The Esala Perahera in Kandy is one of the oldest and grandest of all Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka, featuring dancers, jugglers, musicians, fire-breathers, and lavishly decorated elephants. This is held in Esala (July or August) which is the month that is believed to commemorate the first teaching given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. The Kandy Esala Perahera lasts for ten days while various festivities can be witnessed right throughout. The Sinhalese term ‘Perahera’ means a parade of musicians, dancers, singers, acrobats and various other performers accompanied by a large number of caparisoned Tuskers and Elephants parading the streets in celebration of a religious event.
The Esala Perahera in Kandy is celebrated to honour the Sacred Tooth Relic and the four ‘guardian’ Gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Goddess Pattini. The Kandy Maligawa Perahera is followed in order by those of the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini ‘Devales’ (Temples dedicated to these Gods) which are situated in the vicinity of the Kandy Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth).
After the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British in 1815, the custody of the Tooth Relic was handed over to the Buddhist Clergy. In the absence of the King, a lay custodian called the Diyawadana Nilame was appointed to handle routine administrative matters. The purpose of the Kandy Esala Perahera Procession is to beseech blessings of the gods to obtain rain for the cultivation of crops and to enrich the lands of the kingdom.
This ritual is performed by carrying the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha through the streets of the Kandy city which is done with exceptional panache. This is considered as one of the most beautiful pageants in the Asia.
The first ritual ‘Kap Situweema’ (planting of a sanctified young Jackfruit Tree) will be held to commence the rituals that start off Perahera. The ritual is performed according to an auspicious time decided by astrologers. The Jackfruit tree is sprinkled with sandalwood scented water and offerings are is made of nine kinds of flowers and an oil lamp with nine wicks. The priest of the Maha Vishnu Devale (Vishnu Temple) recites his prayers to all the gods.
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Old Ceylon Kandy Perahera – the Kandy Perahera originates with the arrival of Prince Dantaha and Princess Hemamala, the son-in-law and daughter of King Guhasiva of Kalinga in India to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Kirthisiri Meghawanna (305-331 AD). Following the decree of King Kirthisiri Meghawanna that the Relic should be taken round the city of Anuradhapura once a year, the Esala Perahera had been followed by the succession of kings, though with interruptions caused by foreign invasions.
The most revealing narration of the Esala Perehera is found in the book written by the Chinese pilgrim ‘Fa Hien’ who visited Sri Lanka in the 5th century A.D. The sporadic invasions by the Dravidian Kingdoms resulted in the shifting of the seat of the kingdom from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, then to Dambadeniya and thereafter to other cities. In each retreat, a new temple was constructed to enshrine the Sacred Tooth Relic. Finally, after the shift of the capital to Kandy, the Relic has been undisturbed. ever since and the Esala Perahera has been held annually to rejoice and honour the Sacred Tooth Relic.
The Kandy Esala Perahera is believed to be a fusion of two separate but interconnected Perahera’s – The Esala and Dalada. It is a very grand affair with elegant costumes and is celebrated either in July or August depending on the Full Moon Poya Day. The Esala Perahera which is thought to date back to the 3rd century BC, was a ritual enacted to request the gods for rainfall. While the Dalada Perahera is believed to have begun when the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka from India during the 4th Century AD.
The Kandy Perahera features five processions organized by the Sri Dalada Maligawa , which is the most venerated Buddhist temple of Sri Lanka and four shrines dedicated to Hindu Gods and a Goddess, i.e. the Shrine of God Natha, the Shrine of God Maha Vishnu, the Shrine of God Katharagama and the Shrine of Goddess Pattini. By 8pm, the Maligawa Perahera or the procession of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth takes the lead and are joined by the processions of the four Hindu shrines. The second procession is from the shrine dedicated to God Natha. The 14th Century shrine that faces the Sri Dalada Maligawa is said to be the oldest edifice in Kandy.
The third is from the shrine dedicated to God Vishnu. The Vishnu Devale also known as the Maha Devale is located close to the Natha Devale. The fourth procession is from the Kataragama Devale dedicated to the God of Skanda, the deity of Kataragama. The Kataragama shrine is located along Kottugodalle Street of Kandy. This procession includes Kavadi, the peacock dance, in which pilgrim dancers carry semicircular wooden contraptions studded with peacock feathers on their shoulders. The fifth and final procession is from the shine dedicated to goddess Pattini. The Pattini shrine is located towards the west of the Natha Devale.
At the forefront of the procession are the Whip Crackers. The cracking of whips all the way from the very beginning to end of the chosen path of Perahera signifies the approach of the procession. Immediately following the whip crackers are the Flag Bearers carrying standard flags and flags of the different Provinces and the Temples in single file on both sides of the road. The official called Peramunerala riding on the first elephant follows next carrying the register of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth at Kandy.
Next on the procession are the Drummers playing an array of traditional drums and blowing traditional flutes. While the drummers play in explosive style, the teams of traditional dancers create magic with their leaps and moves. The hoards of drummers and dancers are followed up by the officer in charge of the elephants, of course mounted on a caparisoned and decorated tusker. During the ancient and medieval times of Sri Lanka, the officer in charge of the King’s stable had been a high ranking minister of the king. To date the officer in charge of the elephants called the Gajanayaka Nilame carries the silver goad called Ankusa that symbolize his authority. Following the Gajanayake Nilame is another officer of the temple mounted on a tusker: the ‘Kariyakorawnarala’, is the officer in charge of drummers and dancers. He is also responsible for minor functions at the Sacred Temple of the Tooth. Arrival of the Kariyakorawnarala sets the stage for the center of attraction: the Maligawa Tusker who is caparisoned, robed and illuminated, walks majestically in supreme grace and great pride carrying the resplendent golden casket called the ‘Karaduwa’ sheltered with a canopy. The golden casket contains the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha.
