The History of the Tooth

The sacred tooth of the Buddha is said to have been snatched from the flames of the Buddha’s funeral pyre in 483 BC and smuggled into Sri Lanka during the 4th century AD, hidden in the hair of a princess. At first it was taken to Anuradhapura, then it moved through the country on the waves of Sri Lankan history before ending up at Kandy. In 1283 it was carried back to India by an invading army, but it was retrieved by King Parakramabahu III.

The tooth gradually grew in importance as a symbol of sovereignty, and it was believed that whoever had custody of the tooth relic had the right to rule the island. In the 16th century the Portuguese apparently seized the tooth, took it away and burnt it with devout Catholic fervour in Goa. Not so, say the Sinhalese. The Portuguese had actually stolen a replica tooth while the real incisor remained safe. There are still rumours that the real tooth is hidden somewhere secure, and that the tooth kept in Kandy's Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is only a replica.

The temple was constructed mainly under Kandyan kings from 1687 to 1707 and from 1747 to 1782, and the entire temple complex was part of the Kandyan royal palace. The imposing pinky-white structure is surrounded by a moat. The octagonal tower in the moat was built by Sri Wickrama Rajasinha and used to house an important collection of ola (talipot-palm leaf) manuscripts. This section of the temple was heavily damaged in a 1998 bomb blast.

The main tooth shrine – a two-storey rectangular building known as the Vahahitina Maligawa – occupies the centre of a paved courtyard. The eye-catching gilded roof over the relic chamber was paid for by Japanese donors. The 1998 bomb exposed part of the front wall to reveal at least three layers of 18th- to 20th-century paintings depicting the perahera (procession) and various Jataka tales (stories of the Buddha’s previous lives).

Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must complete at least one pilgrimage to the temple in their lifetime, as worshipping here improves one’s karmic lot immeasurably.

Kandy Esala Perahera

This perahera (procession) is held in Kandy to honour the sacred tooth enshrined in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It runs for 10 days in the month of Esala (July/August), ending on the Nikini poya (full moon). Kandy’s biggest night of the year comes after these 10 days of increasingly frenetic activity. A decline in elephant numbers has seen the scale of the festival diminish in recent years – in earlier times more than 100 elephants took part. That said it's still undoubtedly one of Asia’s most dramatic celebrations – though increasingly animal rights campaigners are expressing concerns for the welfare of the elephants involved.

The first six nights are relatively low-key. On the seventh night, proceedings escalate as the route lengthens and the procession becomes more splendid (and accommodation prices increase accordingly).

The procession is actually a combination of five separate peraheras. Four come from the four Kandy devales (complexes for worshipping Hindu or Sri Lankan deities, who are also devotees and servants of the Buddha): Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini. The fifth and most splendid perahera is from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth itself.

The procession is led by thousands of Kandyan dancers and drummers beating drums, cracking whips and waving colourful banners. Then come long processions of up to 50 elephants. The Maligawa tusker is decorated from trunk to toe. On the last two nights of the perahera it carries a huge canopy sheltering the empty casket of the sacred relic cask. A trail of pristine white linen is laid before the elephant.

The Kandy Esala Perahera has been performed annually for many centuries and is described by Robert Knox in his 1681 book An Historical Relation of Ceylon. There is also a smaller procession on the poya day in June, and special peraheras may be put on for important occasions.

The ceremony is certainly one of South Asia's most spectacular. But before you go ahead and book tickets you may want to consider the elephants' welfare. Sri Lankan campaigners point out that the cacophonous perahera noise can deeply affect the mammals, which have very sensitive hearing, and that the constant prodding by mahouts and their ankus (hooks) is painful. Chains and buckles are used to control elephants and constrain their mobility. Their long journey to Kandy is made either on the back of a truck (in the scorching sun) or on foot, treading on sizzling tarmac.

If you do decide to attend it’s essential to book roadside seats for the main perahera at least a week in advance. Prices range from Rs 5000 to 7500. Once the festival starts, seats about halfway back in the stands are more affordable.