The Festival of the Tooth is one of the grandest festivals in Sri Lanka and in the Buddhist world. It is held every summer in Kandy to honor the sacred tooth of Lord Buddha and to pay homage to old gods of Sri Lanka. For the people of Sri Lanka, it is a time to celebrate the country’s rich culture and history. For travelers, it is a great time to experience the distinctive tradition of this island nation and to have fun! Follow our guide to experience this unique festival.
What is the Festival of the Tooth?
The Festival of the Tooth is called Esala Perahera in Sinhalese. "Esala" is the name for a lunar month occurring in July or August. The word "Perahera" means a procession or parade. The Kandy Esala Perahera is believed to be a unique combination of two different but interconnected processions- the Esala and Dalada. The Esala Perahera was originally a ritual performed to ask the gods for rainfall for the cultivation of crops dating back to the 3rd century BC. The Dalada Perahera, on the other hand, is to honor the sacred tooth of the Lord Buddha which is said to have been brought from India to Sri Lanka during the 4th century CE.
Temple of the Tooth where the tooth of Lord Buddha is housed
When is the Festival of the Tooth celebrated?
The Festival of the Tooth is observed in the month of Esala (July or August), the month that is said to commemorate the first teaching given by the Buddha after he achieved enlightenment. The dates of the festival vary each year so that it ends on a full moon.
People lining the road waiting to watch the procession
Tentative Dates of the Festival of the Tooth
|2019||August 5 - August 15|
|2020||June 26 - July 6|
How is the Festival of the Tooth celebrated?
During the Festival of the Tooth, people from across Sri Lanka flock to Kandy to watch the huge procession. It includes some 5,000 dancers, drummers, whip crackers, fire jugglers and many other participants. These performers are all wearing elaborate traditional costumes. Over 100 decorated elephants also join the pageant.
The Festival begins with the cutting of a sanctified young jack tree. Branches of the tree are then planted near the shrines of the four guardian gods Natha (a Buddhist savior), Vishnu (for safeguarding Buddhism in Sri Lanka), Kataragama (protector of the south) and the goddess Pattini (goddess of health and fertility). Traditionally, this was a ritual performed to ask the gods for blessings on the King and the people.
Sword fighting dance at the Kandy Festival of the Tooth
For the next five nights, festive dancing and drumming are held outside each of the temples. On the sixth night of the festival, processions begin from each shrine and parade toward the Temple of the Tooth. The processions get longer and more magnificent for the next three nights.
Drummers at the Kandy Festival of the Tooth
The highlight is on the last night of the processions: an enormous elephant carries a gold casket containing a replica of the Tooth Relic as the drummers and dancers enthrall the crowd along the route. The drummers and dancers themselves are followed by elephants and other groups of musicians, dancers and flag bearers.
A tusker adorned with lavish garment carrying the Sacred Casket
After nights of processions, a water cutting ceremony brings the festival to an end at dawn, when priests representing each of the four temples walk into the Mahaweli River, "cut" a circle in the water with a sword and fill pitchers with water from within the circle. The water is kept till the next year’s Esala Perahera, when the pitcher will be freshly filled again.
Tips for your travel during the Festival of the Tooth
If you are planning to watch the processions, the following tips might help:
1. Reserve hotels well in advance because it is a mini peak season during the festival and bookings can be heavy.
2. Though you can watch the great procession in the street with the local people, it is highly recommended that you book a seat (around USD 100 each) in a viewing gallery in advance to get a good view. Note that viewing galleries are not available on all the parade routes.
3. Avoid showing affections in public, such as hugging, kissing, etc., which is not appreciated by the locals.
4. Bring some drinks and snacks as you will need to spend a long time (4 - 5 hours) there. Most restaurants are close to enable seating to view the parade. Alcohol is not sold on Poya (full-moon day of the month) days. But tea and coffee are available. And Thambili ( king coconut water ) is a safe and refreshing option.
5. Although the procession usually starts at about 7 PM, you'll still need to arrive before 5 PM because the roads will be closed for the procession beforehand. Once the procession starts you can't leave until it ends.
6. Be prepared and patient. It is almost impossible to avoid crowds of people during the Esala Perahera. Instead of getting mad about it, you can choose to be calm and maintain a peace of mind.
The Kandy Esala Perahera is definitely a must see. Yet Sri Lanka has more to offer. Visit the soaring rock fortress of Sigiriya. Take a train ride through the tea plantations from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya to enjoy a nice cup of Ceylon tea. Travel further south to the Yala National Park where you can get close to a wide range of wildlife including elephants, leopards, and wild buffaloes...
Can't wait to experience the festivity of the Kandy Festival of the Tooth? let us tailor-make a Sri Lanka tour for you now!