Elephants, dancers, acrobats, bands, flaming sticks, drums. And a replica of the Buddha’s tooth.
M ore than 100 elephants lumber down the street as red-clad, bare-chested dancers twirl flaming sticks and toss batons. The drums never let up and marching bands shout through their horns all night long, on display for Buddhists who travel hours on jammed mountain roads to sit 10 deep along the sidewalk.
To catch a glimpse of the annual Esala Perahera, you’d better get there early.
The thousands who clog the streets of this ancient kingdom are here for one of the biggest religious parades in Asia, all in honor of the Buddha’s tooth. The tooth is said to be housed in Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth, perched on the shore of a small lake at the start of the parade route. The tooth’s ornate sealed box makes its annual three-hour procession through the streets on the back of one of the parade’s bejeweled elephants. The tooth is not in the box. Too sacred, too fragile, too valuable to risk. It remains in the temple where few are allowed to ogle it.
Walking the streets of Kandy as the sun disappears behind surrounding mountains, it only takes a little while to see that for Buddhists, this is more than a religious event. The 10-day festival and parades celebrate Sri Lanka’s culture and offer its people a sacred nostalgia.
Tourists love it, but the Perahera is meant for Sri Lanka. It connects Buddhists with their history, and reminds young people of the religion’s legacy in their island nation.
Ravindra Seneviratna lives in Kandy, but at 23 has seen the Esala Perahera only twice. At his second Perahera this year, he was all smiles with a video camera slung over his shoulder. Seneviratna milled among the 100 elephants and thousands of performers as they prepared to march, submerged in a cultural identity he said he had lost touch with. Before now, he said, he did not fully realize the celebration’s significance.
“When I came and looked at it the first time, I had this feeling and emotion,” Seneviratna said. “Pride, amazement, excitement, nostalgia.”
The parade has that effect. Children and their grandparents sit in appreciative awe; there’s something there connecting the overflowing crowds.
When I came and looked at it the first time, I had this feeling and emotion. Pride, amazement, excitement, nostalgia.-Ravindra Seneviratna
Seneviratna said the parade reminds him of what it means to be a Buddhist, and of his country’s thick intertwinement with the religion. More than 70 percent of the country’s population is Buddhist, and it has been that way since the 3rd century B.C. for this, one of the world’s oldest Buddhist cultures.
The mammoth golden Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha statue sits atop the highest point on the mountains encircling Kandy, all-seeing and visible from any spot in the city. At night, white lights bathe the impassive stone figure, constantly reasserting an impression of momentous and cosmic significance. All night long, elephants and drumlines march through streets under the Buddha’s protective gaze.
Though established as a Buddhist celebration, the Perahera now unites the city’s religious minority with its age-old Buddhist population. Seneviratna said the last three groups to march their elephants through the streets come from local Hindu temples. One sits just around the corner from where marchers lined up. This raucous procession through jam-packed streets has united the city around a common reverence for a nation of deep culture.
“This is what we have as Sri Lankans,” Seneviratna said.
Seneviratna said the decorated men sitting atop the elephants as they make their way through Kandy have had that honor passed down to them through generations. The festival honors the remnants of a caste system that once ruled Kandy, one the community supports again once every year.
“Even the dancers,” he said. “Only these dancers can dance; it comes from their family.”
Seneviratna expressed what most Buddhist spectators feel. Esala Perehera is an essential part of keeping their culture alive in a rapidly modernizing world. As more tourists flood the country each year for the festival, they may detract from its authentic feeling, but the locals have found a way to appreciate and welcome these foreign guests.
“If they know about our country, they can study our language, our culture, our religion and everything,” Ravindra Kumara Herath said.
Herath hopes tourists respect their celebration, but also take a little bit of the country home with them.
Dieuwertje van der Hulst came to the festival from the Netherlands. On impulse, she bought plane tickets two days before the flight was scheduled to leave. She just had to see the Perahera.
“We’re looking for seats among the locals,” she said, around an hour before parade time.
That’s a tough ticket. Space on the ground is hard to come by even hours beforehand, and cheap plastic chairs on balconies go for almost $100.
Despite this commercialization of the festival, locals still hold it dear. It seems nothing, from war to tsunami to a world turned hateful, can distract these Buddhists from what the festival means to them. It is, after all, a matter of faith.
“I don’t have words to describe it; you don’t get numb of it,” Herath said.