Fire and Fairy-Lights…

Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second largest city and sits high up in the temperate, green hills at the heart of the island. It has managed to preserve its Sinhalese traditions through two and a half centuries of attack from both the Portuguese and Dutch and has a unique cultural tradition of dance, music and architecture. It is also home to what is considered to be Asia’s most exuberant and spectacular festival the Esala Perahera and to the most sacred Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, ‘The Temple of the Tooth’.

The ‘Very Famous’, actually ‘World Famous’ Esala Perahera is a religious festival that takes place annually for 10 days at the end of July and beginning of August depending on the date of the full moon. the festival dates back to the 4th Century AD and continues to be Sri Lanka’s most important festival, with people travelling from all over Sri Lanka and from around the world to experience it, us included. The Perahera was one of the main reasons for travelling to Sri Lanka at this time of year and Kandy and it’s festivities was to be our home for two nights. The festival starts off relatively small, becoming bigger and more spectacular as the event continues towards it’s end… we were here for those final nights so were excited to say the least…

Hema our driver, who had quickly become a friend, was a little worried about coming to Kandy during the Perahera as it becomes jam-packed with hundreds, if not thousands of visitors and with them come cars, buses, minibuses, motorbikes, tuktuks, bicycles and as one can imagine the city almost comes to a standstill. He was keen to arrive in Kandy by 2pm as the police start to close the roads around the centre and then the city becomes impassible and we needed to get into the centre to access our hotel, So after our swift Tea Factory visit, we headed straight for Kandy.

On the way Hema told us about how from early morning the streets of Kandy start to fill up with the groups of visitors, all seeking a good view, who gradually fill the pavements and sit and wait for hours in patient anticipation for the evenings spectacle to begin. Another reason for getting to our destination early is that Hema was going to head into the centre to seek out some seats for us, these are a bit like gold dust and cost almost the same, but unless we wanted to literally sit in the gutters on a plastic sheet with the locals for at least 5 hours, then we would have to put our hands in our pockets and find the fee and let’s face it, we were to be witnessing first hand this spectacular sight for the equivalent of about £20 each, so we weren’t complaining.

As we neared the city the streets were adorned with flapping, striped flags of white, orange, blue, red and yellow, the five spiritual colours of Buddhism. These were strung from trees, railings, lamp posts and welcomed all into the city. Hema was correct, the traffic was already beginning to build up and the normally placid, unflappable Sinhalese drivers were in full-on ‘I’ve got a place to get to and I’m not going to give way’ mode…even Hema’s normally calm driving was becoming a little more animated…bless him! But hey he got us there in one piece and once in the city, calmly and smoothly delivered us to our hotel. The hotel was at the top of a steep and winding hill and at points up the hill there were magnificent views of Kandy Lake and the temple complex.

We arrived at the hotel, a very nice modern one and were greeted by the friendly hotel staff, smiling with hands together in prayer mode uttering the customary welcome of “astuti”. We were shown to our room, which was in the recently opened section of the hotel, all white and minimalist. We were intrigued when we entered our room to see a red sign on the French windows warning us about how monkeys like to enter the rooms and steal things…so to keep the French doors closed if we are in the room…Andy, became quite excited about the prospect of Monkey Thieves, but I thought it was probably just one incident which had caused the management to put the signs up, just in case…Hema went off to do his bit of wheeling and dealing in the town, whilst we rested and built up some energy for the evenings entertainment. Hopeful that he would be able to secure some good seats ‘with a view’ for us…

Hema came back pleased, but a bit concerned that the tickets were “very expensive” and that he hadn’t checked with us first, but we were very happy that he’d managed to get us front seat places, that were covered just in case of rain… Our meeting time was 6.00 in the hotel reception, from there we would take a tuktuk ride down the hill to the bridge to get to our seat before the roads were finally closed off for the 7.30 start. As we were getting ready to leave Andy looked out of the window and guess what he encountered? Yes…families of little grey monkeys emerging from the undergrowth, shimmying up trees and drainpipes, swinging from branch to branch climbing the balconies of the surrounding buildings…so I was wrong, there are monkeys and lots of them! They were very amusing to watch, so much so that we arrived at the reception a couple of minutes past our agreed meeting time of 18:00 hours…we were clearly in laid back holiday mode, whilst Hema had a mission to complete and so we quick marched to the TukTuk..!

Hema took us towards our seats with a sense of urgency, it was busy with police directing the traffic, which hadn’t yet been banned from the centre and with people all trying to cross the roads at once. The streets, as expected, were already lined with an audience covering all ages, backgrounds and religions. The pavements were covered in expectant onlookers, whole families had congrgated for this event; great grandparents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, mums, dads, cousins, brothers, sisters, babes in arms all sat wide-eyed with excitement. Along the road side were uniformed police, there to keep everyone under control, not that anything was out of control, everyone was sat quietly and the only real noise was from the guys who were selling the seats and the street vendors. it was not nearly as crowded and chaotic as we’d imagined it might be, no worse than a carnival or street festival at home and certainly not anywhere near as rowdy as a Saturday afternoon football crowd.

The sun was beginning to set and the excitement and anticipation began to rise. The street buildings became illuminated with a dazzling array of sparkling coloured fairy lights and a tractor pulling a trailer dispensing water onto the road drove by a couple of times, which sent small streams of water flowing down onto the edges of the pavements where the crowds were sitting. But everyone remained seated. We thought that as the time neared for the start of the extravaganza that the crowds might rise from their feet, but no they stayed sitting on their plastic bags on the hard floors.

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Street vendors selling the usual fairground flashing lights and whizzy toys passed by trying to sell their wares, a candy-floss seller accompanied by a young lad tried hard to sell his luminous pink sweet, but no one was interested…the seat sellers seemed to have everything under control, people were continually turning up wanting seats, but the only seats left now were right up in the back, where the view wouldn’t be great and the heat would be unbearable, thanks to Hema we had some of the best seats in the place.

7.30 came and the sound of a firework going off signalled the start of the Perahera, but we had to wait a while before we saw any evidence of the show having started! As always in these events the first thing to pass by us was the modern addition to the procession the police car with its flashing blue lights, just to make sure the quite crowd didn’t make a noise or begin a riot…no chance of that we thought! Oh I don’t know if I should go into too much detail about the Perahera, as it wouldn’t be a surprise for those who might like to come to witness it for yourself… But then it was very exciting and I’d like to document our experience so here goes…

Before we can see anything, we hear the sound of what we think are firecrackers being let off, the closer they came the louder the cracks got, and then we saw what was making this sound, young boys of about 10 – 14 years of age, had long whips and at signalled points they were literally cracking their whips by rapidly swirling them around their heads and snapping them quickly down, creating a loud gun like sound as the ends of the whips hit the road. The whips were followed by similar aged lads twirling at speed, from their heads balls of fire on ulong metal chains. Then lads carrying and twirling heavy metal rings, alight with flames, every now and then one would be thrown spinning high in the air to be caught again with confidence and control. Some of the twirlers and spinners walked on stilts, twirling and throwing their fiery apparatus high into the air, they were all clearly well practiced…along the sides of the route, bare chested men carried braziers on the end of heavy wooden poles, stopping every now and then resting their red hot, smouldering lanterns at an angle to their bodies to prevent from being burnt, every now and then a light wind would blow embers into the crowd…no such thing as health and safety regs here!

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Next in the procession were a group of solemn looking men carrying flags. One of the local Kandian men sat near by, told us that the flag bearers were prisoners from Kandy prison; murderers and thieves, and the men accompanying them were guards…

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More flag bearers marched slowly along and then, what we had all been waiting to see, the first of the Majestic elephants This magnificent creature was shrouded in a gold embellished, red velvet, gown, it’s head lit up with white fairy lights and first of the many elephants representing the Sacred ‘Temple of the Tooth’.

Each group of elephants was followed by bare chested male dancers, clad in red and white costumes, twirling and gyrating to the rhythmic beats of Kandian drumming. Every now and then the drumming would be replaced by the screeching sounds of wind instruments similar to the pipes favoured by snake charmers. The ominous looking torch bearers, shrouded in red scarves, lit the faces of the troops of dancers with their flaming torches which intermittently dripped smouldering, red hot ashes to the ground.

An hour or so in to the procession and many groups of elephants, dancers and musicians later came the final elephant, carrying high on its back a magnificently lit up mini shrine, which i believe held a casket, although I’m not sure if it actually contained the ‘very famous’ tooth of Buddha…this was the end of the procession of the Temple of the Tooth and what we thought was the end of the Perahera, but no there was more to come…

A little vehicle strewn with orange fairy lights announced the arrival of the next temple and it’s procession of elephants, dancers and musicians. The same format as with the Temple of the Tooth followed, except the elephants were covered in orange lights. Next came another temple this time with vivid sapphire blue fairy lights followed by another with red as their theme, the procession culminating in the temple with yellow fairy lit elephants and the only female dancers…

As the Perahera continued so the dancers and musicians gradually became more and more frenzied and energetic, the tribal beats of the various drumming intermingled and pulsated through the kerosine-filled night air creating an intense and electrifying atmosphere…We certainly felt part of a very thrilling and extraordinary event, one like no other we had ever before experienced…

We later found out that the pattern of the 5 colours represents the international Buddhist flag: white, orange, blue, red and yellow and that the Perahera was originally conceived hundreds, even thousands of years earlier as a way of ensuring success for the farmers and their crops by the bringing of the rain. The formation of the procession symbolises the following the whips represent thunder, the fire is the lightening, the elephants the clouds and the dancers and music are the different sounds of the rain…

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One thought on “Fire and Fairy-Lights…

  1. Cheryl,I have just read this lovely account of your holiday.I really felt like I was there watching it all,you described it so well.
    The elephants must have looked wonderful a sight to behold! Well done.Love Mumxxxx

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