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An elephant waits patiently while being decorated by his mahout with elaborate robes and lights.

Watch a short video of the Perahera festival:
Real Video   56k   200k
Photo : Chris Johnson

September 12, 2003
Kandy Esala Perahera

Log Transcript

This is Geneveive Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Sri Lanka.

While waiting for the south-west monsoon season to subside, the Odyssey has undergone an extensive maintenance period in recent weeks. The time in port gave the crew an opportunity to experience some of the extraordinary cultural heritage throughout Sri Lanka. For us on the Odyssey, witnessing the Esala Perahera was an experience we will always remember.

Along with thousands of visitors, we were drawn to the charming, ancient city of Kandy to witness the Esala Perahera. Few Buddhist festivals in the world can match the Perahera for its spectacle, passion and splendor.

At 2.30pm, we heard bells ringing above the noise of honking cars and excited crowds that inundated the city. We raced to the window of our hotel and saw three elephants lumbering down the street, the chains and brass bells around their necks clanging in time to their slow, yet surprisingly agile gate. Having concluded their work for the day, mahouts take their elephants to a public fountain for a bath, before they are led back to the temple where they are fed before preparing for the evening festivities.

The elephants are dressed for 10 consecutive nights. The Perahera is an ancient festival that began over 1600 years ago.
Photo : Chris Johnson

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is the most revered Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka. It is the focal point of the Perahera festival and the repository of the 'tooth relic' - one of Lord Buddha's teeth. Stored inside the smallest of seven gold caskets, each one shrouded in precious stones, the sacred relic is heavily guarded within the inner sanctum of the temple, known as Dalada Maligawa to the people of Sri Lanka. July and August is the traditional time of the Perahera, affording locals the opportunity to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic.

The Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought from India to Sri Lanka in the fourth century A.D. An annual festival in honor of the Relic is held every year in the lunar month of Esala to propitiate the Gods in order to assure timely rains for cultivation.

Thousands of Sri Lankan's and tourists alike adorned the pavements by late morning, eager to secure a good vantage point for the evenings procession. Having already secured our seats along the street, we went to the Temple to watch the elephants being dressed and fitted with their robes and caskets.

At the appointed 'auspicious' time each night for 10 consecutive nights, the tremendous boom of a canon heralds the beginning of the Perahera. The sounds of distant drums resonate throughout the Kandyan hills. Immediately following are the sound of whip-crackers who herald the coming of the parade.

Flagbearers, acrobats and drummers make their way amid the sea of noise, light, color and music.
Photo : Chris Johnson

The excitement mounted as the Perahera approached - flag bearers, drummers, acrobats spinning and throwing flaming copra husks into the air, and a wall of dancers moved in time to the rhythm of the music as they weaved their way through the streets. Sparkling lights adorned the trees and the temple, and the flames of the torchbearers cast a flickering, warm glow across the procession and spectators alike.

Then the first elephants appeared; the focus of a parade that can be traced back nearly 1,600 years. The excitement mounted as the elephants approached in all their glory - draped from trunk to toe in exquisitely embroided cloaks, the elephants were festooned with fairy lights depicting the colors of the Buddhist flag. The massive outline of these enormous terrestrial mammals was stark against the night, an impressive sight as they slowly made their way amid a sea of noise, light, color and music.

Several dancers swept by, cavorting among illuminated elephants carrying dignitaries. However, the high point of the evening was the Maligawar Tusker. This elephant is enormous beyond belief. He walked majestically into view, his tusks adorned with golden tassels, his robe exquisite in its finery and craftsmanship, while the most brilliant lighting was reserved for the casket chamber itself, which was high on the back of this magnificent beast. Two smaller animals flanked the tusker, a symbolic gesture of support in bearing the load of the revered relic, while temple staff walked along side him carrying splendidly decorated umbrellas.

After two and a half spell binding hours, the Perahera finally concluded. Spectators spilt out onto the roads, some chatted excitedly, while others absorbed the marvel of the night's events.

This unique visit to the ancient Perahera festival will never be forgotten by any of the crew of the Odyssey.

The Kandy Esala Perahera at night is a spectacle to behold.
Photo : Chris Johnson


  • What did the crew report on one year ago in the Seychelles?
    Two years ago in Australia?
    Three years ago on the Pacific Passage -> Real Audio: > Audio
  • Learn more about the Pinnewala Elephant orphange in Sri Lanka

Written by Genevieve Johnson

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