The Kandy Esala Perahera takes place over the course of 10 days with grand processions of dancers, jugglers, musicians, fire-breathers, acrobats, flag and torch bearers and lavishly decorated elephants. It's a cacophony of banging drums, cracking whips and jazzy trumpets. The processions become progressively more elaborate with the first five nights known as the Kumbal Perahera and the following five nights the Randoli Perahera. The final night is the most spectacular of all with thousands of performers filling the streets and a replica of the Sacred Tooth Relic paraded in a casket mounted on the back of an elephant. It is known as the Maha Perahera, or 'Great Parade'.
The festival begins with the Kap Tree Planting Ceremony
. Cuttings are taken from an anointed Jackfruit tree and planted in Kandy's four devales
- independent shrines dedicated to different gods who follow Buddha. Kandy's devales are dedicated to Pattini (goddess of chastity), Vishnu (god of protection), Kataragama (guardian deity) and Natha (embodiment of compassion). On the final day of the festival the water-cutting ceremony
takes place before dawn. The chief priests from the devales wade into the Mahaweli Ganga and use a sword to "cut" the water and symbolically separate pure from impure. The swords are used to create a circle in the river's surface, into which water is poured from a golden ewer. This water would have been collected from the river during the previous year's festival and the process is repeated each year when the golden ewer is filled with water once again. After this a smaller procession takes place during the afternoon under the light of day.
The nightly perahera comprise of five individual processions that start at each of the four devales and the Temple of the Tooth. Eventually these five processions merge into one as they follow a route around the city with the Temple of the Tooth perahera leading the way. While the lead procession carries the Tooth Relic replica, the other four carry their temple's insignia and each has one notable difference in their performance line-up according to the god they honour. For instance, the Pattini perahera features largely female dancers.