Esala Perahera – Kandy, Sri Lanka

Honoring the Buddha’s Tooth

The cultural stronghold of Kandy in Sri Lanka’s lush hill country is well worth a visit any time of year, but visitors who arrive during Esala Perahera will experience one of Asia’s greatest spectacles.

For centuries this elaborate procession has honored the sacred tooth of Buddha, smuggled into Sri Lanka in A.D. 301, and eventually enshrined in the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), one of Buddhism’s most revered pilgrimage sites. During the procession, the relic sits within its golden box atop an elephant, colorfully decked out from trunk to toe.

A bright white linen carpet is unfurled before him so that his feet do not touch the bare ground. He is preceded by a show-stopping parade of dozens of other ele­phants and a frenzied cast of thousands of Kandyan dancers and drummers. Kandy’s beloved Maligawa Tusker died in 1988 after fifty years of faithful service; his taxidermed remains are lovingly displayed in the Temple of the Tooth. A young Thai-born elephant spe­cially trained for the role has taken his place.

It’s hard to imagine Sri Lanka without its beloved elephants, an essential part of any perahera, or procession. From Kandy it’s a fairly easy trip to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, where some fifty-odd too-cute-to- be-true youngsters, some no more than a few weeks old, are already accustomed to being bottle-fed by visiting onlookers. Each drinks up to ten gallons of milk a day.

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