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Kandy Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka

by Thushni de Silva

The Kandy Esala Perahera takes place every summer and makes for a spectacular addition to your holiday in Sri Lanka. The dates vary according to the lunar calendar and official guidelines. The dates for the Esala Kandy Perahera 2022 have not yet been officially confirmed, but we anticipate they will be as follows:

02-05 August – Kumbal Perahera
06th August – Final Kumbal Perahera
07-10th August – Randoli Perahera
11th August – Final Randoli Perahera
12th August – Day Perahera

Taking place every summer, the Kandy Esala Perahera is as spectacular as they get. We asked our Local Experience Manager, Thushni, to give her insights into the history and background of this fantastic annual event.

A decorated elephant in the Kandy Esala Perahera
A decorated elephant

History of the Kandy Esala Perahera

The Kandy Esala Perahera is a commemoration of the arrival of Buddha’s Sacred Tooth Relic to Sri Lanka. It used to be kept in an area called Udeni (present-day Odisha) in India but when war brought upon a dark time there, the local prince and princess, Dantha and Hemamala, fled the country to get the tooth relic to safety, hiding it in the princess’ hair. Arriving in the 4th Century, the pair journeyed to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Kithsirimevan and it was he who first organized a grand procession for the people to see the Sacred Tooth Relic. The tradition was born.

Thushni, ETG Local Experience Manager
Thushni, ETG Local Experience Manager

The procession itself has evolved over time. For example, it’s thought that King Kithsirimevan held the Perahera (procession) in the month of March but the Dalada Perehera was merged with an annual procession that was conducted in the month of ‘Esala’ (July/August) wishing for rain.

Fire and elephants at the Kandy Esala Perhahera
Fire and elephants make a heady combination

The Traditions of the Kandy Esala Perahera

After the tradition reached the Kandyan period (around 1600 AD), a lot changed. The procession became more influenced by Hindu customs as well as the Buddhist traditons. This is because one of the Kandyan Kings married a South Indian (Naikkar) Princess who was Hindu. This particular King didn’t have children so following the South Indian tradition, the right to the throne was then given to the Hindu Queen’s brother. So Sri Lankans;had a Hindu South Indian King who also married a South Indian Princess and this trend continued for a time.

A procession at the Kandy Esla Perahera
A procession with Kandyan dancers

Whilst the Sacred Tooth of the Buddha and its temple were always in the forefront, there were four main Hindu Devala (shrines of worship dedicated to particular figures)that were established in close proximity to the temple and considered very important. From around 1775, during the reign of King Keerthi Sri Rajasingha, the four devales (temples) also took part in the Perahera and that is the start of the Esala Dalada Perahera in Kandy we know today.

Young temple dancers at the Kandy Perahera
Dancers prepare for the Kandy Perahera

The Kumbal Perahera

Last year, I went to the Kumbal Perahera which is considered to be the smaller procession that takes place on the first few days and people had come from all parts of the country (and also many parts of the world) to watch the Perahera, even as early as 11 am. It starts around 7pm and is about three hours long but you barely feel the time go by as you watch in awe as a total of about 50 caparisoned elephants mark the intervals between whip cracks, drummers, dancers, fire dancers, stilt walkers and performers of numerous disciplines.

Kandyan Dancers
Kandyan Dancers

I was lucky enough to witness the preparation for the Perahera with one of my friends whose family is very closely knit with the devale (the temple organisers). This allowed me to see it in an entirely new light from a different perspective. During the Perahera time, my friend told me, nothing else is as important, not even school and that this was generally accepted in Kandy.

A Kandyan dancer in front of a shrine at the devale (temple)
A drummer at the devale (temple)

The whip crackers got dressed in one area, the drummers at another, some closer to the devale (the temple), some further and they knew this because that is how it has been done for generations. No one had to tell anyone what to do.

Small herds of elephants saunter in gnawing at tasty logs, gripped tightly with their trunks. After a nice bath, they go where they need to be too, rushing up flights of stairs and taking quick bends and turns like the most nimble of creatures. I felt like they knew their importance!

We were asked to move out of the way at one point to which my friend’s mother said,

“I can’t go past that elephant, I don’t even know him!”

An elephant at the Kandy Perahera
An decorated elephant outsie the temple of the tooth

As an outsider to all of this, I found it a little funny to hear a person say they don’t know the elephant well enough to trust it but soon I realized it was quite normal because I later was a part of a conversation that started with the phrase,

You know, there was this elephant I once knew….”

Elephants were well known for their varying characters and approached on a very individual basis!

Kandyan Dancers in the procession at the Esala Kandy Perahera
Kandyan Dancers in the procession

The Randoli Perahera

The Randoli Perahera is double the flamboyance of my own experience! Thousands of dancers, over a hundred elephants, over a thousand drummers, more fire, more excitement, almost double the time, bigger crowds. But for a Buddhist, in my opinion, nothing is as awe-inspiring as seeing the tooth of the Buddha in front of you, in that golden casket atop the majestic elephant.

Kandyan Dancers
Kandyan Dancers at the Esala Perahera

If you book in advance, you can reserve seats in the temporary viewing areas for the larger Kandy Perahera, which are erected along the main city streets. These sell out incredibly quickly so do book in advance, the earlier the better – the same goes for the hotels!

As a once in a lifetime experience, this annual event will truly set your summer holiday apart!

See whip-crackers, fireball acrobatics, drumming, traditional music, dancing and procession of the famous Tooth Relic on the back of an elephant. If you wanted to see how the Kandy Esala Perahera could be tailored into your holiday, have a look at these suggested itineraries.

Boutique Sri Lanka

Essential Sri Lanka – Deluxe

The Full Sri Lanka Tour

NB: Recently, a concerned customer drew our attention to animal rights concerns that have been raised about the elephants which feature during the Perahera. The principal concerns they raised were the level and intensity of training needed to ensure elephants could join a procession of this kind. While we acknowledge these concerns, we believe that the integrity of the festival and the deep relationship between the elephants and their handlers and the families involved mean that, for us, this is a tradition worth upholding. However, we encourage you to bear this in mind and let us know if this is an event you would rather avoid.

Remember, these are just a starting point. All our holidays are tailormade to suit your preferences so we can tweak activities and hotels wherever you’d like. If you want to talk to a Sri Lanka specialist about your holiday you can always phone on 020 3393 8629. If contacting via email is easier, please do so here. We are here to offer advice for any stage of your holiday planning.

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