The touching and slightly morbid Buddhist practice of sifting through the charred remains of one’s master in order to glean mystic prophesies from the omnipresence of the deceased dates back to the cremation of the man himself. It is alleged that almost three thousand years ago, in an area roughly where the Indian state of Orissa is today, the front-left canine of the one true Buddha was taken from the funeral pyre while it was still burning and stolen away from his protégé’s and into the hands of the local Hindu king. In spite of this king’s cynicism, there grew a belief amongst those who survived Buddha that possession of his tooth gave divine right to the ownership of the surrounding lands. When it subsequently found its way into the hands of a rival king, the monarch who had orginally come by the tooth promptly converted to the fledgling religion that the Buddha’s life had inspired and began to worship this relic that had been taken from him. A sizeable invasion by the head of a different, neighboring state to relieve these poor subjects of a king who had appeared to have gone mad and started to worship a tooth was miraculously defeated. The king’s outlandish new beliefs appeared to be validated by reality and the game was on.
Given the bizarre nature of its focal item, the long saga of monarchical back-stabbings and eleventh-hour victories made an entertaining story, if any of what the book I flipped through is to be believed. What is for sure is that the Sacred Tooth Relic arrived in Sri Lanka about 400 AD, hidden in the hair of an exiled queen. The threat of invasion caused it to be moved to various holy cities before being settled in Kandy, where it has been ever since.
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic was a spotless, whitewashed castle-like temple, lined with ramparts and a clear moat, flanked by a pristinely-manicured lawn, and interlaced with smooth polished brown beams and full of long lengths of cool marble floor. The place, unsurprisingly, was in good nick. A Tamil Tiger bomb in 1983 had blown out the entire front entrance, and the restoration effort had not been wasted.
By this point in the trip, Alec and I had become well acquainted with the issues surrounding tuk-tuk drivers, touts and general scallywags that are a part of tourist life almost anywhere. We would have claimed to have been wise to it. So when we were approached outside by a friendly old gentleman (ding!) who spoke good English (ding!) and began to make small talk to us about the temple (ding!), we made all the correct assumptions. He was a guide. He had given us directions earlier on when we were back around the lake so I felt a certain obligation to give him the time of day, but Alec took the lead this time:
“Thank you, but we don’t need a guide.”
He looked shocked and a bit offended.
“No, I am not a guide! We are just talking.”
“Okay, well we have no money to give you either way. No money.”
“Okay, that is fine. Shall we go in?”
“Ooookay then, lets.”
The interior was beautiful. Cool shady hallways and broad staircases bordered around the main focal point, which sat just away from the surrounding buiding. The inner temple housed the tooth itself and was fronted by a carved and painted shrine, lined with elephant tusks and gold leaf and guarded by two traditionally dressed, tabla-playing temple guards. The bright sun beamed down from the slivers of sky between the outer and inner structure and bounced off the wide-leaved vegetation that dangled from the ceiling, casting a bright reflection into the cool dark shade and back up to the engraved wooden buttresses. Our ‘friend’ had taken it upon himself to deliver to us a rapid-fire volley of dates and names connected to the temple and impatiently waited by the far door of each room as we ambled around at our leisure, enjoying the richly decorated ornaments, Sinhala-scripted prayer books, and the knowledge that this guy had chosen to follow us around regurgitating the guide book at us, in spite of our attempts to lose him at every turn. It wasn’t our fault he was – apparently – a mug.
The Sacred Tooth Relic itself was housed in a small, minutely engraved little gold box that sat at the altar of a comically oversized shrine, complete with the same flower draperies, arched elephant tusks and carved elaborations that we had seen earlier surrounding a similar shrine, making it seem almost some sort of a visual joke. After waiting in a winding and very noisy queue of worshippers all wanting a look, we discover that, on closer inspection, the tiny box was closed. The Tooth, our friend enthusiastically told us upon seeing our mild disappointment, was unveiled every monsoon for a special puja ceremony. ‘Very beautiful, you should see.’
Eventually, the inevitable moment we all knew was coming came as we neared the exit of the complex, despite our little verbal disclaimer earlier: He asked for money.
“No sir, no money for me. Only a tip. A tip for a friend.”
Oh, come off it, I thought. You sneak!
He pulled out the old-age card. He had a daughter. He had a grand-daughter. He needed money. His job didn’t pay well. He had spent time giving us a tour that he could have spent on other people. Alec stepped in, in true polite-assertive British style:
“Well, we didn’t ask for your help, and, to be brutally honest, we didn’t want it.
He pauses and turns to me, expectantly. So does Alec.
