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THIS IS A VERYLONGACCOUNT OF AN ABSOLUTELYSENSATIONALEXPERIENCE.
The Esala Perehera is not a place but an event. But it is an event which happens in Kandy. It takes place in the run up to the August new moon so its calendar date is fluid, it may be as early as the start of August or not until after the middle of the month. It is a religious festival during which a tooth (or a replica of it), found in the remains of the Buddah’s funeral pyre, is paraded through the town for everyone to see.
Normally the tooth is kept in the most inaccesible sanctum in the Temple of the Tooth. This temple stands above the town which turn sits in the bottom of the bowl of hills that surrounds it.
But I have to write about the Perehera. The Buddah’s tooth is taken from its home deep within the Temple and paraded through the town. It’s paraded every evening for (I think) 8 days. It is amazing. It’s was one of those experiences that was totally surprising. I had NO idea of what to expect. I had no anticipation or assumptions. Arriving in Sri Lanka at the right time was pure fluke. Being informed about it by a Sri Lankan travel agent who just happened to get my name from the airline, was a stoke of sublime luck. Being accompanied to the route of the parade from our lodging house by an English couple cycling home from Australia gave that little extra comfort that can be reassuring in a strange town, at a strange time in a strange land.
The Tooth is paraded around the town on the back of an elephant. This is the temple tusker and he has been specially trained for the job. He has lived most of his life in the temple, had huge amounts of human contact, has been well fed and well trained. He is decorated; draped with a huge sheet across his back from shoulder to rump, the sides hang down to his knees like curtains. This sheet is decorated with metal studs and dishes in patterns, stars and the outlines of flowers . He wears a nose cover that covers his forehead and runs all the way down the truck. In colour and decor this often matches the sheet draping over his back. His ears and cheeks may also be decorated with coloured powders or chalks, his tusks may have metal bands or coloured ropes encircling them. He looks magnificent but he is not alone. Indeed he is the last in a procession of elephants that may number thirty or forty in the early days of the week and up to one hundred and fifty by the end. New arrivals join the procession on a daily basis. Many will be working elephants released for a few days from their efforts in the forests. Some come from many miles away – I was told ‘all over the island’. Every day until the final day the parade takes place in the evening. A procession of elephants shuffle past, moving slowly, stopping for a minute or two before shuffling slowly on. Down on the pavement the crowd can be four, six or even eight deep. In many places moving is impossible; the pavements and narrow streets are packed with people, mostly local, who have come on some kind of pilgrimage to see the procession and its climax, the casket with the tooth inside. The whole procession is lit by coconut braziers. Teenage boys walk along with the parade. They carry metal braziers which they hoist above their heads on the end of a metal pole. The braziers burn fiercely giving off flame and light. At times the boys will lower their brazier and tap it vigorously on the road. Ash, embers and burnt husk will drop on the floor to be replaced by an army of smaller boys who run back and forth with baskets of coconut husks. Other small boys zig-zag back and forth between the husk carriers with watering cans full of paraffin which they pour over the new, unburnt load in the refreshed braziers. I hear rumours that the braziers are being phased out. If that is so it is a sad loss as the braziers were central to the atmosphere of the parade. Through all this the elephants shuffle on. Around their necks they wear bells which chink and click as they make their ponderous progress. Occasionally a chime rings out, perhaps as one of the giants flaps its ears or waves its trunk. The bells are attached to heavy chains which are wound round the elephants’ necks and attached to their feet. In 1959 the elephants were not shackled in this way. During one terrifying evening one of the visiting animals trod on a pile of ash and embers. Unfortunately the embers were still glowing hot and as the heat penetrated the elephant’s foot it panicked and began a stampede. Fourteen people were killed that night and 125 injured. Perhaps it’s no surprise that they want to phase out the coconut burners.
The elephants are the stars of the show but there is much more to see and hear. The very head of the parade is lead by men carrying heavy whips that crack like gunshots. There are fire spinners who whirl flaming spheres on the end of ropes. They jump and duck each others’ spinning flames, sweeping and cartwheeling the brands in incredible patterns. The procession is accompanied by troupes of dancers and drummers who come from many parts of the island. The dancers – all male when I saw the parade – were close to dervishes. Thier dancing was frantic. They leaped, jumped, spun, run, twisted, turned – all at a pace and with a precision that was astonishing. There were young teenagers and older men. They were dressed in baggy sarong type wraps made of richly coloured material, often decorated with studs or metallic braid. The wore hats vaguely reminiscent of helmets and a metallic breats plate; and all danced barefooted. By the end of the week their feet were swollen, bruised and lacerated but the dancing was infused with passion, emotion and excitement. They wanted to dance despite the personal cost.
The dancing was accompanied by drumming. Each dance troupe had its own drum section and every section was very similar in size and repertoire. The smaller drums were stuck under one arm, the larger carried on a sash or harness. They were played with a bent stick, ten, fifteen or twenty of more all at the same time. The rhythyms and pace were frantic, there were subtle interplays and changes of structure, there was sweat and gusto and as abruptly as they started the drumming would stop, the dancers would halt and everyone would have a rest: but three elephants down the road another troupe would be in the middle of entrancing themselves and the onlookers with their own frenetic, pulsating contribution to the evening’s parade.
Towards the end of the parade and number of men struggle past with large hooks through the flesh of their backs. Long ropes were attached to these hooks and other men pulled on the ends of the ropes so the skin was pulled and stretched backwards. Each pierced man might have six or eight hooks through his back. Whether they change roles or do the same thing for eight successive days and nights I don’t know.
It can easily take well over an hour for the parade to wind its way past any one spot on its journey through the town. It is time well spent and should be an experience on every traveller’s list. It is unforgettable (I went in 1982 and again in 1995) and accessible. It is a procession with real meaning. I sensed both excitement and reverence. Tourists are welcome but in no way is this a performance for tourists; as a tourist expect to be vastly outnumbered and lost in a crowd that focuses on the procession, not you. There are small boys who will pass throught the crowd, tug on your sleeve and ask you to buy a single sweet or perhaps post card. Go with a few small coins and a generous nature but don’t take a lot, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were also some pick-pockets amongst the crowd.
For those of us from from western cultures this could be the most accessible and most understandable oriental festival. It is domestic, peaceful and dramatically exciting. It is an experience I will never forget and quite unlike any other. Go if you can.over 6 years ago
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