A Quick Guide to Esala Perahera
Costumed elephants on parade, celebrants dancing to incessant drumming, and wafting incense burns for ten days – all in honor of the Buddha’s purloined tooth.
Kandy is Sri Lanka's second-largest city, about 100 kilometers northeast of Colombo, practically in the middle of the island nation.
This should be on everyone's top ten bucket list of festivals, as most people who go say it's the most splendid visual feast they've ever experienced. Never before in your life have you seen so many elephants adorned in such glamorous costumes in the nightly torchlight processions. This celebration that has been around for hundreds of years will remind you that one of the chief purposes of a festival is to provide generational guidance for cultures and families.
Located in some of the most verdant and picturesque countryside on this island and in the World Heritage-listed Kandy, and given the 10-day length of the festival, Esala Perahera is meant to be savored and appreciated over many days. Don’t rush it. Spend at least three days enjoying the festivities.
A fantasic example of generations being guided by cultural ritual–in this case by fantasticly adorned pachyderms.
Find your spot. With each night the parade gets more animated and the crowds get bigger. To get a good viewing spot, arrive at least 3 to 4 hours early or, better yet, rent street side seats in homes, hotels, and shops (though you’ll still need to arrive an hour early to get a chair).
Cover up. Take note that people cannot enter temples with shoulders exposed or shorts or skirts that go above the knees. We suggest carrying a sarong or scarf to wrap around your shoulders or waist during your visit.
Avoid the crowds. The afternoon after the final festival day provides an afternoon perahera that makes for great photos without the intensity, energy and crowds.
Do your research. www.daladamaligawa.org is the best place to learn about the history and culture of the festival.
Kandy, on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, is Sri Lanka’s second-largest city and approximately 100 kilometers from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB). Daily trains and buses make the trip, and taxis are relatively inexpensive. Guest houses in Kandy fill up early, so book at least a couple of months in advance (most are on Saranankara Road).
Decadently dressed dancers, incessant drumming, the intoxicating scent of incense—it’s no wonder the famous British poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence once described Esala Perahera as a “perpetual fire-laughing motion among the slow shuffle of elephants.” Honoring the tooth relic of the Buddha, this festival makes you feel you’ve been transported to a tribal gathering hundreds of years ago, only now there are cameras, and you’ll want to take plenty of photos.
The Story Goes
Legend has it that 1,700 years ago one of the Buddha’s teeth was stolen from his funeral pyre and smuggled into Sri Lanka. Today, the relic is a sacred symbol for Sri Lankans and housed in the country’s most sacred temple, Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth).
In its current form, Esala Perahera incorporates Hindu deities into its festivities, as four of the parades now start at Hindu temples. There’s a parade for every night of the festival (10 in all), with the processions getting longer, more intense and increasingly colorful as the festival gets underway.The parades are a sensual spectacle: you’ll inhale wafting incense, jasmine and frangipani bouquets; sway along to the incessant drum beats; stare in delight at the elephants and dancers adorned in exotic costumes; and gasp in awe as fire eaters swing burning coconut husks from chains and men crack whips to scare away demons only inches from people’s faces.
Get Familiar with the Festival
The ceremonial cutting down of a jack tree blesses the beginning of the festival, and the first five nights, known as Kumbal Perahera, host intimate gatherings at shrines and small processions just off Kandy Lake. The last 5 nights, known as Randoli Perahera, get progressively larger and more intense until the last night, on the full moon, when you’ll witness one of the most feverishly energetic parades ever. While the procession has a reputation for running long, you know the climax is coming when the Maligawa Tusker, a carriage with a replica of the Buddha’s tooth, arrives. Before you know it, there’s a parade of enormous elephants decked out in their finest silk costumes swaying to the drumbeat.
The next morning a “water cutting” ceremony through the Mahaweli Ganga River ritualizes the divide between pure and impure and honors the water gods for a good year ahead. A goblet of water from the ceremony is stored and used in the tree-planting ritual that signals the beginning of the next year’s festival.
Esala Perahera is exhausting and, at times, overwhelming, but it’s one of the world’s best examples of how collective effervescence can encompass not only locals and devotees, but anyone who’s lucky enough to take part in this ancient, alluring festival.