Legend has it that when Buddha was cremated in the 5th century BC, one of his followers took a tooth from the pyre. The holy canine was later smuggled to Sri Lanka, in the hair of an Orissan princess disguised as a Brahmin priest. King Megavanna was so happy to have the religious relic on his island that he had it paraded through the city for his subjects to marvel at.
Today’s Esala Perahera is as colourful as the story of its origins. The time-honoured elephant parade takes place in Kandy, the Sri Lankan centre of Buddhism. For more than 400 years, the city’s Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic) has housed the revered dentistry. A replica casket is used in the parades, but that doesn’t stop thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from breaking out their drums, whips and fire.
This spectacle can be seen, by torchlight, at the nightly elephant processions, which are actually formed of five separate parades. In the 18th century the South Indian Nyakar dynasty introduced a Hindu element to proceedings, and four of the parades start at temples dedicated to the religion’s principle deities: Vishnu, Natha, Kataragama and Pattini.
The Hindu parties spill into the main parade, where the Jumbo of honour is the mighty tusker from Dalada Maligawa, carrying the golden casket. All the elephants are dressed up to the nines, clad from trunk to toe in silk costumes, glittering thread and embroidered cloth, even chains of fairy lights.
Between the elephants, the religious participants perform all kinds of devotional acts to the booming drums. Some show their faith by walking barefoot or, in the case of the Hindus, with spikes in their backs. The procession is headed by banner carriers and whip-crackers, whose weapons clear the path of both evil spirits and the crush of humanity.
Kandy is the country’s main arts centre and the city’s performers add to the chaos. Acrobatic fire performers juggle, twirl and eat oily flames, their glow reflected by palanquins teetering on elephant back.
The most riotous parade happens on the last night. The following morning, preparations for next year are already under way at the ‘water cutting’ ceremony. A religious official draws a sword through the Mahaweli Ganga River, in a ritual designed to divide pure and impure and ensure a plentiful supply of water. Some water is kept and used in the next opening ceremony, when breadfruit trees are planted outside the temples.