Kandy is Sri Lanka’s hill capital and was the last capital of the era of the Ancient Kings. Economically it is Sri Lanka’s second city to Colombo. During Sri Lanka’s turbulent history with the Dutch and Portugese the inner town of Kandy remained untouched. It wasn’t until the English came in 1815 that outside influence effected Kandy. The most lasting impact the British had was arguably the rail road which still exists today and connects Kandy to Colombo and the Tea Country. The town itself is not a huge drawcard but as you can see it is home to one of Sri Lanka’s most amazing events.
This significant Buddhist procession and arguably Sri Lanka’s most significant cultural event was what drew me to Sri Lanka at this particular time of the year (August). The procession is mainly about a chance to worship and pay respect to the Buddha’s tooth which is one of the most significant Buddhist relics. The procession began with the arrival of the famous tooth relic in 310 AD. At that time the tooth was housed in Anuradhapura and later moved to Polonnaruma and then Dambedeniya over the centuries as the capital changed locations. In each location a Temple was built to house the tooth relic. The Temple is called of course the Temple of the Tooth and today that Temple is in Kandy.
For ten days the festival consists of progressively more elaborate parades to the Temple of the Tooth. The format of the procession has remained unchanged for centuries. The honour of performing is passed down through generations of both the dancers and the elephants. There are often generations involved together and it is encouraging to see many young people both performing and being bought along to enjoy and learn about the traditions.
Before the procession begins the streets are purified with water. On the final night, one of the temple official rides on an elaborately dressed elephant carrying the decree the allowed the possession to proceed.
The first event is the boys carrying whips. In the days prior to modern communication the whips called the people to the event and announced the start. The streets are already alight with torches burning coconut husks creating an atmospheric light. In ancient times this was the only light for the procession, however modern times mean that electric strobe lights fill the street and fairy lights hang from many of the buildings along the route.
The fire dancers follow closely behind. First the boys with fire on the end of a long string. This is attached to their hair as they dance swirling their heads with the fire circling around. With skill they keep this flow while dancing and sitting. This progresses to the group of fire dancers who have batons and wheels of fire that are twirled and tossed in the air.
The flag carriers come next in a riot of colour. The national flag leads the Buddhist flag. The Buddhist flag colours are representative of the aura of a person – blue for hair, yellow for skin, red for lips, white for teeth, and orange denoting the saffron robe.
Next follows the old national flag and both cloth and bronze representations of the area flags. Warriors carrying swords dance out fighting before the official carries permission for the festival.
The Temple of the Tooth is the first temple to parade with drummers and traditional Kandyan dancing. Warriors once again dance and traditional drum spinners through spin and throw their drums in the air.
Cane dancers follow in what is an amazing spectacle in its own right. A key dancer is in the middle as the troupe sprints around weaving canes with immense skill and practise. Chamara netum dancers follow before the tusker elephants carry the robe for the sacred tooth relic. The last representative is the leader of the Temple who is at the rear of the particular procession. The format is repeated for the next temples with a few exceptions as dictated by traditions.
The next temple to be represented is the Temple of the God or Daite Natha who add the dancing of the Kohomba Kale. This is a Hindu influenced dance which traditionally was danced with a flowerpot on their heads. The days its an artificial arrangement but non the less colourful for it.
The next temple to be represented is the Temple of Vishnu who to Buddhists is the guardian of Sri Lanka and to Hindus is the god of war. The temple is denoted by a vivid blue colour, which is symbolic of the eagle.
Just when you think it couldn’t be more colourful the Skanda Temple is represented. The symbol for this temple is the peacock and many of the dancers reflect these colours. This is a South Indian influenced temple and has many Hindu influences. The style of dancing changes slightly to one called Kavaga dancing which when practised in the home temple includes fire walking. They also include dancing that reflects Hanuman the Monkey God.
Final representation is from the Lakshmi temple the Temple of the Paththini Goddess. Most notably here is the first time women are involved in the procession. They perform their own more feminine version of the dancing.
The procession is officially closed as the relic weaves its way to the temple. Since the days of the British the real tooth relic is not used but a replica. The British made the mistake of outlawing the festival for a time during their reign. The British were the only European country to extend their control to the interior of Sri Lanka and become involved in matters such as festival processions. However at the same time the festival was banned a drought developed and the people were suffering and becoming restless. Monks went to the British rulers of the time and explained the importance of the festival. The Kandy Perahera was allowed the resume under the condition that the Tooth Relic never left the Temple and to this day a replica is used.
The highlight of this procession is the colour and atmosphere. The elephants are dressed in giant clocks with sparkling lights. The burning torches carried along beside the procession throw a warming light across both the dancers and elephants. The drummers give the beat for not only the dancers but also the elephants which sway in time with the dancers. On top of all this is the amazing respect given the parade by both attendees and performers. The honour of dancing or appearing is passed down through the generations and you can see the pride in their faces. Attendees reflect this attitude as well and treat the evening as if they were going to a temple.
This is obviously the existing resting place for the Buddha’s tooth. The temple is a very important place of pilgrimage for the Buddhist community as a result of being home to this great relic. As you enter the front gates there are colourful frescoes on the ceiling which reflect the Kandy Perahera right down to the details in the dancers costumes.
A queue of disciples line up to pass the shrine where the tooth is encased. They often wear white as is the tradition to denote respect and carry offerings of flowers which are most likely to be the lotus flower. The lotus flower is considered the most sacred because of the ability of this beautiful flower to grow out of muddy and swampy water.
The library room is well worth the visit as it contains many historical relics. Some of the early palm leaf books can be seen here in the library. This was the evolution from writing the teachings on stone tablets. It is worth braving the hordes of pilgrims and tourists to see this slice of history.
Leaving the Temple we were very fortunate to see the two of the Temple elephants being walked around the Temple. These incredibly graceful animals stroll right next to us. Their handlers stop at the base of the Temple to pay their respects and both of the elephant bends down on their knees at the same time as their handlers. An amazing event to witness both for the display or respect but also the seamless communication between man and animal.
A short drive from Kandy the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is home to over 60 elephants. The orphanage began in 1972 to give a home to orphaned elephants from land mines or traps. Today it has a mix of sick elephants and also has a breeding program. It is worth timing your visit and seeing the baby elephants being fed. The keepers kick off the process and then anyone can step up and hold the bottle for these guzzling babies. After they have had their feed the keepers take all the elephants down to the river. Just follow all the people and you can watch all the elephants playing in the water. It is just magic watching them spraying each other and twisting trunks. The orphanage runs a volunteer program for anyone who wants to get involved in helping.