I told myself I would ride out the pressure, as I squirmed in the sunlight and kicked myself for not having put on my sunglasses first. Tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tock. He stares at me, cow-eyed and unblinking. He must have been here before. Is this the way it goes every time? Does he honestly pull this sneaky emotional blackmail shit on everyone? Or perhaps other tourists are much more firm from the off- Yes, we want a guide or, no, no guide, go away. Am I going to have to be a bastard like this every day for the next five months? What is the best way forward? I spent years in school being taken advantage of while other people scored off me. Now is the time to stand firm. This will happen countless times more. Think of the money you’ll end up being duped of….
No, screw that. What a selfish bastard. I earn more in an hour what this toothy old guy could earn in any day. What am I thinking? When did I become this much of a stingy human being? Who am I to cheat him out of his work, leave rubbish in his inadequate sewers, be tight with my Rupees and pack off back to my western bubble?
My conscience snaps like a rubber band and I hand him a hundred note. That’s about fifty pence. I almost felt like giving him a jovial ruffling-up and a playful shove. Go on, take it! Take it and get a beer, ya cheeky son-of-a-bitch, you got me good! He wobbled his head and a smiled a winning smile, shaking my hand with his cold, bony fingers.
“Thank you, sir. You are good man. Good man indeed.”
On the way out, I caught a sidelong look from Alec out of the corner of my sunglasses, which I had just put on.
We left Kandy later that day. Our short train slowly trundled north through the pouring rain that swept in through the glassless barred windows and dripped from the ceilings. As the scenery flattened, the tracks straightened out and by late afternoon we are in Matale, a modest residential town of 30,000 that has only a brief paragraph devoted to it in the Lonely Planet guide. Aside from housing what will be one of the largest Hindu temples in Sri Lanka when it is completed (which was quite a surprise, considering the largely-Hindu Tamil regions of Sri Lanka were much further north), it is an unremarkable place. The uniform grid layout of the town spreads out from the centre, and a short walk from the train station brought us to a deserted and rather neat suburb. At a small stall on an empty street, I bought a deceptively evil bread roll. Unassuming from the outside, a bite revealed that it was filled with tiny, raw green chillies that crunched on the bite and burned in the throat.
We were picked up by a chatty guy who took us to his hotel across town.
We decided to chance a walk into town for dinner. Our friend who had picked us up earlier – Tyronne – had not shown up to collect us and it was getting late. The hotel was situated off the main road and on a curious hillside that seemed to represent an edge of constructed residences, petering out into a mishmash of building sites and corrugated shacks that faded into black silhouettes against the orange glow from the city beyond. Up and down the unlit street, occasional black figures plodded by- silent, save for the muted slap of sandals against their heels.
Our first attempt to get back to the main road was up the hill. The dirt road reached the crest of the hill and dropped steeply down the other side through a group of trees and into pitch darkness. To our right was a dead-end, and to our left was a silent and deserted cemetery – run down and unkempt, yet brightly lit with halogen strip bulbs rigged up to twisted tree branches. It was an eerie sight made even less appealing by the probable lack of food within. This walk, we decided, might take awhile.
Heading back the other way, the hotel shop had attempted the now-old trick of charging us double for the water, to which we responded with the now-old trick of looking on the bottle for the correct price. The ensuing bickering and wagging of fingers that we were drawn into naturally attracted the attention of the loitering locals that were sat outside the hotel on broken plastic chairs, chain smoking, talking animatedly and slapping their knees. One of the more vocal of the bunch (who was clearly had a few to drink already) would occasionally pipe in and wave his finger in the air with a dramatic pronouncement that clearly bore no significance to the dispute whatsoever and was ignored by everybody present.
“Problem!” he would announce in his stage voice of very broken English. “I… (hands wave)…problem!”
Despite our leaving the hotel lobby and the price issue being resolved, the ‘problem’ didn’t seem to go away and neither did he. Almost talking away to himself in the background as Alec and I discussed calling a tuk-tuk or walking into town, he would occasionally butt in with waving gestures, motioning all around us and pointing to himself. But where we had previously held little patience for this guy who seemed to be in cahoots with the guys hotel trying to fleece us, we now began to hear something about the problem, this neighborhood and his house.
But it seems his English was better than he let on. We eventually established that the general gist of what he was saying was not so much, ‘you-think-this–is-bad-you-should-come-to-my-house-because-I-am-another-hard-up-local-trying-to-feed-his-family’ but more like, ‘two-westerners-shouldn’t-be-walking-around-here-at-night-because-it-is-not-safe-so-come-to-my-house-and-have-some-dinner’.
I still wasn’t buying it; our awkward moment at the temple earlier on was still fresh in my mind. But Alec was game. He was right; it could be an interesting experience. Screw it. Dinner’s on you then, mate.
