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Festivals Sri Lanka

Most festive days are linked to religion. Except for the Christian festive days, the Sri Lankan festive days are linked to the moon calendar, so they vary every year. Each full-moon day is poya day, the most important temple day for Buddhists.

Esala Perahera: at the end of July or the beginning of August the feast of Esala Perahera is celebrated in Kandy. It is an impressive spectacle and, for the mainly Buddhist population, it is their most important festival. In this ten-day festival; a copy of the Buddha’s tooth – the original is safely stored in the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy – is carried in one of five processions on the back of a richly decorated temple elephant. The Esala Perahera has various sections. The first six evenings consist of the Kumbal Perahera. This part is slightly less impressive than the subsequent Randoli Perahera, which builds to its climax on the tenth night. Then all elephants from far and near pay their respects and the greatest number of dancers, acrobats and musicians take part in the procession. To round it all off, a small ceremony takes place in the daytime: the water cutting ceremony or Day Perahera. The procession starts early evening. After chanting and prayers have filled the air across Kandy for many hours, suddenly there is silence. A thunderous cannon shot from the Temple of the Tooth announces the preparations must begin. It takes 45 minutes for the keeper of the Tooth to wrap himself in a 40m silk drape. Only when the second cannonball is fired can the procession begin to move. It is dark by then and torchbearers light the procession. In front men carry long whips. They halt every tenth step and snap their whips. Now the hour has come. The tension is almost tangible. A roll of drums accompanies the acrobats who whirl fire around their heads, necks and limbs. Groups of drummers accompany the dancers. The musicians look fairytale-like, in their long white gowns with red sashes and their bare torsos draped with jewellery. Various groups of dancers go by, mainly men but some women. Each dance has its own symbolic meaning. The movements and the dress are minutely prescribed. The procession approaches slowly and halts continually. The rolling of the drums becomes louder and acrobats performing multiple somersaults disengage from the group of dancers. The dancers, fall into an ever-deeper trance and make ecstatic movements. Groups of priests and temple servants in magnificent outfits are accompanied by a large number of elephants swathed in rich drapes, often lit by hundreds of lights powered by a wheeled battery pulled behind. The very last group, the Dalada Maligawa approaches. Surrounded by musicians and dancers, the splendidly dressed largest temple elephant carries the silver shrine containing the copy of the Tooth of the Buddha on its back. Flanked by two smaller but no less richly decorated elephants. They are followed by a long procession of acrobats, dancers, sword fighters and believers. On the last night, it takes three hours for the procession to pass by. Then the show is over and the throng moves on to the fun fair. The moon determines the timing of Esala Perahera. On the last night of Randoli Perahera it is full moon.

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