Monday, August 26, 2013

Travel Monday: Blessings from Kandy Esala Perahera August 2013 - Part 1

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Kandy Esala Perahera, which was held between 11 to 21 August 2013. I received many blessings and I return from Kandy to share these with you.

I've divided the Travel Monday blog into two parts as I have a lot to share with you biggrin

The first part will give an overview of my travel experience attending the Kandy Esala Perahera, including the journey (to-and-from Kandy), logistics and what I did to prepare (yes, I really did prepare for this one, which is not like me. I'm usually more "fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants"). I'll also provide a bit of background to the history, meaning and significance of the Kandy Esala Perahera.

The second part, which I will publish alongside part one, will focus on the actual Kandy Esala Perahera, my thoughts and some of the things I learnt from speaking with various people. I have both photos AND videos to share!

I hadn't anticipated going to the Kandy Esala Perahera this year. A few weeks back, I had a number of people ask me directly, as well as via the blog and social media if I'd be going. It got me thinking, and I was trying to figure out the logistics of the trip and whether to make the drive up to Kandy. And then, as fate would have it, I received an invitation from a friend of Indaka's to attend the event with their group of family and friends. They had received special tickets with seating within the Sri Dalada Maligawa compound, and there was one seat left if I wanted it. Naturally, the decision was made for me and I gratefully accepted.

Preparation and Research

At this point, I admit to having had limited knowledge about the Kandy Esala Perahera, other than it being a massive annual religious event held in Kandy with lots of people, elephants and festivities.

So, in order to prepare, I decided I needed to do more than a bit of research... so I scoured the internet and read lots of articles, particularly those on the Sri Dalada Maligawa website as well as other local write-ups. I wanted to get a sense of the history, meaning and significance of the Kandy Esala Perahera. I also spoke to a few of my friends and colleagues who previously attended the Kandy Esala Perahera to get a feel for why they went and also to gather tidbits of information for my travels.

Suffice to say, all the research and discussions paid off. Attending the Kandy Perahera is one thing for sure, but knowing what to expect and the significance behind why it happens changes the whole experience entirely!

History of Kandy Esala Perahera

The origins of the Kandy Esala Perahera are said to have begun following the arrival of the Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic to Sri Lanka from India in the fourth century AD. On the Sri Dalada Maligawa website it is said:
"Arahath Mahinda introduced the Indian tradition of processions to mark Buddhist religious festivals and ceremonies. Certainly he would have advised King Devanampiyatissa to arrange the ‘Kathinapura Perahera' on the conclusion of his vassa (‘rains' retreat) at Missakapabbata his first vassa in Sri Lanka."
There are also accounts by Chinese pilgrim monks around the fifth century AD providing descriptive accounts of the Esala Perahera.

When the Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic was finally moved to Kandy it was enshrined in Sri Dalada Maligawa and has remained ever since.

The first modern Kandy Esala Perahera took place in 1754 during the reign of the Kanyan King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747–1781). He decreed the Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic be taken in procession for the general public to see and worship. It also saw the merger of the Esala Festival, an annual celebration and blessing for rain, fertility and health from the four guardian deities: Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini, with the Dalada (Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic) Perahera. The combination of these religious festivals results in today's grand procession we now call the Kandy Esala Perahera.

These days the Diyawadana Nilame, the office of the chief lay custodian of Sri Dalada Maligawa, has overall responsibility for the annual religious event.

As time has passed, certain old elements have been dropped and substituted with new elements within the Kandy Esala Perahera. There are various narratives on this subject with varying views and perspectives on how this has changed and possibly harmed the original integrity of the religious event. I don't have any particular view on this, however, it is helpful to understand the history, context and significance of the Kandy Esala Perahera.

