There are few places where you can see and learn about four religions living side-by-side.
Long history…Violent History
The history of how the various religions arrived in Sri Lanka is fascinating and can be tied to political upheavals, the arrivals of migrants from India (Hinduism and Buddhism), traders from the Middle East (Islam) and then European colonial rule (Christianity).
I write about the topic with some hesitation because the clashes between people of different religions and ethnicity led to a violent and horrible civil war in Sri Lanka that they are still recovering from. But, to be honest, as a tourist in the Southern part of Sri Lanka, these tensions were not evident.
However, I think that teaching children about different religions at a young age is a way to teach them empathy and tolerance, which is more important now than ever. Children continually amaze me at how they absorb complex subjects – they are more resilient and capable that I usually give them credit for.
Four Religions Celebrate
We arrived on Christmas Eve which started our trip observing a double-whammy religious celebration. Christian Churches were ringing bells and Christmas lights and decorations were everywhere, particularly in Galle. But Christmas Eve also happened to be a full moon, which is a monthly Buddhist celebration, so we also saw temple celebrations. On Fridays we heard the calls to prayer from the mosques and saw the Islamic population in abayas (black dresses), head veils, and thobes gather for prayer facing Mecca. And on New Years Day, as we stayed at an eco-lodge deep into tea country, we were greeted in the morning with a Hindu blessing and a mark placed on our foreheads. And at the end of our trip, in Negombo, we saw a huge procession of cars parading to the Catholic Church to celebrate the epiphany.
This is the largest religion (some say a philosophy) in Sri Lanka and every town will have a white pagoda of the Buddhist temple. We found the Buddhist philosophy, beliefs and stories, as well as the temple artwork and architecture to be fascinating. I was inspired by learning the Buddhist idea of accepting that our world is full of hardship and that enlightenment is possible by lessening the hardship of life for others, by living a pure life full a good deeds, and following the teachings and example of Buddah.
The Buddhist religious art is gorgeous, full of lotus flowers, elephants, monk statues, and sitting and standing Buddha sculptures. Buddhist monks in bright orange robes were easy to spot throughout our trip, but especially in Kandy.
Buddhism highlight on our trip:
We devoted a morning to visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy. We took an hour long tour of this complex and found it very interesting. I highly recommend a guided tour as a way to best understand what you are seeing without jostling through guidebooks in the middle of the devout.
To be honest, the children were not very excited about this tour, but it was valuable for them nonetheless. Another thing for families to be aware of is that the complex is very crowded in some area – hold onto your children tightly. Overall we enjoyed the visit, but with the kids in our arms we were happy to keep our visit relatively short and moving at a brisk speed.
For more information on our family travel in Sri Lanka: