In the far distance down the lakeshore road we could see an assembly and could hear some drums. The crowd all strained to look at the approaching spectacle. Gradually creeping through at a very slow pace, we got our first taste of the marathon to come. A number of young men in white smocks tied simply by a cotton belt walked along the road cracking enormous yellow whips.
The purpose of this was to help remove any evil spirits that wanted to stop the Tooth being paraded. Following these was a small yellow truck, like an open milk float, carrying a stack of Copra, the husks of coconuts to keep the approaching fire-eaters fuelled.
To call them fire eaters is a bit of a injustice, some did eat their flames, that is true, but there was much more going on than that. A few were twirling great wheels of flames with four or five burning ends above their heads, around their shoulders, on the ends of their hands, everywhere. Sometimes they used their hands to control it, at other times any part of the body seemed to do. The swirl of the flames left orange streaks across my retina that persisted long after they had moved on. These boys (few were older than twenty) were heavily protected against the flames, wearing heavy shirts and legins as well as specially flexible gauntlets.
Following on from these twirlers were a bunch of men carrying just one flame on the end of a long rope, its length nearly half the width of the road. If tired, they would just swirl it around in their arms; when feeling like showing off, they would fix the rope to the tops of their heads and lie on the road using their neck muscles to control the rotation of the flame. And they never missed, but managed to keep the flame twirling a few inches above the ground. Behind them, more twirlers and fire eaters, one of them a small man hardly four feet tall, but able to twirl his batons faster than any other.
Still no elephants at this stage, we now had the first set of Kandyan dancers. Intrigued by the novelty of it, I was quite caught up in the rhythm of their set pieces. To process along the road, they would march normally to a steady beat, then when the signal was given, they would erupt into a flourishing dance at that spot. Then they would stop and walk another twenty or thirty paces down the road before repeating the dance for the next crowd. Since the route was over two miles long, I could not comprehend the number of times they must have repeated their performance in one night. Accompanying the dancers would be a small troop of drummers as well, who, when they felt like it, would also perform by turning around on the spot or circle around each other.
A band passed by performing on their serpents, drums and pipes. You could hear them coming a mile off. And then in the distance we saw the first elephants, their heavily clothed trunks swaying in the darkness. The first group were three adorned in a golden yellow cloth, just the eyes peeping silently out at us. Led by a mahout they were mounted by young bare-chested men carrying huge Sri Lankan standards. A series of elephants now passed through, each one larger and more adorned than the previous ones. In between each elephant were different acts. Often they would be a troop of Kandy dancers. They varied in their acts. Some carried little cymbals between thumb and forefinger, others carried corn made brushes that they whipped about. But their acts were made up of walking a few paces, and then at the call of their leader, they would burst into a dance. Most of them were not very good; tripping up on each other, missing the beat or starting in the wrong place, but I must have seen twenty troops that night, so they were hardly going to be professional. More likely they would be youth, village or temple groups. The quality improved the closer they got to the Maligawa elephant.
Other acts were interspersed between these; some of the best would be the two lines of boys carrying long flexible canes which arched over the road space. Again at the command of their troop leader they would start their routines, which were quite intricate, and often involved each line looping in around each other, passing beneath the canes and twisting so they came out the other side, and all of this was done without one clash or loosing grip of the canes. Sometimes we would get plate spinners who would come down the road their minds totally taken upon the multicoloured dishes atop long flexible canes. Each act would be supported by lantern bearers, one on each side of the road carrying aloft their copra burning flames. All this was the greatest of the parades, the Dalada Maligawa. A longer line of elephants, more impressive than before came through. The acts improved as they time went on. Towards the end of this parade, the acts became supreme, first three elephants in a row crossed the street, so decked up with lights and regalia that it was hard to believe that there was a living animal underneath. Some plate spinners past, another elephant, but our eyes were looking down the street at the brilliant image that was approaching.