little income and even less respect coming their way, the perahera
artistes may soon be an extinct breed, and the perahera a relic of
a bygone era reports Kumudini Hettiarachchi
and pageantry. Glory and grandeur. Tradition and ritual. This is
what the magnificent Esala Perahera of the venerated Sri Dalada
tradition may come to an end, growing extinct like the caparisoned
elephants which have played a jumbo role in this pageant. Not only
the elephants, but also the dancers, drummers, kasa karayas and
pandam holders are becoming harder and harder to find.
vahanseta paaramparika rajakariya ishta karanna than enne ne,"
(They do not come forward to do their duty, handed down from generation
to generation, towards the Dalada Relic) says P. Malagammana, the
stocky and active 73-year-old Pannikkiya of the Malagammana paramparawa
It's the final
day of the perahera and we are in the beautiful lake city of Kandy
with its festive air and crowded streets. We are about to venture
on a journey to the time of the kings, to get a glimpse of the rites
and rituals followed in the hub of Buddhism in Sri Lanka -the Sri
Dalada Maligawa, home to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha.
times, four families had been selected by royal decree to do the
"Pannikki muraya" (the duties connected to the Maligawa).
They were the clans of Malagammana from Ihala Dolos Pattuwa in Kurunegala;
Molagoda from Pahala Dolos Pattuwa also in Kurunegala; Ihalawela
from Dumbara and Uduwela from Matale. Their obligations were with
the Maligawa, and they were honoured to perform its duties. In return,
they were under royal patronage. Ninda gam were granted to them
so that they were ensured an income. Now they come under the direct
guidance of the Diyawadane Nilame.
duraya was also handed down from father to son or brother to brother
and never went out of the designated families.
kramaya has been there from that day to this without a break, says
Malagammana, seated in a tiny room in the Maligawa, where the tools
of their art are stored. Seconds before, he had hurried off four
youth to the silver-embossed door of the Maligawa's inner sanctum
with the words, "Dora ariya lamaine."
What are their
duties, performed with clock-work precision day in, day out?
Each day, four
people drawn from the Pannikki clans, have to attend to the thevawa
of the Maligawa - at 6 and 10 o'clock in the morning and 7 o'clock
in the evening.
The four tenderly
and lovingly take out the daula, tammettama and geta bera (different
types of drums) and horanewa (a trumpet-like instrument) from the
two large cupboards near the entrance to the Maligawa, and play
them while the rites are carried out and the dane is brought to
the inner sanctum.
apart, as Esala approaches, the Pannikkiyas are summoned by the
Diyawadana Nilame and instructed to organise the kasa, gini pandam,
gini keli, hewisi and other dancers for the item of most importance
on the Maligawa calendar. Dutifully, the Pannikkiyas go back to
their villages and mobilise the veteran artistes and also the novices.
days other people couldn't do it. For the Diyawadana Nilame would
ask them who they were. They had to prove their Pannikki lineage,"
explains Malagammana who has been in the service of the Maligawa
for 54 years, since 1948. His late brother, Simon Malagammana, a
ves dancer of no mean repute, held the sacred designation of Pannikkiya
of their clan before him. Now his face adorns the fifty-rupee note.
groups are also taken for the perahera for lack of these people.
to the perahera mangalya in July, the Pannikki families also play
a major role during the other three mangalyas. "The aluth sahal
mangalya, when the new rice is harvested from the Maligawa's velyaya
in Duruth (January), the avurudu mangalya in April and the kaarti
mangalya in November," says Malagammana with nostalgia.
however, are not too good for him now. "There are aches and
pains," he says taking out a sili sili bag with pink and white
tablets. All this long while, since he was 19 years old, "the
Dalada balaya" has kept him going. Dancers, drummers, all and
sundry get wet and face an arduous schedule. But they hardly fall
ill. Now, of course, age is taking its toll.
no one to take over. This is a major problem that all pelapath are
facing. Pannikki duraya abhavayata yanawa," he laments. His
own two sons have not followed in his footsteps. They have taken
to other jobs.
