Attending the Perahera Festival in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Elephant carrying Tooth Relic (Roberta Sotonoff)

Elephant carrying Tooth Relic (Roberta Sotonoff)

Tammattam drums throb in the distance. The steady boom, boom, boom of these small-sized, kettle-like drums grow louder. Their rhythm is almost hypnotic. Then comes the sound of cracking whips. A troupe snaps them to the drum beats. For the next four hours, I am dazzled by what passes before me — a riot of colors, elephants and a cast of thousands. The Perahera (Tooth Relic parade) explodes into a magnificent spectacle.

Utter chaos precludes it. People, cars, motorcycles, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled cars) and hawkers crowd the streets. The smell of kerosene torches permeates the air. Grandstands are full but that doesn’t stop scalpers from selling tickets in front of the police. Notepad in hand, a man weaves his way through the stands taking orders for Domino’s Pizza. I laugh. Isn’t this the land of spice, rice and curry? Buddhist flags flutter everywhere. After an hour-and-a-half, chanting begins over the loud speakers, the crowd settles down.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You will marvel at the performers.
  • When anyone asks about your trip to Sri Lanka, you will blab on and on about The Tooth Relic Festival.
  • Good for people who love parades and culture. The Tooth Relic Festival combines both.

The Main Event

As dusk falls, torchbearers march on either side of the performers so the audience can see the parade participants. Dressed in vibrant costumes, drummers, pipers and dancers come forward. Most are barefoot. Some wear turbans. Others have parasols.

Elephant marching in the parade. (Roberta Sotonoff)

Elephant marching in the parade. (Roberta Sotonoff)

Acrobats cartwheel and stilt walkers strut. Jugglers, dancers, saucer spinners and sword throwers charm me. The fire poi performers dazzle. While twirling rings of fire, these young boys do somersaults and spin on the ground like hip-hoppers. The staccato drum sounds persist. I spy an odd pattern of lights in the dark distance. An elephant with a rider perched atop him appears. The mahout (elephant trainer) guides them. Like the 81 pachyderms that follow, this behemoth wears a bright silk blanket embossed with vivid patterns of dancers and flowers. His tusks have gold covers. Except for eye slits, his head, ears and trunk are covered and illuminated. Lights make these goliaths almost phantom-like.

The audience oohs and aahs. Three brightly adorned elephants, walking side by side, are the pinnacle of the parade. Atop the middle one is a huge illuminated canopy. Under it, encased in seven solid gold caskets, is the Tooth Relic. After this, everything else seems anti-climatic.

Perahera’s History

This incredible procession happens every night during the 10-day festival. Each night it becomes more splendid. I witness it on the eighth night. The Tooth Relic is purported to be the actual tooth of Buddha — said to have been retrieved from his ashes. According to legend, it was smuggled from India to Sri Lanka in the hair ornament of an Indian princess. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe that whoever possesses it has the right to rule the country. For over 2,000 years, the faithful have worshipped and celebrated it as a symbol of the living Buddha.

The Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa)

When not in the parade, the tooth can be found in Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic) an original part of the Royal Palace complex. From the outside it is easy to recognize. Directly over the shrine sits a golden canopy. An elephant paying homage to Buddha is one of the temple’s morning rituals. Carrying flowers in his trunk, he stops at the entrance. The mahout shouts a command. The mammoth creature drops the blooms and falls to his knees. Fragrant flowers and incense permeate the small courtyard inside.

Where the Tooth Relic is kept. (Roberta Sotonoff)

Where the Tooth Relic is kept. (Roberta Sotonoff)

Buddhists from all of over the country come here to worship. On the far side of the courtyard is the Altut Maligawa (the New Shrine Room). It is packed to the brim with Buddhas — gifts from other countries. Located on the second floor, huge elephant tusks and Buddhist flags frame the steps leading up to the sacred room where the tooth relic rests. An ornate velvet curtain covers two metal intricately, embossed doors. Only monks and dignitaries are allowed to enter the room. Three times a day pujas (religious rituals) honor the artifact. The rites are preceded by flute players and drummers. The curtain is drawn. Doors are opened. Clasping 32 dishes of food for Buddha, the monks enter.

The aromas, sounds and colors of the puja ceremony put me into sensory overload. In fact, the entire Perhera festival is so unique, I have not been able to stop talking about it. The procession is the highlight. Give it up Rose Bowl and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: Next to the Perahera (Tooth Relic parade), you pale in comparison.

 
Practicalities

  • Perahera, the celebration of the tooth relic, occurs during the Buddhist month of Asala (July/August) and only in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
  • Reserved seats for the procession, (about $75 each) include transportation to and from your hotel.
  • Once seated, it is almost impossible move, so bring a snack and make a potty stop before you come.
  • If possible, try and get front row seats. It will make it easier to photograph the event.
  • Identify your leader and stick close to him after the parade. In a crowd of thousands, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.

Leave a Comment