Suitcase and World: The Esala Perahera. The 4th Randoli.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Esala Perahera. The 4th Randoli.

Still pinching myself. I can't believe I actually got to see the Esala Perahera! What an amazing two nights!!

 Last night, Chandana took us to a viewing point high above Kandy.  With my naked eye, I could see the elephants parading by but it took a view through my zoom lens to really see well.  That was just a taste of what we would be seeing tonight and it got me so very excited!

For us, it truly began this morning when we went with Chandana to pick up our tickets.  As we headed into town, the streets were already lined with spectators who claimed their viewing spots along the prime section of the route.  This is REALLY indeed a very popular event!

Chami dropped us of somewhere in the center of town, near the Sri Dalada Maligawa Temple (aka the Temple of the Tooth).  We were looking for the Prince of Wales Travel Agency.  From what I gather, tickets are bought through a broker, not surprising because this is such a popular event that I'm sure everybody wants to cash in on it.

It wasn't easy to find the place - took Chandana a few calls.  When we entered the building, I didn't see a travel agency anywhere in sight.  In fact, it looked more like a cybercafe.  A narrow aisle ran down the center of the room.  On both sides were small cubicle style desks equipped with PCs.  As far as I could tell, every PC was in use.

Way, way in the back of the narrow room was a closed off space.  Chandana knocked on the door and walked in.  We followed and soon found us crammed into a room with three other people and the makings of an office - desks, cabinets, computers, chairs, etc.  The amazing thing was the entire space was barely larger than my office which measures 10 feet x 15 feet!

There, Chandana spoke with a woman who held our tickets.   A few words exchanged and we were back out on the street.  Chandana had our tickets.  We would be seated in the Queen's Hotel corridor which apparently is where most tourists are seated because it sits at the start of the parade route and it's covered.  When I planned this trip, I had read that THE place to be was the Queen's Hotel corridor and I had tried to book our rooms there but by the time I tried...which was in January, all the prime rooms were already taken so I figured we wouldn't have a chance of getting a seat here.  That's when I decided to reach out to Chandana and see if he could make the arrangements.  Little did I know that he did have the connections and we got our seats!!

We spent the rest of the day sightseeing around Kandy.

At 4pm, we left the house to head out for the parade.  The thing about the Esala Perahera is that there is no official start time though it does begin after dark which would be sometime close to 8pm.  It seemed awfully early for us to be leaving but

Unfortunately, there was another car in the driveway blocking us so no way out.  Plan B kicked in.  We walked out on the street and then down to the main road.  In a matter of minutes, a local bus pulled up and we got on board.  The bus was packed so we stood for the ride.  Although we only had to go a short distance, the road was jammed with cars, all heading in the same direction.

At Chandana's signal, we all got off the bus and were immediately plunged into a sea of people.  Everyone seemed to be in good spirits and I have to say, despite the size of the crowd, everyone was well behaved.

We were a couple blocks away from the Queen's Corridor.  We wove our way through the crowd.  Thankfully, Chandana is taller than the average Sri Lankan so it was easy to spot him above the masses.   We eventually made our way to the Queen's Corridor.  A long wooden tiered viewing platform had been assembled under the covered walkway that runs along one length of the hotel.  Plastic wooden chairs were lined up on the tiers.  It looked like every inch of space was occupied by a chair.  There were already a few people in their seats.  We let Chandana do the talking and when signalled, we followed a man to our seats.  They were not good far in the back corner and row as you can get.  I was not happy and neither was my brother.  He decided to have a chat with one of the men who appeared to be sitting people.  A small tip later and we were moved to the back row of the center section.

Of course, I wanted to be in front row but those were reserved for the hotel's guests.  But actually I didn't mind being in the back because I figured that meant I could stand up and not obstruct anyone else's view.  The one thing bad about being seated in the corridor area is that there are columned archways blocking the view though we were seated right in the middle of an archway so we were lucky.  I also figured that we were positioned right under the 2nd floor balcony which is were ruling members of the government e.g., the Prime Minister and their families get to watch the parade from - they have the prime viewing spot.

