The Esala Perahera- A spectacle not to be missed
We Sri Lankans love to boast about us having more festivals than any other country and it’s no wonder considering the number of religious celebrations and festivals that brings life to a standstill in our tiny island. And of all the colourful festivals celebrated, the Esala Perahera reigns supreme, flaunting a wealth of religious pageantry, fascinating processions, bedecked elephants, drummers and dancers aplenty.
Easily the biggest, most flamboyant and famous parade, this colourful event is held in the historically rich town of Kandy over the 10 days leading up to the Esala Full Moon Poya day that is either during late July or early August.
Legend has it that when Lord Buddha was cremated, one of his followers took a tooth from the pyre and smuggled it to Sri Lanka. The King at that time was so happy to have the sacred relic in Sri Lanka that he paraded it throughout the city for his subjects to marvel at.
Today, the time-honoured Esala Perahera is a vivid reincarnation of that parade and is colourful as its origins. Every year, hordes of acrobats, drummers, musicians and of course, the majestic caparisoned tuskers take to the streets of Kandy to commemorate the occasion. For over 400 years, Kandy’s Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of the Tooth has housed the revered relic. A replica casket is used in the parade but that doesn’t stop the thousands of Buddhist devotees and tourists from flocking the town to catch a glimpse of it.
The Procession and Performance
The Perahera is a perfectly orchestrated, quasi-theatrical event and the procession starts with banner carriers, dignitaries dressed in traditional Kandyan, whip-dancers and groups of talented men and young boys twirling rings and sticks of fire. The streets resounds with the sound of whip on tar and the sight of the acrobatic fire performers juggling, twirling and eating the oily flames are an act to behold. Stilt walkers are also featured walking among the fire performers.
The Perahera includes five separate processions which follow one another around the streets and it’s kind of like a giant religious conga with elephants in it. Bands of drummers and flutists synchronise together to produce one single signature rhythm and there are some distinctive Hindu elements to the dance and music and even a group performing the famous Lankan Papare music, all filling the streets with an extraordinary barrage of noise.
The Perahera becomes gradually longer and more lavish of the course of the 10 days of the festival and the final night is a riotous affair, swollen to include myriads of dancers, drummers, acrobats, fire-eaters and hundreds of finely decked out elephants – a sight that is sure to leave you in awe.
The stars of the show – the elephants
The elephants are undoubtedly the main attraction in the Kandy Esala Perahera and hordes of these majestic beasts take part in the procession decked up from trunk to toe in silk, embroidered cloth, bejewelled finery and even chains of fairy lights. The biggest ones carry relics from each temple and a mighty tusker has the honor of carrying the golden casket bearing the Tooth Relic. Between the parading elephants are religious devotees performing all kinds of devotional acts to the booming drums.
Good to know
If we’ve piqued your interest enough to want to witness this magnificent parade first hand, here are few things that you might want know: