Sri Lanka has many unique and interesting festivals, but few are as sacred or as deeply ingrained in the local culture as the Esela Perehara – also called the Festival of the Tooth. This historical procession which takes place annually celebrates and pays respect to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Lord Buddha which is usually housed in the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
The roots of the Esela Perehera stretch as far back as the 3rd century BC. During these early years, Buddhism had not yet spread across Sri Lanka and most of the local populace were actually pagan worshippers. It is believed they held ancient festivals in hopes of rain and plentiful harvests. This festival evolved into the Dalada Perehera once the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka from India. Traditionally, the Sinhalese King would ride at the head of the procession with the Tooth Relic watching over him. Following the subjugation of Sri Lanka by the British, the honour was passed onto the chief lay custodian of the relic, named the “Diyawadana Nilame”.
The procession is usually held around the same time as the Esala Full-Moon Poya Day which usually falls around July or August. The entire procession usually carries on for a number of days – for example, the 2019 procession lasted from August 1st to August 15th. On the first day, a sanctified jackfruit sapling is planted at the devales of the four guardian gods Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and Pattini. Devale Pereharas take place at these shrines for the next five or so days. After this, a replica of the tooth relic is placed atop the Maligawa Elephant – the chief elephant of the procession – and the Perehera begins.
The elephant leads the procession and is followed by the five devale pereheras. Behind them, skilled whip-crackers put on a show alongside fire dancers. Behind them is a troop of dancers and drummers, as well as several officers who ride atop elephants. All of this magnificence in unison is a true sight to behold. If you’re ever lucky enough to witness it yourself, you’re guaranteed to be as enthralled as the local crowds are every year.