Kandy Esala Perahera

This amazing Buddhist festival takes place every year over ten days during the July/August full moon, which coincided nicely with our time in Kandy. It builds up each evening and the final two nights are the biggest, longest and most frenzied and energetic. We had (intentionally) paid over the odds for our guesthouse as the final two nights’ procession went right past the front of it, and even three storeys up, we had a great view on the penultimate night. We met some lovely people who  had a balcony on the first floor and who generously invited us to join them for the final night. I took some hopefully great photos then promptly deleted them the following morning in an incredibly frustrating slip of the finger on the iPad. Apparently I’ll be able to retrieve them when next at a real computer, so you’ll have to forgive the less good set from the penultimate night for the time being at least.

The festival is a celebration of the four gods that protect Sri Lanka as well as a celebration of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, the bearer of which traditionally was allowed to be King. According to legend, the tooth is actually Buddha’s tooth and was smuggled into Sri Lanka during the 4th century AD. The processions today represent each of the gods/shrines and the Sacred Tooth, and each set of dancers, flag bearers, drummers, singers etc tells their part. The festival’s main draw is the elephants who are dressed in fine and elaborate cloths which are beautifully embroidered, and the assembling of which is part of the Perahera ritual. The festival is Sri Lanka’s largest and possibly one of Buddhism’s most famous festivals and the streets are lined with spectators for the duration, and for the final two nights in particular, people start claiming their roadside spot from as early as 10am, even thought the procession doesn’t start until 8 or 9 pm! Seats are available too and can fetch anything up to US$ 150 per highly-prized plastic chair. 

It starts with whip crackers, followed closely by fire dancers who twirl and throw fire,  and then the rest of the procession follows – including between fifty to a hundred  elephants – over two to three hours, except for the final night which started around 9pm and there was still furious drumming and dancing well gone 3am!

It is a great honour to be selected to take part in the procession, and the organisation of the whole festival is very impressive. All participants, but in particular the dancers and drummers, were incredible and so energetic. I’ve just asked the children for some adjectives to describe them and and they have said awesome, energetic, loud, so cool, very fast and very well synchronised (!) amongst many others.

The largest and most impressive tusker is the one honoured to carry the tooth relic in the procession, and is fantastically adorned in the most breathtaking embroidered and bejewelled cloths which were white on the penultimate and red on the final night.

An absolutely incredible experience and we feel very lucky to have been able to witness it.


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