Gangaramaya temple isn’t just a temple – it’s about 150 years old and most of its space is cluttered with museum artifacts and old junk like wrist watches.
First set up by Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumanagala, it’s gotten some flack for trying to be both a Buddhist temple and a tourist attraction, but we think (if you’re not particularly looking for a typical temple to visit) that it’s got a very quirky charm of its own.
The entire place is so random and haphazard (we loved it for this though), it’s like a million different worlds collided here. There’s stuff from Germany, China, Australia and from Sri Lanka of course, some of it is intricate stone or marble work, while others look cheap and breakable. The space is basically a massive collection of stuff related to Buddhist and Hindu mythology. But then you also get some super random trinkets that are amusing because you wonder what on earth they’re doing here.
The monk we spoke to said that this statue of a Chinese emperor is 400 years old, while he said there were certain things further inside that were even 1000 years old. These things were in the same room as a collection of silver watches and silverware that are only a few decades old. Some of these things are significant historical artifacts, some are gifts, and some sentimental memoirs of people who’ve been part of this temple/museum. Along the walls of one of the big rooms are a series of photographs of Buddhist monks, paying tribute to their contributions. Nothing has labels on them and there doesn’t seem to be an order in the way they’re placed, so you’ll only know what’s what if you ask somebody around (chances are they’ll ask you to ask Podi Hamaduruwo though, the powerful incumbent monk who’s been here since he was a boy of eleven).
The area covered by the Gangaramaya temple/museum is huge – you’d never think it on walking through the gates. There are rows of cane chairs set up here and there if your feet ever need some rest. There are several rooms and open pathways to walk through, and there’s something to see almost every inch you go, whether a statue or a glass cabinet full of things, or some random from China. There’s a lot of gold or gold paint wherever you go. We’ve heard people complain that a holy temple should ideally not be so loud, or as tourist-loving as this one is on their website, and perhaps the fault is in the label: it’s not just a temple, it’s also a repository for a thousand fascinating stories in a myriad forms, loud or garish as some of them may be.
There’s a central open uncluttered part of the premises with oasis green trees and a stupa in the center. Near here, you can go up some stairs and find a bo tree around which people walk, worship and light incense. The bo tree is magnificent, probably as old as the temple. If you walk up another short flight of stairs here you’ll enter another low lit museum full of even more stuff; on this level you can come out another door onto a balcony and reach out to the beautiful, hard, aged bark of the tree.
So what should you look out for?
If you don’t really give a crap about trees and are wondering why we’re going on about that, there’s a couple of other stuff here you should look out for. There’s a stone series of Buddha statues, beautiful and ethereal in the sunlight. Also, the tiniest Buddha statue ever made apparently. It’s inside a big safe and looks like a speck almost – if you look through the magnifying glass attached to its casing, you can see a detailed statue while simultaneously having your mind blown. There are casings of rare materials collected from the Himalayas used for ayurvedic medicine, kept in glass closets. The statues in general are fascinating, they’re each so utterly distinct (even the ones of the Buddha come in a variety of features) – watch out for the gigantic angry Chinese one that looks like a character from Street Fighter.
You might come across a man who’ll say ‘elephant’ to you, and you’ll say ‘where?’ and he’ll take you to a quiet place at the back of the premises to meet Ganga. She’s chained and she’s by herself there, save for a few roosters, so it actually sucks, but she’s got plenty of food and she’s friendly and could use as many hugs as she could get. [Editor’s Note: don’t hug the elephant].
The Gangaramaya temple is a mad mix of things. There are magnificent pieces of history to feast your eyes and minds on here, and then there’s a lot of trinkets that don’t make much sense, and finally you have the bo tree and the stupa where things are a bit calmer. The people here are very friendly and open for a chat; one of the monks here said to me that people of other faiths are most welcome here, and that that’s how it should ideally be in any religious space, ‘because when we die, we all ultimately become the same thing’. Whether it reaches ideal temple standards or not, the Gangaramaya is a very interesting space to visit and treat your curiosity.