The Esala Perahera Festival should be at the top of your things to do in Kandy


elephants in kandy at the culture festival
Kandyan join hands to pray to the elephants of Esala Perahera

Where to sit

It’s busy! This is Kandy’s time to shine on the Sri Lankan cultural calendar. Travellers from abroad, as well as mainland, flock to the hill-station to witness the sacred procession.


It was close to start time and I noticed many locals and travellers had already secured their seats or floor cushions along the parade path (which is about 1 km long). Like many, I wanted to be as close as possible to the temple and parade participants without having to empty the entire contents of my wallet. Most tour groups, hotels and restaurants offer paid seating close to the temple, promising obstacle-free views. While this may be true, fear not, there are ample vantage points that provide a sensational experience and won’t cost you a cent.


The parade begins at the entry gates of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) and naturally, the streets surrounding the temple are packed by late-afternoon. One side of the main street is seated and under shelter, the other is not. No points for guessing which requires a cash outlay. Having left it too late, I first tried securing a decent vantage point in the uncovered seating area. Moving through the crowds was a challenge, even more so when you’re carrying camera equipment. Reality hit pretty quick; If I was staying here, I would have to commit to standing for 2-hours, absorb some rain and have a slightly obstructed view. It wasn’t the reality I imagined, so I made the decision to spend “some” money and find a seat on the opposite side of the road, where seats were visibly available.

esala perahera festival in kandy
When focus mistakes work out. The two sections of the crowd near the temple grounds.

During the day I was approached by many folks on the street and in restaurants about purchasing a seated-ticket for the festival in the evening. Some quoted $10,000 rupees a ticket, some optimists even sold their view for $20,000. Today, as I write this blog, I can see tickets being sold for $110USD per seat (approx. $20,000 LKR) for the 2019 edition. Now, these seats may be from locations that are unseen to the naked eye or provide extraordinary experiences of the festival, so I don’t want to generalise but if you want to cut down on spending, as well as secure a fantastic location, here’s what I did…
If you’ve left it to the very end like me, you will be hassled by dozens of street-sellers trying to make a final buck to hit their sales quota for the evening. Show interest but do not commit. Exercise patience. Believe me, they want to sell the ticket significantly more than you want to buy it. After waiting till almost the beginning of the procession, with the streets now cleared, I received an offer for $8,000 LKR for 2 tickets, under shelter, seated, with a spectacular view of the procession! Winning!!


NOTE: this may not always happen, so don’t leave it till the last day. The festival runs for 10 days. Depending on how long you are in Kandy for, perhaps test the waters on Day 1.

The Parade


Having visited India many times, I’ve had my fair share of exhilarating and colourful parades but the Esala Perahera festival left me mesmerised.
The whip-crackers inaugurated the procession, with palpable ferocity and hence forth, the bar was only raised higher with every following act; until it was of mammoth proportions (pun intended!). Prepare yourself for an unique spectacle of human strength and endurance, from flame throwers, to dancers, to drummers, to swordsmen, to all of the above in one.
What really stood out was the seamless planning, aid and discipline behind the event. Participants were carefully monitored by special aid workers, individuals carrying cartons of water and local police. This support ensured flame throwers could demonstrate with precision, drummers could beat with dedication and the dancers could put on a show for the Gods. It was not uncommon to see artists move out of synchronisation to re-hydrate or catch their breath and once again return to impeccable flow.

Mammoths in Style

Without a doubt the marquee (daily) event of the parade is the unmissable file of decorated Asian elephants that pass through the streets of Kandy. It truly is surreal vision to see these gigantic creatures take on the narrow streets of Kandy, dressed in colourful, electric garments. One after the other, sometimes three at once. There’s obvious significance towards the order of their entry and the colour of their clothing, as certain sections of the crowd become more animated, cheering and taking pictures, when particular colours pass.


The elephants are in such close proximity to where I am sitting that with an outstretched hand I can quite easily connect with their swaying trunks. Alas, there is absolutely no chance of that happening under the watchful eye of the mahouts. It’s uncanny. Small in stature and seemingly innocuous to most, the mahouts reign supreme and most powerful in the eyes of the largest land mammal in the world. The bond is strong. The mahouts are alert to the slightest irregularity and with a poke of their small-spear like stick, the elephants retreat to routine.


The procession of trunks continue for an hour, each cameo more stunning than the one before. The finale sees three elephants draped in bright gold sheets enter the parade. Looking remarkably elegant, they royally make their way from the temple grounds, passing worshippers and neutral spectators, to do a circuit of Kandy city. Carrying the coveted golden casket of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, the centre animal is clearly the most significant. By now, the crowds have converged around the mighty Tuskers as they pass through Kandy. The unified mass of patrons, walking behind the elephants, signals the end to another enthralling evening at the Esala Perahera Festival.

Summary:

  • The festival is a stand-out event on the Sri Lankan cultural and religious calendar, so plan ahead!

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  • Tickets are available for purchase before and each day of the parade from various official and unofficial outlets
  • If you’re a little adventurous, like me, wait to just before the ceremony begins and you’re bound to find a good deal on a ticket in a sheltered area
  • Flame throwers, whip-crackers, dancers, swordsmen and much more!
  • You’ll not see elephants like this anywhere else in the world! Dressed, colourful clothing, walking in synchronisation
monks at the esala perahera festival in kandy

If you are looking for things to do during your stay in Kandy, you absolutely must earmark the Esala Perhera Festival. The festival takes place every year for 10 days in August to honour the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha.


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