Esala Perahera (Tooth Relic Festival) in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Published on September 5, 2015

2Disciple Bhikkhu Gunaratana has been spending this year studying and traveling in Sri Lanka and sends this report on the ten day annual Festival of the Tooth that he just attended:

“On Friday evening, August 28th 2015, I attended the Tooth Relic Festival in Kandy, Sri Lanka. I was not only amazed at the grandeur of the event but also the attack on the senses that comes along slowly over the 3-4 hours.

“The Esala Perahera in Kandy, as it is known, is one of the oldest and grandest of all Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka and is known to be the most important religious procession in Asia. This is held in Esala (July or August) which is the month that is believed to commemorate the first teaching given by the Buddha after He attained enlightenment. The main festival lasts for ten day’s while various other festivities can also be witnessed and enjoyed. The Sinhalese term ‘Perahera’ means a parade of musicians, dancers, singers, jugglers, fire-breathers, acrobats and various other performers accompanied by a large number of lavishly decorated tuskers (elephants with tusks)and other elephants without tusks parading the streets in celebration of this religious event.

“Every night, a replica of the holy Tooth of Lord Buddha is taken on a dignified elephant with tusks, the “Maligawa Tusker”. The tooth is taken around the people who worship it. The relic arrived in Sri Lanka in the Princess Hemamala’s hair during the 4th century. This tooth was preciously kept through history and represented a symbol of sovereignty. Its spiritual and political aura raised some envy. It was only after many peregrinations, from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa through Yapahuva and a few journeys to India that the Tooth landed in Kandy in 1592 where it remained to this day at the Temple of the Tooth, the most famous temple in Sri Lanka. When the British Empire removed the last Singhalese king in the beginning of the 19th century, the tooth, until then kept by the king, was given to the Buddhist priesthood of Kandy.

“Whip-cracking porters clear the way through the throngs of pilgrims, followed by priests, flag bearers, myriads of dancers, jugglers, acrobats, drummers, fire dancers and as many as 100 stunningly dressed elephants walk to the sound of the music for a breathtaking and colorful show. Several of the elephants were actually dancing with the music, which is quite a sight to see. The elephants are covered with tiny flickering lights like giant mobile Christmas trees. This celebration is absolutely magnificent. Thousands of artists travel from all over the country to contribute to this spectacular event. It almost seems like all the energy and fervor of the Sri Lankan people is condensed in this exceptional moment that reveals the treasure of Sri Lankan traditions.

“On the last night, the procession moves from the city to the temple, led by elders in the costumes of the ancient kings of Kandy and lit by hand-held candles. The procession flows into the temple compound to encircle the shrine, following the route of the sun in its course across the skies.

“Attendance at the Esala Perahera numbers at about a million people during the 10 day event. The festival brings today all ranks of Sri Lankan society in a vast throng of devotees and interested onlookers.

  Disciple Bhikkhu Gunaratana

For more photos go to Flcker and the Holy Vajrasana Temple website.