Unveiling the Splendor of the Kandy Dalada Perahera in Sri Lanka

Collage of pictures from Kandy Dalada Perahera. In the middle is Temple of the Tooth Relic decorated with lights for Dalada perahera. $ pictures in the periphery are beautifully dressed tuskers in Dalada Perahera

In the heart of Sri Lanka, amidst the ancient city of Kandy, a majestic spectacle unfolds every year that draws pilgrims, locals, and travelers alike into a world of vibrant culture and spiritual devotion. The Kandy Dalada Perahera, often referred to as the “Esala Perahera”, stands as one of the island nation’s most cherished traditions. Rooted in centuries of history, this grand festival pays homage to the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha, while simultaneously captivating attendees with its dazzling parade, elaborate costumes, and intricate rituals. As a traveler, immersing yourself in this awe-inspiring event is a gateway to understanding the heart and soul of Sri Lanka.

The Historical Significance of Kandy Dalada Perahera: A Tapestry of Legends

The Kandy Dalada Perahera traces its origins back to the 4th century when the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka. Nestled within the Sacred Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy, this relic symbolizes not only the spiritual essence of Buddhism but also the sovereignty and protection of the nation’s rulers.

Dalada Maligawa decorated with lights for preparation of Kanday Dalada Perahera
Dalada Maligawa is decorated with lights in preparation for Dalada Perahera

The festival itself began in the 3rd century BC, during the reign of King Kirthi Sri Meghavarna, a time when the country was faced with a severe drought and famine. In an attempt to end the calamity, the king initiated a grand procession of the sacred tooth relic, which miraculously brought forth rain and prosperity. Thus, the Kandy Dalada Perahera was born as a celebration of both faith and thanksgiving and is held in the month of August every year.

The Grandeur of the Procession: A Feast for the Senses

The Kandy Dalada Perahera is an unparalleled visual extravaganza, showcasing the heritage, art, and spirituality of Sri Lanka. The procession, held over ten nights, is a mesmerizing display of over a hundred beautifully adorned elephants, drummers, dancers, and traditional musicians. The vibrancy of costumes and the precision of choreography leave spectators awestruck, each moment a symphony of color and movement.

Man on an Beautifully dressed tusker in Kandy Dalada Perahera
A beautifully dressed tusker overlooks traditional dances in Dalada Perahera

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Procession of Dalada maligawa

Whip crackers and Fireball dancers

The whipcrackers are the first to walk in the procession followed by fire dancers. This symbolizes thunder and lightning before rain. Since the Dalada perahera was first started during a prolonged drought to bless the land with rain, the symbolic tribute to the rain gods is still leading the procession. Also, the sound of whipcrackers is like a siren to clear the route for the oncoming procession while fireballs provide light in the darkness.

Did you know?

These whipcrackers, fire dancers, and most of the performances in the Dalada perahera are performed by a lineage specialized in that particular talent. Since the talent is taught from generation to generation you will see representation of younger, middle, and older generations within one act.

3 fireball dancers in Kandy Dalada Perahera. On the side there are spectators sitting watching Dalada Perahera
“Sri Lankan fire benders”

The fireball dance performance is a sight to see. It’s magnificent, exciting and at the same time a bit scary. They are literally playing with fire. After seeing how tactfully they discipline fireballs to create art, one could say they are the “Sri Lankan fire benders”.

Flagbearers and Swordbeares

After whipcrackers and fire dancers, Buddhist flag bearers walk in the procession. The National flag of Sri Lanka is carried in front of the Buddhist flag bearers stating that Sri Lankans are united despite being a muti-rational, multi-religious, and multicultural country.

Followed by the Buddhist flag bearers come the state flag bearers. These flags represent the 12 states and 9 counties that were under the rule of the Kandyan kingdom. During the era of the Kandyan kingdom, the heads of the relevant states and counties bore the flags in the Esala perahera as a sign of their loyalty to the King. You will notice there are flags made out of brass alongside the cloth-made flags which is an interesting point to notice since it’s not very common to see flags made out of copper.

The next in line in Dalada perahera are Sword bearers. They symbolize protection for the Sacred Tooth Relic.

Did you know?

In the history of Sri Lanka, The Tooth Relic has played the beacon of power in the country. To become accepted as a king in Sri Lanka, it wasn’t enough just to have an army and power. The king had to have the possession of the Sacred Tooth Relic. So providing a high level of security to the Tooth Relic by the ruler of the kingdom was a priority. Even in modern days, the security of the Tooth Relic is a high priority of the government.

