I relaxed and freshened up after the longest 80 miles of my life, and awaited Roger’s arrival. Despite his hard work in Colombo over the past few days and previous time looking after the review team, he had invited me over to dinner to watch the Perahera from his balcony. He arrived in his white Land Rover and as we drove the mile back to the house we chatted amiably. Something about this man made me hit it off immediately. Before I go on, I have to tell you what an influence he had on me.
Roger White was one of the nicest people I ever came across in my travels and with my work with NRI. He was also one of a dying breed. We instantly hit it off because we shared the same ridiculous punny sense of humour. He also loved to bounce ideas off me, and I lapped up all the experience he had had from working overseas for so long. He had done time in Tanzania and elsewhere before ending up in Kandy, some ten years before I got there. He had worked on two forerunners of the current project, and had seen the changing nature of aid work. When he arrived, it was with a team of several Brits all ready to take on the project themselves. Now Roger was the only Brit left employed full time, and had both local project members and ministry staff to look over. He quite often was remorseful of his new role, as instead of spending so much time in the field like he used to, he was now confined to the office far too often. He also felt, as so many long termers I knew in aid work, that he spent too much time telling his donors what he was doing in reports and phone calls rather than getting on with the job.
A hugely likeable man, I warmed to him immediately, and I felt he warmed to me well too; why I did not know, as I was an unknown quantity, unsure of my techniques and what I was expected to do. His long term girl friend, Flo, had a reputation as someone not to cross swords with, but I must admit that apart from a few caustic comments flung at me, I enjoyed her company immensely, and when it got too much, Roger and I would just fly off into some surreal conversation built around schoolboy humour that would make her so frustrated that she wouldn’t talk to either of us for the rest of the evening.
I had been in Sri Lanka for less than two days and already I had warmed to this country immensely, and the number of surprises and experiences I had had were immeasurable. As Roger backed up the drive into a lush garden, I knew I was in for more. I had three more surprises that night; the coffee house, the bats and the Perahera.
The sun was just beginning to set as I stepped out of Roger’s Land Rover under the awning of the old coffee plantation house he lived in. He rented this place and had come across it quite by chance, but I know it was coveted by every other expat in the country. It had been the plantation house for a coffee merchant in the nineteenth century, but coffee never really did well in Sri Lanka and only a small area of ground was left now. But what a piece of real estate. From its position the whole of Kandy was lain out below. To the left, the dam and the centre of town, with the Queen’s Hotel on the corner. Most of the lake was visible below, with the solidly built bathing house on the far shore. Behind that lay the precinct of the Temple of the Tooth, certainly the most sacred ground for Buddhism in Sri Lanka. All sorts of well to do and not-so-well-to-do houses were at the back of here, including Chandaraniyaka’s summer house, the prime minister’s retreat from the heat of the Colombo coast.
Roger’s House was amazing. It was only one floor but had at least three bedrooms, a central lobby area (which acted as a lounge) which led through to a dining room. Off there was a kitchen and several areas which acted as parts of a pantry. But the curious thing was that apart from sleeping in the bedrooms, a bit of cooking in the kitchen and the occasional glance at the TV in the lobby area, most of their lives were spent on their terrace. Stretching the full length of the house, it served as sitting room, reception room and dining room in one. At the left hand end were sofas and coffee tables. On the wall at the left end was a huge map of Sri Lanka, which being the spoddy geographer I am I spent many an evening poring over. To the right were more seats and the entrance to the house. Then there was a large dining table at the other end of the house. Under the awning of the terrace roof, even when it poured with rain, there was no need to go indoors. On both trips to Sri Lanka, I was outside more than 90 percent of the time, even when I stayed at Roger’s the second time through.
The sun had more or less set as we sat drinking beer on the terrace. I wandered around the garden looking down on the scene – a hubbub of crowd noise was coming up from the town below, all in eager expectation of the Perahera which would start in a couple of hours or so. I looked west through a gap in the hills where I had come from, to the right a massive statue of Buddha, one of the largest in Sri Lanka stood over the city. A relatively modern feature, many people saw it as ugly as a set of rundown tenements in Glasgow. Roger told me I was about to see two amazing spectacles tonight – one natural, one man made. He said to keep looking through that gap in the hills. I peered, nothing. I still peered, still nothing. And then all of a sudden, I could see a large black shape against the orange and red sky that was heading steadily towards the city. Behind it were a few more; some clumped together, some on their own. Within a couple of minutes the whole sky was full of these creatures flying from the same point. The vanguard arrived in the town and I could now make out that they were huge fruit bats. With wingspans of three or four feet, they looked terrifying but most kept high above us and their steady, purposeful flight was seeking out the currently fruiting trees in the neighbourhood. More spectacular than the individuals, though, was the sheer mass of them. For over an hour, the lines, groups and squadrons of bats made their way from the same point on the western horizon. As the sky darkened, their images lessened, but you could still hear the incessant flapping as they flew over the house. Later in the night they went their own ways and we would occasionally see an errant bat fly through the garden on its way to suck the juices out of nothing more deadly than a mango.
