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

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.