Asia Life

Esala Perahera: Elephants, Revelry and Buddha’s Stolen Tooth

In Sri Lanka, one of the world’s oldest and liveliest festivals is underway.

Jonathan DeHart

A “perpetual fire-laughing motion among the slow shuffle of elephants”: this is what D.H. Lawrence once said about Sri Lanka’s Esala Perahera, the nation’s biggest and one of the world’s oldest religious festivals, taking place across the island this year from August 11 to 21. Scantily clad dancers, fire eaters and elephants wearing illuminated garments parade by as beats are relentlessly drummed and men crack whips to scare away demons portrayed by mask wearing participants – all of this in celebration of a single tooth.

According to legend, a tooth, supposedly cribbed from the Buddha’s funeral pyre, wound up in Sri Lanka in the fourth century CE when it was smuggled in by Princess Hemamala and Prince Dantha. The famed incisor now rests in the island’s holiest temple, Dalada Maligawa (aka Temple of the Tooth). In its present incarnation, the Esala fuses two Peraheras (“Processions”): The Esala Perahera, which was originally a ritual conducted to invoke the rain gods; and the Dalada Perahera, which began when the Sacred Tooth Relic arrived.

Today the festival also incorporates Hindu elements, as four processions (or parades) actually begin at Hindu temples (more on this below). A total of ten sensory-overloading parades take place and you can’t help but participate.

As the festival website puts it, “you’ll inhale wafting incense, jasmine and frangipani bouquets…and gasp in awe as fire eaters swing burning coconut husks from chains and men crack whips to scare away demons only inches from people’s faces.”

A caveat: Sri Lanka is not the only spot in Asia to claim a piece of the Buddha. Temples in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and even California believe they possess one of Gautama’s teeth. But in Sri Lanka, the tooth commands a level of reverence not found among Buddhists in these other locales.

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Flickr (james_gordon_losangeles) - 3“Most Sri Lankans either go in person or watch from television. I’ve been five or six times,” Mishelle, a half-Japanese, half-Sri Lankan living in Tokyo, told The Diplomat. “My father is a Buddhist Sri Lankan and my mother is Japanese. So we all used to go as a family. It’s a very special festival for Buddhists. There are actually many Perahera festivals around Sri Lanka. The one in Kandy just happens to be the biggest and oldest.”

At Kandy’s Esala, the festival begins with the cutting of a ceremonial jack tree. Pieces of the tree are planted near the shrines of the four Buddhist gods that protect the island, namely, Natha Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini. Once the planting is done, the festivities begin. On the sixth night – which is tonight for this year’s festival – the atmosphere takes a sober turn when processions begin from each shrine and move in the direction of the Temple of the Tooth.

These processions continue to swell each night until the last night of the pageant, when a massive, specially trained elephant carries a relic of the Tooth Relic in a golden chest on its back as the performers entertain crowds along the route. The procession ends at dawn with a water-cutting ceremony in which four priests representing the four temples enter the Mahaweli River. The priests “cut” circles in the water with a sword and fill pitchers with water from within the circle. The water is then kept in the pitchers for the entire year.

“It’s not just some wild event. It’s actually quite traditional,” Mishelle said. “People are praying to the tooth – three times daily – and bringing offerings, flowers to it. People dance and do all kinds of interesting things for the tooth, for the Buddha. You do also see people wearing masks of ghosts and demons, but this is still all quite traditional.”

With so much taking place, what is the most impressive element of this spectacle?

Flickr (james_gordon_losangeles) - 2For Mishelle, it’s not the dancing, fire eating, ceaseless drumming or the throngs of people building by the day. For her, it’s the elephants – and in particular, the one specially trained and tasked with carrying a “relic of the Tooth Relic” (not the actual tooth but something standing in symbolically).

“It’s quite amazing that the animal knows what to do and never acts out of line. It just keeps walking where it’s supposed to go,” she said. “To me this is amazing.”

She added: “We can’t take out the real Buddha’s tooth as people believe that doing so would cause something terrible to happen. But the elephant carries something else in its place to represent the tooth. It almost seems like it knows what it is carrying.”