KANDY, SRI LANKA – Millions of people have flocked this year to central Sri Lanka to watch the ancient Esala Perahera, one of the world’s most resplendent Buddhist festivals.
The festival, which will end Aug. 21, takes place for 15 days every summer in Kandy, the old royal capital of Sri Lanka. The final 11 days of the festival feature elaborate street parades.
The festival is famous for its meticulous organization of events and dedication to tradition. All of the events and processions follow a carefully planned schedule to occur at times that traditional astrologers deemed auspicious.
As the pageant made its way through the streets of Kandy on Saturday, the 11th night of the festival, events unfolded in the order they have for centuries.
A troupe of whip-crackers led the procession, their whips popping like fireworks. Behind them, a troupe of torch-spinners spun on the ground with flaming canes tied to their heads and legs. Others tossed their torches in the air to free their hands for cartwheels and various acrobatics, only to land and catch the torches again.
Next came the first elephant of the parade, carrying the Peramuna Rala, the official head of the event. Then, the troupe of temple musicians fulfilled the age-old royal decree of creating the tempo and tune of the pageant with three kinds of traditional drums and a piped instrument called the “horanewa.” More drummers and dancers followed, dancing to their beat.
The dancers gave way to rows of elephants, marching in twos and threes. On either side of the street along the entire length of the parade route, hundreds of torchbearers with iron baskets attached to long poles created a glow that burned for hours by lighting dried pieces of coconut, called “copra,” with kerosene.
As the music became faster, male dancers performed a variety of dance styles that represent cultures across the country. Female dancers perform only on Tuesday, the last day of the festival, in the final procession.
Finally came the Royal Tusker, the elephant that carries a replica of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which, according to Buddhist history, belonged to Buddha and was taken from his funeral pyre 2,500 years ago. Men riding the two elephants flanking the Royal Tusker showered the replica with jasmine flowers throughout the procession. The final troupe danced on both sides of the Royal Tusker, careful never to turn their backs to the casket that carries the tooth atop the elephant.
The procession ends at the Sri Dalada Maligawa, known as the Temple of the Tooth. Kandy is a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks in part to the presence of the temple.
“What we do comes from our devotion to the temple, to the Sacred Tooth Relic,” says Upali Jayaratne, the man who leads the troupe of whip-crackers. “It’s not just something we do.”
What they do also comes from their ancestors. Like the other participants’ roles, Jayaratne’s is hereditary. He is following in the footsteps of at least seven generations of men in his family who also cracked whips in the festival pageants.
Jayaratne’s father performed as a whip-cracker for 56 years, up to a few months before his death at age 72. Jayaratne has been performing as a whip-cracker since age 12, he says. This year will be his 33rd consecutive Esala Perahera. His 18-year-old son, who has been performing since age 6, will also join him in the pageants this year.
“We don’t know how it first started in our family,” Jayaratne says, “but our family believes that, from the start of the [festival], it’s always been in our family.”
Saturday’s pageant featured thousands of performers who inherited their roles from their ancestors. Although they continue to preserve the meticulous order of the festival’s events, they are innovating to improve the quality of their performances.
This year, the pageant featured 2,800 people – 2,200 performers, 300 torchbearers and 300 elephant riders atop 90 elephants, says Krishantha Hissella, director of the Media and Special Projects Unit at the Temple of the Tooth. Their performances draw spectators from around the country and the world.
Organizers predict that more than 6.5 million people will watch the festival this year, including as many as 15,000 foreign tourists, Hissella says.
The Esala Perahera is one of the world’s oldest street festivals, tracing back to the fourth century. It is a primarily Buddhist festival but includes Hindu influences, as the pageants follow the route of the four shrines dedicated to the four Hindu gods that protect Kandy.
Community members also call the event the Festival of the Tooth because local Buddhists believe that the Sacred Tooth Relic brings prosperity to the country, especially by causing regular rain.
“This is a very strong belief in Sri Lanka, which, being an agricultural country, is reliant on regular rainfall,” says H.M.D.R. Herath, professor of sociology at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka’s Central province. “Even people with the most scientific notions believe that the Sacred Tooth Relic possesses the power to create rain.”
Buddhists also believe the relic gives power to the leader who possesses it, Herath says.
“There is a close connection between the Sacred Tooth Relic and the king,” Herath says, “so if there is any king who cannot protect the Sacred Tooth Relic, it is believed he is not fit to be king. That is why even today, any newly elected president of Sri Lanka comes to worship the Sacred Tooth Relic after taking their oaths.”
Families have passed down most of the roles and duties in the pageants for generations in honor of the Temple of the Tooth and the relic it houses.