First Elephant; more to come

If you have been waiting for the elephants to arrive since the beginning of the procession, now you will get to see the first elephant which is colorfully dressed and decorated with lights.

Peramune Rala is the official who is sitting on the back of the first elephant in the procession. He is carrying the secretariat’s scroll inside a long silver casket. The secretariat’s scroll symbolizes the documentation of properties that were gifted to the Tooth Relic by different rulers of Sri Lanka over a long period of history.

Beautifully dressed Tusker in Kandy Dalada Perahera
Look at this majestic creature in his royal attire! Magnificient!

You can browse through amazing photos from Sri Lanka and purchase some for yourself by visiting our profile @ iStock by Getty Images.

Hewisi group - Traditional Orchestra of Sri Lanka

Following Peramune Rala is the Hewisi Group of Dalada Maligawa. You’ll hear them playing the familiar sound that you hear during the service time of Dalada Maligawa. They are the official musical ensemble of the Temple of the Tooth Relic. This traditional orchestra will bring together the sound of different Sri Lankan musical instruments like Horanewa, Thalampota, and Thammettama to form a symphony that echoes the proud history of this magnificent island to the whole white world.

Did you know?

The History of Hewisi in Sri Lanka runs back to the dates of the Anuradhapura kingdom when Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi arrived in Sri Lanka. So it just might be the oldest traditional orchestra in the world.

Now you will see the second elephant in the procession carrying Gajanayake Nilame who is in charge of the group of king’s elephants. Followed by Gajanayake Nilame, more and more colorful dances and beautifully dressed elephants walk in the Perahera.

More and more breathtaking dances

Water Carrier Dancers represent the purification of the route of the oncoming Tooth Relic, Coconut flower dancers symbolize prosperity and abundance, and Chamara dancers symbolize providing comfort to the Tooth Relic.

One of the highlights of the Dalada perahera is the performance by the Naiyandi Dancers. This is a significant dance of the upcountry in Sri Lanka. The dancers wear headwear in the shape of a cobra, thus giving the name of the dance. “Nai” in Sinhala means cobra. The dance is very colorful, energetic, and breathtaking.

Another such eye-binding show in the Dalada perahera is the performance by the Tambourine Dancers. This is more like a sporting event rather than a dance. The dancers rotate their tambourines at high speed, throw them high up in the air, and catch them without leaving any room for mistakes. The stunts performed by these dancers while balancing the tambourine on a thin rod are absolutely jaw-dropping.

Did you know?

Tambourine is called “Rabana” in Sinhala. This is a musical instrument that is often played during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka. The sound of the tambourine and the singing of the koel signals the arrival of Sinhala and Tamil New Year in April.

Get ready to move to the beat of the kettle drums (Thammettam)

When the Tammettam (Kettle drum) players group passes, you will notice that your body is moving to the rhythm effortlessly. It’s hard to resist dancing to the unique and engaging music produced by the kettle drummers. I’m sure the elephants that walk next to the drummers will agree with me fully because they can’t help dancing to the music of kettle drums too. It’s such a cute scene to see the elephants dancing in the Dalada perahera.

Before the arrival of the most anticipated iconic Kandyan dancers, a series of wonderful performances are showcased in the Dalada perahera. These include mixed folk dances, pantheru dances, and udekki dances. In between the dances, many elephants and tuskers walk in the perahera, displaying their colorfully lighted glamorous dresses.

Iconic Kandyan dancers (Ves Dancers)

Group of Kandyan Dancers; Ves Dancers in Kandy Dalada Perahera
Kandyan Ves dancers in Dalada Perahera

The Kandyan Dancers or Ves Dancers are one of the cultural icons in Sri Lanka. Their unique dress with headwear and energetic dances to the beat of the drums is a sight to see.

Kariya Korala walks behind the first group of Ves dancers.

The arrival of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Then comes the Maligawa Tusker, carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic, which is the pinnacle of the procession, accompanied by devotees bearing offerings and torch bearers.

The Sacred Tusker: A Symbol of Reverence

Central to the procession is the Maligawa Tusker, an elephant who carries the sacred tooth relic in a golden casket. This majestic creature, draped in regal attire, embodies the intertwining of spirituality and regality. As it makes its way through the streets, devotees and spectators bow their heads in respect, participating in a tradition that bridges the gap between heaven and earth.

