Esala Perahera

Also found in: Wikipedia.

Esala Perahera (Festival of the Sacred Tooth)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Buddhist, Hindu)
Date of Observation: Mid-June to mid-July for ten days
Where Celebrated: Kandy, Sri Lanka
Symbols and Customs: Raja the Tusker, Sacred Tooth, Water-Cutting Ceremony


Observed annually in the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), this ten-day festival originally honored the Hindu gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama, and Pattini. Since 1775 it has also honored the SACRED TOOTH believed to have come from Lord Buddha. Kandy, originally the capital of the independent kingdom of Kandy in the Sri Lankan highlands, is the site of the Dalada Maligava, or Temple of the Tooth, where the sacred relic is kept. The celebration originated in the fourth century, when the king of Kandy declared that the tooth be paraded annually through the city streets.

Although it appears that the roots of the festival were Hindu in origin, over the years the Buddhist celebration has merged with it. Today, it includes delegations from the four major Hindu temples as well as the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth. The highlight of the festival is a torchlight procession about a mile long, involving thousands of participants. Men snapping whips lead the parade, representing the whip-crackers who used to be special messengers to the king. They are followed by more than 200 elaborately decorated elephants, priests in flowing silver and gold robes, Kandyan dancers, flute players, and drummers. A huge elephant known as RAJA THE TUSKER carries the golden casket containing the sacred tooth, flanked on both sides by two other elephants. A canopy is held above the casket, and a white cloth is spread in the elephant's path as a symbol of respect. Spectators from Sri Lanka and other countries-not only Buddhists but Hindus, Muslims, and even some Christians-come to witness the spectacle. The procession is repeated every night for ten nights.

The largest and most important festival in Sri Lanka, the Esala Perahera is more of a nationalistic celebration than a religious one. The king, various government officials, and members of many different social castes in the community all participate in the Perahera or procession, which symbolizes the nation's victory over its enemies.


Raja the Tusker

The Raja (or senior) tusker is the elephant chosen to carry the golden casket containing the sacred tooth of Buddha. Everyone admires the elephant's stately walk, which appears to keep time with the beating of the drums and the rhythm of the Kandyan dancers.

In 1959 there was an elephant stampede during the Esala Perahera. Raja the Tusker was nearly opposite the Queen's Hotel when word was received to turn back. Rather than joining the other elephants in the stampede, Raja went right back to the temple, where it is reported that he assisted the custodians of the sacred relic in returning it to safekeeping.

Sacred Tooth

The sacred tooth is supposed to have been brought to Ceylon in 311, concealed in the hair of an Indian princess, and kept in a temple at Anuradhapura. It was Esala Perahera

immediately recognized as the island's most precious possession, and the King of Lanka considered it the supreme symbol of his authority. It was stolen once or twice, but always recovered and put back in its shrine. Then in 1560 it was captured by the Portuguese and carried away in triumph to their stronghold of Goa on the western coast of India.

The tooth that belonged to Buddha was reportedly ground into powder, burned, and thrown into the sea by the Archbishop of Goa, a devoted Catholic who considered it a heathen idol. But many believe that it was only a copy of the tooth that was destroyed, and that the real tooth is still enshrined in the temple at Kandy. Those privileged enough to have seen the relic describe it as being nearly three inches high and about as thick as a man's little finger; if so, it could not have come from any human mouth. It is possible that the monks of Kandy found another tooth to replace the one they had lost.

The sacred tooth is housed in seven nesting caskets, carried on the back of RAJA THE TUSKER . When it is returned to the shrine at the end of the procession, a sacred dance is performed there.

Water-Cutting Ceremony

On the tenth and final day of the festival, the Esala Perahera procession is held in the daytime. It ends up on the banks of the Mahawali River just outside the city of Kandy. The tooth is carried down to the river and lowered into a special shelter or decorated boat. There, the priests of the four Hindu temples draw their swords and strike the water. Then they fill four clay bowls with the water and take them back to their temples, where they are kept until the following year's celebration. Sacred dances are then performed to ward off evil spirits and to seek the blessings of the gods.

The Kandy water-cutting ceremony symbolizes the return of the Sinhalese to Sri Lanka in the second century C . E . with 12,000 enemy captives from southern India. Nila, a Herculean soldier, divided the ocean with a blow of his sword, enabling the entire Sinhalese force to walk back to Sri Lanka.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Pike, Royston. Round the Year with the World's Religions. 1950. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986. Welbon, Guy Richard, and Glenn E. Yocum. Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1982.


City of Kandy
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Esala Perahera (Arrival of the Tooth Relic)

July-August; Sinhalese month of Esala
Esala Perahera is a celebration in Kandy, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), that lasts 10 nights and pays homage to the sacred relic believed to be a tooth of the Buddha. Kandy, originally the capital of the independent kingdom of Kandy in the Sri Lankan highlands, is the site of the Dalada Maligava, or Temple of the Tooth, where the relic is kept. The celebration originated in the fourth century when the king of Kandy declared that the tooth be paraded annually so people could honor it.
Processions are held each night for 10 nights, and the tooth is paraded in an elaborate howdah (platform) on the back of an ornately decorated elephant. Dozens of richly caparisoned elephants follow, and there are also drummers beating big bass drums and small tom-toms, horn blowers, the famous Kandyan dancers, acrobats, and torch bearers holding aloft baskets of blazing copra (coconut meat). Representatives of the major Hindu temples also are part of the processions.
Kandy Municipal Council
D.S. Senanayake Veediya, Town Hall
Kandy, Sri Lanka
94-81-222-2275; fax: 94-81-222-2274
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
Dalada Veediya
Kandy, Sri Lanka
BkHolWrld-1986, Aug 20
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 135
EncyRel-1987, vol. 2, p. 549
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 468
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 165
IntlThFolk-1979, p. 344
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
Mentioned in ?
References in periodicals archive ?
Police Spokesperson SP Ruwan Gunasekara said that 7,000 Police personnel including Special Task Force (STF) commandos will be deployed for the Kandy Esala Perahera.
Cultural festivals are such world famous festivals as Esala Perahera and Sinhala.
The Esala Perahera festival, which takes place in Kandy, is held towards the end of July, beginning of August.
The branch offered Nescafe free of charge to people who come to see Kandy Esala Perahera constantly for nine years.
She is expected to discover the country's cultural wealth, through visits to several of its 8 World Heritage Sites, including the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the Sigirya Rock Fortress, and the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, where she will witness the Esala Perahera, one of the country's most celebrated Buddhist festivals that honours the Sacred Tooth Relic kept in the temple.
Each summer, the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka, hosts a two-week-long Buddhist festival, Esala Perahera.
Over a fantastic meal, well-travelled host Dhee Amer esekere told us all about the Kandy Esala Perahera, the annual 10-day festival in honour of the Hindu god Skanda - the perfect excuse for a return trip.
Tour clients travel from one UNESCO World Heritage Site to another along a route scheduled to accommodate one of AsiaOs most spectacular festivals, Esala Perahera, a celebration of Buddhism held annually in Kandy.
A few months later in August, the summer Kandy Esala Perahera is staged around the famous Temple of the Tooth.
The most celebrated of these is Kandy's Esala perahera, a 10-day celebration which packs out the city every July, but there are quite a number of smaller scale events in Sri Lanka's small towns.
From Colombo, take a train to Kandy and the annual Esala Perahera Buddhist festival, featuring a 2- to 3-hour parade of elephants, acrobats, and dancers.