The Esala Perahera

“And the huge frontal of three great elephant stepping forth
to the tom-tom’s beat, in the torch light”
-excerpt from ‘Elephant’ by D.H. Lawrence
(credit to Daniel Esko for sending this remarkable poem my way)

When we were initially planning our trip to Sri Lanka, we realized early on that we would be there around the time of the Esala Perahera. Having been through various Carnavals in South America (Barranquila, Tupiza, Rio) I have developed a love for partaking in local celebrations and immersing myself in the culture of the people who live there. The festival itself translates as “the festival of the tooth” and is partially an homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic thought to be from Buddha that resides in Kandy.

We knew we were in for some trouble when we arrived at 2PM in Kandy town to find everything shut down and the streets completely jammed shoulder to shoulder with locals stretching miles beyond where the parade would actually be seen. As I mentioned this was at 2PM, and the parade didn’t start until 8PM. Usually I avoid tourist traps or options which cater specifically to foreigners, but short of body checking an entire family of Sri Lankans out of the way (and likely being arrested in the process) we were resigned to purchasing a ticket. Now the tickets themselves can be utterly ludicrous, ranging from $30 or so per seat to upwards of $100, not what I wanted to pay. Luckily we stumbled upon a local shopkeeper who (after some negotiating) wound up offering us what I deemed a reasonable fee. He led us to our ‘seats’ which were actually located on a small rickety balcony which reeked of fish food due to its proximity to the pet shop next door. At first it was a little sketchy, but then a few other people who were there to watch the parade showed up, and although the crowded area was less to my liking it was a comfort to see other people there.

As the parade drew near, the shopkeeper politely asked us to “step inside” for a few minutes. Evidently if the local police catch anyone with foreigners on their balcony they charge them an absolutely ridiculous sum, leaving the property owner himself making very little money. Despite the added sketchiness of this, his idea made sense to me and I had no issues sitting in the back room with a bunch of Sri Lankas eating gadugudas while his balcony temporarily became loaded with Sri Lankan kids. After a number of awkward conversations with the shopkeeper who I believe at one point offered to let us stay at his house with his family for the remainder of the trip the parade finally began.

Now the parade itself is simply a remarkable experience. The entire procession is lit solely by torchlight from a number of individuals. Although the effect of this was perfect for the mood of the parade itself, it made photography an extremely challenging task. For every one shot through the night that worked there must have been at least twenty five that didn’t. The parade began with a young kid twirling two flaming batons around his head, walking barefoot down the street. Next came a larger group of fire dancers whom, despite having seen in many places, always marvel me with their skill. Each dance troupe of sorts had a different elaborate costume set and performed a variety of intricate dances to fast paced bongo drum beats. Between the groups gigantic elephants would lumber down the street adorned in jewelled costumes, each more fantastic than the next. The entire parade lasted about three hours, but it felt like twenty minutes as I was completely mesmerized by each different group along the way. At the end of the parade the shopkeeper called my driver and personally took us to where he was, constantly thanking me along the way for going along with him as it helped him to make money, something I was happy to do since after all, he did own the shop. All told it was a phenomenal experience. If you plan a trip to Sri Lanka, try to be there during the Perahera, it is an event worth traveling the world to see.

Here are some of the photos I took which I felt depicted the Perahera at its finest. A few of them appear somewhat abstract due to difficult lighting, but I like the way each turned out.

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