Every July or August, thousands of Sri Lankans travel to the hill city of Kandy to watch dancers, acrobats, drummers, whip crackers, flame throwers and more than 100 elegantly decorated elephants parade through the streets during Esala Perahera. This is a 10-day festival in honor of to the country’s most prized possession, the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha.
Esala Perahera, first celebrated in the third century B.C., kicks off with the cutting of a ceremonial jack tree. Pieces of the tree are then planted near the shrines of the four Buddhist gods that protect Sri Lanka: Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini. For the next five nights, ceremonies with festive dancing and drumming take place outside each of the temples. On the sixth night of the festival, processions begin from each shrine and parade toward the Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa). The processions grow longer and more spectacular each night. During the last night of the pageant, an enormous elephant carries a relic of the Tooth Relic in a gold casket on its back as the performers entertain crowds along the route. The ceremony ends at dawn after the full moon with a water-cutting ceremony. Priests representing each of the four temples walk into the Mahaweli River, “cut” a circle in the water with a sword and fill pitchers with water from within the circle. They keep the water in the pitcher for the entire year.