Asia 3 – Esala Perahera

Esala Perahera (1)


Kandy, Sri Lanka


The last ten days of the Buddhist lunar month of Esala (usually late July and early August), ending on the full moon day of the lunar month of Nikini

How long?

10 days, plus an afternoon “day perahera” on the day after the conclusion of the festival proper. In terms of noise, colour and crowds, there’s nothing else on earth quite like Kandy’s Esala Perahera, a ten-day extravaganza dating back to the fourth century AD and the early days of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Forget Ibiza’s club scene, for truly all-out sensory assault, this is hard to beat. Held to honour the Buddha’s tooth, the festival is based around a series of increasingly lengthy and spectacular night­time parades involving drummers, dancers, torch-bearers, whip-crackers, fire-eaters and, most spectacularly, over a hundred costumed elephants. The final parade is the best part of a kilometre long, and can take several hours to wind its way around the city streets.


Gautama Siddhartha – or the Buddha – lived in India from 560 to 483BC; his teachings first arrived in Sri Lanka in 247BC and very soon become the predominant religion of the Sinhalese majority there. According to legend, one of the Buddha’s teeth was snatched from his smouldering funeral pyre by a devotee and then smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of an Orissan princess in around 300AD. King Meghawanna received the Tooth Relic (as it is now known) with great honour, laid it in a gold urn and had it carried around the then capital, Anuradhapura, in a celebratory procession – the origins of today’s festival. During the following centuries the Tooth Relic was moved around the island, being variously used to prevent famine (the Tooth Relic is popularly believed to protect against drought) and defeat invaders, before arriving in Kandy in 1592, where it has remained since, residing in Sri Lanka’s most sacred temple, the Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth. Reports of the first Sacred Tooth Perahera date back to the sixth century AD, though the event has continued uninterrupted in its present form since the early seventeenth century.

Sri Lankans call Kandy “Maha Nuwara”, the “Great City”, and although it’s long been overtaken by the country’s capital, Colombo, in terms of size and population, Kandy remains the centre of the island’s ancient Buddhist cultural and religious traditions, of which the Esala Perahera is the most spectacular example. Located just 100km northeast of Colombo, amid lush green hills in some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful and rugged countryside, the Kingdom of Kandy was the last part of Sri Lanka to be conquered by invading Europeans – the king of Kandy held out against the British until 1814 – and the place least affected by foreign influences. It is home to the country’s most famous temple, the Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Tooth, which houses the Buddha’s Tooth Relic, the raison d’etre for Esala Perahera, while other important temples throughout the city contribute performers and elephants to the festival.

Kandy is also the centre of traditional Sinhalese performing arts, in particular the exuberant styles of dancing and drumming that play such an important role in the Esala Perahera – outside festival time, displays of Kandyan drumming and dancing are held nightly at several venues, offering the chance to sample the acrobatic and adrenaline-charged performances that are typical of the city.

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