D. H. Lawrence after a brief stay on Dharmaraja Hill in 1922 wrote, “I didn’t like Ceylon -at least I liked looking at it- but not to live in.”
But in his letter to Lady Asquith, he also went into raptures about the Kandy Perahera, “but wonderful to have known.”
“The perahera wonderful – midnight - huge elephants - great flares of coconut torches, princes like peg-tops swathed round and round with muslin –and then tom toms and savage music and devil dances –phase after phase –and the black eyes and black bright sweating bodies of the naked dancers under the torches – and the clanging of great elephants roaring past – made an enormous impression on me – a glimpse into the world before the Flood.”
What Lawrence saw in Kandy 90 years ago is what more and more people see growing in splendour year after year during Esala. Esala is the name of the flower known to botanists as Cassia Fistula, which blooms in full at this time of the year. Hence the name Esala Perahera, which blooms upon the hill capital of Kandy well known for its grandeur and serenity that inspired Georges Clemenceau, a former Prime Minister of France, to say, “Kandy, yes, but it is a place to die in. It is so extremely beautiful that you should go there when after the struggle is over, and live in its beauty until you glide away.”
The Perahera crystalises the beauty of the Kandy experience. It dates back to the 4th century AD, when the Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to the island in the reign of Kirti Sri Meghavanna. He decreed that an annual perahera be held in honour of the Sacred Relic.
The Sacred Tooth would leave its sanctuary once a year and be carried in procession through the streets of the capital city of Anuradhapura.
It is this tradition followed by every king after him through the centuries that is celebrated to this day, making this time of the year a time when all roads lead to Kandy, which is transformed into a fullness, an abundance, a whole blossom.
The experience of the spectacular Kandy perahera, awesome and immemorial, blends sheer ecstasy with an indescribable sense of inner peace. All this because the spectator has seen a ceremony in honour of the Sacred Tooth, a peerless object of veneration like no other anywhere in the world. It is said that Sri Lanka was chosen as the new home for the Tooth Relic because Lord Buddha had declared that his religion would be safe in Sri Lanka for 2,500 years.
Woven into the fabric of the Esala Perahera are many time honoured rituals and customs. They hold meaning and significance to the people of Sri Lanka –“that they may honour their gods and procure their aid and assistance” as Robert Knox observed in his An Historical Relation of Ceylon. In fact, the Kandy Perahera is an amalgam of five distinct peraheras.
The Maligawa Perahera comprises whip crackers, who lead the way heralding the approach of the perahera, flag bearers who carry the standards of the different Provinces and Temples, the Peramunarala, who rides the first elephant carrying an ola manuscript called the Lekam Mitiya (a register of the Maligawa lands), the drummers playing Hewisi (martial music) on a variety of drums such as the Daula, Tammettama, Udakkiya and Bere, and playing Horanewas (flutes), the Gajanayaka Nilame (traditionally the Head of the Royal Elephant Stables) gripping a silver henduwa (ankus, elephant goad), followed by the Kariyakorale (master of ceremonies, second in the hierarchy of temple officials), attended by minor temple functionaries, drummers and dancers.
Next treading majestically and solemnly is the Maligawa Tusker, carrying a duplicate of the Perahera Karanduwa (golden casket) containing the sacred relic, followed by two lines of dancers facing each other with drummers in the middle, and finally the Diyawadana Nilame (Custodian of the Tooth) in oriental splendour attended by lance bearers, sunshade bearers and parasol bearers as well as temple headmen.
Following this main procession are four smaller ones, associated with the devales (shrines) honouring the respective deities. The Natha Devale is in honour of the Buddha-to-come, the Maha Vishnu Devale in honour of the deity that protects Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the Kataragama Devale in honour of the god who is all-powerful in war and Pattini Devale in honour of the goddess of purity, chastity and health.
Esala is an unparalleled season, not of one perahera but of many, in fact, a whole cycle of peraheras in different parts of the country. It is a time of fulfillment, of renewal.