Every year, the streets of Kandy came alive with the celebrations of Esala Perahera. It is Sri Lanka’s most famous festival. During the festivities, with music, dancing and lavish elephant parades take place, but what is the history of this exuberant annual event?
Whatever name you know it by, be it Esala Perahera, Kandy Festival or the Festival of the Sacred Tooth, there is no doubting the importance of Sri Lanka’s favourite annual event which brings locals and travellers alike to the streets in their throngs.
A brief history of Esala Perahera
With an origin dating back 1700 years, the history of the Kandy Festival is as fascinating as the spectacle itself. Legend has it that a tooth was taken from Buddha before he was cremated. This tooth was later smuggled into Sri Lanka where it was then said to have moved from place to place. Over time replicas of the tooth were created in order to protect the identity of the original. These were done so well that the location of the tooth itself is unclear. One tooth – whether a replica or the real deal, is housed within the aptly named Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. It only leaves its special shrine once a year for the annual festivities of Esala Perahera.
How the festival is celebrated
Spanning a total of ten days, the Kandy Festival begins with the cutting down of a jack tree. This is followed by small processions that get longer and more extravagant as the festival continues. On the final night, the tooth relic is placed on the back of a lavishly decorated elephant. It is then paraded through the streets, alongside fire eaters, acrobats and dancers to the rhythm of beating drums.
Due to concerns regarding the treatment of elephants at Esala Perahera, we discontinued our trips to the festival in 2019. However, you can see elephants living wild and free on our Signature tours to Sri Lanka, which visit some of the country’s best national parks.