Cannons explode and dancers backflip, while stilt walkers and fire swallowers march alongside a dazzling procession of jewel-cloaked elephants. Sri Lanka’s greatest event has has begun!

The Esla Perhahera, arguably Asia’s most spectacular festival, happened this month in Sri lanka during the late summer full moon (August 7th through 17th, 2008). The centuries-old celebration of Sri Lankan Buddhism brings a large chunk of the country’s population up to the lakeside capital city of Kandy. It also attracts over 10,000 foreign tourists.

The 10 day parade has the fire and flair of events like Carnival or Mardi Gras, minus all the alcohol and sexual energy. It is, in fact, deeply rooted in Buddhist traditions.

The holiest part of the festival is an elephant-mounted display of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

The Tooth Relic is said to be the left canine tooth of the Buddha, snatched from his funeral Prye over 2,500 years ago, and smuggled from India to Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD. While Sri Lankan Buddhists and historians believe in the authenticity of this sacred relic, some outsiders are more skeptical. The late English occultist Aleister Crowley writes in his autobiography that while studying meditation in Sri Lanka he was:

“permitted to be present at the annual inspection by the trustees. I believe the tooth to be that of a dog or crocodile, but though I got an excellent view at close quarters, I am not anatomist enough to be positive. I am, however, quite certain that it is not a human tooth.”

For centuries the actual tooth was paraded on the back of an elephant, but nowadays, a symbolic casket is paraded. Security is too tight to bring the national treasure into public crowds.  Over 8,000 policemen patrol the area during the festival. Why? In 1998 the Temple of the Tooth was bombed by Tamil terrorists who want more power as a minority ethnic group in the country.

This year’s Perahera went over well with few incidents, except for an elephant that went bezerk and tried to rip out traffic signs until it was restrained, according to Sri Lanka’s Daily News.

Check out this video of the Perahera festival:

Image credits: Chinthaka and kintransit.

Article by Brett Borders, a traveler who works as an online reputation management consultant in Boulder, Colorado. He visited Sri Lanka in 2002 and found it to be one of the most friendly and delightful countries in Asia.