4 Temples You Can’t Miss in Colombo (and how to act in them!)

Sri Lanka has one of the oldest Buddhist traditions in the world that is still alive today! About 70% of the population are Theravada Buddhists and there’s a whopping 6000 monasteries on this small island. So when you read that, you’ll rightly assume that there will be a ton of temples in the capital city of Colombo – so I’ve made this task a lot easier for you and picked out my four favourite temples (Buddhist and Hindu) that I think you should see on your visit to Sri Lanka.

Note: I will write a separate post on the temple complex of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara (12km from the city).

Isipathanaramaya

We’ll start with the bad news: this Buddhist temple was built in 1916 by a wealthy local whose son was executed by British officials. Unfortunately, the charges (for rioting) were later proven to be false.

The good news: it’s a wonderful memorial and temple.

There are a lot of temples in Sri Lanka, some are going to catch your eye a lot more than others. Don’t let the outside of Isipathanaramaya fool you. It looks just like an “average” or “mediocre” temple from the outside, but I can assure you it is worth going inside.

This was the first Buddhist temple (outside Europe) that I had seen, so I was super excited regardless of the “plain” exterior. But WOW! The temple walls are filled with vibrant paintings and murals (from the 1920’s) of Buddha. There are beautifully carved statues of every shape and size (if you want a giant Buddha, you got a giant Buddha). There’s a large stupa (a round structure, usually holding relics), the sacred Bodhi tree and chambers holding both Buddhist and Hindu artefacts.

Yet, despite all the bright colours and statues watching you, it was so peaceful.

I got the impression that this temple was more for the locals than for the tourists. Which is good! In fact, we were the only two anywhere near the place. Although, it was midday and you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen…

Entrance fee: Free (but nobody was around)

Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil

Okay, so I’m almost 100% certain that there’s an easier way to access this temple than the one we did. Ha! Unfortunately though, I don’t know it so I can only tell you the way we found it!

So we were at the Pettah market, and with another one of our crude Google Map print-outs, followed the decorative roof we could see on the skyline, and, well, ended up trespassing across what looked like a very unsafe engine shed and railway tracks. We only knew we were trespassing though, because we were actually stopped on the way back and had no option but to take a Tuk Tuk the long way ’round.

Please don’t take my directions!

To be honest, we were surprised that this Hindu temple was so hidden! It is, without a doubt, the most attractive temple in Colombo. You’ll know what I mean when you see just the roof alone! The entire roof is intricately carved and colourful statues of Gods and Goddesses.

The inner roof of this temple is decorated with incredible paintings. There’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of statues here, and there’s towers, trees, candles, mosaics, everything!

Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil is the oldest Hindu temple in Colombo and is dedicated to Shiva and Ganesha.

Everyone at this temple was so friendly, and the atmosphere was so… I don’t even know the word. It was quiet and peaceful, yet upbeat with it.

Entrance fee: Free, but 100 LKR for taking photos.

Gangaramaya

Gangaramaya is an amazing temple, with so much going on at once. It’s almost overwhelming but it’s good to see it. There’s a replica of Borobudur in Central Java, Indonesia. You’ll know it when you see it – rows of Buddhas and “bells”.

Further on, there’s the Bodhi tree (the sacred fig tree Buddha found enlightenment under) surrounded with colourful prayer flags put there by local worshippers. There’s also a relic chamber.

There is an impressive “museum” in here too. Spreading through many halls, the large collection of Gangaramaya is famous throughout Colombo. Every inch of every wall here is occupied. Buddha statues, ola leaf writings, wood and ivory carvings, valuable furniture, and even vintage cars. If I remember rightly, there was also a pond with some small sharks in it!

Entrance fee: 100 LKR

Seema Malaka

(3 minute walk – part of Gangaramaya)

You didn’t think I was going to forget Colombo’s most iconic landmark, did you?! You type “Colombo, Sri Lanka” into Google Images and what comes up? Rows of Buddha statues with water and skyscrapers behind them. And you think, “what a cool contrast, why isn’t it already on my bucket list?”

A renowned architect in Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa, was the creator of this temple for monks in the middle of the Beira Lake.

The main platform (usually the one you see in photos), is solely for meditation. Or at least, sitting down and chilling in. Around the sides of the same platform but outside of the roof, are the famous Buddha statues I mentioned a minute ago, the numerous Buddhas all performing different mudras (spiritual gestures).

On one of the side platforms is the Bodhi tree, which was grown from a branch of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura. The four corners of the side platform have small shrines dedicated to Kataragama Deviyo (Guardin Deity of Sri Lanka), Shiva (God of Destruction), Vishnu (God of Protection), and Ganesha (God of Success and New Beginnings). A statue of Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy) is greets you on the “bridge” at the entrance to the temple complex.

Entrance fee: Free, but sometimes there’s a man there who will try and charge you 200 LKR.

Temple Etiquette:

  • Remove footwear outside and leave outside. Usually a man will offer to guard your shoes for a small price.
  • Cover legs and shoulders, for both males and females. Again, this same man will probably give you some material to wrap around yourself if you are not dressed suitably.
  • Tie your hair up if possible.
  • A lot of temples say that photography is prohibited outside, but when you go in and ask, they have no problem with it so long as you don’t interrupt anyone’s worship and pay a little fee for the privilege.

In my experience, Buddhist temples aren’t particularly strict so long as you’re respectful and don’t disturb anyone.

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