Chandana had long left us. Luckily, we had agreed on a place to meet up with afterwards as he was not going to be seated with us. My brother and I settled into our seats and watched the world unfold before us. Across the street from the Queen's Hotel corridor was another viewing stand. Apparently, those spots were for high ranking local officials and their families. Too bad, as I told my brother. I would have gladly traded my spot in the corridor for one of those spots!

Minute by minute, seats began to fill up.  We were all squished in like sardines and so every time people needed to make their way past us, we would have to curl up our legs to let them by. 

A Danish man and a young woman, presumably his girlfriend took up the two seats next to my brother.  I was somehow next to a narrow aisle of sorts that led to an entry door to the hotel.  Quick escape to the restroom.

 Chandana soon reappeared with a package for us which got passed back to us by people seated in front as there was no way for us to get to him. Inside the package was something rolled up in newspaper.


It was our dinner and it turned out to be a freshly made masala dosai and a very tasty one at that.  Chandana had bought each of us one.  It was more food than I needed but I cannot resist eating a good masala dosai so I munched away.

By now, the sun was beginning to set.  My poor brother though.  Last Chandana had told us to put on insect repellant to ward off mosquitoes.  Of course, I forgot but my brother, who hates to put on repellant, decided he would wear a long sleeved shirt instead.  Plus that would keep him warm.  The only problem was that a) there were no mosquitoes around and b) it was hot and humid.  Poor guy, he had to just bear it - he said he was fine and appeared to be enjoying himself.

Enterprising servers from Pizza Hut were patrolling the crowd, in the Corridor, with menus.  They did a brisk business selling pizzas to all the foreigners and locals alike.

 I was thoroughly enjoying my masala dosai.

There were local street vendors as well. 

As dusk fell, the crowds grew -both in the corridor and outside. We were having a good time chatting with the Danish man and woman.

 Soon, the traffic was stopped and the street cleaning truck passed by - spraying water on the road.  That was to cool off the pavement so the parade performers could comfortably walk over the surface.  In Sri Lankan custom, they would be walking barefoot and it's a long (6 miles??) parade route so it was important that the asphalt be cooled down.

Then we heard the single boom of the cannon.  That was the signal that the parade was about to begin!!!   This is when I got goosebumps because I'm just so excited to finally be able to see it all!!

In the distance, I could hear the faint sound of a single firecracker going off.  From all the videos I had seen, I knew those were the whipcrackers.  They lead off the parade.   Let the show begin!!! A contingent of young man, each carrying a long leather whip, soon stopped in front of us.  All it took was one, very skillful, sharp crack of the whip against the asphalt to create the pop.  Pop, pop, pop - sounded like fireworks going off.

The whipcrackers were followed by the fire twirlers.  Another group of young men.  First to pass were the ones who were twirling a fireball, that is somehow connected to the top of their head by a cord, by rotating their head.

Then, there were the baton twirlers....

who were followed by the fire ring twirlers who were followed by....

the last and most spectacular of the fire performers -  the guys who were twirling the fire rings and batons while walking on stilts! 

My brother managed to catch most of it on video!  It was an incredible show!

After the fire performers, Kandyan drummers and windplayers passed by. This parade was getting by the minute.  Nothing was like anything I had ever seen before and all put on by a small town in the highlands of Sri Lanka.  I would have never imagined seeing a spectacle like this and this was just the beginning!

Three contingents of flag bearers went by.  The first group carried Buddhist flags.  This, after all, was a celebration of the introduction of Buddhism into Sri Lanka 2000 years ago.  Someone said that the flag bearers were prisoners.  If that's true, they were remarkably well behaved prisoners to be allowed to participate unshackled.

I don't know what the other two flags represented but the last group looked like a group of Kandyan performers carrying gold colored metal banners.

Next came a group of Kandyan dancers.  By now, it was dark of night.  Flame torch bearers lit the parade route. Every now and again, they would meet up with a man carrying a bucket of fuel to redampen the ball of cloth at the end of their pole.  The smell of fuel permeated the air and it didn't take long for the night air to take on a smoky haze.  Something like this could only take place in a country free of regulations and you know what?  No one and nothing got burned.  Well behaved people don't need regulations to tell them how to act responsibly.  Enough of my being on soapbox.  Back to the parade.

After the dancers, came the drummers and the musicians.

