of his teeth was recovered and made its way to Sri Lanka where it was presented to the king. Over the centuries the tooth was handed down to each subsequent king who built temples– usually close to the palace – to house it under protective custody. As Kandy was the last of the ancient capitals, it remains here today.

Attending the ceremony involves paying the Rs1500 entrance fee – relatively expensive by Sri Lankan standards. Entrance is free for locals, making you feel more like a tourist if you didn’t already. Once inside, you arrive at the impressive entrance hall. A large space with stunning gold frescoes on the walls and very intricately carved wooden columns. It’s a beautiful space.

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NOISY, LIVELY AND EFFICIENT WORSHIP

The ceremony begins with billowing incense, beating drums and mingling families – dressed in their good-going-out-clothes. It is a noisy atmospheric affair so very different from religious ceremonies of my youth. You may even feel like a proper traveller. But like a jolt of reality, you soon find yourself queueing up along a staircase, not really sure what you’re queueing for.

After a short wait the queue winds its way up the staircase, enters the sacred area where the tooth resides. Next we shuffled past the tooth to pay our respects in a brisk, time-controlled manner. We don’t actually get to see the tooth; it’s encased in seven gold caskets.

When it was my turn to approach the tooth, I lent in slightly to admire the beautiful gold caskets, ready to observe their intricate magnificence. I don’t think I even came to a complete stop before I was tapped on the shoulder by someone in a smart uniform and told to move on. I stepped aside, not sure if the ceremony had happened to me or not.

While there’s not much to the actual ceremony, the smoke-filled, drum banging temple is very atmospheric and watching the locals clearly moved is reward enough to cover the entrance fee. After the ceremony, we wandered around the other rooms detailing the story of Buddha, before making our way out to the courtyard where more incense fills the air, candles light up the sky and gifts of flowers remember those gone before us.

So, forget the stigma attached with being a tourist for one glorious night and bask in the goodness that is the Kandy Cultural Show and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth ceremony. You’ll be glad you did.

temple of the sacred tooth kandy sri lanka

MORE SRI LANKA READING

Firstly, if we have inspired you to visit Sri Lanka, we might inspire you to visit other places. All our best photos and the stories of our travels are on our Instagram. Follow us here.

Secondly, if these top experiences have inspired you to see the country for yourself, our complete itinerary has all the information needed to collect all our favourite things to do in Sri Lanka in 10 days. If you need more convincing, here’s some more reading

Things to do in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Itinerary

Kandy to Ella train


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How to embrace your inner tourist and be thoroughly entertained at the Kandy Cultural Show.

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