A Guide to the Kandy Festival in Sri Lanka

As a predominantly Buddhist country, the island nation of Sri Lanka is home to a number of colourful festivals and celebrations that mark the life and teachings of the great Buddha. Perhaps none are as spectacular as the Kandy Esala Perahera, a religious pageant that ranks as one of the best in Asia. Whether you're planning to visit Sri Lanka and experience the Kandy Festival firsthand or are simply interested in learning more about the event, here you'll find a wealth of information to help you better understand this important celebration.

Kandy Festival dancers and flag bearers - credit Dennis Candy at Flickr
Dancers and flag bearers on parade during the Kandy Festival. Photo credit: Dennis Candy

What is the Kandy Festival?

The Kandy Festival is an ancient Buddhist festival that commemorates the first teaching given by Buddha after he attained enlightenment. It is officially known as the Kandy Esala Perahera and is also referred to as the Festival of the Tooth. The word 'Perahera' translates as 'religious procession' and Esala is a month in the Sinhalese calendar.

Kandy Festival in 1775 - credit Wikipedia
The Kandy Esala Perahera circa 1885.

How did the Kandy Festival originate?

The Kandy Esala Perahera dates back to the 4th century AD when the sacred tooth relic of Buddha first arrived in Sri Lanka from India. The dental fragment was believed to have been saved from the ashes of Buddha's cremation and was kept as a royal possession. Once it arrived on the Tear Drop Isle the ruling king decreed that once a year the tooth relic would be paraded through the streets for the public to worship. This gave birth to the Esala Perahera, which continued through the centuries as the tooth relic made its way to the city of Kandy via Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and other important cities in Sri Lanka.

Today's version of the procession took form in 1775 when the second Nayaka king of Kandy, credited with reviving Buddhism in Sri Lanka after decades of colonial interference, placed the tooth relic at the head of four temple processions. However, since 1848 the original tooth relic remains kept in the Temple of the Tooth and a replica is used in its place as it was deemed inauspicious for the tooth to leave the temple sanctuary.

Kandy Festival Pathuru dancers - credit Dennis Candy at Flickr
Pathuru dancers perform in bright costumes. Photo credit: Dennis Candy

How is the Kandy Festival celebrated?

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 Ceremonies

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 Processions

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.

Kandy Festival drummers - credit Dennis Candy at Flickr
Drummers provide a rhythmic soundtrack to the nightly processions. Photo credit: Dennis Candy

When is the Kandy Festival celebrated?

The Kandy Festival is celebrated every year in the Sinhalese month of Esala, which falls between July and August in the Gregorian calendar. It's a 10-day festival and the start date changes each year according to the full moon. This year the Kandy Esala Perahera will be celebrated from the 16th August to the 26th August 2018.

Next year's dates have not yet been confirmed. Check www.sridaladamaligawa.lk for the latest updates.

Tips for making the most of the Kandy Festival

  • Book in advance - accommodation fills up quickly
  • Grab a spot - the processions usually kick off between 8pm and 9pm so you want to nab a space on the pavement along the route. Get in early as it gets busy quickly.
  • Be prepared to jostle - the streets of Kandy become rammed with crowds during the festival and if you want to walk around and follow the processions you'll need to make a path for yourself.
  • Reserve a seat - if you prefer a more comfortable experience then book one of the thousands of seats set up in the windows and balconies of buildings overlooking the processional route. Prices range from USD $20-50 depending on the night and the view on offer.

Kandy-Festival-Itinerary2-Main-Group-Tours-Sri-Lanka

If you want to witness the pomp and splendour of the Kandy Esala Perahera with a like-minded group of travellers, escorted by a local guide, have at look at our 8-day Colombo, Caves and Kandy Festival group tour. Visiting the Cultural Triangle of the Dambulla cave temples, Polonanaruwa ruins and Sigiriya rock fortress, two nights are spent in Kandy watching the procession and visiting the Temple of the Tooth. Continue on to Nuwara Eliya and Udawalawe National Park for tea plantations and wildlife safari.

We pre-book seats for our passengers so that they can enjoy the pageant from the shop corridors along the route. Usually this seating is on elevated ramps for a clearer view. Accompanied by a local guide, you'll learn all about this spectacular festival and Sri Lankan culture from someone who really knows.

Top Sri Lanka Deals
A herd of elephants | Sri Lanka Safari in Sri Lanka - 9 days Map
20 Oct 2018  15% off
Safari in Sri Lanka - 9 days
USD $2,716
was $3,195