The Festival of the Tooth - An extended and lavish holiday which commemorates a holy relic of Buddha, his eye tooth.
The dates of the festival vary from year to year. In 2011, the festival runs from July 31 thru August 14th. The Esala Perahera begins with a ceremony in which a young jack tree is cut and planted in the complex of the four devalas, or the four guardian gods, Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and the goddess Pattini. In earlier times, this was aimed at seeking blessings for the king and the people. The successive five nights witness the Devala Peraheras taking place within the boundary of the four devalas. On the sixth night, the Kumbal Perahera starts and goes on for the next five days.
Crowds gather in the streets to glimpse the elephant which carries the sacred item, while spinning prayer wheels en route to the temple rejoice in Buddha's tranquil teachings. This is a good day for personal introspection and prayers for peace.
The story behind the tooth is as follows:
It was believed that if the Bodhi Tree that came into contact with the Buddha had the power to bring rains, then the parts of His own body had much greater power to invite rains. With this in mind, the sacred tooth relic was brought all the way from Kalinga in India to the island of Sri Lanka in the fourth century AD. At the time, the sacred tooth relic was brought to Sri Lanka, the king was Sri Megha varna. His name itself meant 'the Resplendent one whose complexion is that of the Rain-cloud'.
The time when the sacred tooth was brought to Sri Lanka was around six centuries after the sapling of the sacred Bodhi Tree was brought into the island country. However, very soon, the popularity of the sacred tooth surpassed that of the Bodhi Tree. The simple reason for this was that it could be moved any number of times from one place to another, very unlike the Bodhi Tree itself. Also, the possesion of the tooth relic soon became a matter of power and claim to rule the land. The king who had possession of the tooth relic had the authority to rule the land and, wars were fought to keep the relic from falling into hostile hands.
This is amply manifested in the attempt made by the kings when the Europeans enhanced their power in the island country. King Senarath quickly transported the relic a little distance away from Kandy when the Portuguese came to close for his comfort. Later, the significance of the tooth relic became known to the Europeans themselves. They wasted no time and made it their primary goal to get hold of the precious relic. The British succeeded in 1818, and the people themselves gave up all efforts to prevent the former from ruling them, all because the British possessed the tooth relic.
Historically, a number of festivals were celebrated to honour the sacred tooth relic right from time it came to Sri Lanka. Initially, processions or peraheras were taken out for the tooth relic alone. However, later, the festival was incorporated with another festival meant to appease the rain god, the Esala peraheras. At this time, a Kandyan king, Kirti Shri Rajasinghe was in power and he made it possible for the common people to worship the relic by announcing that it would be taken out in a procession for the masses to see and offer their prayers. Before this, the tooth relic was the property of the king and the common people were not allowed to worship it.