Sri Dalada Perahera ready to light up the Kandy streets once again
Procession of religion, ritual and culture
By D.B. Kappagoda
The annual Esala Maha Perahera in Kandy, popularly known as Mahanuwara Sri Dalada Perahera is held in the month of Esala (July-August). This colourful national pageant is adorned with caparisoned elephants, dancers, drummers and chieftains who are the lay custodians of the devalas parading the streets during the nights of the perahera, transforming the city of Kandy into a fairyland!

The perahera is performed as homage to Sri Dalada - the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha with a history dating back to the reign of King Keerthisri Meghawarna of Anuradhapura Kingdom.The origin of Sri Dalada Perahera can be traced to f Prince Dantha and Princess Hemamali from Dambadiva (as India was then called) brought the Sacred Relic to Lanka.

The Perahera gained a new expression during the reign of King Keerthisri Rajasingha whose time witnessed a revival of Buddhism in the country. Today, the perahera is a blend of the Dalada Maligawa Perahera and of the four Devalas -Maha Vishnu ,Natha, Pattini and Kataragama devala.

The programme of the Esala Perahera is a joint effort of the Diyawadana Nilame, the lay custodian of the Sri Dalada,the Basnayaka Nilames of the four devalas and astrologers.

The first ceremony connected with the perahera is the planting of Kap, within the premises of the four devalas. Kap is a stump of Esala, Jak or Rukaththana tree, planted with dedication within the precincts of four devalas as a pledge to the deities, that the perahera will be conducted in accordance with rituals. These trees are selected for their quality of milky sap. The perahera has to be conducted on five consecutive days within the respective premises in which the Kapurala officiates.

It is on the fifth night that the perahera takes to the streets. In this Kumbal perahera (which means ant hill) nilames in their ceremonial white dresses take part in the processions. People from all walks of life throng to Kandy in the evening,impatiently waiting to witness this grand spectacle.

Then comes the most colourful perahera.Peramune Rala, on an elephant leads the procession.During the time of the kings, he was entrusted with the task of conveying the orders of the king to conduct the perahera. The main attraction is the Maligawa tusker which carries the Sacred Relics, placed inside a golden casket fastened on to its back.

The Maligawa tusker is highly respected by the people for carrying the sacred Relics so much so it never treads on the ground without the pavada white cloth when it moves forward with the Ransivige inside which the casket containing the Relics is placed. The lay custodian of the Sacred Tooth Relic Diyawadana Nilame follows the tusker with his retinue. In front of him Ves dancers perform to the throbbing of drums and singing. This is followed by the Devala peraheras. The drummers and dancers follow and Basnayaka Nilames walk in their respective peraheras.

It was once the custom for king with his officials Saluwadana Nilame, Bathwadana Nilame and Radabadda Nilame to walk in the perahera. Now, the custom is to carry Randoli in which queens used to be carried in palanquins by the retainers. Hence the perahera had derived its name from Randoli.

On Esala full moon night the final Randoli perahera parades the streets and finally returns to the devalas. The Basanayaka Nilame of Maha Devalaya and Palle Mahala Kottala Rala of Sri Dalada Maligawa, perform their duties in guarding the casket containing the Sacred Relics. Hewisi pooja and other offerings are made to the Relics till the commencement of the Day Perahera.

The chief Kapuralas of the four devalayas proceed to Getambe in the early hours of the day, carrying audas of the deities placed on the backs of the devala elephants. They take kendi (goblets) containing water collected in the previous year, golden swords and Kap stems planted within the precincts of the devalayas in Randoli (palanquins). At Getambe, Kapuralas cover their heads with white cloth, carry golden swords under a white canopy, and at an auspicious time, they wade through the water and empty the water in the kendiyas and perform the water cutting ceremony by cutting the water with the swords and collecting it into kendiyas (goblets) .

When the perahera reaches the Katukale Ganadevi Kovil weapons of the deities are placed before the Kataragama deity to conduct religious rites. The Kovil was built for the Hindus living around the city.

