World

With prayer, exhaustive training, Sri Lanka fireball performers add thrills to processions

  • In this June 1, 2015 photo, a Sri Lankan traditional fireball dancer performs during a Buddhist temple procession in Walpola, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Fireball performers primarily had the task of lighting up streets by holding torches but later turned from light-givers to performers, their torches being re-crafted and their movements choreographed to produce an epic and unforgettable spectacle. They are now an essential part of all major Sri Lanka pageants specially the famous procession of the tooth relic of the Buddha in which the relic is encased in a glittering casket atop the Royal Elephant and taken around the city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

    In this June 1, 2015 photo, a Sri Lankan traditional fireball dancer performs during a Buddhist temple procession in Walpola, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Fireball performers primarily had the task of lighting up streets by holding torches but later turned from light-givers to performers, their torches being re-crafted and their movements choreographed to produce an epic and unforgettable spectacle. They are now an essential part of all major Sri Lanka pageants specially the famous procession of the tooth relic of the Buddha in which the relic is encased in a glittering casket atop the Royal Elephant and taken around the city of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this May 22, 2015 photo, Elandari Devage Tillekaratne, 62, the leader of the Walpola Ginikeli Kawaya, or the Walpola Fire Dancers' Circle, standing center in background, watches aspiring fire dancers during a rehearsal at his courtyard in Walpola, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Fireball performers, as they are called now in Sri Lanka’s religious and cultural pageants, primarily had the task of lighting up streets by holding torches but later turned from light-givers to performers, their torches being re-crafted and their movements choreographed to produce an epic and unforgettable spectacle. Along with his two sons, Tillekaratne trains about fifteen dancers for performances in various parts of the country throughout the year. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

    In this May 22, 2015 photo, Elandari Devage Tillekaratne, 62, the leader of the Walpola Ginikeli Kawaya, or the Walpola Fire Dancers' Circle, standing center in background, watches aspiring fire dancers during a rehearsal at his courtyard in Walpola, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Fireball performers, as they are called now in Sri Lanka’s religious and cultural pageants, primarily had the task of lighting up streets by holding torches but later turned from light-givers to performers, their torches being re-crafted and their movements choreographed to produce an epic and unforgettable spectacle. Along with his two sons, Tillekaratne trains about fifteen dancers for performances in various parts of the country throughout the year. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this April 5, 2015 photo, young aspiring Sri Lankan fireball performers hold torches and attend a rehearsal at Walpola, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Fireball performers, as they are called now in Sri Lanka’s religious and cultural pageants, primarily had the task of lighting up streets by holding torches but later turned from light-givers to performers, their torches being re-crafted and their movements choreographed to produce an epic and unforgettable spectacle. Every year around 15 children of around 10 years of age join the group of aspirants and are taught everything they need to know from preparing and repairing the torches, to all the moves and most importantly how to dance in unison with each other. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

    In this April 5, 2015 photo, young aspiring Sri Lankan fireball performers hold torches and attend a rehearsal at Walpola, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Fireball performers, as they are called now in Sri Lanka’s religious and cultural pageants, primarily had the task of lighting up streets by holding torches but later turned from light-givers to performers, their torches being re-crafted and their movements choreographed to produce an epic and unforgettable spectacle. Every year around 15 children of around 10 years of age join the group of aspirants and are taught everything they need to know from preparing and repairing the torches, to all the moves and most importantly how to dance in unison with each other. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)  (The Associated Press)

In the days before electric street lights, the torch-bearers in Sri Lanka's religious and cultural pageants offered no dance or theatrics. They were simply there so people could see.

In the decades since, they have become fireball performers, their torches being recrafted and their movements choreographed to produce an epic and unforgettable spectacle. They are now an essential part of all major Sri Lanka pageants, especially the famous procession of the tooth relic of the Buddha, which is encased in a glittering casket atop the royal elephant and taken around the central city of Kandy.

Elandari Devage Tillekaratne has been part of the procession, known as the Dalada Perahera, for 40 years. Along with his two sons, the 62-year-old leader of the Walpola Fire Dancers' Circle trains about 15 dancers for performances in various parts of the country throughout the year.

While the objective of Perahera night is veneration of the relic, the fireball performers provide the thrills spectators have come to expect. There are no shortcuts permissible when it comes to faith; hence the long hours of rehearsals to perfect each step, including many performed on stilts.

"It takes a lot of hard work," Tillekaratne said. "Discipline is very important. The biggest challenge is to deal with the heat and smoke generated by burning kerosene. The technique has to be perfect. We are, after all, playing with fire."

Trainees are about 10 years old when they join the group. They are taught how to prepare and repair the torches, all the moves and most importantly, how to dance in unison with each other. Prior to rehearsals and setting off for the Perahera, all students and instructors pray for the protection of the gods as they indulge in their delicate and dangerous exercise. Serious accidents are rare, though stilt walkers sometimes suffer falls.

It is a vocation, certainly, but it is faith-infused. To Tillekeratne and his troop, it is not a life-and-death matter. It is life.