The train leaves promptly in the afternoon at 3:30, whisking us away to a far-off kingdom amongst the imposing mountains. Steeped in rich tradition, this journey is made by hundreds of thousands of Lankans and tourists each year. As the train leaves the comfortable familiarity of Colombo, the scenery changes to a lush and vibrant landscape.
As the train begins to climb up-country, the views becomes even more spectacular, with a sheer rock face on one side of the train, while gorgeous views of cascading ravines and valleys can be seen from the other. After approximately three hours, the train arrives at its final destination: Kandy.
I am here to experience the Kandy Esala Perahera, one of the oldest and most awe-inspiring Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka. Perahera loosely translates to pageant, which comes from the Sanskrit word ‘parihara’, a ritual that involves the parading and display of sacred objects. In Sri Lanka, the Esala Perahera has come to represent a grand procession that occurs over a series of days. Locals travel from all over the island to take part in this festival, while foreigners from all corners of the globe visit Kandy to witness a celebration that has not only become the biggest procession in Sri Lanka, but also one of the biggest Buddhist festivals in the world.
Swarms of people spill on to the platform at the Kandy train station, packed so tightly together that they resemble a powerful gush of water headed downstream. We step outside the train and allow ourselves to be carried towards the exit by the stream of people. Once we reach the exit, the crowd begins to disperse in different directions. It is a frantic scene as people rush towards the city centre in order to find a vantage point to view the festival, with less than an hour before the Perahera begins. After dropping off our bags at the accommodation, we quickly head back down the hill towards the festival.
There is a calm atmosphere as we walk through the quiet streets before emerging onto the main road of the Perahera route. Thousands of people are crammed together, as bodies line the footpath and many shopfronts, trying to edge closer to the street to get a better view of the pageant.
The Kandy Esala Perahera begins with the ‘Kap Situveema’ or ‘Kappa’, where a young blessed jackfruit tree is cut and planted in each of the four Devales dedicated to the four guardian gods: Pattini, Kataragama, Natha and Vishnu. Following this opening ceremony, the next five nights involve the Devale Peraheras, which occur inside the four Devales of Kandy. The priest at each venue takes the pole, while canopy and flag bearers, spearmen, drummers, and dancers carry out a range of traditional dance and musical performances.
The conclusion of the Devale Peraheras mark the beginning of the Kumbal Perahera, which continues for the next five days. This starts with the Devale Peraheras congregating in front of the Temple of the Tooth. The insignias of each of the Devale Peraheras are placed on a dome-like structure called the Ransivige. A relic casket containing a replica of the Tooth Relic is then placed inside the Ransivige and attached to the Maligawa Tusker. The Maligawa Perahera then leads the procession from the Temple of the Tooth and is followed by the processions of the other four Devales.
Each day these processions get bigger and more elaborate, with the Randoli Perahera following the five nights of the Kumbal Perahera. Finally, after five nights of the Randoli Perahera, a day perahera consisting of Dalada and Devala processions is held to mark the end of the Kandy Esala Perahera. The parade ends with a water cutting ceremony named the ‘Diya Kapeema’, and is held at the Mahaweli River in Getambe, a town several kilometres from Kandy.
There is less than 10 minutes before the festival starts and we are led blindly by a local tour guide down backstreets and side alleys into a four-storey apartment building. We are taken upstairs, through people’s kitchens and living rooms, until we reach the rooftop. Slightly unnerving and feeling a little disrespectful, we apologize and thank the families before paying the man who led us there.
Thankfully, we had a great view of the festival unfolding beneath our feet. Three hours pass by like a blur and the festival concludes with a cannon shot that sends a loud bang cascading down the hills towards the lake.
The next morning, I escape the chaotic pulse of the city and head a few kilometres west to the Peradeniya Royal Botanic Gardens. A leisurely stroll around these peaceful gardens helps to calm and cleanse the mind after the sensory overload of the past 24 hours. The expansive area features a variety of plant species that are well maintained and is situated on the slope leading to the Mahaweli River.
The lush vegetation of the hill country is on full display as the plants are a mixture of vibrant colours that provide a stark contrast to the grey, wet weather of the afternoon. Several small buildings and glass houses are spread throughout the gardens, exhibiting a mixture of traditional Sri Lankan and colonial architecture. Fresh rain droplets trickle down the branches and leaves adding a sparkle to the vegetation.
After spending a day at the gardens, we take a tuk-tuk ride to the rear entrance of the Sri Dalada Maligawa. I’m not sure if we are meant to be in this area but we spend the evening here observing the action. We first spot the elephants covered in their extravagant costumes, while dancers eat and prepare for the night’s performance. We see them change into their traditional red and white costumes adorned with an array of traditional decorations, the pieces jiggling and shimmering with their every movement.
Seeing their preparation and set-up, actually provides us with a greater appreciation for the performers, who prepare for many months prior and must perform night in and night out for almost two weeks, as well as the organizers who coordinate and bring together a variety of elements to make the festival a cohesive procession.
For the final day in Kandy, I venture to an extraordinary hotel called Helga’s Folly, located on top of one of Kandy’s many hills. Equal parts beautiful, horrifying, mystical and intriguing, stepping inside the hotel is like taking a trip down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland. It is run and designed by former model turned hotelier, Helga de Silva Blow Perera, who uses the walls as a way of telling her stories. Over time though, other artists and creative-types have stayed here, using the walls as their own canvas storyboards. The end result is an ethereal mixture of reality mixed with fantasy, as every room has its own flavour and distinct character.
After hours spent lost inside the hotel’s rooms and reflecting on the many stories these walls could tell, my next stop is to the Bahiravakanda Vihara Buddha Statue to view the sunset. The impressive Buddha sits at the top of a hill that overlooks Kandy. It provides the perfect point to contemplate the events of the past few days before heading back to encounter Esala Perahera one final time.
As the sun sets and nightfall begins to descend over Kandy again, we follow the stream of people who head towards the main Perahera route. Although this is the third time that I have watched the Perahera, there is something distinctly different and new about this experience.
As the procession-like service roams the streets, the city comes to a complete standstill — if only for a brief period. There’s improvisation but a strange sense of organization. It’s complicated and confusing, yet simple and direct. Nothing seems to matter except for the beating of drums that ring out like rhythmic waves throughout the city’s thoroughfares and alleyways; the decorative lights that adorn the graceful elephants dressed in ornate and colourful costumes; the dancers that move in a rhythmic tandem; or the Sacred Tooth Relic that sits in its rightful throne atop the Maligawa Tusker. All the while onlookers gaze on, seemingly entranced by the ritual unfolding in front of them.
The Kandy Esala Perahera has a significance to not only Sri Lankans, but the many Buddhists who come to participate and other travellers who simply wish to view the spectacle. Perhaps that’s the whole point. While I’ve spent the weekend traveling around Kandy, immersing myself in its history and culture, the lifestyle and the sights, I’ve missed the most fundamental thing: the experience itself.
In searching for the meaning of Perahera, or trying to report on what it was all about and describing it accurately, I wasn’t doing what I intended to do. It was only when I simply viewed the Esala Perahera for what it is and appreciated the moment to moment beauty unfolding in front of me that I accomplished my original intentions for traveling to Kandy: to experience the Perahera.
(The writer is a 19-year-old Australian serving a short stint in The Sunday Island)