Kandy's Spectacular Esala Perahera
Often billed as Asia's most spectacular pageant, the Esala Perahera is held in the Sri Lankan hill town of Kandy. 'Esala' is the name of the lunar month that occurs around July/August, and 'Perahera' means 'parade'. The Esala Perahera festival runs for 10 days, and there are parades during the day and at night, but the night-time parades are more spectacular because they are held under the light of hundreds of flaming torches.
Each night, a parade of dancers, drummers, acrobats, fire-eaters and elephants is held, and each night it grows larger and larger until the final night (on the night of the full moon) when about 5,000 dancers in traditional dress, bands of drummers and over 100 brightly decorated tuskers and elephants take about three hours to parade through the streets of Kandy.
The Perahera starts from the Temple of the Tooth, by the side of the lake about 8.30 pm, and ends up back at another entrance to the temple at about 11.30 pm. In fact, as the last few elephants are leaving by the lakeside entrance, you can see the front of the parade approaching again up an adjacent street, which means that the back of the parade will not reach the temple again until about 2.30 am. So for about six hours in total, drumbeats echo through the town -- so don't expect to sleep early if you are staying in the town!
Kandy is a hill town of about 125,000 people in the centre of Sri Lanka, about two and half to three hours drive from the capital Colombo. It is not as dirty and polluted as Colombo, and the green hills right around Kandy provide a scenic backdrop to the town.
Three centuries old
The Esala Perahera has been held in Kandy every year since the 18th century (although its origins go back to an annual ritual held since the 4th century), so that must make it one of the longest running shows in the world. However, some locals get offended when the Perahera is promoted as a tourist attraction, because it is a religious festival which they say must be celebrated with 'the highest esteem and reverence'.
Some say it is to honour the Buddha's tooth which is housed in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha (commonly known as the Temple of the Tooth). Others say it is to honour Buddhism and to invoke the blessings of the gods for rain, successful crops, fertility and good health.
The story of the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha is interesting. Many Buddhists say it is the most precious thing in the world. It is claimed to be the left eye tooth of the Buddha which was taken from the funeral pyre of the Buddha in 543 BC, and in the early 4th century taken from India to Sri Lanka. Indian invaders in the 13th century took it back to India, but a war was fought to bring it back to Sri Lanka.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese, in their efforts to convert the Sinhalese to Catholicism, took the tooth away to Goa and pounded it to dust and threw it into the sea. Some books say that the dust reconstituted itself on the sea bed and the tooth flew back to Sri Lanka of its own accord, whilst others say that what the Portuguese took to Goa was only a replica, and the real tooth is still in Kandy. Who knows what the real story is.
The British opened the casket containing the tooth in 1815, and said it looked more like a crocodile's tooth, but nowadays nobody is allowed to see the tooth as it is kept sealed inside a gold casket, inside a series of larger caskets inside a heavily guarded room in the Temple of the Tooth. I would expect that given today's modern technology, the tooth could be tested to see if it really does date back to 543 BC and whether it is from a human being or a crocodile, but I guess nobody wants to know the answer to that in case it destroys the legend of the Tooth over which so many wars have been fought (even the Chinese went to war at one stage to try and steal the famous Tooth).
The start of the parade is signalled by the firing of a cannon, and is led by a dozen or so whip crackers who pick up coins that are thrown on the road by onlookers. Then come the fire jugglers who swing flaming torches (comprising burning coconut husks in wire cages) around on the end of wires which they hold in their teeth or are tied to their feet. This part of the parade is spectacular to watch, but very hard to photograph. Then come the flag bearers, followed by the first of the elephants, and thousands of dancers and drummers.
Some people will say it is better to watch the Perahera on TV, from the comfort of a hotel room in Colombo, because of the crowds, exorbitant prices, security issues and the danger of elephants running amok. If you don't like hassle, and are not prepared to 'rough it' a bit, then yes, you'd probably be better off staying in your hotel room, but if you do that, you will never experience the real atmosphere of the Esala Perahera -- the drums, the smoke, the spectacle of frenzied dancers and the excitement of the crowd as the casket containing the tooth relic passes by on the back of an enormous tusker.
Yes, it is crowded -- extraordinarily crowded -- and you will have to pay through the nose to get a seat anywhere near where you will have a reasonable view. I had to pay 20,000 rupees (about US$125) for a plastic chair at street level on the front porch of the Queens Hotel, and then (after having being told this was a front row seat in a good location for taking photographs) had to put up with one of the town's police chiefs putting five more chairs in front of me for his elderly relatives (who I assume didn't pay US$125 each for their chairs).
When I protested, I was told it was "best not to make trouble", although it was not specified what the consequences would be if I did try to "make trouble". So most of my shots were taken over the shoulder of an old lady, who once or twice looked a little perturbed when my telephoto lens brushed her carefully coiffured hair.