The final perahera begins from Gedige Viharaya when the casket containing the sacred relics is placed inside the Ransivige and leaves Adahana Maluwa at the appointed time. Then the peraheras of the four devalayas leave Ganadevi Kovila and proceed through Kotugodella Veediya, Kande Veediya and finally join with Dalada Maligawa perahera at the D.S. Senanayaka Veediya junction.

After reaching Raja Veediya, the perahera parades three times around Maligawa square and finally Sri Dalada perahera enters through the wahalkada-main entrance to the precincts of the Sri Dalada Maligawa.

The four devala peraheras then make their final journey to their respective devalas. Customary rituals are performed here to invoke the blessings of the deities. Another ceremony follows afterwards at the Maha Devala premises known as Valiyak Natuma where dancers, drummers, participants and trappings of the devala elephants are blessed by invoking the deities to dispel the evil effects of the eye and mouth. This ceremony takes the form of a benediction to protect them during the coming months.

Moving steadily with changing times
By L.B.Senaratne
With the winds of change the Kandy Esala Perahera has also changed according to the socio- religious and economic conditions prevailing in the country.

Although originally a religious festival, with the British entering the scene it became a means of power as Governor Sir Edward Barnes decided to ride a white horse at the end of the Sri Dalada Maligawa Perahera. This act was supposed to show his power over the people as the protector of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

Robert Knox, who had witnessed the Perahera during his stay in Ceylon describes how the Perahera route was linedwith young coconut leaf streamers.

There are four festivals connected with the Sri Dalada Maligawa. The Karthika (the festival of lights) Mangalaya - the oldest of the four,was celebrated even before Buddha's time.This festival is in November-December.

Next is the Alutsal Mangalaya, held in January each year, to mark the reaping of the fresh harvest at Gurudeniya and offering to the Sacred Tooth Relic. Now the paddy is brought to Sri Dalada Maligawa from Pallekelle at Kundasale. Offering is made at the inner shrine room with 60 measures of rice offered in a copper bowl.

When Avurudu mangalaya or the festive season arrives in April,it is celebrated at the Sri Dalada Maligawa and also at the four Devales. Initially the Kandy Esala Perahera was held for the four Devales and it was only in 1753 the Sri Dalada Maligawa was added to the procession with the arrival of Upali Maha Thera from Thailand introducing Upasampada. Prior to this,the Perahera was held in the honour of Gods, Natha, Maha Vishnu, Kataragama and Goddess Pathini. John Davy who spent some years in Sri Lanka as a prisoner, gives an account of the perahera in his book 'An Account of the Interior of Ceylon'.

He says "The King who before was a spectator merely of the ceremony, now took an active part in it, and regularly joined the evening procession in his golden chariot drawn by eight horses… On the night of the full moon, the Relic of Bhoodhoo for the time joined the nocturnal procession : at the conclusion of which, it was not returned to the Maligawa but deposited in the Asgiri Vihare, a temple in the neighbourhood of Kandy." This is perhaps the last night of the Perahera.

There seems to be some confusion as to whether the Kumbal Perahera really took to the streets or just around the outer court of the Devale.Many versions have been given. Ananda Coomaraswamy's " Mediaeval Sinhalese Art"sheds some light on the fact that the Kumbal Perahera did not take to the streets,but only Randoli did.

After 1817 as a result of a rebellion headed by the Kandyan Chiefs, the Esala Perahera was not permitted.After a lapse of 11 years, it once again took to the streets with a new feature of Ves. The 'Ves' was encompassed into the perahera during the period of Diyawadana Nilame Nugawela.

So as we read this newspaper, the Kandy Esala Perahera would have begun. On the last night, which falls on July 31 after which the second perahera would proceed to the Adhana Maluwa, the Golden casket or Karanduwa would be deposited for the night. On August 1, after the water cutting ceremony by the Devales the Perahera would proceed along the streets and join the Sri Dalada Maligawa Perahera at the Kandy Muncipal junction to proceed to the Sri Dalada Maligawa and the four Devales. The entire procession would circle thrice before the respective emblems of the Gods are deposited at the Devales and the Golden Casket at the Sri Dalada Maligawa.

Thereafter, as the tradition demands,the Diyawadana Nilame and the Basnayake Nilames would proceed to the Janadipathi Mandiraya to report the successful completion of the Kandy Esala Maha Perahera.

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