Jul 13, 2011

It's Festival Time In Kataragama!

Whether at home in Australia or away, we always find local festivals are a special treat wherever we are but finding out about them and being available to attend are entirely different matters.  Some people are very organised and plan their trips to coincide with festivals; we generally are not like this.  But chance has been very good to us in the past—being in the right place and right time.  And while we’re going to miss one of the largest and most spectacular festivals in Sri Lanka, the Kandy Esala Perahera, which takes place next month, we realised that we would be ‘in the neighbourhood’ to catch the next largest festival, the Kataragama Esala Perahera.  

From Ella, we caught 3 local buses, 1 hr each, to get us to the town of Tissamaharma (Tissa), which is 15km southwest of Kataragama.  The information regarding the Esala was very sketchy, even though it has been taking place annually during the 15 days leading up to the July (‘Esala’) full moon, for over 100yrs and drawing crowds in the thousands from throughout Sri Lanka and even abroad.  We eventually surmised that we could and should hire a tuk tuk for $8 USD/Rs800 to take us the 30min to Kataragama in the evening, wait for us for a few hours, then take us back.  While we set off at 6pm from Tissa, we still weren’t sure what we’d find.  

After arriving in Kataragama, we found a town buzzing with activity and people; we did not see many ‘foreign’ faces.  Eventually we were pointed in the direction through a pathway where many others where filing through.  On the other side, was a lake, and thousands of fairy lights strung overhead forming a ‘path’.  Following it along with the many others, we emerged into a clearing where people had apparently been gathering since earlier in the day in order to secure their spot--it reminded me of Times’ Square in New York on New Year’s Eve.  People sat, slept, ate, and generally passed time while sitting on the ground packed like sardines behind gated barriers.  In the middle was a large clear pathway, which wound around like a track in a stadium.  We looked in vain for a spot where we could settle ourselves yet still be able to see whatever was going to happen.  Again, good luck and chance smiled upon us.  A Sri Lankan man noticed our situation and advised us to speak to one of the many police officers around to see if they could find us a ‘special spot’ seeing as we had small children with us.  We thought it was worth a shot, but were nevertheless a bit sceptical as most of the crowd had small children in tow too.  Nevertheless, we approached the Military Police (MP) near a grandstand area that had seats which was clearly a VIP area or possibly an area for paid reserved seating.  To our surprise, they motioned for us to enter the area and to proceed to the rear where more MP’s directed us to vacant seats.  We had a great view and ‘space’ too.  One of our ‘neighbours’ later told us that this area was in fact reserved for VIPs, and the families of the Military Police (he apparently was a plain clothes official), but that as foreigners, we were considered ‘special guests of their country’.

The Fire Dancers
Still having no idea as to what we and the crowds of people were waiting for, we eventually learned that a procession (aka ‘Perahera’) was to start soon, lasting for approximately 1hr, and we were sitting near its starting point!  Soon after 8pm, fire dancers emerged, twirling their fiery batons like in a parade.  There were drummers, musicians, many different groups of dancers, and in between it all, sashayed magnificent elephants, 12 in total, who were decorated from head to tail.  The final elephant was the largest and grandest and once it passed many people, including ourselves, filed in behind it to try to make our exit.  Although it got extremely crowded, thankfully due to the predominantly family-nature of the evening the usual pushing and shoving was kept to a minimum.

The 'Grande Finale'

Being a Hindu festival, the Kataragama Esala certainly did not disappoint.  Fuelled by thousands of devotees, it had an intense energy. We also couldn’t help but be in awe that so many people come from very far distances every night during the 15 day esala period to be a part of this.  We were glad that we were ‘in the neighbourhood’ and could witness such a powerful event, as VIPs even!.  And the girls, they bounced to the rhythmic beat of the drums and gasped in excitement each time one of the beautifully decorated elephants passed by.  It was a good night and one of our most memorable experiences in Sri Lanka so far.


  1. What an exciting time for your family!

  2. Nicely written! have been there twice.. can't wait to visit again.

  3. Thanks for your comment and for visiting us!