Festival of the Sacred Tooth

Kandy Travel Blog

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Elephants and dancers

The Esala Perehera or Festival of the Sacred Tooth is something I’ve wanted to see ever since I was a little kid.  So when I decided to take six months off, the first thing on my list of what to see was this perahera or parade.  In fact, being in Sri Lanka for August 5th dictated the whole itinerary for my trip.

 

The perahera falls in either late July or early August every year depending on the full moon (Esala full moon) and has been performed in some form or another since at least the 5th century AD [The modern version of the parade has taken place in Kandy since the mid-1600s.

Dancers
]  Esala falls at the end of the drought season and hence this is considered a rain-making festival in honour of the Buddha’s Sacred Tooth Relic, which is believed to have magical power to cause rain.

 

For Sri Lankan Buddhists this is the festival of the year.  The festival lasts 10 days and ends on the full moon day with a grand finale, the Perahera. On this final day, the tooth relic is paraded around on the back of the largest tusker (elephant) through the streets of Kandy along with thousands of dancers, drummers, musicians and other elephants.  The tooth (an incisor/canine tooth) was taken from the Buddha’s funeral pyre back in the 5th century BC.  The tooth relic was originally in India in the state of Kalinga (now Orissa).

Customed elephant
  There, the King of Kalinga feared that Hindu Kings would eventually try and destroy the relic, so it was smuggled out of India in the hair of a his daughter, Princess Hemamala, and brought to the royal capital of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka to be safeguarded. Since its arrival, the tooth relic has moved about Sri Lanka with successive kingdoms and even back to India, but since about the 16th century it’s been housed in Kandy, Sri Lanka‘s last kingdom, at the Sri Dalada Maligawa or “Temple of the Tooth”.

 

As I said, I’ve waited a long time to see this parade and it did not disappoint at all. This year’s perahera was the first since the war ended, so there was a huge buzz about this year’s festival.  In fact, 400, 000 people came out to see the festival; to put this in perspective, Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second city, has a population of about 120,000 people! As one would expect, the security around the event was huge.

Tusker with Scared Tooth Relic in Shrine on its back
  We left Colombo very early, to be in Kandy before 12, when all roads in and out of Kandy were closed until the perahera ended.  We got there at around 930am and people were already sitting along the parade route! The parade didn’t start until 900 that night.

 

Once the parade started, literally for 3 hours 1000’s of dancers, torch bearers, drummers, musicians, fire dancers and about 100 elephants all took to the streets.  We had a balcony view from the Queen’s hotel, one of Sri Lanka’s oldest, right above the parade route.  Men in sarongs and red masks, held emblazed coconut husks along the path of the perahera, while various dancers, drummers and of course elephants went past us.  The elephants were my favourite part of the perahera.  They were all covered in colourful costumes, dark reds, orange, turquoise, some even light up with decorative lights and if you believe me, dancing along with the beat of the drums, swaying from side to side.

Kavadi dancer
  It was unbelievable!

 

Of course the highlight of the perahera itself was the large tusker, covered in a pure white sheet, with lights adorned all over him with the golden casket of the Sacred Tooth Relic on top.  As the tusker walked a white carpet was placed in front of it to walk along, its feet never touched the pavement.  Definitely a sight to see.

 

After the tooth had passed, there was still another hour of dancers, etc.  The highlight being the Tamil Kavadi dancers who are pierced with hooks with chains attached to their backs while another dancer holds on to the chains and both dance down the street.  Now picture about 20-30 of these dancers all in unison! Crazy. 

 

All in all that night was everything I had imagined growing up. People in the past have brought me books and even videos on the Perahera, I have always refrained from looking at them because I wanted to see and hear the experience first hand.  I’m so glad I waited, it was an experience I will never forget.

 

 

senaka123 says:
hey this is really a great piece of writing. You have covered the Perahera very well. Thank you very much for your effort.
Posted on: Aug 27, 2009
graceyface says:
incredible! what a wonderful story behind the festival...
Posted on: Aug 27, 2009
novabelgica says:
Wow. Must have been an amazing experience.
Posted on: Aug 27, 2009
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Elephants and dancers
Elephants and dancers
Dancers
Dancers
Customed elephant
Customed elephant
Tusker with Scared Tooth Relic in …
Tusker with Scared Tooth Relic in…
Kavadi dancer
Kavadi dancer
The view from the balcony!
The view from the balcony!
I believe his is the Tusker used t…
I believe his is the Tusker used …
Kavadi Dancer. You can see the hoo…
Kavadi Dancer. You can see the ho…
Crowds for the Perahera
Crowds for the Perahera
Kandy Hotels & Accommodations review
Grand old hotel in Kandy. Great for viewing the Perahera. I recemmend trying to get a seat at the entrance if you're in town for the parade. As a … read entire review
Kandy
photo by: halilee