Each summer, one of South Asia’s greatest spectacles unfolds on the streets of Kandy up in the highlands of Sri Lanka. Thousands gather to honour a tooth, a discoloured enamel fang reputedly three inches long. Exuberant processions fill the town for eleven days and nights. Hundreds of feverish dancers cavort to the furious rhythms of even more drummers. Elephants with garish caparisons march trunk to tail. At its climax the leading tusker gets the red carpet treatment – actually a white linen sheet laid to keep its feet unsoiled. Mounted on its back is a canopy shading a gleaming casket ‒ a replica of that which cocoons the acclaimed tooth.
This, clearly, is no ordinary tooth. In the annals of Buddhist relics, they don’t come more sacred than the Buddha’s own. Kandy’s Esala Perahera festival celebrates the so-called ‘Tooth Relic’, among the Buddhist world’s most important items of veneration.
When Buddha’s remains were cremated in North India around 486BC, eight relics survived. Each was sealed in stupas built across the Buddhist heartland. Custody of the tooth was disputed many times down the centuries yet it finally reached Sri Lanka nearly seventeen centuries ago ‒ originally just for safekeeping ‒ since when it has been almost as nomadic as it is noble.
One warm humid evening I visited the Dalada Maligawa, or Palace of the Tooth Relic ‒ part of an extravagant complex that has been destroyed, rebuilt and expanded several times. It boasts a moat and a drawbridge, a gilded roof, and exuberantly decorative doorways. Tucked away on an upper floor behind a cage-fronted chamber is the Relic itself secured, a bit like Russian dolls, in eight gold-lined and jewel-studded caskets.
It’s surely one of the strangest places on the island and would be stranger still if it wasn’t generally so busy. Bare-chested drummers launched into a slow hypnotic beat, a kind of bedtime send-off. Centuries of ritual and custom govern the Relic’s waking hours for it is not just a well-travelled piece of enamel but akin to a living Buddha. So it is symbolically fed and watered, and even bathed once a week. There are great bouquets of flowers and wafting clouds of incense, soothing music and song. And just a few little sweets for Sri Lanka, too, knows the risks of a sweet tooth.