His fears are
echoed with concern by the young and the old who are still trying
to do their service by the Maligawa. During a breather from playing
the daula at dawn last Tuesday, Upali Perera, 33, from the Iahalawela
pelapatha, concedes that it seems to be a dying art. His brother
was in the Maligawa before him.
one to gayanne, vayanne, natanne
Chosen the best dancer of the perahera since 1986,
Peter Surasena, who has moved with royalty, rubbed shoulders
with the high and mighty but also danced on the streets of
Kandy for the humble men, women and children of Sri Lanka,
is an unhappy, disillusioned man.
by pictures of his glory days, in his cosy home up a steep
flight of steps in the Dumbara Valley, he sorrowfully looks
at the bare skeleton of a building where he is attempting
to set up his ayathanaya to propagate Uda-rata natum.
traditions of the Kandyan art form may die out, if nothing
is done urgently, stresses Surasena after winning three prestigious
prizes for excellence in performance at the perahera just
concluded. His son, Janaka too had won the prize for "The
best young upcoming ves dancer".
this tradition, giving recognition to the best in the perahera
was not carried out fairly. Newcomers got awards, but some
of the older proponents, who have performed on the world stage
have been ignored. Many older artistes may drop out of next
year's perahera," warned Surasena.
looks at us with squint eyes. There is no place for the Kandyan
dancer. The Diyawadana Nilame looks after us, but the state
is doing absolutely nothing for our welfare," he says,
adding that as a retired teacher he has his pension and a
plot of land to cultivate but most others have nothing.
since the tender age of seven, Surasena, an expert in the
ves dance form is critical of "robot dancers" especially
in Colombo, who have commercialised ves and forgotten sirith
virith. They have no talent, no creativity. Only your gurunnase
after many, many years of learning and practice decided that
you were suitable to don ves. (It is the dress and head dress,
ritually put on you when your teacher decided that you were
competent). Now they are doing it in schools and over the
counter. Even some girls have been given ves. "Ves cannot
be danced by women. That has been the tradition and it is
not good to break it," says Surasena angrily.
paramparika artistes cannot live. Tell society our grievances.
It's a case of "Colombata kiri, apita kekiri", he
says. "We are like the rampe and karapincha which flavour
a curry. We are used and then discarded. When this generation
dies out, there will be no others to gayanne, vayanne and
is Surasena's remedy?
compilation of a list of all upcountry dancers and their needs
* A central
location and building for veterans to train young artistes
in the Uda-rata dance form
* A system
to look after the older artistes.
Gaunt and gnarled
Raththaranan who not only blows the horanewa but can put his hand
to most of the instruments learnt the art as a boy by just looking
at others playing. From the Uduwela pelapatha, he is now 72 and
hardly able to walk but the boyhood "asawa" still keeps
him going. He is a happy man because, Sagara, his grandson is in
the "trade", unlike the other youth who have left this
glorious tradition for proper jobs with salaries.
egene ganne kemathi ne," he says, as we ask him why?
get the answer from his grandson Sagara. "We are treated badly
by society. People look down on us. Most young men are embarrassed
to carry the bere because we get insulting looks from others. They
use us, then discard us," he says.
Will he continue?
He thinks he will carry on the proud tradition of his forefathers,
but he is not sure. Just 21, he will have to wait and see.
a step further and gives an example of how the feudal system still
exists in Lankan society. "Several dancers and drummers were
invited to a function at a posh house in Kandy. They were given
a corner to stay in, worn pieces of mats to sit and sleep on and
nothing to eat. How can you expect young people to take up this
important work when we are treated like this? Even bus conductors
don't allow us on their buses and drivers accelerate when they see
the bere slung over our shoulder."
The bere has
become a symbol of humiliation and lowly status.
"Adyamak ne, padiyak ne, nadiyak ne." (We don't have an
income, no pay, no way of surviving.) The ninda gam given to our
forefathers have been divided and divided, coming down the generations.
So no income comes from these either. At present, the Diyawadane
Nilame looks after our needs very well. But we are ostracised by
society. This has to change. This honour of doing our duty to the
Maligawa, we have inherited at birth."
His guess is
that in five years, this legacy would die a natural death, for the
simple reason that there would be no takers.
should be brought in to pay a permanent salary to those who do their
duty by the Maligawa. A regular income, with a little respect is
a must to foster this system."
our children's children may have to see the famous Esala Perahera
not on the streets of Kandy but from photographs or videos, as a
relic of the glory of a bygone era.