The greatest shared experience on Earth
There are some ‘Festivals’ that simply take one’s breath away for their sheer scale of humanity.
The Carnival in Rio
New Year’s Eve in Sydney Harbour
The Kandy Esala Perahera.
Whilst the first two are sparkling events, they have become very commercialized. Unlike the Kandy Esala Perahera which, whilst attracting vast crowds of 500,000+ each night for 7 nights, has retained its core simplicity of spiritual devotion.
Where else on earth can you see so many people come together to celebrate one simple act: that of paying homage to one of the greatest teachers of spirituality who ever had the grace to walk amongst us.
Each August since time immemorial, a procession has been held to display the sacred and venerated relics of Lord Buddha to the people.
Today, it’s one of the great spectacles – yet remains relatively unknown.
No coverage by international TV stations, no press ‘photo’s in newspapers across the globe, No use of film in the latest Bond offering.
Yet, for those fortunate to attend and witness it, it has the power to change how you view the world and your place in it. If that sounds somewhat grandiose, I can assure you it’s not. I’m as cynical as the best of people but, somehow, it has an effect.
Where else can you see over 50+ magnificent caparisoned elephants covered in jeweled cloths as they sway through the procession to the beat of hundreds of drums?
Where else is the spectacle of hundreds of bare chested boys and young men whirling jars of flaming oil around their heads? So close you can feel the heat. Or legions of them cracking whips with such dexterity you’d think they were professional?
Of row upon row of stunningly beautiful girls and young ladies performing the most intricate of dances whose moves have been passed down from generation to generation?
And, there, at the heart of this breathtaking spectacle, is probably the largest Tusker you will ever see in your life. He’s covered in every jewel you can imagine and sparkles under the flaming torches that line the processional route. He’s the one that carries the sacred relic within a Howdah fixed firmly upon his huge bulk.
He is the only elephant who NEVER sets foot on the road because a troop of attendants walk in front of him unrolling a white cloth for him to walk on.
Such is the level of veneration.
And such is the level of training, not just of this Tusker but of all the elephants.
You don’t get beasts of this size to walk sedately through vast crowds by training them through fear. Their trainers spend years training them carefully not just for this procession but for other work too.
Elephants in Sri Lanka are valuable and they are how the trainer/owner earns his living. There’s no point in invoking cruel tactics to make the beast do something. It would be like kicking the door of a vintage Bentley to encourage it to start. Buddhism is a gentle faith and all living creatures are venerated under its teaching. It’s almost unheard of for a mahout to be unkind to his charge because it serves no purpose. The fact that they are so sedated in the company of these crowds is a testimony to the training.
In my humble opinion, the Kandy Esala Perahera is one of the treasures we should all seek out and witness. It matters not if you have no faith, or, if you do, which faith you follow, this will remain a memory to take away and treasure forever.
There are two ways to participate as I discovered two years ago.
The first is to stand amongst the crowds and absorb the atmosphere. The risk is that you’ll get very, very tired from standing for several hours as the huge procession slowly winds its way past you. And you may not get one of the best vantage points as people often arrive VERY early to claim a good position. You’ll probably feel hungry and thirsty as it’s nigh impossible to get out from the sea of humanity that surrounds you.
To be perfectly honest, whilst I think I’m pretty adventurous, it wasn’t something I wanted to repeat this year when I was staying at Tea Trails.
When I mentioned that I was interested in repeating my previous excursion, the manager told me that tickets were available for VIP guests and he could arrange one for myself.
Kandy. Mentioned in innumerable travel books over the last 100 years has changed little in the intervening period. In fact, the original residents of Tea Trails would probably recognize it in an instant if they saw the wood smoke curling languidly over the rooftops at the beginning of a new dawn from houses clinging to the hillsides.
They would also have taken somewhat longer to get there though, as today Kandy is only 2 hours from Tea Trails by road although the train journey from Hatton to Peradeniya is one of the more spectacular rail experiences.