So seeing the Esala Perhera is an expensive outing. Apart from the cost of a seat (and there are touts all over town offering you the "best seat in town" for anything from 10,000 to 20,000 rupees each), you will find that hotel prices double or triple during the Perahera -- if you can get a booking that is.
I paid 60,000 rupees (nearly US$400) for a room with two rickety single beds with stained sheets, an old musty wooden wardrobe and a bathroom that was badly in need of renovation in the very old Queens Hotel (it was a good location though, being right next to the Lake and Temple of the Tooth).
The price included dinner and breakfast (mediocre but edible) because 'full board' was compulsory during the Esala Perahera. The normal price for a room in the Queens Hotel (without meals) is around US$60. The enormous price increase during the Perahera is because the Queens Hotel is located in one of the best places to view the parades.
Back in 2004 when I first visited Kandy and Sri Lanka was still in the grips of a civil war, and there was a danger of a suicide bomber infiltrating the crowds, so security was very tight. The centre of the town was cordoned off hours before the parade (if you arrived late by bus or taxi, you had a long walk to your hotel and numerous checkpoints and body searches to go through on the way) and in the hour or so before the parade, hundreds of police moved through the crowds waiting for the parade, searching bags and checking for weapons using metal detector wands.
In recent years the security is not so intense, but I would expect that following the state of emergency that was declared in Kandy in March 2018 after violence between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the Islamic minority, security is likely to be beefed up again for at least a few more years.
The other concern I had prior to attending the Esala Perahera was that elephants kill 80 people a year in Sri Lanka, and those in musth are especially unpredictable. But I did quite an extensive Internet search at the time and couldn't find any reports of people being trampled at the Perahera in recent years (the closest I could find to such a report was about an elephant in Kandy that trampled its mahout (keeper) in 2002 a few hours before the Perahera was due to start).
So my strong recommendation (unless you are not the slightest bit adventurous) is to go to the Esala Perahera if you are lucky enough to be in Sri Lanka in the Esala lunar month (you can check the actual dates that the Perahera will be held through an Internet search -- or ask when you get to Colombo -- everyone seems to know).
It is easy to get from Colombo to Kandy by bus, train, car or taxi -- but be warned the drivers on the road up to Kandy are nothing short of crazy. I saw petrol tankers and buses (they are the worst!) overtaking at speed on blind hairpin bends and saw accidents on both the way up and on the way down. One of them was a head-on collision between an ambulance and a car. I was wondering whether the person in the ambulance was the victim of another accident -- quite likely I'd guess.
If you are on a tight budget, I'd recommend taking the train. Buses are the cheapest option, but they are too dangerous in Sri Lanka. If budgetary constraints are not important, I'd suggest hiring a car with a driver and make sure you request you want a slow, safe driver (maybe tell them you have a habit of throwing up if they overtake on blind corners!).
The train costs about 200-500 rupees depending on whether you want a first or second class seat, and that is only about twice the cost of the bus. Cars can be hired with a driver for anything between 5,000 and 15,000 rupees a day, depending on how old the car is, whether it is air-conditioned or not -- and how good your negotiating skills are!
Around 10,000 rupees a day (about US$60) is a good price for a medium sized late model car with driver. Check that the rate includes fuel, insurance, and meals and accommodationfor the driver. Note that hiring from hotels in Colombo is likely to cost a lot more, but you do have more recourse for complaints to the hotel should something go wrong on the trip.
If you have time to plan your trip in advance (I did mine on impulse when I was in Colombo and found out that the Perahera was on the following night, and managed to get a room at the Queens Hotel through a contact who knew the hotel manager), I would recommend booking at one of the modern hotels that are located in the hills around Kandy (there are only old hotels in the town itself).
They range from budget hotels to high end resorts, and most of them have arrangements to take their guests to the Perahera in the town and pick them up again. An internet search should give you plenty of options. Possibly some of them would also have their own transportation arrangements to and from Colombo (but I'd personally prefer to make my own arrangements having seen the way some of the hotel minibuses drive on the road up to Kandy).
I would also expect that many of the hotels around Kandy to have block bookings of seats at the Perahera for their guests. Unless you want to sit on the sidewalk in the sun for six hours from about 2 pm in the afternoon (which is what the locals do) you have NO HOPE of getting a good vantage point to see the Perahera - unless you buy a seat.
I would also expect that the parades on the nights preceding the full moon would not be so crowded, and I don't know how much of a substitute they would be for the final night's pageant, but I would imagine they would still be worth seeing if you can't be in Kandy (or can't get accommodation) for the night of the full moon. There is also a day-time parade in the afternoon of the day after the full moon, but I have been told that it doesn't have the same atmosphere as the night-time parades.
I probably wouldn't go back to Kandy to see another Esala Perahera, because there ARE a lot of hassles involved, but I'd recommend it to senior travellers as one of those 'bucket list' events that you should see if you get the chance.
Header image: © David Astley