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Sri Lanka pays homage
John Bailey An elaborately dressed elephant in the Perahera.

There is something about elephants that takes your breath away. Particularly a sacred elephant in crimson satin robes, his trunk and ears outlined in lights, golden caps on his magnificent tusks.

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As Raja makes his way majestically along the torch-lit streets of Kandy, with a golden casket on his back, flanked by two equally elaborately dressed elephants and preceded by energetic dancers and musicians, the crowd gets silently to its feet.

Thousands of men, women and children, including babes in arms, pay homage to the tusker and his precious cargo. Inside the golden casket is a replica of one of Buddhism's holiest relics, the sacred tooth which is housed in Kandy's Dalada Maligawa Temple.

And this amazing August spectacle that is the Esala Perahera happens every night for 10 nights and takes almost four hours to pass. It is estimated more than a million people line the streets, with millions more watching on television around the world during the festival.

As a sacred elephant, Raja's only role in life is to carry the golden casket at the Perahera. He is relatively new to the job, with five years under his belt, while his predecessor notched up more than 30 years. His elaborate outfits are donated.

Apart from one break of four years, this religious/cultural festival (a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism), and also a rain festival, has been repeated every year in Sri Lanka since 312AD.

Tradition has it that when the British stopped the pageant in 1815, Sri Lanka plunged into a severe drought. When the pageant was restored in 1819 it started raining again. Certainly it rained on the evening I watched, the second-last night.

Even nine days into the Perahera, crowds had started lining the 5km parade route by 9am. Perhaps the secret is that Kandy is alcohol-free for the 10 days of the Perahera, but there is an overwhelming sense of peace and patience.

We arrived at our seats comparatively late, about 5pm. By then, most around us were already settled. The Perahera didn't start until 8.30 but even the children sat waiting quietly.

Young men and women passed around free cups of Marmite soup and vegetable soup, and a sandwich. Every one of the thousands waiting for the parade was offered soup and a sandwich and everyone waited patiently to be handed a cup of something hot.

Once the Perahera began the crowd remained silent and seated, perhaps in awe of the hours of performances unfolding down the street.

With more than 100 elephants and 20,000 dancers and musicians - all barefoot and nearly all men and boys - it is an amazing experience. Bearers run with flaming copra torches to light the way.

The Kandyan dancers audition and are chosen by their local temples. Some boys look no older than six or seven. They are all unpaid and regard it as an honour to be chosen.

Included in Perahera are 200 prisoners, proudly carrying Buddhist flags. They are chosen for good behaviour and all have less than a year to serve in jail.

The timing of the Perahera varies from year to year. Although always in August, the exact date and time it starts is chosen by the temple astrologer.