Esala Perahera is one of Asia’s most spectacular festivals, with all the colors and dressings of Mardi Gras but without the drinking and sex. Held for 10 days during late summer’s full moon (around July to August), this Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition attracts a major portion of Sri Lanka’s population to the lakeside capital of Kandy. The procession includes fire-juggling acrobats, banners, decorated and neon-lighted elephants, traditional dancers, musicians, palanquins, whip crackers, torch bearers and thousands of barefoot pilgrims and swordsmen. And it all centers around the sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha.
The tooth is said to be the left canine of Buddha, snatched from his funeral pyre some 2,500 years ago and smuggled to Sri Lanka. Modern Perahera dates back to the reign of the Kandyan King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747 – 1781 AD). During these times, the Tooth Relic was considered private property of the King and the public never got a chance to worship it. However, King Rajasinghe decreed that the Relic be taken in procession for the masses to see and venerate.
On non-Perahera days, the Tooth relic is kept in the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth). The monks of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters, headed by the Diyawadana Nilame, or Chief Lay Head of the Temple , conduct the rituals associated with the Perahera. Preparations for the festival begin with the meeting among the private elephant owners and selecting an auspicious time with the advisor on astrological matters.
Kandy Esala Perahera begins with the Kap Situveema or Kappa, in which a sanctified young Jack tree (Artocarpus integrifolia) is cut and planted in the premises of each of the four Devales dedicated to the four guardian gods Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and the goddess Pattini. Traditionally it was meant to shower blessing on the King and the people.
The main Perahera procession is made up of 5 separate processions: The Dalada Maligawa Perahera, The Natha Dewala Perahera, The Maha Vishnu Dewala Perahera, The Katharagama Dewale Perahera (which includes the Kavadi, or Peacock Dance, where performers carry semi-circular wooden constructs studded with peacock feathers), and The Pattini Dewale Perahera (the only one with women dancers).
The whip crackers lead the procession, announcing the approach of the Perahera with the cracking of their whips. Next come the flag bearers in single file on either side of the road, carrying the standards of the different provinces and temples. The Peramunerala, the official who leads the elephants, rides in front and is followed by the drummers. Next are the Gajanayaka Nilame, who is head of the Kingâ€™s Elephant Stables, and the Kariyakorale, who is in charge of all festivities connected with the Maligawa. The highlight of the procession is the Maligawe Tusker who carries the golden casket which contains the sacred relics. Two lines of dancers follow the tusker, at the end of which walks the Diyawadana Nilame. All spectators are expected to stand when the golden casket passes by.
Only on the 10th day is the Tooth brought out of the Dalada Maligawa. The devotees never actually see the tooth, but only the gold carrying case it is stored in. At this point, all the free spots along sidewalks have long since been occupied, and seats are reserved for USD25. The procession starts at 8pm and goes on for 3 hours. The firing of cannonballs announce important times during the Perahera, such as the commencement of the Devale and Dalada Perahera, the placing of the golden casket on the tuskerâ€™s back, and the end of the Perahera. The whole Perahera ends with the Diya Kepeema, which is the water-cutting ceremony at the Mahaweli River at Getambe, a few miles away from Kandy.
Nowadays, some 8,000 policemen monitor the occasion, as Tamil terrorists once bombed the Temple of the Tooth back in 1998. Nontheless, the Perahera is still a time when the whole of Sri Lanka comes together to celebrate its foremost holiday. The best time to see Esala Perahera is on the last two nights, when the festival comes in full swing.