"You terrorists, kill us, eat us, but don't attack our shrines where Buddha lives," said a 90-year-old man as he wept at the damaged shrine in Kandy, 95km (60 miles) east of the capital, Colombo.
No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, which injured 23 people.
But Sri Lanka's top general and Deputy Defence Minister, General Anuruddha Ratawatte, blamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the main group fighting to carve an ethnic Tamil homeland on the island.
The attack occurred 10 days before Prince Charles is to visit the site to take part in Sri Lanka's 50th independence anniversary celebrations from British rule.
The nation's Buddhist majority was stunned by the raid on the Temple of the Tooth, where the faithful believe a tooth of the Buddha is kept. President Chandrika Kumaratunga visited Kandy later in the day, meeting with Buddhist monks and asking Sri Lankans to stay calm.
Some monks sitting in front of the temple sobbed, and others chanted prayers in unison as soldiers cleared away debris. One monk chased away a dog that was trying to devour a piece of flesh.
"I request all the people in the country not to be demoralised and not to lose heart in a situation like this," said General Ratawatte, who leads the military campaign against the rebels. "Otherwise we are going to give a victory to the LTTE."
The Defence Ministry said three rebels and eight civilians died in the explosion.
After the attack, a mob of enraged Sinhalese burned down a Hindu cultural centre in Kandy, but no one was hurt.
- AP, Kandy
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