The Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara is an iconic landmark, particularly to Buddhists. Built on the banks of the Kelani River, the land is said to be particularly sacred, as the Buddha himself came here on his third visit to Sri Lanka. Historical epics relate that King Maniakkhitha, the Naga King, invited the Buddha to a meal in the Buddhist era 2531, on Wesak Day. He is said to have taken with him 500 arahants (spiritual practitioners who have attained a high state of enlightenment). The land was subsequently consecrated, and the King built a temple and chaithya. Inside the chaithya were buried several relics, including hair, the utensils the Buddha had used for the meal and the gem-studded chair on which he sat and preached. Sadly the original chaithya (dated around 5 BC) was destroyed by foreign invaders. The Mahavansa relates that King Devanampiyatissa’s brother Uttiya renovated the temple for the first time, and built quarters for the monks.

When the Portugese conquered Sri Lanka around 1510, they destroyed the temple. Beautiful paintings and antique sculpture (dated around the same time as many of the Anuradapura and Polonnaruwa ruins) were lost forever. The Portugese also prevented Buddhists from worshipping in the temple.

The Dutch proved to be much more tolerant. In 1767, they allowed King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha to develop and reconstruct the temple.

Each year, the Kelaniya temple hosts the Duruthu perahera, usually held the day before the full moon in January. It was inaugurated in 1927, and incorporates three colourful processions. The Buddha relics too are displayed during this procession. As we explored, a bhikkuni (female ordained Buddhist monk) chanted scripture hypnotically, and the area was filled with the scent of incense smoke. It was apparent from the beginning that the Kelaniya temple is a special place of worship.

It has been built and rebuilt several times over. Yet even without the ancient paintings and architecture (some websites claim the temple was once five storeys high) the end result is still spectacular. Make sure you stop by if you are ever in the area.