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Esala Perahera: ‘Festival of the tooth'

July/August: Kandy, Sri Lanka

The festival of Esala Perahera takes place in Kandy, in the heart of Sri Lanka. It is an impressive spectacle and for the predominantly Buddhist population, a very important festival. This 10-day festival involves a replica of the Tooth of Buddha, safely preserved in the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), being carried in processions on the back of an elaborately decorated temple elephant.

The festival consists of several parts. The first six nights the ‘Kumbal Perahera’ takes place. This part is slightly less impressive than the next, the Randoli Perahera, which culminates on the tenth night. Then all of the elephants gather from miles around, in splendid appearance and together with groups of dancers, acrobats and musicians, participate in the procession. To end with, there is a small ceremony held during the day called Diya Kepeema/the water cutting ceremony of Perahera.

Each evening the procession begins at an allotted time. After the hymns and prayers all is suddenly silent. A thunderous cannon is shot from the Temple of the Tooth announcing the beginning of the preparations. Only when the second shot is fired does the procession start to move. It is already dark and the fire bearers light up the parade. At the forefront are men with long whips. Every ten steps they stand still and make a strike of their whips. The sharp crack reverberates through the night. It is now really beginning and the tension is palpable.

Drum roll accompanies the acrobats who spin their heads, necks and limbs. Groups of drummers accompany the dancers. The musicians look fabulous in their long white skirts with red sash draped with jewels over their bare torsos. Several groups of dancers pass by and each dance has its own symbolic meaning. Groups of priests and temple servants in magnificent outfits are accompanied by large numbers of elephants dressed in rich robes, often illuminated with hundreds of lights. They await the last group to arrive at the Dalada Maligawa. Surrounded by musicians and dancers the beautifully decorated main temple elephant arrives with the silver reliquary containing the copy of the precious relic, the Tooth of Buddha, on his back. He is flanked by two equally richly attired elephants. Finally, there follows a long procession of acrobats, dancers, sword fighters and believers. On the last night it takes three hours for the procession to pass. The curtain then falls and the party is over. Only then will the crowds head in droves to the carnival. The timing of the Esala Perahera is determined by the moon with the last night of the Perahera Randoli being tied in with the full moon.

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