The Kandy Perahera – Festival of the Tooth

By


I went with friends to witness the Essala Perahera in Kandy this week-end. Unforgettable.

We drove for four hours and arrived early at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Lord Buddha’s tooth) to scout out our location, only to find out that once taken to our assigned seats inside the precinct, we could not leave again to walk about. At the prospect of waiting 3 hours for the procession to begin, we wondered how we would alleviate boredom. The young daughter of one of my friends convinced our designated guide to take us on a tour of the temple. A must see. We spent quite some time after the tour watching craftsmen putting finishing touches on the elephant costumes and dozens of dancers getting ready to parade. We finally had to sit down to let the show begin.

For the next three hours, I saw more elegantly-clad elephants than I will ever see again in my lifetime. The dancers were fascinating to watch; young boys, experienced dancers, acrobats, drummers, musicians all focused on their performance. The Kandyan dancers had costumes that only looked slightly different to my Western eyes, but my guide pointed out how each school had their distinct headdress, breast decorations, skirts and belts, and how more experienced dancers wore more adornments on their ankles and wrists. The sad touch were the dozens of men and boys carrying heavy wooden poles ending with mesh baskets overflowing with hot coals and flames fed by coconut oil that would singe the red rags wrapped around their chest and face. The torch carriers illuminated the parade, but were often berated for dropping pieces of burning coal too close to the dancers feet. Almost everyone was barefoot.

The elephants were a wondrous sight, some danced to the drums, all were draped in velvet costumes fit for royalty, with beads, sequins, small lights, gold designs and brass tusk decorations. All of them had heavy chains to keep them in line…

Hundreds of people marched and performed in complete harmony. Each segment of the procession was punctuated by shrines. When these passed, we were asked to rise out of respect. One of these shrines held the Sacred Tooth Relic. After the shrines came the kings with heads held high and powerful bellies jutting out. I asked why there were no women, and was told that there would be a few at the end of the parade, and that was simply the way things were.