Later this week the streets of Kandy will be a whirlwind of colour and activity as the country celebrates one of its most important festivals – Esala Perahera, also known as Kandy Festival or The Festival of the Sacred Tooth. It begs the question – what’s in a name?
Now to fully understand the meaning of this important Sri Lankan festival we need to go back some 1700 years, when it is believed that a tooth was taken from Buddha right before his cremation, and later smuggled into Sri Lanka. From here it is said to have moved from place to place and over time the belief spread that whoever was in possession of the tooth had the right to rule the land. Replicas were created to protect the integrity of the tooth and even today the location of the original relic remains unclear. One of the theories however, is that it is housed within a special shrine, enclosed in a bejewelled golden casket, within the aptly named Temple of the Tooth in the hill city of Kandy.
Whether the tooth housed in this shrine is the real deal or not, it still possesses great religious significance for Sri Lankan Buddhists and takes centre stage at the annual Kandy Festival. As tradition goes, the cutting down of a jack tree blesses the start of the festival, which is then followed by small processions for the first five nights. From then on the party really gets started as the processions turn into parades, getting longer and more extravagant with each passing night.
The final parade sets out from the Temple of the Tooth where the tooth relic is placed in a golden casket mounted on the chief elephant’s back, and then continues through the city to the rhythm of beating drums. Locals and visitors alike line the streets as the parade passes by; incense fill the air, fire eaters consume flames, dancers twirl burning coconut husks and men walk across amber coals as the festival reaches its climax.
Witness the festivities of the Kandy Festival for yourself next year.