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The Kandy Esala Perahera
Lake House News

Kandy -- The period July-August (Esala-Nikini in the traditional Sinhalese calendar) is the Esala Perahera season in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese term 'perahera' means a train of musicians, dancers, acrobats and other performers usually accompanied by a number of elephants parading the streets in celebration of a religious or secular person or event. During this period Esala Peraheras are held in many places of worship. Among these the Kandy Esala Perahera occupies the foremost place because the Sri Dalada Maligaawa - The Temple of the Tooth Relic - is located there and also because it was the last capital of the Kandyan Kingdom.

The Kandy Esala Perahera is held in honour of the Tooth Relic and the four guardian deities Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini. It therefore consists of five components: the Maligawa perahera followed in order by those of the Natha Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini devalas (temples) situated in the neighbourhood of the Maligawa.

The Dalada perahera, the main part of the Kandy Esala Perahera, has a long history. It dates from the time that the Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka. This most precious object of veneration among the Sri Lankan Buddhists was carried from Kalinga in India to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka in the ninth year of the reign of King Kit Siri Mevan (304-331 CE), who was a contemporary of the great Indian emperor Samudragupta. The Tooth Reilc, which was brought concealed in the tresses of Princess Hemamala disguised as ascetics, was housed in a specially built shrine within the outer walls of the Thuparama, in the vicinity of the royal palace. King Kit Siri Mevan initiated an annual celebration in which the Tooth Relic was carried in a procession through the streets of Anuradhapura to the Abhayagiri Monastery.

As a result of the security of the state being threatened by invaders the seat of government was moved from place to place and with it the Tooth Relic. By the twelfth century a tradition had evolved according to which the custodian of the Tooth Relic had the right to sovereignty over the island.

The Tooth Relic continues to be housed in Kandy, which was the last royal capital of the Sinhalese. The Dalada Maligawa Perahera harks back to the Dalkada festival appointed by King Kit Siri Mevan about 1700 years ago.

Another historical precedent to the Kandy Esala Perahera is said to be according to popular belief, the victory parades that King Gajabahu the First (174-196 CE) ordered in the wake of a successful invasion of South India, something disputed by scholars for lack of corroborative historical evidence.

It was King Vimaladharmasuriya the First (1592-1604 CE) who ceremonially installed the Tooth Relic in Kandy. The Relic had previously been hidden away in various secret locations in the Kandyan Kingdom for safety.

Under the Nayakkar rulers in the eighteenth century the Kandy Esala Perahera assumed a strongly Hindu character, the ceremonies being conducted mainly in order to propitiate the gods of the Hindu pantheon. However, it was another great Nayakkar ruler, King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1781), who brought about a revival of Buddhism and Buddhist education in the Kandyan Kingdom with the help of Venerable Velivitiye Sri Saranakara. He restored the Higher Ordination (Upasampada) ceremony in Sri Lanka by inviting Buddhist monks from Siam for the purpose. Venerable Upali, who headed the Siamese Buddhist mission, expressed his profound disappointment with the Kandy Perahera being dedicated to Hinduism instead of Buddhism in a predominantly Buddhist country like Sri Lanka. The king listened to the monk's words and took steps to transform the Perahera into a mainly Buddhist festival. This was the beginning of the Kandy Esala Perahera as we see it today.

'Kap situweema' (planting 'kap') is the first ritual that is performed in preparation for the Perahera. Certain specific traditional details are observed in this connection. First a young 'jack' tree is selected and its neighbourhood is cleared and cleaned. The tree is sprinkled with water perfumed with sandalwood scent. An offering is made of nine kinds of flowers; an oil lamp with nine wicks is then lighted. The priest of the Maha Vishnu Temple recites his prayers to all the deities, after which the jack tree is felled. The trunk is then cut into four separate pieces. (The 'milk' or the latex that flows is regarded as a symbol of prosperity.) These four pieces are taken to the four 'devales', i.e. one to each temple. Each piece of the jack tree ('kap') is then planted under a canopy decorated with leaves, flowers and fruits in the temple premises dedicated to each deity. This is what is known as 'kap situweema'. The ritual is performed at an auspicious moment decided by astrologers.

Fifteen days of Perahera follow. During the first five days the perahera is held within the precincts of each temple; then five 'kumbal' peraheras and five 'randoli' peraheras are held outside the temples. All these peraheras take place in the night. Of these the five 'randoli' (golden planaquin) peraheras are the most spectacular and it is to see these that the largest crowds throng the streets of Kandy. A group of men cracking whips lead the Maligawa Perahera.

This serves to herald the arrival of the procession and to clear a path for it. Next come some men bearing flags representing the various provinces of the then Kandyan Kingdom. The elephant that follows these carries on its back a Buddhist flag, which shows that the perahera is a mainly Buddhist event. Fourth comes the 'peramunarala' on the back of an elephant. He carries an ola leaf book wrapped in a piece of white cloth. This is immediately followed by the 'hewisi' band of the Maligawa led by its four official tom-tom beaters. The 'Gajanayake Nilame' (the official responsible for the elephants taking part in the perahera) wielding a goad rides on an elephant next. The brightest, most outstanding feature of the perahera is 'Raja', the Maligawa Tusker carrying the relic casket. This casket does not contain the actual Tooth Relic (which is too august an object to be taken around so frequently), but it receives the homage due to the sacred relic from the watching crowds. The majestic Maligawa Tusker is flanked by two other companion elephants. Following the relic casket marches the 'Diyawadane Nilame' (the lay custodian and the chief administrator of the Dalada Maligawa) amidst a troupe of dancers and drummers.

The other four temple peraheras follow in the aforesaid order. The whole spectacle takes more than three hours. It constitutes a memorable cultural pageant that integrates the Buddhist and Hindu ritual practices. At the end of the last 'randoli' perahera the Maligawa Perahera enters the 'Adahana Maluwa' and stops there. This tradition is in remembrance of the fact that King Vimaladharmasuriya I, on his way from Delgamuwa to Kandy carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic, stayed the night on this spot, having temporarily deposited the Relic in the Gedige Shrine there, before ceremonially proceeding with it to his palace the next day.

After the last night perahera the four peraheras from the four 'devales' go to the ford of the Mahaveli River at Gatambe near Peradeniya. The chief 'kapuralas' (priests) of the 'devales' the wade to the middle of the river. One of the 'kapuralas' describes a circle in the water with a 'golden' sword. The priests empty into the river the 'golden ewers' (ran kendi) which they had filled with water at the same spot the year before and fill them up again with 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).

Then the four peraheras start their way back to Kandy. On their way they stop at the 'Pulleyar Kovil' (Selvavinayagar Kovil) at Katukelle. Then at the astrologically computed 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. The Maligawa Perahera enters the Maligawa and the devale peraheras wind up at the respective temples, bringing the annual Kandy Esala pageant to an end.


Updated: 4-8-2001

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