Imagine the sound of distant drum beats, the streets awash with lines of dancers and acrobats, riotous colour, the excitement of the crowds, children sitting on their parents' shoulders for a good view… It might sound like a familiar carnival scene but what sets the Esala Perahera festival (in Sri Lanka's hill town of Kandy) apart is what happens next - the elephant parade.
Thought to be one of the world's best festivals, every year (in July or August, the exact dates vary according to the full moons) for ten days Kandy celebrates Esala Perahera, a Buddhist festival that has been taking place in the city since 300 AD.
People flock to Kandy from all over Sri Lanka, to see the main Perahera (meaning parade) on the final night of the festival. You don't need tickets and standing among the crowds of friendly people is a welcoming experience.
Tell Tale Tip If you travel with us, our local friends in Kandy will make sure you get close to the action and the elephants.
The highlight is the spectacular sight of over a hundred elephants, decorated in lavish costumes of colourful silk and fairy lights that transform the streets into a glittering marvel.
Kandy Perahera is a unique fusion of two processions - The Esala and Dalada. Originally, the Esala Perahera was a ritual performed to ask the gods for rain. The Dalada Perahera, meanwhile is to honour one of the world's few sacred Buddhist relics, in this case, one of the Lord Buddha's teeth. It is housed at Sri Dalada Maligawa ('Temple of the Tooth') and is the country's most prized possession.
Elephants play a very important part in the pageant. Richly decorated, it is hard to pick the most beautiful. They stride amongst the musicians, fire jugglers and torch bearers carrying gold and jewels. It is the largest elephant, easily spotted with long white tusks (it is always a tusker), who is given the honour of carrying casket containing the Tooth Relic across the city.
Some of these elephants that take part live at the Sri Dalada Maligawa. Others come from all over Sri Lanka, from other temples or from their day jobs on tea plantations or forestry. It is a great honour for an elephant owner for their elephant to take part.
Tell Tale Tip Get up at dawn on another day to visit Sri Dalada Maligawa. Open from 05:30am, going early means you avoid the crowds and are able to hear the daily Puja (prayers) and drummers.
Time your trip right and see Kandy come alive during the spectacular festival of Esala Perahera. You can do this on the wildlife-themed Leopards and Turtles, the cultural-themed Serendipity and Tea, or any other trip which includes Kandy.