What to bring

I had been advised by friends to pack a few items to bring with me to the Kandy Esala Perahera. These included:

  1. Umbrella (in case of rain)
  2. Bottle of water
  3. Light jacket and/or shawl (it gets cooler in the evenings in Kandy)
  4. Camera (note - in my case I took two cameras with me, one as back-up wink)
  5. Sunscreen, sunglasses, hat (in case you have to wait in the sun)

Journey to Kandy

If you're planning on attending the Kandy Esala Perahera, the key words are "plan ahead". Do not leave it to the last minute to decide to go, if you're hoping to find a place to stay. I was totally behind the eight-ball with respect to planning for this event, and I also had other commitments back in Colombo to get back to, so my tentative plan was to drive straight back to Colombo after seeing the Kandy Esala Perahera. I wouldn't recommend this approach, but this is how it worked out for me this time around.

The drive up to Kandy was fairly smooth given I'd decided on a leisurely pace. Given it's school holidays now,  there wasn't much congestion or disruption on the journey from Colombo to Kandy. I had a stop in Ambepussa to stretch my legs and enjoyed some light refreshments. My plan was to eat a late lunch in Kandy so I wouldn't get too hungry later on. Plus, my friends had told me there would be refreshments served as part of where we would be seated.

I arrived in Kandy in the early afternoon. I have only one word for the greeting I received: congestion. On a normal day, it is terribly congested on the roads in the city center. But, during the Perahera season, it's even more so! It's both traffic and people. Diabolical eek. Yes, there is my favorite word again!

Originally, I had thought to eat lunch somewhere in the city center, but it didn't look anything close to quiet and relaxing, so I headed up to the Kandy Hills in search of a suitable spot. After the drive up from Colombo, I really needed some quiet time and to connect with nature to re-energize before the later afternoon and evening's festivities. I ended up having Sri Lankan rice and curry at one of the restaurants in a mid-range hotel.  It totally hit the spot, and I relaxed there for a couple of hours before heading back down to meet my friends.

I had been advised to park at the Kandy Municipal Council Car Park as it was supposed to be easy to get out after the finish, and it's a 24-hour car park. It cost me Rs. 300 to park my car in the specially dedicated parking areas people attending the Kandy Esala Perahera. From there it was only a short walk (i.e.  approximately four to five blocks to Sri Dalada Maligawa or the Temple of Tooth).

I managed to meet my friends among the crowds near the Queens Hotel and we headed directly through security into the cordoned off area around Sri Dalada Maligawa. It was around 4pm and quite a few hours before the Kandy Esala Perahera would officially commence.

There were plenty of people with similar tickets and, the ticket actually recommended arriving by at least 5pm.

Security checks were carried out by the police and involved metal detector scan, bag check and pat-down. Military also had a large presence around Sri Dalada Maligawa, and I noted the Sri Lankan army were contracted to fulfil most of the essential services needed for the Kandy Perahera.

The Waiting Game

With more than a few hours of waiting before the actual procession was to begin, I spent the time talking with people, acclimatizing to the environment and wandering around the enclosed area within Sri Dalada Maligawa.

There was plenty of activity everywhere - it didn't matter where you looked there was something to catch your eye!

Even the toilet facilities, which were actually quite good, attracted plenty of people for obvious reasons.

Probably what caught most peoples' eye while we all counted the hours down were the elephants who were fed and watered before the start of the Kandy Esala Perahera. I had previously read articles and heard various stories about the difficult conditions for elephants involved in the Kandy Esala Perahera, but the elephants I actually saw did not appear poorly treated nor hurt. If anything, they seemed to be well cared for.

General Observations

For my narrative on the actual Kandy Esala Perahera procession please continue reading Travel Monday: Blessings from Kandy Esala Perahera August 2013 - Part 2

The following are my general observations of the event...


There are all kinds of options to attend this event. Some include:

  • camping out or arriving early to grab a good vantage point in a prime street location 
  • buying expensive online tickets offering covered seating with good views
  • having the right contacts offering free tickets
  • randomly locating yourself with relative freedom to walk around...

