Esala Perahera Festival, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Kandy festival

Maligawa tusker elephant, Temple of the Tooth

Each year in the midsummer lunar month of Esala (July-August), a spectacular perahera (procession) is performed in Kandy in honour of the Buddha’s ‘Sacred Tooth’. Kept within Sri Lanka’s 16th century Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) and under the protection of the Nilames (guardians of the Temple of the Tooth), the Sacred Tooth is the most revered relic in the Buddhist world.

The Esala Perahera festival lasts fifteen nights and climaxes on the evening of the full moon when the splendidly ornamental elephant known as the Maligawa Tusker carries a golden replica of the Tooth reliquary  in solemn procession through the town. The tusker is accompanied by whip-crackers, torchbearers, drummers, dancers, flag-bearers, umbrella-carriers, acrobats, musicians blowing conch-shells, court retainers, the Nilames in their traditional costumes and by a disciplined troop of over 100 caparisoned elephants.

Royal, ancient and sacred

From the time that the Sacred Tooth was brought to Anuradhapura (the capital of Sri Lanka’s ancient Sinhalese kingdom) in the early 4th century AD it was customary to hold the annual spring perahera with much ceremony. Sri Lanka’s capital city was shifted many times over the centuries due to foreign invasions and the Sacred Tooth Relic went with it, finally finding a permanent resting place in Kandy. Originally, the festival was almost Hindu in design, honouring the gods of the four devales, or shrines of Kandy. In 1775, the king of Kandy commanded that the perahera of the Tooth be added to the customary processions of the four devales.

Esala Perahera today

Sri Lankan dancers Kandy

Kandyan Dancers, Esala Perahera

Kandy’s present day Esala Perahera is divided into three movements of five days each. For the first five nights, the Devale Peraheras are conducted around the four Kandy devales with flags, torches and drumming. A jak tree is ritually cut and divided into four parts, each of which is carried in state to each of the four devales and planted on the premises.

The second part of the festival known as the Kumbul Perahera then begins with the Dalada Perahera (Procession of the Tooth) making its first appearance and joins with the Devale Peraheras for the next five days. Then, the Randoli Perahera (Procession of the Palanquins on which the queens of the ruling kings traditionally traveled) begins, increasing in splendour each night, culminating on the full moon.

The celebrations are concluded on the morning after the full moon with the Water-Cutting Ceremony, an ancient ritual enacted to request the gods for rainfall. The devale processions then join the Tooth procession into the town and a day perahera is formed, at the conclusion of which the processions return to their temples for the last time.