In terms of noise and colour, there’s nothing else quite like Kandy’s Esala Perahera, an extravaganza dating back to the fourth century AD and the early days of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It takes place over the last ten days of the Buddhist lunar month of Esala to honour the Buddha’s tooth – according to legend, a devotee snatched one of his teeth from his funeral pyre around 300 AD and smuggled it to Sri Lanka, where it was laid in a golden urn and carried around in celebratory procession. The festival involves a series of spectacular night-time peraheras (parades) with drummers, dancers, torch-bearers, whip-crackers, fire-eaters and over a hundred costumed elephants.
The parades start between 8pm and 9pm, though you’ll need to be in place at least an hour before. As dusk approaches, the flood of humanity lining the route turns into a solid, almost impenetrable mass. The smell of jasmine, incense, frangipani – not to mention the spicy picnic suppers everyone is tucking into – is intense, and the trees, shop fronts and streetlamps drip with tinsel and coloured lights.
You’ll hear the perahera before you see it. Depending on the night, there might be up to a thousand drummers, and the boom of their instruments carries far across the city, heightening the sense of anticipation that precedes the elephants – scores of them, decorated in golden balaclavas, beautiful silks and silver thread. Surrounding them are brightly attired dancers, drummers or torch-bearers, each either carrying a bundle of sticks that have been dipped in oil or swinging burning coconut husks from chains. Troupes of dancers, acrobats and musicians accompany the procession, along with
men wielding huge whips, which they crack every minute or so to scare away demons.
Near the head of the parade is the mighty Maligawa tusker elephant, the beast entrusted with the job of carrying the Tooth Relic (or a replica thereof). Kitted out more ostentatiously than all the other elephants put together, he marches through the streets with stately dignity, his appearance triggering wild cheering in the crowds, many of whom have waited for hours just to catch a glimpse of him.
Esala Perahera takes place in Kandy over 10 days, usually between late July and mid-August. See www.daladamaligawa.org for info.