The beast’s sense of the solemnity of the procession and the reverence in which the Sacred Tooth Relic is held could hardly be bettered even by a human itself. Held high over the Tusker is a canopy while the Tusker’s walking path is covered by a ream of white cloth called pavada. The devotees, spectators, foreign tourists and all distinguished guests stand steadfast while the Maligawa Tusker carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha passes them. The Tusker is followed by two long chains of vibrant dancers, on each side of the road, facing each other with a team of drummers in the middle forming another column. At the end of the retinue is the Custodian of the Temple of the Tooth titled Diyawadana Nilame, dressed in traditional regalia of the high officials of kings, who reigned at the medieval kingdom of Kandy. Diyawadana Nilame is attended by Murawadu (lance bearers), Wadana tal-athu (sunshade bearers and umbrella-bearers) as well as the other officials of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth.
The Five ‘Randoli’ Perahera’s are continued after the Kumbal Perahera for five consecutive days. Out of these Perahera’s the most beautiful and spectacular Perahera is the Randoli Perahera (golden palanquin). The city of Kandy is fulfilled with tourists and local spectators during this period.
This is the only Perahera in the world which is held for ten days along with more than fifty Elephants and Tuskers, hundreds of drummers, dancers, singers and elegantly dressed pilgrims and spectators.
After the final Perahera four Perahera’s from the four ‘devales’ head towards the steppingstones of the Getambe Mahaveli River near Peradeniya. The chief ‘kapuralas’ (priests) of the ‘devales’ then wade into the middle of the river. One of the ‘kapuralas’ marks a circle in the water with the point of a ‘golden’ sword. Then the priests’ empties the water into the river that is held in the ‘golden ewer’ (ran kendiya) which they had filled with water at the same spot the year before.
Then they fill them up again with fresh water (The ewers thus filled will be emptied and refilled here at the end of The Esala Perahera the following year). This ritual is known as the ‘diya kapeema’ (water cutting), which takes place on the morning of the last day of the festivities.
Then the four Peraheras start marching back to Kandy. On their way they stop at the ‘Pulleyar Kovil’ (Selvavinayagar Kovil) at Katukelle. Next at an astrologically calculated auspicious moment they proceed to the Adahana Maluwa, where they join the Maligawa Perahera. The five Peraheras parade along the D. S. Senanayake Street and King Street three times. Finally the Maligawa Perahera enters the Maligawa and the devale Peraheras wind up at their respective temples, bringing the annual Kandy Esala Pageant to an end.
On the sixth night, the Kumbal Perahera begins and continues for five days. Initially, the Devale Perahera assembles in front of the Temple of the Tooth. The emblems placed on the ransivige (a dome-like structure) is accompanied by the Basnayake Nilames (the lay custodians of the Devales). Elephants,drummers and dancers will be seen in all these Peraheras.
For the next five nights, the “Devale Peraheras” take place within the premises of the four Devales with the priest of each Devale taking the pole every evening, accompanied by music and drumming, flag and canopy bearers, spearman and the Ran Ayudha, the sacred insignia of the Gods.
The following important times are announced by the firing of cannonballs, which can be heard all across Kandy.
1. The commencement of the Devale Perahera
2. The placing of the casket on the tuskers back
3. The commencement of the Dalada Maligawa Perahera
4. The completion of the Perahera
During the first five days the Devale Perahera is held within the grounds of four Devales dedicated to the four guardian Gods Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and the Goddess Pattini by the chief priest of the Devalas. Traditionally it was meant to shower blessing on the King and the people.
The other four ‘devale’ peraheras follow in the aforesaid order. The second procession is from the Natha Devale, which faces the Sri Dalada Maligawa and is said to be the oldest building in Kandy, dating back to the 14th Century.The third is from the Vishnu Devale (Vishnu being a Hindu god), also known as the Maha Devale. It is situated in front of the main gate of the Natha Devale.
The fourth procession is from the Katharagama Devale (dedicated to the God of Katharagama, identified with the warrior god Skanda) which is on Kottugodalle Vidiya (a street in Kandy). This procession includes Kavadi, the peacock dance, in which the pilgrim-dances carry semicircular wooden contraptions studded with peacock feathers on their shoulders.
The fifth and final procession is from the Pattini Devale (Pattini being a goddess associated with the cure of infectious diseases and called upon in times of drought and famine), which is situated to the West of the Natha Devale. This is the only procession that has women dancers.
The whole Perahera spectacle takes more than three hours. It constitutes a memorable cultural pageant which mixes the Buddhist and Hindu ritual practices, and also some Mahayana and Theravada elements. The whole pageant is a reflection of Buddhist worship today; but it also represents a frozen image of the ancient outdated state service system known as the ‘rajakariya’ in terms of which people belonging to different occupation based ‘castes’ (Kula) performed duties for the King in return for enjoying royal land grants.
At the end of the last ‘Randoli’ Perahera the Maligawa Perahera enters the ‘Adahana Maluwa’ and stops there. This is in remembrance of the King Vimaladharmasuriya I (1592-1604), on his way from Delgamuwa to Kandy carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic; spend the night at this spot, having temporarily placed the Relic in the Gedige Shrine there, before ceremonially proceeding with it to his palace the next day.
The Modern Perahera dates back to the reign of the Kandyan King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747 – 1781 AD). During these times, the Tooth Relic was considered private property of the King and the public never got a chance to worship it.
However, King Rajasinghe decreed that the Relic be taken in procession for the masses to see and venerate.