Parading the Tooth Relic: Kandy Esala Perahera

Festival Essentials

Where: Kandy, central Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia
Month long celebration, falling between July & August
What Happens: 
Torchbearers, whip-crackers, dancers, drummers and elephants parading a replica of the Tooth Relic of Buddha
Remember to Bring: 
Full set of gnashers

Where It’s At

Sri Lanka has a large amount of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivals and around 26 public holidays a year. The Kandy Esala Perahera is the biggest and most important festival in the country. During the month of Esala (July/August) they have 10 days of torchbearers, whip-crackers, dancers, drummers and hundreds of elephants dressed up in honour of Buddha’s ‘tooth relic’. All parade around the city for ten nights, the last night is the biggest.


The point of this Perahera (meaning religious pageantry) is to call other Sri Lankan Buddhists to come and pay homage to the ‘tooth relic’ which is supposedly one of Lord Buddha’s teeth that was plucked from his ashes by a monk when he was cremated in 583 BC. The Buddha died in northern India but the area that the tooth was found became war torn around 301 AD and was given to Sri Lanka for safe keeping. As the capital of the country moved so did the tooth, finally coming to Kandy in 1592 where they have been celebrating this festival ever since.

In 1998 the Tamil tigers set off a bomb that destroyed part of the temple, which is still being restored. Since then security has been tight at the festival, together with the fact that it is one of the most venerated places of worship in the Buddhist world.

What Happens at the Festival

The area the tooth is kept in is called the Dalada Maligawa. Before the procession begins the dancers and elephant handlers congregate in the temple grounds and finish getting ready. Each night the chief elephant called the Maligawa Tusker will carry a replica of the tooth relic from here although the tooth itself remains at the temple. Each night at the festival more and more elephants take part. There are more and more dancers, more and more torchbearers and more and more people. The casket is carried on the very last elephant as it is paraded around for the entire city to see and takes three to four hours for the whole procession. The celebration lasts until its snaking path has moved full circle returns back to the temple where it started.

More Information

The Kandy Esala Perahera
History & the Process of the pageant

main image: courtesy of Charlene Chen, Flickr creative commons

By Sally Delf