The excursion to Kandy began early. 8 am to be precise after a solid breakfast and you should arrive around 10 am traffic permitting.
Take a Tuk-Tuk from near the station and head upwards, ever upwards and then, feeling as if you’re in the silence of the clouds, look down on a site that has seen little change for over 600 years. Oh, the buildings are now modern, but there are no high rise buildings to obscure the view and pollute the senses; the descendants of ancient troops of monkeys still forage for scraps as they acrobat along the telephone wires and trees and small shops abound near the heart of the city selling virtually everything you could imagine.
Buy some snacks and picnic on the shores of Kandy Lake under the cool shade of one of the many waterside trees and absorb a view that hasn’t changed since the British arrived here in 1815.
Of course, as the day wears on people begin to congregate in small groups; to take their last walks around the lake themselves before the Perahera begins. Soon it’s time to move towards the parade route itself.
Each seating area is clearly marked and it’s not difficult to find one’s own.
Now it’s camera time. Believe me, you’ll never take as many ‘photo’s in one evening again. (I think I got through over 750).
I found some marvelous ‘photo opportunities en route too, not only of roadside sights of street vendors selling their colorful wares and snacks but also of people.
Entire families on one motorcycle or scooter; half a village who have clubbed together to hire an open truck with up to twenty or thirty people riding in the back; vanloads of children from extended families shouting loudly as they too waited in the inevitable traffic jam next to your car.
The people milling around; the fashions; the children with eyes wide in wonder and the old people who may have seen it many times during their life, but who still wait patiently, so deep is their faith.
I found this very valuable because it wasn’t just the experience I wanted again, it was how it all fitted together and the meaning and role of the various participants.
I got so much more enjoyment because of this. Unlike so many of the people seated near me who kept asking each other what this was or that. I don’t think their experience was anything like as rewarding as mine and it was thanks to Tea Trails that I enjoyed it so much.
As the procession nears its starting time, some of the grandstands fill with the well- known society and political faces of Sri Lanka. I actually didn’t know any of them but, judging by their greetings to each other, it looked like many did.
As they take their seats some start gazing to their left, straining to see if the lead elephant is in sight.
To be honest, you hear the sounds of the trumpets and drums long before you can see anything but you just know it’s started.
Riding the lead elephant is the Holder of the Office of the Chief Lay Custodian of The Temple of The Tooth. A venerable gentleman decked in the finest Kandyan robes of office.
The DIYAWADANA NILAME.
Rather than just be a figurehead, he’s responsible for everything in the procession.
And I do mean everything.
You really can’t comprehend the scale of the event.
Do you know it can last up to 4 hours – or more?
As the night progresses, the dancers pass by, the boys crack their whips, the teenagers whirl their flaming jars around their heads and each is interspersed by a larger and larger Tusker each more gloriously decked out than the last one.
Finally, the head Tusker hoves into sight and, as he passes walking on his white cloth, everyone stands as a mark of respect for the sacred relic he is carrying.
Not only does he carry a tremendous responsibility, it’s also an immense sign of respect for the animal itself.
In fact, the body of the largest Tusker on record, Raja, has been preserved in his own special room at The Temple of the Tooth. It’s a seriously impressive sight.
Finally, the procession winds to a close and it’s time for the return journey to Tea Trails by hired van.
Of course, it will be late when you arrive back at your bungalow but evening snacks will have been prepared in advance together with a pot of your favorite blend of tea.
I promise you a rare evening. In fact, I guarantee it.
Tea Trails itself is one of the life’s TRUE experiences but couple it with a visit to the Esala Perahera and it turns into a day you’ll never forget.
Imagine the planters and managers in the days of yore. Living and working in your bungalow, who would have traveled the same road to Kandy, seen many of the same buildings and certainly witnessed the same profession of faith you have.
This is what Tea Trails is about. The continuity of experience to be shared down the generations.