Around us people pressed in tightly, cameras clutched to their chests. Westerners like ourselves. Eager tourists from China. And locals too, Sri Lankans from Kandy and Colombo, from towns all over the country, come as pilgrims and holding not cameras but flowers.
We shuffled our feet and whispered. Others around us did the same. Waiting, and waiting. Tension building.
More worshippers streamed in. Then the temple musicians – two brightly clad drummers, plus a pipe-player – took up their positions.
With a loud thud of drums, the ceremony commenced. In front of us, the drummers banged and the pipe-player blew a haunting melancholic sound. We were inside the holiest of holies – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth – and this was morning puja or prayers.
At a signal from our guide, several of our party dashed upstairs. There, if they were lucky, close to the Handun kunama, the Tooth Relic Chamber, they might glimpse the casket (that in turn houses six ever diminishing caskets) that houses the sacred tooth.
The tooth is reputed to be the sacred tooth of Buddha, taken from his funeral pyre in 483 BC. At first it was held at the ancient city of Anuradhapura, then Polonnaruwa, and finally here at Kandy. It is a powerful symbol of sovereignty, a kind of Sri Lankan equivalent of the Shroud of Turin, or the crown jewels. Whoever holds it has the right to rule over the island, and because of this, at various times it has been stolen, retrieved, incinerated and yet somehow kept safe.
The drummers and piper continued to play, their music reaching every corner of the temple. We filed in a line through the tiny library room, then through another sanctuary where worshippers left flowers. This was a ceremony that happened three times every day, yet was special each time. As we left, still more people hurried in, all with flowers ready to offer.