Kandy’s ten-day Esala Perahera is the most spectacular of Sri Lanka’s festivals, and one of the most colourful religious pageants in Asia. Its origins date back to the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka in the fourth century AD, during the reign of Kirti Siri Meghawanna, who decreed that the relic be carried in procession through the city once a year. This quickly developed into a major religious event – the famous Chinese Buddhist Fa-Hsien, visiting Anuradhapura in 399 AD, described what had already become a splendid festival, with processions of jewel-encrusted elephants.
Occasional literary and artistic references suggest that these celebrations continued in some form throughout the thousand years of upheaval which followed the collapse of Anuradhapura and the Tooth Relic’s peripatetic journey around the island. Esala processions continued into the Kandyan era in the seventeenth century, though the Tooth Relic lost its place in the procession, which evolved into a series of lavish parades in honour of the city’s four principal deities: Vishnu, Kataragama, Natha and Pattini, each of whom had (and still has) a temple in the city.
The festival took shape in 1775, during the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinha, when a group of visiting Thai clerics expressed their displeasure at the lack of reverence accorded to the Buddha during the parades. To propitiate them, the king ordered the Tooth Relic to be carried through the city at the head of the four temple processions: a pattern that endures to this day. Sri Rajasinha’s own enthusiastic participation in the festivities, and that of his successors, also added a political dimension – the Nayyakar kings of Kandy (who were from South India) probably encouraged the festival in the belief that by associating themselves with one of Buddhism’s most sacred relics, they would reinforce their dynasty’s shaky legitimacy in the eyes of their Sinhalese subjects. The Tooth Relic itself was last carried in procession in 1848, since when it’s been considered unpropitious for it to leave the temple sanctuary – its place is now taken by a replica.
The ten days of the festival begin with the Kap Tree Planting Ceremony, during which cuttings from a tree – traditionally an Esala tree, though nowadays a Jak or Rukkattana are more usually employed – are planted in the four devales, representing a vow (kap) that the festival will be held. The procession (perahera) through the streets of Kandy is held nightly throughout the festival: the first five nights, the so-called Kumbal Perahera, are relatively low-key; during the final five nights, the Randoli Perahera, things become progressively more spectacular, building up to the last night (the Maha Perahera, or “Great Parade”), featuring a massive cast of participants including as many as a hundred brilliantly caparisoned elephants and thousands of drummers, dancers and acrobats walking on stilts, cracking whips, swinging fire pots and carrying banners, while the replica casket of the Tooth Relic itself is carried on the back of the Maligawa Tusker elephant.
Following the last perahera, the water-cutting ceremony is held before the dawn of the next day at a venue near Kandy, during which a priest wades out into the Mahaweli Ganga and “cuts” the waters with a sword. This ceremony symbolically releases a supply of water for the coming year (the Tooth Relic is traditionally believed to protect against drought) and divides the pure from the impure – it might also relate to the exploits of the early Sri Lankan king, Gajabahu (reigned 114–136 AD), who is credited with the Moses-like feat of dividing the waters between Sri Lanka and India in order to march his army across during his campaign against the Cholas.
After the water-cutting ceremony, at 3pm on the same day, there’s a final “day” perahera, a slightly scaled-down version of the full perahera. It’s not as spectacular as the real thing, though it does offer excellent photo opportunities.
The perahera is a carefully orchestrated, quasi-theatrical event – there is no spectator participation here, although the astonishing number of performers during later nights give the impression that most of Kandy’s citizens are involved. The perahera actually comprises five separate processions, which follow one another around the city streets: one from the Temple of the Tooth, and one from each of the four devales – a kind of giant religious conga, with elephants. The exact route changes from day to day, although the procession from the Temple of the Tooth always leads the way, followed (in unchanging order) by the processions from the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini devales (Natha, as a Buddha-to-be, takes precedence over the other divinities). As its centrepiece, each procession has an elephant carrying the insignia of the relevant temple – or, in the case of the Temple of the Tooth, the replica Tooth Relic. Each is accompanied by other elephants, various dignitaries dressed in traditional Kandyan costume and myriad dancers and drummers, who fill the streets with an extraordinary barrage of noise. The processions each follow a broadly similar pattern, although there are slight differences. The Kataragama procession – as befits that rather unruly god – tends to be the wildest and most freeform, with jazzy trumpet playing and dozens of whirling dancers carrying kavadis, the hooped wooden contrivances, studded with peacock feathers, which are one of that god’s symbols. The Pattini procession, the only one devoted to a female deity, attracts mainly female dancers. The beginning and end of each perahera is signalled by a deafening cannon shot.