I had not given religion much thought before travelling to Sri Lanka, but once there you cannot help but notice it as it is everywhere. I had seen images of giant statues of Buddha in the travel brochure, but didn’t know what to expect and didn’t fully appreciate the role that religion plays in modern Sri Lankan society. It came as a surprise, therefore, to see Christian shrines at almost every street corner in Negombo, or Buddhas in every car and tuk-tuk in Galle, or to go past Hindu temples with every inch covered in multi-coloured statues. The different religions seem to co-exist peacefully, with some temples even being shared by Hindus and Buddhists, and with a Christian church sitting inside the compound of the main Buddhist monastery in Kandy, right next to the sacred Bo tree revered by the Buddhists.
On my whistle-stop tour of the country I was able to visit a number of important religious sites, although I learnt after leaving the country that there are a number of important sites and monasteries that foreign tourists are not allowed to visit. When visiting a religious site I was anxious to ensure that I adhered to any rules and showed respect to the religion concerned, although I found some of the ‘rules’ or conventions rather puzzling. For example, I am used to having to cover up when visiting mosques in Istanbul, or cathedrals in Italy. And so I was surprised to find that at Buddhist sites, although you have to cover your shoulders and legs you have to go barefoot and bare-headed, as it is disrespectful to cover your head in the presence of Buddha. And whilst the guardians of the temple were more than happy for tourists to take photos of the statues of Buddha, taking a photo of the tourist posing in front of the statue was considered disrespectful. I was interested in why it was a ‘no-no’ to have bare shoulders when the Buddhist monks at the site walked around with bare shoulders on display, but when I asked our guide this I was just told “well, they’re monks” as if this should explain it! At one site we had to take off our sandals in order to climb up an enormous rock barefoot which was rather uncomfortable especially as the stone and rock underfoot became boiling hot under the Sri Lankan sun. But on returning to reclaim our sandals I was rather chuffed to be given a large paintbrush to dust the sand and grit off my soles which worked a treat.
Buddhism is the predominant religion in SL and the country is an important pilgrimage destination for Buddhists from around the world, as it is said that Buddha visited the island three times between 528 and 520 BC. The first Buddhist site we visited was Mihintale, said to be the “cradle of Buddhism” in Sri Lanka, as it is where the Buddhist monk Mahinda, son of the Indian King Asoka is said to have converted the Sri Lankan Kind Davanampiya Tissa to Buddhism, and hence introduced the religion to the island.
From Mihintale, we went to Dambulla where in the amazing cave temples there were more statues of Buddha than you could possibly imagine. It was explained that Buddha is depicted in four poses: standing, seated, teaching and lying down. Of the lying down position, a slightly different position of the Buddha’s feet indicates whether he is sleeping or passed away, although I found it impossible to tell the difference, it was so subtle. The cave temples date back to the 1st century BC when King Valagambahu sought refuge in the caves after being exiled from Anuradhapura. When the king regained his throne after 14 years he converted the caves into rock temples in gratitude to the monks who had offered him sanctuary.
My favourite Buddhist place though was the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. This enormous monastery is a place of pilgrimage for many Buddhists as it contains a tooth allegedly belonging to Buddha and which is kept in a gold casket inside a shrine in front of which devotees place offerings of brightly coloured flowers. This reminded me a little of holy relics in cathedrals in France, Spain and Italy. Despite being very busy with thousands of visitors, the Temple was actually very spiritual, with a number of different places where you could burn a coconut oil lamp and pray for enlightenment, and the racks of oil lamps with the flames flickering in the sun were very atmospheric.
In Unawatuna on the South coast, the village has become increasingly commercialized and attracts many tourists but it still has a laid-back hippy charm. At the end of the beach is a temple which we were told was used by both Hindus and Buddhists. Overseeing the beach and coast is a Peace Pagoda with Buddha looking down on the hustle and bustle below.
Colombo was not on my itinerary, but looking at the photos of my travel companions on return it is definitely a place I must visit next time!
Hinduism is also prevalent in SL, although the Hindu communities are concentrated mainly in the northern and eastern provinces. We visited a couple of Hindu temples but were not allowed to enter inside the temples themselves. My friend and travel companion was Hindu and her grandfather was a Hindu priest so she was able to tell me about some of the stories behind the Hindu tradition but the tales were so fantastical it was difficult to retain all the information! Definitely something I need to read up on.
Christians settled on the Sri Lankan coast in the early centuries AD but the religion, specifically Roman Catholicism, gained prominence only with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Protestantism and other Christian denominations were introduced during the Dutch and British eras. Since the end of Colonial rule, the number of Christians has declined to about 7% of the population.
The only Christian church I went in was in Galle in the South of the island, where there is a Dutch Reformed Church built in 1755 on the site of a Portuguese convent with an attractive white façade, and an Anglican church build specifically for the British community in the 19th century. It was interesting to see the list of past vicars in the church change from English-sounding names to more Sri Lankan names.
Islam was brought to SL by Arab traders in the 7th century, but now the community comprises less than 10% of the population, mostly concentrated along the coast. The Meeran Jumma Mosque in Galle looks very similar to the Dutch church and only on closer inspection do you see the crescent and Arab script revealing its true function.
I hope I can return to Sri Lanka someday and do more than merely scratch the surface of the country. As far as religion goes, they seem to have got it right – the different religions sit side-by-side and coexist peacefully and respectfully. It’s a beautiful and fascinating island, and religion plays a big role in making the country an attractive place to visit.