How many Buddhas can you see in a day?

From a tourist point of view, 500 identical statues sitting in the lotus position is hard work
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The Independent Online

As far as I know, the one and only time that my Burmese grandmother left her native land was to visit the temple in what used to be called Ceylon, now Sri Lanka ,where Buddha's tooth is kept. My grandmother was a devout Buddhist. She declined frequent invitations to visit us in England because to do so the aeroplane carrying her would have had to fly above her pagoda in Taunggyi and a devout Buddhist would never dream of placing herself above the Lord Buddha.

As far as I know, the one and only time that my Burmese grandmother left her native land was to visit the temple in what used to be called Ceylon, now Sri Lanka ,where Buddha's tooth is kept. My grandmother was a devout Buddhist. She declined frequent invitations to visit us in England because to do so the aeroplane carrying her would have had to fly above her pagoda in Taunggyi and a devout Buddhist would never dream of placing herself above the Lord Buddha.

I thought about this flying into Colombo the other day and rather wished I held the same intractable convictions about my religion or indeed about anything much, apart from kippers which I have recently given up, having come to the regretful conclusion that they give me indigestion.

The purpose of my trip was to visit friends who have recently moved to Colombo, but my travelling companion, a scholar by inclination, insisted that we visit the shrines, historical artefacts and archaeological sites of the Cultural Triangle north of the capital first. Since these include the Tooth Temple at Kandy, my grandmother's only foreign destination, I didn't argue.

I wish I had. Kandy is as gridlocked with traffic as the M25 on a bank holiday, and all we managed to see of the tooth was a brief glimpse of a small gold casket in which the sacred relic is allegedly kept. I say allegedly because 400 years ago when the first Portuguese colonists were driven from the island by Dutch merchants, the story goes they took the tooth with them to Goa in India and destroyed it. This means that the one in the casket is a fake, a false tooth.

So what? Who's to say that the Lord Buddha, né Prince Siddhartur Gotama, when he died at the ripe old age of 80 didn't have false teeth? The molar in Kandy could be one from his spare set. Three thousand years earlier, after all, the Egyptians were making perfectly serviceable dentures out of wood.

Our last night as cultural tourists was spent in Polanarua, the island's capital between the 10th and 13th centuries, one of the places that the Queen visited on her post-Coronation world tour in 1954. Fifty years on the resthouse she stayed in doesn't appear to have changed much. I know this because we actually slept in her room. It's called the Queen's Room and has a framed photograph of a very young-looking monarch and consort leaving the resthouse in an open car. I wonder if the blue washing-up bowl was a feature of the bathroom when she was there. The view from the veranda at sunset was sensational and uncannily like Scotland with the lake and the mountains behind it.

So anyway we arrived in Colombo three days later, dusty, tired and. on my part at least, totally Buddha-ed out. I mean no disrespect. I admire Buddhism but, from a tourist point of view, 500 identical statues of Buddha sitting side by side in the lotus position in 100 shrines, temples, pagodas and caves is hard work. If I hadn't actually seen all the Buddhas in the Cultural Triangle after three days it certainly felt like it.

Our hostess offered tea, Broken Orange Pekoe, the king of Ceylon teas, and mentioned a tour she had just made of a tea garden in Kataboola where they produce white tea. White tea? What on earth is white tea? It's the world's most exclusive tea, the cuppa equivalent of Kobi beef, Beluga caviar, Napoleonic brandy - in a word, ambrosia.

Here are some statistics. For every 20,000 kilos of black tea the Kataboola gardens produce, they harvest only five kilos of white. Where black tea wholesales at £2 a kilo, white tea fetches £1,200. By the time it gets into the shops it costs upwards of £800. The people who pick it wear gloves and veils so that the single delicate bud at the very top of the plant, which is all they use, is not tainted by human odour or sweat. Producers boast that it is untouched by human hands until you drink it and, it goes without saying, it should be brewed with fresh spring water and served only in porcelain. Arab sheikhs offer it at wedding receptions displaying the pale delicate leaves on silver trays first to the guests before they brew it.

I tried to buy a packet or two but couldn't find a single shop in Colombo that sells it. My grandmother made tea called Le Peh for special occasions, a pungent mixture of pickled green tea, ginger, garlic, pounded sesame seeds and oil formed into cubes, wrapped in a leaf and skewered with a clove. I used to think that was pretty exclusive but, sorry granny, white tea takes the biscuit.

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