We walked back up the road and took a sharp left down onto the muddy, rutted road that cut through the mess of huts and corrugated iron that I thought I had seen earlier. While there had been minimal street lighting earlier, there was now none. The harsh, bleached-white light from the open-fronted stall selling long streamers of soap-powder packets and cigarettes halfway down the path was all that was available; the light spilled out into the darkness, giving a teasing glance of the faces that had gathered around us and reflected off the lake-sized puddles in the muddy, potholed path. As we continued down the slope that curved around to the right and deeper into the slum, our group slowly gathered numbers, attracted by the bellowing voice of our suddenly much louder friend who was clearly the man of the moment because he had brought home a pair of wide-eyed western lads back to his house for dinner. Off to either side, I could make out dark figures emerging from unlit doorways; grinning, giggly children nervously pointed around the thighs of taller adults as groups with umbrellas joined the march downhill. This was obviously the sort of place where everyone knew each other pretty well.
Our host’s house was at the very end of the path that had flattened out and reached a river. It was, unlike any of the others, made of stone, was white and had a TV. Sure enough though, it housed three families in four plain rooms. We were brought two seats and sat against the living room wall, with our backs to the TV, while the whole village poured through the door-less doorway to enjoy the entertainment. Our host (who had finally introduced himself as ‘Morogan’, pronounced with a spitting, hawking emphasis on the end-bit) proceeded to introduce to us his brother, his wife, his kid, his second kid, his other brother, his mum, his brother-in-law, his neighbor, his neighbors’ brother, his friend, his friends’ kid, his cat, his cat’s kid, his cats’ kid’s friend, the old lady that he lived with- the whole bunch. I counted twenty-two staring faces of all ages, all squeezed into a room the size of a large stationary cupboard. The front door was full- faces peering in, shoving and pushing to take a look. For a brief, rare moment, we were famous.
A commotion started at the back of the room as someone jostled for space as they pushed through. Like ripples in pond, people were barged out the way one by one, knocking into the next person, who would jostle against the next person, so that someone must have been ejected from the room altogether. Out from behind the nearest child appeared a small, hunched old man laden with plates and bowls. Ah, the food- I had completely forgotten.
Laid out before us on the table was a miniature feast of curried fish, topped, tailed and still on the bone, Dahl in big pot that looked like it had been stewing for the last three days, bundles of rice that had somehow managed to defy physics and stay in their hay-bale shape until the lightest, crumbling touch, and a loaf of doughy bread. Sheepishly and gratefully, we tucked in, scrutinized by a fascinated audience that would occasionally exchange nudges and whispered observations, like scientists poring over specimen in a lab.
“Fifty eyes,” Alec said simply.
I’ve never eaten under such intense conditions before. The English touchiness that is occasionally shown towards being stared at while eating suddenly seemed laughably uptight. As we sat with mouths full, small children nervously approached, giggling and glancing back at their encouraging parents. They re-played a Chinese-whisper greeting in English, with a sticky palm extended towards me, without pauses between words:
As we ate, we received the familiar routine of questions, beginning with the five that you are almost guaranteed to hear at least once a day in almost anywhere in South Asia: ‘where are you from?’, ‘what is your name?’, ‘do you like Sri Lanka?’, ‘where are your parents/wife?’ and ‘how old are you?’ All of them are very reasonable questions and I hadn’t yet started to play the game of making up the most absurd answers I could get away with to break the monotony. Besides, I rightfully felt in their debt. These guys had really pulled dinner out the bag – a seriously impoverished bag, for that matter. However, my earlier speculation as to what sort thing the average slum-dweller had for dinner turned out to have yielded some overly pessimistic results. I had to almost physically stop them from re-filling my plate as the little old man returned from the shadowy adjacent room with a third pair of fish. Even dessert was laid on, in the form of a pair of mini yoghurts, complete with a comically-undersized plastic spoons attached to the lid.
I have no idea how we left. I remember conducting all the introductions in reverse, after the first hand-shake extended forward set the precedent and a horde of outstretched palms presented themselves to me. As we left, a synchronized chorus responded to our farewells- “BAAA-aaaiii!!!!”
Morogan walked us back up to our hotel room, and, as was the custom, we ordered a plate of underwhelming roti from the kitchen – our returning of the hospitality didn’t quite seem on a par. As was also the custom, we exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and I took a couple of pictures of us for the record. I think Alec erred on the side of caution and ‘accidentally’ gave a wrong digit in his home phone number somewhere, on the off-chance Morogan did actually make the call sometime in the future. I personally found the idea of my poor old mum being woken by a drunken, noisy, Sri Lankan drama-queen calling at some silly hour in the morning absolutely hilarious, and I await his call to this day.