We have a leisurely 10:00 start when we meet with Anton and drive a short way to the Temple of the Tooth where the only relic of Buddha is kept. We are introduced to a guide who takes us around the temple which is absolutely full of people, almost entirely Sri Lankans, who have come to pay homage at an important time, for tonight is the start of ten days of celebration commencing with the first parade of the Perahera this evening (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esala_Perahera).
Inside the temple we see the elephant costumes being finalised for the parade as men sew fairy lights onto the head adornments.
As in all temples we leave our shoes outside, but normally you can walk straight onto marble floor which is not a problem for me. Here though, the various buildings we visit are separated by some distance and we have to leave our shoes at a deposit and walk around, in and out of the buildings in the rain and across sandy pathways – not at all in my comfort zone.
We return to Anton and set off for the Pinnawala elephant orphanage, where rescue animals are kept. We are a bit late and the bottle feeding of the baby elephants has finished, although Anton manages to organise an extra bottle for me to feed a youngster who is four years old. Apparently elephants suckle until six years.
Also in this area is an aged female who suffers with arthritis and another mature female, terribly sad and depressed looking who has lost the bottom section of a front leg in a land mine incident during the civil war. She looks so forlorn that we think she may have been better off if she had not been saved.
There is another area where a huge bull elephant is kept, who is very old and totally blind. Elephants live a similar length of time to humans and this old guy shows the signs of old age as his flesh has sunken into his skull.
Then the rest of the herd (I counted 48 with the exception of the ones already mentioned) are rounded up by about ten keepers and led out of the compound. The females and youngsters lead the way and the big bulls follow on. The males have chains hanging loose around their necks and as one particularly large guy walks past, Ella and I are totally taken aback as he seems to have an extra leg, which is literally almost brushing the ground. It is impossible not to giggle hysterically at such an unexpected sight.
The herd is led across a busy road (well, you wouldn’t argue with an elephant crossing in front of you, would you?). They continue down a side road to a wide and shallow river, where we climb up to the roof terrace of a restaurant and order lunch whilst we watch the elephants below us enjoying the water. There are quite a few juveniles and a group of three particularly playful babies proceed to climb all over each other and hold one of the group under water by sitting on it until it finally manages to find its feet. It is delightful to watch, especially when one or more occasionally hatch an escape plan and wander out of their prescribed area and the keepers have to round them up again.
Please take the time and have the patience to look at the two videos in this post as it is difficult to convey in words what a fabulous experience we have today.
We sit watching their antics for probably an hour or more, whilst we eat, and they are still in the water when we leave.
On the way back to Kandy we pass a sight that I have to stop and photograph – a couple of large trees completely full of sleeping bats – a very strange sight.
We return to the hotel and quickly change before meeting with Anton again at 18:30 and set off on foot to go to our reserved seats to watch the Perahera.
He leads us through a myriad of back streets and alleys until we reach a hotel where he meets up with a group of young men who he introduces and then we all set off again through the bustling streets, through the temple grounds that we visited this morning, which are now festooned with fairy lights and look beautiful, past groups of elephants and out into the street again.
It is all very surreal, being led by a posse of “cool dudes” through the crowds which are now filling the streets behind barriers, awaiting the parade. After a while I look up and see a balcony above street level lined with chairs and full of people, and comment to Ella that I would not want to be either on or under that balcony as the supports do not seem sufficient to hold the weight. And then, of course, we realise that this is exactly where we will be sitting, although in a row behind which at least has the back legs of our chairs within the building.
There is a total prohibition on the sale of alcohol in Kandy during the ten days of the Perahera. Although of course Anton knows a man…. We have a fanta whilst we are waiting for the festivities to commence, and then Anton surreptitiously asks us if we want a drink, which we will have to go “out the back” to consume.
We are led through the first floor bar/restaurant (which isn’t a place we would frequent under any other circumstances) and into a small side room, which has two grubby beds, a dubious ensuite and some electrical appliances. Very insalubrious.
A clean cover is spread over a bed and we sit down. It all seems very ‘cloak and dagger’. There is a knock on the locked door and Anton opens it to his friend who he introduces as Michael, who comes complete with an illegal bottle of the local fire water ‘arrack’, a spirit made from coconut. Ella has already sampled this the night before but I give it a go with some sprite and it is actually quite drinkable.
Michael seems a nice chap who is involved with the organisation of the parade and we chat and drink for a while and every now and then there is a knock on the door and someone comes in for an illicit drink. We are brought a plate of chips, dusted with chile which are delicious, and it is soon time to drink up and take our seats for the start of the parade.
Every now and then Anton hands Ella a bottle of coke, appropriately spiked with a healthy (probably not actually healthy at all) addition of arrack.
The parade is amazing and commences with torch bearers on either side of the road at frequent intervals holding long poles with cages at the top where coconut shells are burning bright to light the occasion. The first performers are guys cracking whips who are followed by drummers and dancers, all wearing fantastic costumes of white sarongs with various gold and red adornments.
After several troupes of dancers pass by the first elephant enters the scene, a glorious spectacle. He is wearing a cloth headpiece which covers its ears and is lit by bright fairy lights outlining the shape of his ears, head and trunk, and also wearing a beautifully embroidered cloak. He is followed by more drummers and dancers and so the procession continues for well over an hour with elephants coming in one’s, two’s and three’s, (I counted over fifty in all), all with different coloured lights, some being led and some being ridden, some dancing to the drum beats and some carrying precious silver and gold caskets on their backs. Between the elephants are more dancers and drummers.
After the last of the parade has finally passed by the crowds disperse very quickly and Anton and the posse lead us back to the place where we met his friends, where the lights of the Temple of the Tooth are shining to great effect, then the three of us pile into a tuktuk and have a rather hair raising drive back to the hotel.
Anton smuggles another couple of spiked coke bottles into the hotel pool bar where I have a fresh fruit juice and leave him and Ella to the hard stuff. I would have joined them but I am determined to walk up the steps to the lion rock tomorrow and I don’t think a hangover would be conducive to that activity.
All in all a rather full and exhausting day, and totally surreal.