Traditional Sri Lankan dancers, elegantly adorned elephants, and musicians parading through the crowded streets: this is the annual Esala Perahera Festival in Kandy, Sri Lanka. This festival is one of the largest Buddhist celebrations and is arguably among the best festivals in the world. I was thrilled to be able to attend the opening night of the parade, with a front row seat thanks to my local Kandyan friend.
The purpose of the festival is to ask the gods for rain and to worship the sacred tooth of Lord Buddha (talked about in the next paragraph). The Perahera, meaning parade, has been celebrated in Sri Lanka for over 2000 years, since 300 AD, and is very important to the culture of the country. The first night of the festival begins during the Buddhist month Esala on the day of the full moon, also known as “Poya”, which falls sometime in July and August.
Inside the “Dalada Maligawa”, meaning “palace of the Tooth Relic”, is the tooth of Lord Buddha himself. The tooth was smuggled to Sri Lanka from India in 310 AD. It was believed that whoever posessed the tooth had the divine right to rule the land, so as you can imagine, there were a lot of wars over this relic. The Kandyan king that received the smuggled tooth decided to hold an annual perahera in which the tooth was paraded through the streets for the common people could worship it. After being in the hands of Kandyan kings for hundreds of years, when the kingdom fell in the 1800s, the tooth was handed over to the Buddhist clergy, where they housed it in the Kandyan temple. The Temple of the Tooth is thus the most important Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka.
Today’s Perahera lasts for nine days and people travel from all over the world to witness the spectacle. The procession begins out of the Temple of the Tooth, into the streets where people eagerly await hours beforehand, claiming their spot on the crowded streets. Some shops and restaurants sell tickets for chairs to watch the parade, but there is plenty of room to squeeze on the streets without paying. The ceremony is made of about 80 elephants, all decorated in silk garments and lights, then followed by traditionally dressed dancers and musicians. There are whip-dancers, fire dancers, cultural dancers, singers, and drummers. The vibrant colors and lights transform the city into a lively, extravagant marvel.
The Elephant’s Role
Elephants play a vital role in the festival. They travel from temples all over the country to participate in the parade (many temples in Sri Lanka have their own “temple elephant”). Just walking around the Temple of the Tooth during the day, there are elephants everywhere, chained up to trees, munching on snacks, waiting for their moment of fame. In the procession, the elephants are lavishly dressed in hand-made silk costumes and lights. Some of them seemed to be loving it, dancing and swaying to the music (might not mean they are enjoying it; read the last paragraph for more information), while others looked bored, chewing on wood to keep them occupied.
One of the elephants is a large tusker, called the “Maligawa” (temple) elephant, that carries the sacred tooth of Lord Buddha on his back in a bejeweled casket.
Environmental side note: Asian elephants (native to Sri Lanka) are on a big decline, especially the tuskers which are rarely seen in the wild anymore. The ivory trade was huge in Sri Lanka for 2,000 years, so many tuskers were hunted. Now, because tuskers are so rare, the ivory trade isn’t much of an issue, but expanding human population is. Over 100 elephants are killed each year by people in self-defense, protecting their homes or crops. But it goes both ways; over 50 people are killed each year in elephant related accidents. If more drastic measures aren’t done to protect these species, they will go extinct and the traditional Perahera festival will be at risk, especially if there is no tusker to hold the sacred tooth.
I can’t resist going into the whole “animals in captivity” issue. I do not agree with using intelligent animals for human entertainment; however, I understand the cultural significance in some cases like Sri Lanka. Elephants, similar to dolphins, apes, AND humans, are incredibly intelligent and social animals. There is no stable breeding program for captive elephants in Sri Lanka, and many of them are bought from a sanctuary originally meant to help orphaned calves. Even if there was a controlled captive breeding program, the baby elephants are still torn away from their mothers, orphaned and put into a life of solitude with no government protection. Also, Training elephants involves making them completely submissive and helpless at their trainer’s mercy. They are starved, chained up and beaten until they submit. The tool used to beat them is a metal spike on the end of a pole (seen in many of my pictures). I watched one trainer in the Perahera wave the spike in front of the elephants eye, and the elephant flinched. Earlier I mentioned “dancing” elephants and at the time, I thought they were enjoying the music. This “dancing” is actually a sign of a physiological disorder from living in captivity. Though I enjoyed watching the Perahera, I feel bad for the elephants and something needs to be done to protect them. After all, how would you like to be torn away from you family and stripped of your freedom?