Esala Perahara is Sri Lanka's biggest, most flamboyant parade. Every August, hundreds of dancers, acrobats, musicians and elephants take to the streets of Kandy, to commemorate the occasion when the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought from India to Sri Lanka.
The Esala Perahera in Kandy is celebrated to honour the Sacred Tooth Relic and the four ‘guardian’ Gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Goddess Pattini. People from the temples dedicated to each of these gods participate in the Perahara. We went on the 9th of August, which is one of the final parades. The procession performers are mostly men, although towards the very end there are a few female dancers.
The procession begins with whip-dancers and a host of men and children playing with fire. The streets resound with the sound of whip on tar and you see a host of talented performers, mostly young boys, twirling sticks and rings of fire that they jump over, or spin dangerously close to their heads. The fire performances are the best part about the Perahara. You'll also see skilled teenagers walking among the fire-dancers on tall stilts.
The music includes a host of drums and flutes, synchronized to produce one great signature rhythm. Besides the typical procession beats that we all know so well, towards the end there are distinctly Hindu elements in terms of instruments and dance, and even a group performing Papara music.
The elephants are undoubtedly the main attraction at Kandy's Perahara. More than sixty elephants generally take part in the procession, and they are decked up in brightly coloured cloth and crazy lights on their faces, and even their tusks are adorned.
They are chained on the neck and legs, and carefully steered by elephant keepers who carry dangerous looking poles with pointy metal ends. Men dressed up in regalia are seen riding the elephants, while the baby elephants towards the end of the parade are spared the weight, and the biggest ones carry signature pieces from each temple (such as the Tooth Relic from the Maligawa). There are a team of people on stand-by on the side of the road with 'Elephant Tranquilizing Unit' on the back of their shirts, in case an elephant acts out.
The tradition of using elephants as parade props is honestly a depressing sight, though the children and most onlookers marvel at it, but we've been told that at least the number of elephants used have been reduced over the past decade.
Traffic & Parking
The Esala Perahara season is roughly during the last week of July to the first week of August. It's a series of daily parades, with the best one being the last night. Driving to Kandy during Perahara season is a crazy thing to do. The streets are jam-packed and a three-hour drive could turn into a six-hour one. You're better off taking the train, but if you do come in your vehicle, the Municipal Council Car Park at the city center is where you go. Do prepare yourself for some frustrating driving around and looking for a spot though.
The pavements of Kandy are literally packed at as early as 5PM, mostly by people who live in Kandy itself. Folks come here prepared with food and what not, for hours of camping, till the show starts at around 7.30PM. There are street hawkers walking around selling plastic mats for Rs. 50 to sit on if you choose the pavement. Free seating for the win.
By about 6PM, the pavements are all taken. You can squeeze in somewhere if you're tiny and it's just you - but if you're in a group, then you're going to have to pay up. All the hotels, little restaurants, bakeries and shops on Kandy streets transform into seating arenas.
A lot of tourists book their seats online
beforehand, or walk into hotels like Queen's Hotel, where just sitting on a plastic chair on a porch will cost you about Rs. 5000. However, if you're patient and you keep walking down the street, the hawkers offering seats get lenient as the time for the parade gets closer. We ended up paying Rs. 1000 per seat inside a little petti-kadey that sells egg rotti and kottu (refer pic above). You are screwed if you're a tourist though - the one among us paid Rs. 3000. It's good to get a seat though, since the whole thing goes on from about 7 to 11PM.
Esala Perahara is an amazing sight - there is nothing like it. The music, dance and costumes in the procession are centuries old and this is the largest event to honour and celebrate Sri Lankan tradition. Best to travel light and with a small group and to walk around till late to get a relatively cheap seat.