Already mesmerized by the events, Roger had a hard time getting me in for dinner. I was still jetlagged a little, but Flo and Roger put me at my ease so well that by mid evening we were chatting as if we had known each other all our lives. We then got ourselves ready for the main attraction of the evening. The Kandy Perahera. A Perahera is simply a parade, and they go on all over Sri Lanka for most of the year. But the Kandy Esala Perahera is the largest, most magnificent and most religiously significant of all. The Esala Perahera is a culmination of 10 days of activity in which there are eleven Peraheras. They start off small scale, about twenty elephants marching the same route every day – out of the Temple of the Tooth and along the lakefront to the centre of town, and then up one of the main street’s and back down another before returning to the Temple a couple of hours later. The procession gets longer each day, more elephants, and interspersed between them all manner of acts, fire breathing, stilt walking, whip cracking and most importantly and abundantly, the dancers. The Kandy Dancers have a reputation far and wide with their elaborate costumes and symbolic hand gestures and violent leg movements. The culmination of the 10 days is the Esala Perahera, where up to 60 elephants may be involved. On each occasion, the largest and oldest elephant carries a casket reputed to carry the tooth of Buddha himself. Of course these days with terrorism rife in Sri Lanka, only a replica of the tooth is carried around. On the last evening the elephants do not return but go down to the Mahaweli River where a special ceremony blesses to tooth to ensure it keeps Kandy safe for another year. The final Perahera, on the following morning, is a much smaller and more solemn affair, as the tooth elephant gets escorted back to the Temple and the tooth itself is put back in its shrine for another year.
The elephants come from all over the country to Kandy, making great treks across the countryside to get there. Indeed, Saman and I had seen a couple plodding up the main road from Colombo as we had come across that day. While some take part in all eleven Peraheras, more and more arrive in time for the big Esala Perahera.
I was there on night nine and the air of excitement pervaded across the lake up to Roger’s house. The sounds of Buddhist monks chanting came from several monasteries around the lake, and some were amplified over speaker systems. Huge tamarinds and several other trees were adorned with fairy lights which gave an eerie glow on the darkened lake. The streetlights behind were amplified by floodlights for the Sri Lankan TV cameras. As we looked to the east along the lakeshore, I could see fairy lights moving along the street, creamy ones. Roger explained this was the first of the devalas. In front of these we could see flaming torches; these were the lights of the fire-eaters who led the procession. Roger gave me an explanation of what was going on as we saw the parade move off gently towards the waiting crowds in the city. After the flame-throwers had moved on, the white elephants moved off. With all the contrast of dark and light it was difficult to see what was going on in between each elephant, but we kept darting inside to look at the TV and hear the mixed commentary in English, Sinhalese and Tamil. There we could see the displays of dancers. After the creamy fairy light elephants had passed through a parade of white coloured lights. This was the greatest devala – Dalada Maligawa. To one side, next to the Temple of the Tooth three or four elephants stood, their slightly nervous trunk swaying given away to us by the movement of their white lights. One of these was decked out most magnificently with a huge canopy on his back. This was the great Maligawa Tusker who carries the tooth replica around the city. At the appointed moment, he and his entourage slipped into the procession and they headed west towards the city as well. For what seemed like hour after hour we watched the procession; behind the procession of white-lit elephants, there were three more processions in blue, then red and finally in yellow. As one procession arrived in front of us, we tried to track where the front was getting to – we could see most of the route from the house and marked the procession at every moment. As the first procession reached the main street back into town, the last of the yellow elephants passed the Queen’s Hotel and momentarily disappeared from view. We watched the Maligawa Tusker arrive home and the dull, deep ring of the temple bell was struck. The parade continued on and we could trace the reds, blues and yellows as they mopped up the remains of the night. The spectacle in front of me that night was so amazing, and so vivid even from this distance, but I vowed that I should try and see it close up on the following evening, the final night of the Esala Perahera.