“The priest takes his painted stick on his shoulder……and gets up upon an elephant all covered with white cloth, upon which he rides with all the triumph that king and kingdom can afford, through all the streets of Kandy.” –Robert Knox (1660-1679) Come August and Sri Lankans look forward to the Esala Perahera; a much [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Esala Perahera: Religious and cultural significance of a much-awaited pageant


“The priest takes his painted stick on his shoulder……and gets up upon an elephant all covered with white cloth, upon which he rides with all the triumph that king and kingdom can afford, through all the streets of Kandy.” –Robert Knox (1660-1679)
Come August and Sri Lankans look forward to the Esala Perahera; a much anticipated event which has both religious and cultural significance. For Buddhists, it is an opportunity to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. It is also an event where history is brought back to life in the music, dance and traditions that accompany the procession.

The Dalada Maligawa in all its splendour as the Perahera parades the streets of Kandy. Pic by Shane Seneviratne

Upon its arrival to the island from the Kalinga Kingdom in India during the reign of King Kirthi Sri Meghavanna (303-331), the Sacred Tooth Relic was under the protection of the King. The relic was moved several times with the shifting of capitals and was eventually placed at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, the last kingdom. Interestingly, the Tooth Relic is the only sacred relic to be housed in a royal palace instead of a temple as is usually done.

Although the pageant is referred to both as the Dalada Perahera and the Esala Perahera it is technically a fusion of two separate but interconnected processions. The Esala Perahera traces its beginnings to the 3rd century B.C. when it was performed in the hope of receiving the gods’ blessing for rain. The Dalada Perahera began when the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to the island from India.
Professor Emeritus J.B. Disanayaka says the Dalada Perahera is carried out for a variety of reasons. Firstly to enable the public to venerate the Sacred Tooth Relic, as in earlier times only royals were allowed to pay homage. Secondly, it was to bring rain in order to sustain the crops. Thirdly, it was for the king to assess the villages in his domain.

“As the Sacred Tooth Relic has for centuries been an object that has influenced both the cultural and political history of the country, it was carefully stored with the King, and it was an accepted fact that only a person who was in possession of the relic could be king. This is the reason why this religious relic is kept in the Dalada ‘Maligawa’ which translates to ‘palace’ and not in a temple,” Prof. Disanayaka explained.

“The general Buddhist belief that what is done in heaven is reflected on earth and vice versa is evident in this perahera, as it was carried out in order to ensure adequate rainfall at the appropriate time. The perahera is a depiction of rain. The lamp-bearers and whip-crackers who lead the procession represent the thunder and lightning that one would see prior to the storm. The pageant itself is rain and it is believed that the more drummers and music, the better as it signifies a greater amount of rain. The elephants in the perahera represent clouds and cannot be accurately counted by a spectator amidst all the excitement, much like the clouds,” Prof. Disanayaka said.

From the political side, the king would be aware of all the villages in his domain, as the village chieftains would be required to carry the flag in the procession. This practice is still followed and flags representing different areas are carried.

The ‘front official’ rides the first elephant and has the schedule of the evening in his possession. Similarly the ‘Gajarala’ has information as to the elephants participating in the procession. These scrolls are handed over to the four ‘Basnayake Nilames’ who are the custodians of the ‘Devales’. Previously, these plans were handed over to the king, once again exhibiting the political aspect of the perahera, and the king’s supremacy.

“The opportunity to participate in the Dalada Perahera is considered both an honour and prestige. One cannot merely join in but has to go through intricate customs and training in order to be eligible. The Kandy Perahera is one that still adheres to traditions and customs,” says Prof. Mudiyanse Dissanayake, an authority on Kandyan dance.

Traditionally only Kandyan dancing is featured at the Dalada Perahera. However, it is possible to see a cross section of dancing from ‘Udarata’ to ‘Pahatharata’ and ‘Sabaragamuwa’ styles in the ‘Devala’ processions, he added.

