Esala Perahera (2)
Although originally a Buddhist celebration, the Esala Perahera was also spiced up with a fair dash of Hinduism during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Kingdom of Kandy was ruled by Hindus from the Nayakkar dynasty of southern India, and when Hindu deities became absorbed into local Buddhist traditions. The four most important of these deities – Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini – each have a dedicated temple in the city, from which separate nightly parades, or peraheras, emerge, to join up with the main parade from the Temple of the Tooth, so that the complete procession is actually made of up five separate parades joined together – a kind of giant religious conga, with elephants.
The nightly 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 and almost impenetrable mass. With the streets closed to traffic, 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 decorations and coloured lights. Large crowds of tourists merge with the thousands of Sri Lankans who descend on the city for the event. You’ll hear the parade before you see it. Depending on the night, there could be up to a thousand drummers involved in the perahera, and the boom of their powerful drums carries for miles around the city, heightening the sense of anticipation that precedes the arrival of the elephants – scores of them, decorated with golden balaclavas, yards of beautiful silks, embroidered cloth and silver thread. Some are even rigged with flashing lights. Surrounding them are brightly attired dancers, drummers and torch-bearers, each either carrying a bundle of sticks that have been dipped in oil, or swinging burning coconut husks from chains. Either way, the smoke and pungent fumes add to the full-on assault on the senses. Troupes of dancers, acrobats and musicians accompany the pachyderm procession, along with local dignitaries dressed in traditional finery, and men wielding mighty whips, which they crack every minute or so, supposedly to scare away demons but more useful for keeping over-zealous devotees and over-curious tourists at a respectable distance. Near the head of the parade is the mighty Maligawa tusker elephant, the beast entrusted with the job of carrying the Tooth Relic on its back, secured in a solid gold casket (although nowadays only a replica of the Tooth Relic is carried in the procession). Kitted out more ostentatiously than all of the other elephants put together, the Maligawa tusker marches through the streets with stately dignity, his appearance triggering wild cheering in the crowds, many of whom have patiently waited for hours just to catch a glimpse of him.
Shortly before dawn on the morning after the final night of the perahera, a “water-cutting” ceremony is held at the Mahaweli Ganga river, near Kandy. The Kapurala, the most senior official from the Temple of the Tooth, “cuts” the waters of the Mahaweli Ganga with a golden sword, symbolically dividing the pure from the impure and, thanks to the Tooth Relic’s perceived ability to protect against drought, ensuring a ready supply of water for the coming year. A goblet of water is then taken back to the temple where it is stored until the following year, when it is used in the initial tree-planting ritual that signals the beginning of the festival.