Kandyan dancers are dancing facing the Royal Tusker who is carring the casket of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy Dalada Perahera - Sri Lanka. On the corner there is a bright fire torch which lights the path for the Esala Perahera (Dalada peragera).
The Royal Tusker carrying the Casket of the Sacred Tooth Relic

You can browse through amazing photos from Sri Lanka and purchase some for yourself by visiting our profile @ iStock by Getty Images.

Diyawadana Nilame

The second troop of Ves dancers escorts the Diyawadana Nilame of Dalada Maligawa who is the protector of the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha in Sri lanka. He is dressed in royal garments of ancient Sri Lanka. Guards holding ancient Sri Lankan weapons walk beside him. The heads of the 10 villages (Ninda gam) that belong to Dalada Maligawa walk behind Diyawadana Nilame.

With that, the procession of Dalada Maligawa ends. But it isn’t the end of Dalada Perahera.

The Procession of Sri Maha Natha Devalaya

The Procession of Sri Maha Natha Devalaya follows the procession of Dalada Maligawa. This procession pays tribute to God “Natha”, who is next in line to gain enlightenment and attain Buddhahood. God “Natha” is also known as “Maithree Bodhisathwa” or “Avalokiteshvara”.

You will see many colorful, energetic dances in this procession. And you will notice that these dancers are wearing dresses that are more vibrant compared to the dancers of the procession of Dalada Maligawa.

The Procession of Sri Maha Vishnu Devalaya

Next is The Procession of Sri Maha Vishnu Devalaya which pays tribute to God Vishnu. It is said that God Vishnu is responsible for the protection of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

This procession is so eye-catching with the prominent blue color of the costumes of dancers and elephants. The dances are energetic and cheerful. Blue lighting perfectly compliments the blue costumes of the elephants. Just amazing!

The Procession of Sri Maha Kataragama Devalaya

After the Vishnu Devala procession starts the Procession of Sri Maha Kataragama Devalaya. This procession pays tribute to the God of Kataragama. You will see the South Indian influence on the dances of this procession.

The Kavadi dance is one of a kind. The lively beat is so engaging that you’ll find yourself dancing to the beat. Red is the prominent color in this procession. The Peacock dance is so vibrant with the glittery costumes.

Did you know?

Peacock is the vehicle of God Kataragama. That’s why you will see references to peacocks in the procession of Kataragama Devalaya.

The Procession of Sri Maha Paththini Devalaya

The final procession of Dalada perahera is the Procession of Sri Maha Paththini Devalaya. This procession pays tribute to God Paththini, the only female representative among the guardian deities of the Sacred Tooth Relic. You will notice that Yellow is the signature color in this procession. 

Also, you will notice a lot of female dancers in this procession which is not seen in the other processions.

Beautifully dressed Tusker in Kandy Dalada Perahera
Tusker in Sri Maha Paththini Devala Perahera

The end of Dalada Perahera is marked by the Palanquin carriers. Aka “Randoli wedamaweema” in Sinhala. This ushers in the closure of the event, leaving participants with a profound sense of connection to their heritage and spirituality.

The Modern Influence: A Blend of Tradition and Modernity

While the Kandy Dalada Perahera remains deeply rooted in its ancient customs, it has evolved to embrace modernity. Cultural dance troupes showcase Sri Lanka’s diverse heritage, while traditional crafts find a place in the festivities. Additionally, the perahera has become a platform for intercultural understanding, attracting visitors from around the world who come to witness and appreciate the beauty of Sri Lankan traditions.

3 elephants in Dalada perahera in Kandy
This snap gives a sneak peek at the glamour of the Kandyan era, doesn't it?

A Timeless Celebration of Faith and Culture

The Kandy Dalada Perahera is more than just a festival; it’s a living testament to the enduring spirit of Sri Lanka.

So, attending the Kandy Dalada Perahera is not merely an event; it’s an immersion into a world of profound significance. As a traveler, you become a witness to a legacy that spans centuries, a participant in rituals that resonate with devotion, and an admirer of the artistic masterpieces that adorn the procession.

Through centuries of change, this magnificent celebration has remained a unifying force, bridging the gap between generations and cultures. As the flickering lights of torches illuminate the night and the rhythmic beats of drums reverberate through the air, the Kandy Dalada Perahera is a reminder that amidst the diversity of our world, certain traditions possess the power to unite us all in awe and reverence.

I’ll meet you next week with another “Letter” from Ceylon… Until then…

නැවත හමුවෙමු😉 (Newatha hamuwemu = Let’s meet again)

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