It was one of those wonderful chances that seem to happen when you are travelling. We soon discovered, when we arrived in Ella, that we had come on the dawn of the biggest festival day perhaps of their entire year- Perahera.
Our home while we are in Ella is the beautiful Waterfalls Homestay. This is just the best place either of us have ever stayed. The rooms are cosy and colourful, and so vibrantly decorated, with the most gloriously comfortable beds with such silky sheets! There is a roof verandah where we eat breakfast (exotic fruit salads and creamy curd with honey!) and all of this against a backdrop of waterfalls and tea plantations across the valleys of these hills.
While in Ella, we wanted to make the most of the walks around the village. We set off to climb Little Adams Peak first. The route was really well signposted, and you can ask anyone around. You pass through tea plantations and then the climb up steps to the peak. While this was a relatively easy walk (you can always pause to catch your breath on the steps), we then chose to follow the ridge along to the next peak too, which was very much a scramble along a rocky path through the the dry grasses, and there is no tree cover for shade. Either way, the panoramic views down the valleys, of Ella Gap, and across miles and miles of plains towards the south are stunning.
It was when we at the top of Little Adams Peak that we were accosted by a group of three guys who had seen us around at Arugam Bay too and now decided it was time to make friends. They had all left their lives behind in England and were travelling the world, before planning on getting work and settling down somewhat in Australia, and they were clearly having a great time at it.
In the afternoon, now a group of four (Jack was feeling ill so didn’t join us), we made the walk along train tracks towards Little Rawana Falls. It was a great feeling to be able to look back and see Little Adams Peak on the other side of the valleys and see how far we’d come. If we had wanted to, we could have continued up to Ella Rock, but it was a hot day, and we wanted to be back for the festival in the evening, so we said goodbye and parted ways.
On advice of our host, Rich and I booked a table right at the front of Cafe Chill, reserving ourselves a great raised view of the festival when it passed. Nobody seemed to know when the procession would pass back down through the village, but as we sat and night fell, the main street began to flood with crowds of Sri Lankans who must have come from every settlement for miles around. Our friends from earlier spotted us again and joined us for some drinks and the view. The excitement and anticipation grew.
Perahera we worked out roughly translates as ‘procession’, and is linked with the Poya day from the full moon earlier in the month. It celebrates the day when Buddhism was first brought over to Sri Lanka from India. Kandy also has a Perahera on a different weekend, which we are told is on a totally different scale to Ella’s – what we see here is just a taste of the festivities seen there! The reason for the spread of Peraheras in different places on different weekends is due to practicality, as it stops the entire country shutting down all at once. Plus, it means more parties. Pretty smart, really.
The waiting was finally over, and we could see (and hear!) the procession appearing at the head of the street. First came the crowd control – men and boys of all ages swung whips above their heads before cracking them on the ground with a sound like gunshots. Understandably, the crowds shrank right back to the edges of the road, making way for the procession to pass through! Next came the fire skills, batons and disks of fire being tossed and spun high up into the night skies. There were dancing girls in traditional dress, with peacock feathers, and headpieces embellished with jewels. Tooting trumpets and banging drums, children pushing bicycles covered in flashing lights, and queer masks and balancing tricks. And, of course in Sri Lankan religious festivals, there were elephants dressed in lengths of bright materials, their necks heavy with chains, and their eyes dim and unresponsive, presumably sedated to the max, accompanied by people holding cow hooks in case these wild animals should need controlling.
Seeing the elephants like that was pretty distressing for us all, and we all agreed that they added nothing to the already exuberant festival, and if anything kind of ruined the mood totally for us when they appeared. I don’t know enough about elephant conservation in Sri Lanka to comment really, but I intend to do some research when I get home. I know that the government here is currently investigating any elephants obtained illegally, but whether that actually means ether conditions for the elephants, or more money for those in power, I couldn’t say.
Sorry to end this on such a bleak note, although I do think it’s good to bring attention to these things that you could just blissfully ignore and write off as tradition for your own peace of mind. We all live on this same planet after all, and, for the sake of everyone, I believe it is vitally important that we keep on challenging these potentially harmful and yet widely accepted conventions. It is important that we do not shy away from it too, claiming that it is not our place to say and that we cannot make a difference, just because it is not our culture. I am not, of course, saying that what I think is right, and what they think is wrong, but more that it is important, for the sake of these animals, that we are all of us better informed, and not blinded by convention, so that we might begin to feel like we can together make sound judgements and decisions for a better future.
Anyway, enough said on that. Tomorrow, we take what is said to be one of the most beautiful train routes in the world, deeper into the hill country, before we continue onto the culture capital, Kandy.
I do hope you’re all well,
Stay breezey 🐘
–sorry for lack of photos, they’ll be up once we’re home in a few week so!–