Most tourists in Sri Lanka will make time to visit Kandy. After all, it is the second largest city in the country, capital of the central province, and is undeniably beautiful. I would challenge any visitor to go unmoved by the emerald green mountains encircling the city, the beauty of Bogambara Lake, or the timeless charm of the city’s ubiquitous tea plantations.
However, these delights can be experienced perennially. And, as all prudent tourists know, there are always good and bad times to visit any town. Dubai in April is a delight, but in August it’s like an inescapable sauna. Paris in the spring is heavenly, but in the summer it’s overrun by tourists. Singapore in June is divine, but in December it’s an endless downpour. And so, for me, the most exciting time to visit Kandy is during the Esala Perahera, which is a ten-day annual festival in July and August that celebrates the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha.
Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic), which houses the relic of the tooth of Lord Buddha is one of the most sacred sites in the Buddhist world. Located in the Royal Palace of the former Kingdom of Kandy, the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha has played a critical role in Sri Lankan politics since antiquity as (according to ancient principles) it is believed that whoever holds the relic, holds the governance of the country. As such, Kandy was the last capital of the Sri Lankan Kings and remains a World Heritage Site largely due to Sri Dalada Maligawa and the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha.
The procession of the Esala Perahera begins with the Kap Situveema. This involves a consecrated Jackfruit Tree being cut and replanted in each of the four villages dedicated to the guardian Gods, Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama, and the Goddess, Pattini. For five nights the festival continues within the confines of these four villages.
Thereafter, the procession commences from Sri Dalada Maligawa, where the relic casket (a substitute for the Tooth Relic) is fastened to the Maligawa Elephant who leads the procession across Kandy. From here-on-out one will witness, not only Kandyan dances, whip-dances, and fire-dances, which are all wonderfully lavish and theatrical, but the most wonderful display of fireball acrobats, Buddhist flag bearers, Kandyan drummers, the most elegantly attired Elephants in Sri Lanka, and of course, the Peramuna Rala (the Front Official) who rides the first Elephant.
On the tenth and final day the festival reaches its climax with the traditional Diya Kepeema ritual, which is a water-cutting ceremony held at the Mehawli River in the village Getambe, which is a few miles from Kandy. Here a full day’s celebration commences to mark the end of the Esala Perahera.
Now, if a ten-day stop in Kandy is not possible, a few days is really enough to allow the intrepid traveler to appreciate the atmosphere, energy, and ethos of this wonderful festival. It’s a true celebration of Buddhist, Kandyan, and Sri Lankan culture at its best.
Story & Photography | Andrew Roughton