In Sri Lanka, you can find them all: Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, Muslim mosque and Christian churches. For an European travel photographer, the first two provide usually the most exotic photo targets. The people in Sri Lanka are very friendly and this attitude extends to their tolerance to photographers, even in their sanctuaries. There are however some rules you should respect - not like my adventurous father at Buddha Tooth temple in late 1974…
The general rule: barefoot
It doesn't matter which religion's temple or sanctuary you are gonna enter, as a rule of thumb you should take your shoes off and leave them at the entrance. This is the universal way how people here demonstrate their respect and humbleness. They even climb up the 5,000 steps to the Adam's peak, wearing winter hats and jackets, but barefoot. There is no need to worry somebody will steal your flip-flops, while you are admiring ancient statues. At some temples there are even "shoe-watchers" to look after your shoes for a small tip - or officially established beggars, depending on how you look at it ;-)
The temple dress code
For men, quite casual rules apply and you will be fine in bermuda shorts and a t-shirt. The only exception is the Buddha Tooth temple in Kandy. There they insist that men have their knees fully covered. This took me by surprise, as the guard at the gate refused to let me in. Of course, a guy promptly emerged, offering me a sarong for 700 rupees. Standing there reluctantly and not willing to buy it, the guard then came and pulled my bermudas down several times, until he was satisfied my knees won't hurt anybody's feelings. The shorts were down in the middle of my bottoms and I could hardly breath and walk - but I was finally in. More about that visit specifics and about my father's adventures there in 1974 in the next blog...
More strict rules apply for women however. It's logical - they are natural sinners ;-) So the best tactics is to wear whatever you want but always carry a long scarf to wrap around your legs before entry. Some places ask for covered shoulders too. This was the only time when my fiancee appreciated my beloved travel shemagh…
If you follow these basic rules, you will be allowed to most places without any problems - although I always wonder if Buddha or any of the 330 millions of Hindu gods would give a damn, considering their teachings and the fact we were all born naked…
Photographing in the temples
I was positively surprised by the general lack of any limitations. However I sensed the situation is changing and a year from now, we could face new restrictions. For example, when climbing up to Sigiryia, it was prohibited to photograph the frescoes. A year before, it had been allowed to take pictures without a flash. And before that, there hadn't been any restrictions at all. So my father didn't have any issues to take following photo decades ago.
Careful you need to be in Buddhist temples. As a rule, you should not take photos of people standing with their back to Buddha statues. Selfie lovers, watch out! In some places, it's even prohibited to take photos of people in any position and the Buddha statues. Usually, there is some sort of a guard to tell you.
On the contrary and to my surprise, it was absolutely ok to set my tripod in the caves of the Dambulla temple and take pictures on long exposure, Buddha statues all around me. Nobody protested, even when I put my new Novoflex BasicBall mini tripod on the donation box for elevated support.
To my experience, more limitations apply in Hindu temples. There it's pretty fine to take pictures of the picturesque figural decorations of the roofs, but inside they watch you carefully, if carrying a camera around your neck.
The gear and camera setting
The best choice is a wide angle zoom lens, but usually anything between 24mm and 35mm would work just fine. Depending on temple and location, you may expect any light conditions from dark interior to bright sunlight in the openess.
For the dark, it pays off to be ready beforehand. So I always set my camera before I enter inside. That way I can usually take couple of shots even in case somebody tries to approach me. I set the camera to aperture priority mode and crank in down to f/4. From my experience, this provides reasonable results hand-held, combined with ISO set to auto. If they let you use a tripod, even better - you can lower the ISO and go for f8 - f11 for maximum depth of field. And if there is a bright sun light- like for almost any dagoba or temple exterior - just stick to your usual setup.