If it's your first time attending the Kandy Esala Perahera, it's probably advisable to get seats (if you can afford them), otherwise turn up early and grab a good vantage point on the street. And don't forget to read the "what to bring" list mentioned above!

Although I enjoyed the seating through my friends (and may try this again), I would probably like to have more freedom to wander around to get a better view and have more movement. 


People have suggested to me there are plenty of pickpockets around, but I didn't find this was the case. There's plenty of police and military around in terms of security at the event, and the large majority of people in attendance were families with children, elders, tourists and various officials and dignitaries.There are always exceptions, but from my experience, I felt safe and did not encounter any difficulties of this nature.

Event Organization

I was really surprised by how well this event ran. It was well organized, catered and managed by all involved. I am still in awe of the vast number of performers, elephants, participants, organizers, staff and more. The Kandy Esala Perahera is an alcohol-free event. 

The general public who were in attendance were well-behaved and respectful throughout. Even those groups who camped out early on the street, you could sense a great deal of patience, faith and relative harmony. It was definitely surprising to see people sit so patiently for hours waiting for the procession and festivities to begin, and then sit with such reverence and concentration throughout the entire Esala Perahera. This included the many kids attending with their parents from baby age to older teenagers. Everyone appeared to have a wonderful time and left feeling uplifted.

People seemed to come from all over Sri Lanka to attend the Kandy Esala Perahera. Some had mentioned this being the penultimate Perahera to attend, although there are other smaller ones held throughout the island. One lady mentioned how poorly some people behaved at some of these other events. Another man explained to me how in years long ago locals from mountainous areas like Badulla and Bandarawela would make pilgrimage by foot over mountains to attend the Kandy Esala Perahera. They believed it was a tremendous blessing and good fortune to make the journey and be in attendance to see the Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic.

Kandy Esala Perahera Route

At the time I didn't know what route the procession would be taking, but some of the newspapers in Sri Lanka had published images of the streets in Kandy city center of where the Perahera would be conducted.

courtesy of Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

Departing Kandy

At the end of the Kandy Esala Perahera, I was filming and taking photos on Raja Veediya at the back entrance to Sri Dalada Maligawa. By the way, this location is a real hidden gem as it was the actual end point for the Kandy Esala Perahera procession where the elephants, dancers and participants return to Sri Dalada Maligawa.

I lingered at this location for a little while before heading back towards the entrance. By the time I got there, the bulk of the people who had been sat in this large area had disappeared with only a few stragglers remaining. I slowly walked back towards Queens Hotel and the car park. I noticed attendants and street cleaners were already starting to stack chairs, clear rubbish and sweep the roads, even though scores of people and traffic were navigating their way to catch buses, get to their vehicles and so on. What efficiency!

I made it safely back to my car and the car park with the assistance of friends. Unfortunately, it was utter chaos and congestion around all of the exits leading from the car park and the main road. So, bottom line, parking at the Kandy Municipal Council Car Park does not enable you to make a quick getaway after the event!

At one point, I thought I'd have to sleep over in the car park! Actually, truth be told it probably isn't such a bad idea considering an average room in Kandy for the night can cost about Rs. 5000. Of course it can cost more or slightly less depending on where you choose to stay. So, Rs. 300 for the car park is a pretty sweet deal if you have a comfortable car and a soft pillow. Just sayin'!

I did eventually drive out of the car park. It took at least 45 minutes with more than a bit of persistence and hard stares at a few fellow drivers to navigate out of the car park. It then took another 30 minutes to get out of the city center with all the traffic. I swear I have never seen buses heaving with that many passengers before! It was literally packed like sardines on all of the buses heading out of Kandy in different directions eek

After that it was foot down on the pedal all the way back to Colombo. And boy was it a speedy, bumpy and a high-on-the-energy-of-Kandy-Esala-Perahera kind of drive back home. I made it safely back home in record time.

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