Considered one of the most colourful religious pageants in Asia, Kandy's ten-day Esala Perahera is one of Sri Lanka's most spectacular festivals. The perahera (procession) is held to honour the sacred tooth enshrined in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
According to Sri Lankan legends, when the Buddha died, his body was cremated in a sandalwood pyre in India and his left canine tooth was retrieved from the funeral pyre. A belief grew that whoever possessed the Sacred Tooth Relic had a divine right to rule that land; wars were fought to take possession of the relic. After many wars and many deaths, a royal couple disguised themselves and set sail to Sri Lanka with the relic hidden as a hair ornament. It is claimed that Sri Lanka was chosen as the new home for the tooth relic because the Lord Buddha had declared that his religion would be safe there (in Sri Lanka) for 2,500 years. At the time of the royal couple's landing, the king of Sri Lanka, King Kirti Sri Megavanna, was overjoyed that the Sacred Tooth Relic was in Sri Lanka and received it with great veneration. He built a magnificent palace within the Royal Palace Complex and enshrined the Relic in it; thereafter, he ordered that an annual perahera be held in honour of the Sacred Relic. As time went on, the land was threatened with foreign invasions and the location of the kingdom was moved from city to city. Upon each change of capital, a new palace was built to enshrine the Relic; finally it was bought to Kandy, where it is at present, in the Temple of the Tooth.
The perahera comprises the Tooth Relic, which is at the head of the procession, and is followed by the processions of four deities: the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini devales. The Tooth Relic itself has not been carried in the perahera since 1848, since when it was considered unfavourable for it to leave the temple sanctuary, and its place is now taken by a replica.
The ten days of the festival begin with the Kap Tree Planting Ceremony, during which cuttings from an Esala tree (Jak or Rukkattana are accepted), are planted in the four devales. This act represents a vow that the festival will be held; the beginning and end of each perahera is signalled by a deafening shot. During the festival, the perahera parades through the streets of Kandy throughout the night. The perahera actually comprises five separate processions, which follow one another around the city streets: one from the Temple of the Tooth and one from each of the other four devales. Always in the same order, the Maligawa Tusker elephants heads the procession with the replica casket of the Tooth Relic on its back and is followed by the processions of the Natha devale, the Vishnu devale, the Kataragama devale and the Pattini devale. The deity Natha, as a Buddha-to-be, takes precedence over the other divinities and is always directly after the Sacred Tooth Relic procession. As its centrepiece each procession has an elephant carrying the insignia of the relevant temple or, in the case of the Temple of the Tooth, the replica Tooth Relic.
During the final five nights of the festival, the Randholee Perahera, things become progressively spectacular; Randholees were royal princesses in the harem of the Kandyan Kings of Sri Lanka and the Randholee Perahera is when the chief and secondary Queens ride through the parade in their beautifully decorated palanquins. They are joined by a massive cast of participants including as many as a hundred brilliantly caparisoned elephants, dignitaries dressed in traditional Kandyan costume, thousands of drummers, dancers and acrobats. They dance, walk on stilts, twirl batons, crack whips, swing fire pots, and carry banners. The Pattini procession, the only one devoted to a female deity, attracts many female dancers decorated with peacock feathers; peacock feathers are a religious symbol.
Following the last perahera, the water-cutting ceremony is held before the dawn of the next day at the Kandy Lake. A priest wades out into the Mahaweli Ganga and “cuts” the water with a sword. This ceremony symbolically releases a supply of water for the coming year and divides the pure from the impure. The Tooth Relic is traditionally believed to protect the land against drought. After the water-cutting ceremony, a final “day” perahera is held and the procession of the Tooth Relic and the four devales parade around the city one last time for the year.
The perahera is traditionally held over the last nine days of the lunar month of Esala, finishing on Nikini Poya day. This usually falls during late July or early August through the exact dates vary according to the vagaries of the lunar calendar; the authorities sometimes opt for slightly different dates depending on practical and astrological considerations. Filled with brilliant colour, dance and tradition, the essence of Sri Lankan history is captured in the annual Kandy Esala Perahera.