And then, the first elephant arrived!! All decked out in a beautiful embroidered robe with a head mask that was outlined in white lights.  The first contingent of elephants would be from the Sri Dalada Maligawa Temple.  They were all magnificently bedecked and a few even had gold tips added to their tusks.  Quite a sight!

The procession of elephants was underway.  The larger elephants walked on their own, carrying a rider and escorted by a handler.

Smaller elephants paraded either in pairs or in threes.  The young ones walked without riders but each had a handler by its side The baby elephants were ever so adorable!  I think this one, cloaked in yellow, was the tiniest of the lot.  Amazing how they were not frightened by all the noise and lights around them.  Under the cloak of one of the elephants, I caught glimpse of a badge hanging around its neck.  Even the elephants needed ID :-)

Each elephant or group of elephants was preceded by its own set of performers and no two sets of performers were the same.  The Kandyan performers were all men and they all dressed in variation of the same costume.....a long white skirt with  belt or large drape of cloth of some sort around the waist,  no shirt though some of the men hand ornamentation draped across their chests, and some sort of head covering.  Some of the costumes were incredibly detailed and simply beautiful!

More performers and elephants, one after the other.....and so it continued.

And then the guest of honor arrived!  The star of the Sri Dalada Maligawa Temple contingent is the Maligawa Tusker.  It is this magnificent elephant that carries the Sacred Tooth Replica along the parade route. As the tusker approached, people stood up in part to get a better view but really to pay their respects to both the elephant and the precious tooth that it carries.  It may seem silly to some that a something like a tooth can hold so much symbolism but in this devout Buddhist nation, it is a strong emblem.  The Maligawa Tusker is revered and it is truly quite a spectacle to see.  Because we were lucky to be position just under the viewing balcony, the Maligawa Tusker and the two elephants that flanked it, stopped right before us.

The Tusker was draped in the most magnificent of robes - more intricately embroidered than any other elephant. The tips of its tusks were covered with a gold shell that was tipped with tassels.  The casket was all lit up and sparkling like a beautiful gem.  The whole effort was just absolutely stunning!!

Unlike the other elephants that had paraded before them, each of the two elephants that flanked the Maligawa Tusker had four riders on top of it. 

 The trio of elephants paused before us for a few minutes before moving on. 

After the Maligawa Tusker passed by, the parade of performers and elephants continued with the remaining four temples, which are all Hindu temples.  We didn't know the names but they were all easily identified by the colors of the lights on the elephants' head masks - we nicknamed them the Blue Temple, the Yellow Temple, the Red Temple and the Lesser White Temple. The Lesser White Temple is actually a nunnery and so the very small group of performers were all young girls.

I had put my brother in charge of video tonight so here's 30 minutes of the parade.

What an amazing event. Even now, I'm still pinching myself that I was there to experience it all. I don't think I will forget this night anytime soon!

After the parade was over, we headed out the Queen's Corridor viewing stand the same way we had come in. Chandana knew exactly where we were sitting so he was there to greet us as we exited the stands. Of course, I was still on a high from it all - I think the adrenaline was still pulsing through my veins. Chandana and Chami had stood nearby to watch the events....not quite the same but they still got to see the elephants.

It was a massive sea of people that we got swept up in.  As we walked, Chandana kept his eye out for transportation. I thought he was looking for a taxi but he had something smaller in mind.  It took a couple of tries but eventually, he waved us to get on board.....a tuk-tuk.  All four of us.  We crammed in like sardines.  My brother and I chuckled.  Five adults on board this little tuk-tuk that is powered by basically an amped up motorcycle engine.  As the tuk-tuk driver turned on to our street, we were all wondering if he would be able to make it up the hill.....and wouldn't you know it, he did!!  Tuk-tukking it up all the way! 

It had been a night filled with a lot of activity but I wasn't tired - adrenaline still coursing through my veins so I spent a few minutes scrolling through the photos I had taken of the parade.  Amazing, amazing, amazing.....and we have tomorrow night's parade as well.  Chandana said that tonight they probably had somewhere around a few hundred performers and about 60 or so elephants.  Tomorrow night is the 5th Randoli, the grande finale of the Esala Perahera.  It would be over a thousand performers and over a hundred elephants parading!!  Can't imagine how much more amazing it will be!

Heading to bed now.  Goodnight from Kandy!