“What greater privilege can there be than to serve the temple?” asks drummer O.P. Karunadasa, 61.
Karunadasa heads one of the festival’s traditional drumming families. He says King Wimaladharmasuriya II, who reigned in the 17th century, appointed his relatives to perform offerings of drum music at various times of the day.
Karunadasa and his fellow drummers are the first group of musicians to walk in the pageants, just behind the whip-crackers. They set the beat that everyone follows.
“Everyone in the pageant, even the elephants, walk to the rhythm they play,” says K. Meegahakumbura, a senior secretary of the Temple of the Tooth. “The entire pageant walks to the rhythms of these artists.”
Karunadasa has dedicated his life to serving the temple in his unique role, he says. This year, he was responsible for 80 drummers and pipers who are performing in the pageants.
He says his greatest wish is that his son, Ravindra Sampath, 24, will continue the family tradition.
“This passes on from me to my son,” Karunadasa says, “and I am hoping that he will continue this tradition well, serving the temple as generations before us have.”
Sampath has accompanied his father in the pageants for the past eight years.
“I want to take this forward in the same way as my father, without making any changes,” he says. “I want to carry out the rituals and performances in the same manner.”
The meticulous dedication to ancient tradition and ritual, without any deviation or change in the event’s structure throughout the years, is the most remarkable aspect of the event, Herath says.
“There has been no change in the structure or the format of the Perahera,” he says. “What has changed is the content.”
Adherence to tradition is a source of pride for the temple and devotees. But leaders at the Temple of the Tooth say they strive for innovation too.
“We are guardians of the traditions,” says Jayampathi Weddegala, secretary of cultural affairs at the Temple of the Tooth, “and while we work hard to ensure that all the rituals and the traditions are followed exactly, we are also always looking for ways to improve and raise the standard of the festival.”
Pradeep Nilanga Dela, the current Diyawadana Nilame, or temple chief, put a series of initiatives in place to encourage higher standards of performance, Weddegala says.
Months before the festival, Dela brought leaders from the performing troupes to a training and planning program where they watched videos of the previous year’s festival and discussed changes and improvements.
Dela instituted mandatory auditions to find the best performers. He started competitions to award the best performers in various categories with lucrative cash prizes and certificates. He also introduced new costumes, fees for performances and a grading system to encourage individual performers to excel.
Individual performers also value innovation.
D.G. Karunadasa, the patriarch of the torch-spinners, says he has worked hard to modernize the art of spinning torches.
D.G. Karunadasa, who is not related to the drumming leader, began spinning a torch in the pageants in 1956. At that time, the performance simply entailed carrying and spinning a flaming stick. He later approached temple officials with his plan for a more acrobatic, entertaining performance. The temple approved.
In the decades since, he introduced a new standard to the pageants, adapting the torch from a basic flaming stick into a circular cane featuring as many as 20 fireballs. He also incorporated acrobatics into the procession.
Although his troupe, which performs at many temple pageants throughout the country, currently comprises more than 100 men, only 35 of the best performers are performing in the Esala Perahera. If all 100 performed, the pageants would become too long and would not finish at an auspicious time, D.G. Karunadasa says.
Now 74, he says he performed in every festival for more than 50 years, before age-related complications forced him to stop. But he continues to walk in the processions with his troupe of torch-spinners, now including his sons, nephews and son-in-law, among others he has trained. The newest and youngest member of his troupe – and the youngest performer in the entire festival – is his 4-year-old grandson.
But even as the Esala Perahera becomes more professional in its cultural performances, modernity has not altered its meaning or impact, Herath says.
“This is what we have brought forward for over thousands of years as a part of a culture which is unique to us,” he says. “If this is not there, then in what way have we created and contributed to the world culture? We will lose the Buddhist identity and the [Sri Lankan] cultural identity.”
Thanks to consistent improvements and innovations, organizers say the cost of the festival rises annually. In 2012, it cost nearly 40 million rupees ($303,600), Weddegala says. This year, temple staff members predict costs to exceed 50 million rupees ($379,500). These funds come from donations and gifts from individuals and companies, as well as partially from the state and the temple coffers.
But the festival is also an income earner, especially for the city of Kandy. During the festival season, thousands of devotees, tourists and other visitors flock to the city from around Sri Lanka and the world, Weddegala says.
Hotels, restaurants and shops overflow with throngs of people who suddenly fill this small, hillside town. Street vendors do bustling business, vehicles jam the streets, and the sleepy town transforms into a throbbing mass of people.
Events such as the Esala Perahera showcase Buddhist culture and help it to grow, Herath says.
“We will only become a part of the globalized culture,” Herath says. “The identity of the Sri Lankan Buddhist people is in events such as this.”