The countryside around Kandy is dotted with dozens of Kandyan-era temples which together make up a treasure-trove of Sinhalese Buddhist art and architecture. Few see any foreign visitors, and setting off into the local backwaters in search of these legacies of the Kandyan kingdom makes a wonderful alternative to joining the hoards flocking to Pinnewala or Peradeniya.The most interesting of these temples are the Embekke Devale, Lankatilake and Galadeniya, which lie some 10km west of Kandy and make a rewarding day-trip they are often combined into a round-trip by-vehicle or foot, known as the three-temples loop. All three temples were constructed during the fourteenth century, in the early days of the nascent Kandyan kingdom when the region was ruled from Gampola and Tamil influence was strong.
From Embekke Devale, retrace your steps back up the road towards Embekke Village. At the top of the hill, about 200m from the temple, the road forks. Go left here, climbing a steep hill and continuing for 500m through the edge of the village, a pleasant spot, though you’re likely to be hounded relentlessly by small children asking for sweets and schoolpens along the way. At the end of the village you reach a gorgeous bo tree and paddy fields, with a huge rock outcrop to your right. Continue straight along the road for a further 500m until the road forks. Keep right here and continue over the brow of a hill, from where you’ll catch your first, magical sight of the Lankatilake temple rising out of the tea plantations ahead.
Continue ahead, ignoring another road to the left, through further paddy fields. You can take a shortcut immediately below the temple by walking along the wall across the paddy fields by an electricity pylon (follow the locals); alternatively, continue along the road till you reach the temples access road, which leads off on the left. Both wall and road lead to the base of the temple. From here, an agnificent flight of rock-cut steps leads precipitously up to the temple itself, giving glorious views of the surrounding hills. Lankatilake is perhaps the finest temple in the district: an imposingly solid-looking structure built on a huge rock outcrop and painted a faint blue rather than the usual white. It was founded in 1344, and its architecture is reminiscent of the solid, gedige-style stone temples of Polonnaruwa rather than the later and more decorative Kandyan-style wooden temples. The building was formerly four storeys are tall, though the uppermost storeys collapsed in the nineteenth century and were replaced by the present, rather ill-fitting wooden roof. The gloomy central shrine, with eighteenth-century Kandyan paintings, is magically atmospheric: narrow but tall, and filled with a great seated Buddha under a huge makara torana, above which raise tiers of decidedly Hindu-looking gods. The massive exterior walls contain a sequence of small shrines containing statues of Saman, Kataragama, Vishnu and Vibhishana, punctuated by majestic low-relief carvings of elephants. To the left of the temple, a large rock inscription in Pali records the details of the temple’s construction.
To reach the Embekke Devaie, and the start of the walk, take bus 643 from the Goods Shed Bus Terminal (every 20min; 1hr); alternatively, a taxi to the temple will cost around Rs.500.The bus drops you in Embekke village. It 1km walk from here to the temple: turn right onto the tiny road opposite th red postbox, then follow it straight ahead as it switchbacks up over a steep hill. Dating from the fourteenth century, the rustic little Embekke Devaie, dedicated to Kataragama, is famous principally for the fine pavilion (the digge) fronting the main shrine, with its intricately decorated wooden pillars apparently brought here from another temple at Gampola.
Each of the myriad pillars bears a different design, a marvellously carved assortment of peacocks, entwined swans, wrestlers, dragons, dancers, horsemen, soldiers and Bodhisattvas (shown as composite figures: part man, part fish, part bird). One of the most famous panels depicts an elephant and lion fighting; another show what looks curiously like a Habsburg double-headed eagle.
Two quaint lion’s flank the entrance to the main Kataragama shrine behind, which is topped by a delicate pagoda-tower. To the left of the main building stands an unusual granary, raised on stones above the ground to protect its contents from wild animals; to the right, a subsidiary shrine with sumptuously carved wooden doors houses a Buddha and a fine (but difficult to see) wooden statue of a peacock, a bird traditionally associated with Kataragama.