Prof. Mudiyanse Dissanayake went on to explain the history of Kandyan dancing in the Dalada Perahera. Kandyan dancing received royal patronage and was not performed at public, social occasions. It traces its origins to the ritual known as the ‘Kohomba Kankariya’ performed in honour of God Kohomba. The Duke of Edinburgh on a visit to the island in 1875 was welcomed by a traditional Kandyan dance and this was the first time that Kandyan dancers had performed at a social function. In 1910, there was another performance when then Government Agent of the Hambantota District Leonard Woolf was asked to organise a cultural show. In 1919, Kuda Banda Nugawela Disawa included Kandyan dancing in the perahera. Till then the dances had been limited to lee keli, kalagedi,etc.

“The elaborate costume of a Kandyan dancer; known as the ‘ves’ consists of beaded net anklets and headdress. The dancer is permitted to wear the headdress only after the ‘ves mangalya’ ceremony when he first wears the ves costume and dances. By tradition only men above 16 years of age were allowed to wear the ‘ves costume’. This is because of the weight of the costume which was considerable, complete with jewellery and headdress. However, there are many women among today’s dancers and they have their own version of the ‘ves’ costume,” Prof Mudiyanse Dissanayake adds.

A Senior Lecturer at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, Dr. K.D. Sriyani Rajapaksha says that in order for a Kandyan dancer to participate in this event he must have trained under his guru or master. The invitation to dance in the perahera is traditionally given to families who have been dancers for generations.

The Esala Perahera is a grand assimilation of processions – a spectacle of lights, colour and music. The processions of the four ‘devales’ or temples dedicated to guardian deities start individually and after assembling in front of the Dalada Maligawa, are joined and led by the ‘Maliga’ or palace procession. This marks the start of the ‘Kumbal Perahera’ that continues for five days.

The procession from the ‘Devale’ dedicated to Pattini, the guardian goddess of infants and good health is the only one in which female dancers perform, as it is in honour of a goddess. The Kataragama deity’s procession includes the ‘Kavadi’ – the peacock dance while the ‘Natha’ deity is the one petitioned with regard to family matters and is generally venerated with three white lotuses.
The Vishnu deity reflects the Hindu influence on our history and is deemed to be the protector deity.

These processions carry the ‘Ran Ayudha’ which symbolise the deities and present them at the Dalada Maligawa to signify the commencement of the ‘Kumbal Perahera.’ This was not a feature of the original Maliga perahera, as the ‘Devales’ had their individual processions and the Maliga perahera was a separate entity.

Amid the singing and dancing, singers in white signify the arrival of the ‘Maligawa Atha’ or the ‘palace elephant’ who bears the Sacred Tooth Relic and the ‘Ran Ayudha’ presented by the four ‘Devales’. This elephant is closely followed by the ‘Diyawadane Nilame’ who was traditionally believed to be responsible for ensuring rains at the correct times.

After five evenings of the ‘Randoli Perahera’, the ‘Diyakepeema’ ceremony takes place at an auspicious time as decided by the ‘Nakathrala’ of the Maligawa. This once again ties in with the belief that acts on earth are mirrored in the heavens, Prof. J.B. Disanayaka says.

Here, the four custodians get on a boat in the Getambe region and perform the watercutting of the Mahaweli river. The belief is that no rains prevail because the rain gods or ‘Valahara Deva’ have held up the rains. The only way in which rains could come is if this mass of rain is cut from the heavens. “This boat is covered and no one is allowed to see this ritual as one would ordinarily not be able to see an event that takes place in the heavens. It is believed that the very moment in which the water is cut, light showers come down on the parched land.”

The perahera ends with the ‘Valiyak Natuma ’, an important ritual performed only once a year by the Kandy Vishnu Kovil. This is a seven-day ritual to ward off evil spirits from all those who participated in the perahera including the nilames, dancers, elephants and their mahouts.

Dressing up the elephants

The gorgeously caparisoned elephants are one of the main attractions at the perahera. Dressing them up is a solemn ritual which, Prof. Mudiyanse Dissanayaka explains has to be preceded by the mahouts remaining sober, clean and refraining from eating meat for three days prior to the perahera. The elephants are also bathed and kept clean. The elephant carrying the casket is dressed at an auspicious time.

Several aspects are taken into consideration such as the fit and weight of the costume. The decorations and trimmings are added keeping in mind how the lights would reflect off the elephant’s costume during the perahera as they should not disturb or alarm the other elephants in the procession.

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