St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Date: October 25, 1998
Author: GIG GWIN
Photo by Gig Gwin

(Gig Gwin, owner of Kirkwood-based Gwin's Travel, is on a quest to visit all 318 countries in the world. After a recent trip to Asia, his total stands at 309.)

All great, exotic travel adventures should start with a dream. Some overwhelming passion to see far-away places with strange-sounding names. My dream was to be part of the August Full Moon Festival in Kandy, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), and to witness part of the 10 days of events known as Asala Perahara, or August Parade.

This event is of great historical and cultural significance. It is not only a religious ritual but also a folk festival involving thousands of local people. The highlight is the nightly parade with dancers, drummers and colorfully decorated elephants, all accompanied by a torch-light processional.

My travel colleague, Bill Droege, and I embarked on a 24-day adventure to south Asia, visiting India, Kashmir, the Maldives and Lacadive Islands, Sri Lanka, Sikkim and Bhutan. We visited an area of the world filled with conflict and religious mistrust -- a region steeped in history and, in many cases, a culture frozen in time.

This part of the world is not for everyone. We encountered war-torn areas with soldiers at every turn of the road. Tension and violence were a daily occurrence. We pronounced this trip "The Indian Sub-Continent Religious Unrest Tour."

Highlights included the vale of Kashmir, with its enchanting houseboats; white beaches of the Maldives Islands; and the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. The sublime highlight of the trip was the Kandy Perahara Grand Pageant.

We traveled six days in the green hills of Sri Lanka, the ancient Buddhist country known by various names -- Ceylon, the resplendent land, or the land of unusual good luck.

We traveled up country, visiting the ancient capitals of Polonnaruwa and new Anauradhapura, as well as the towering Sigriya. In the countryside, wild elephants lumbered across the road, water monitors (large lizards) could be seen fording the local streams, and gorgeous peacocks displayed their colorful plumage.

Sri Lanka is a clean country by subcontinent standards, with very pleasant people and a relatively comfortable climate. (Yes, less humid than St. Louis in August.) Our trip ended with a three-night stay in the hills of Kandy.

See Sri Lanka, Page T10

As the evening festivities for Asala Perahara started, we toured the town of Kandy. The tour's highlight was the Temple of the Tooth, where Buddha's tooth relic is enshrined. We walked by the gold-domed building and were reminded that we were in a war-torn country. Earlier in the year,

this temple had been severely damaged, although the relic was not endangered, but the temple was being repaired.

We walked through hundreds of people, and on every street corner through every barricade and every checkpoint we were searched by Sri Lankan police. The security was noticeably tight -- there was a time we thought there might be more police than people.

As the sun fell and the full moon dominated the parade route, we were u shered to special seats, mostly with European tourists. We never saw any other Americans during our six-day stay in Sri Lanka.

Drums announce parade

We waited and waited and finally heard a cannon in the distance fired to announce the start of the parade. We could hear the pounding of drums.

The parade moved past us, first with men carrying long whips bedecked with firecrackers. Next came the stilt walkers, young men juggling plates on sticks while they walked on stilts. In the next group were the fire-wheel spinners who would throw their torches high into the air.

Then 50 drummers, many with exotic drums, all pounding in rhythm. They were followed by a dance group of about 50 men in mostly red and white robes, representing the age-old salon dress. Some men were wearing metal breast plates, and all had bare feet, dancing at times like whirling dervishes.

Following each dance group was a magnificent elephant, adorned with a large blanket or robe of festival colors, both on the body and down the trunk and ears. Obviously, much time and expense had been spent to sew these massive red-, white-§ and gold-design blankets for each of the 50 or so elephants in the parade. A mahout, or trainer, sat atop each of the big tuskers with a small decorative box, which I found out later was the battery pack that illuminated small white lights on the elephant's

Like a small U.S. parade

A pattern soon appeared -- a dance troupe with pounding drummers or squeaky miniature-trumpet players followed by elephants in festive garb. This pattern repeated itself for more than three hours. I pictured the comparison between a small-town U.S. parade with each marching band having a fire engine, and the procession in Perahara with each dance group having its own elephant.

The lighting for Perahara is not to be overlooked. Numerous torch bearers flanked the dancers on either side of the street, carrying long poles with metal baskets. Inside the baskets, kerosene-soaked dried coconut shells provided the fuel and also a great amount of heat. Spectators, beware! The torch bearers do not display much caution -- hot coconut cinders may drop near or on the crowd at any moment. I saw a woman beating her sari, which smoldered from a misguided ember.

The Tooth Relic

At times, several torch bearers gathered to replenish their baskets. The heat was overwhelming. It resembled the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade engulfed in flames.

The orderly crowd never seemed to tire of the procession. Toward the middle of the parade, three magnificent elephants walked abreast with the Tooth Relic of Buddha mounted on the center elephant. All people showed respect and reverence for this special religious relic that is said to protect Sri Lanka.

The true enchantment of the August Perahara is its hometown flavor -- local boys and men proudly dance once a year on the streets of Kandy, accompanied by heart-pounding drummers and magnificent Asian elephants, all with respect for an age-old Buddhist religion.

There is a pulsing energy that makes Perahara a once-in-a-lifetime experience.