New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade is one of the biggest, but for a memorable procession, head to Sri Lanka’s Esala Perahera, a showpiece of dancing, drumming, and elephants
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION The Esala Perahera festival takes place in Kandy, Sri Lanka
WHEN Late-Jul or early Aug, lasting ten days; the exact dates vary from year to year
73°F (23°C) around the time of the festival
Religious processions of one kind or another are a worldwide phenomenon, celebrated by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists alike in countries spanning continents, from Japan to Brazil.
St Patrick’s Day in New York City is one of the biggest and most popular, first celebrated in 1762 and now attracting vast crowds, who come to ogle the marching bagpipers, firemen, policemen, and members of assorted Hibernian societies. Everyone puts on green for the day and drinks a bit too much Guinness. But although it’s a great party, its religious origins have got lost over the years, and as a spectacle it has become relatively forgettable.
For a truly memorable religious procession, head for the flamboyant Esala Perahera festival at Kandy in Sri Lanka instead. Dating back to the 4th century AD, the festival celebrates the Tooth Relic, one of Buddhism’s most venerated objects.
Said to be a tooth from the mouth of the Buddha himself, it was rescued from his funeral pyre in north India and eventually brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD. The Tooth Relic now resides in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. Once a year, for ten days during the lunar month of Esala (late July/ early August), the tooth (in recent years, a replica) is taken in a procession from various starting points around the streets of Kandy, while thousands of spectators congregate from across Sri Lanka and many foreign lands to watch.
The parade is one of Asia’s great visual spectacles and starts at night. Soon after darkness falls, a deafening cannon shot announces its start.
First, torch-bearers walk slowly through the streets, cracking whips to ensure silence and chase away evil spirits. Then the procession swells into view.
Hundreds of drummers appear, pounding away at their instruments and filling the streets with deafening rhythms, while acrobatic dancers dressed in elaborate traditional costumes turn and spin around them. They are followed by the elephants, brightly caparisoned and decorated with miniature lights, accompanied by flag-waving retainers, stilt-walking acrobats, and bigwigs dressed up as kings and nobles in 18th-century Kandyan attire. The biggest cheer is reserved for the mighty Maligawa Tusker. The biggest and most brilliantly dressed of the 100-plus elephants on view, this splendid male elephant is entrusted with carrying the replica of the Tooth itself. The enormous procession continues for around 2 hours, parading three times around the streets, while dancers, drummers, and acrobats work themselves up to ever greater levels of virtuosity.
A second cannon shot signals the end – at least until the entire spectacle resumes again after darkness the following night.
FORGET ST PATRICK’S DAY IN NEW YORK?
THE BUILD-UP New York’s St Patrick’s Day is one of the world’s most famous saint’s day festivals, first celebrated in 1762 by Irish soldiers in the British Army and held every year since.
The festival attracts huge crowds of enthusiastic participants and spectators, after which seemingly the entire city retires to the nearest pub to celebrate the festivities in an atmosphere of cheerful bonhomie.
THE LETDOWN St Patrick’s Day in New York is the expression of everything Irish – at least if by “Irish” you mean green beer, fake leprechauns, and giant styrofoam shamrocks. For many, the saint’s day in New York is now less a genuine celebration of Celtic culture and the Catholic faith than a send-up of Irishry and its stereo- types, accompanied by rampant commercialism and vast crowds of tanked-up revelers.
GOING ANYWAY? The best places to watch the parade are toward the north end of the route, away from the crowds that gather on the sidewalks below 59th Street. Try sitting at the top of the steps outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a great view, or catching a close-up glimpse of the marchers as the parade turns east along 86th Street.
Getting There and Around
The nearest airport is at Colombo, around 3 hours by road or rail from Kandy.
Where to Eat
There is a dearth of great places to dine in Kandy. However, Devon’s and The Pub, in the city center on Dalada Vidiya are both passable options. Alternatively, try Sri Rams on Colombo Street for cheap South Indian food.
Where to Stay
Helga’s Folly is one of Sri Lanka’s quirkiest and most colorful places to stay. The atmospheric hotel is set high above the town in a wackily decorated house, complete with weird and wonderful décor and artworks – from period photographs and fashion magazine cut-outs to wax-encrusted candelabras.
Budget per Day for Two
Around US$140, including accommodations and dining at the hotels and restaurants recommended.