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.