Kandy Perahera

One of the biggest Buddhist celebrations of the year, the annual Kandy Perahera (Esala Perahera) is a religious ceremony during which devotees pray for sufficient rains to bless the country and crop cultivation. One of Buddhism’s most sacred relics, the Sacred Tooth is taken from the Temple the Tooth and paraded through the streets as part of the Kandy Perahera. Following this, more festive events take centre stage and visitors can expect to see a lively cast of dancers, jugglers and fire-breathers milling amongst the crowds

Kandy Perahera Commences on Esala Full Moon or  “Poya” Day on the month of July and concludes on Nikini Full Moon Poya Day on the month of August

Held in July or August according to the dates of the full moon, Esala Perahera has become a symbol of Sri Lanka . It is very grand with months of elaborate preparation, elegant costumes, well choreographed demonstrations of talent from various artistes and of course the sage procession of well trained elephants. There are fire-dances, whip-dancers, Kandyan dances and various other cultural dances. The elephants are usually adorned with lavish garments and beautiful lights. The Kandy Perahera festival ends with a traditional ‘diya-kepeema’ ritual.

The significance of this great event is to invoke blessings of the deities to ensure the farmers rain to cultivate their crops. This ritual is performed by carrying the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha through the city streets which is done with great ceremony.

The tooth relic was brought to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the year 310 AD and the first Esala Perahera (Kandy Perahera) was performed in Anuradhapura, the first capital where the sacred relic was housed.

Even as the capital was shifted for strategic reasons due to invasions, the Sacred Tooth Relic went with it too and was much revered and always held in the custody of the king. Finally finding a permanent resting place in the hill capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom, Kandy, the Sacred Tooth lies in the “Dalada Maligawa” (Palace of the Tooth Relic) which was built by king Wimaladharma suriya in the 16th century. This three-storey building erected solely for the purpose of housing the Sacred Relic still stands and is the most – visited and significant temple of Sri Lanka.

Kandy Perahera: the History

The ritual of the Kandy Perahera continues in Kandy with more and more people attending each year to watch a majestic tusker proudly parade the streets of this ancient Sinhalese kingdom, followed by over more than a hundred elephants in Kandy Perahera with the custodians and other officials dressed in the traditional Sinhalese attire of chieftains riding them. The sound of blowing conch shells and whip cracking starts off the excitement or the approaching Kandy Perahera. The beating of at least three types of traditional drums, the colorful Kandyan dancers, acrobats, and other artists that perform in the Kandy Perahera and the light of flame torches certainly would take you back in time.

Last year the historic Esala Perahera in Kandy began on July 18, with the usual installation of the ‘kapa’ (sanctified log) at the devales dedicated to the four guardian Gods namely Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Goddess Pattini. Kandy Perahera It was followed by the Devale peraheras from 18 to 21, and by the Kumbal perahera from 22 to 26th .

The Randoli Perahera, the most grandiloquent of the Peraheras paraded the streets from 27th to 31th . The ritual of the water-cutting ceremony was held on August 1, followed by the Day Perahera on the 2nd thus, bringing the grand spectacle to an end.

Seven days after the Day perahera, as tradition holds, ‘Waliyaknetuma’(an abridged form of Kohomba-Kankariya) is danced at the Vishnu devale, by people of the ‘Balibat’ caste, for seven more days, with masked dancing, to prevent malignant influences. This is a general account of the Esala Perahera in Kandy, which has changed slightly in detail down the ages, e.g., during the Kandyan period two peraheras were held, one by evening and one by night, preferably during the Randoli perahera.

The Esala perahera in Kandy, we see today, dates back to the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1780). It is a combination of the Dalada perahera, and the four Devale peraheras dedicated to the guardian deities of the island

Earlier, the Esala perahera was conducted exclusively to appease the divinities, and patronized by the Malabari kings of South India, who ruled the Kandyan provinces. They were Hindus. The month of Esala is reminiscent of ‘Esala Dev-keliya’ (Play of the Gods).

How the band wagon of the Dalada perahera came to be merged with the four devale peraheras, is an interesting story. When the bhikkus from Siam (Thailand), headed by the Most Ven. Upali Maha Thera, came to Sri Lanka, to bestow the defunct ‘Upasampada’ (the highest ordination qualifying a bhikku), their arrival coincided with the Esala festival in Kandy, when preparations were under way to hold the Devale peraheras invoking the blessings of the gods for the king and his subjects.

Kandy Perahera The Maha Thera Upali, having heard the noise of jingalls (a kind of large Indian swivel musket), inquired from the king the reason for all this noise the king told the Maha Thera that arrangements were being made to hold the Devale peraheras, Kandy Perahera during the month Esala, to appease the gods and to receive their blessings

The Maha Thera immediately took offense over the news, and at the attitude of the king in giving preference to Hindu customs, in a land where orthodox Buddhism has gained ground for more than one thousand years.

Kandy Perahera

The king, realising his mistake and using his wits, and so as not to offend the Maha Thera, informed him that Dalada Perahera will lead the procession followed by the Devale Peraheras, in their order of importance. There had been, throughout history, processions of great magnitude which could be considered as the precursors of the present day Dalada Perahera.

When the ‘danta dhatu’ (Tooth Relic of the Buddha) was brought to the island by prince Danta and princess Hemamala of Kalinga (Orissa), during the reign of Kirti Sri Meghavarna (352-377), the three Buddhist fraternities in Anuradhapura (Mahavihara, Abahayagiri vihara and Jetavana vihara), claimed to possess it as the most revered object of worship.

The king, wishing not to displease the bhikkus of the three viharas, placed the Relic in a golden reliquary, and keeping it in his royal chariot, allowed it to go to one of the three viharas.

The chariot unguided went to the Abahayagiri vihara, and the bhikkus thera accepted it and enshrined it in a gaily decorated ‘dhatugruha’ (relic chamber). It later became the palladium of regal authority.

The Mahaviharavasins and the Jetavanavasins did not claim it. Before the transfer of power from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa in 1058, the Tooth Relic was annually taken in procession from the Vihara to the city of Anuradhapura and back to the Vihara, with great pomp and ceremony. It was the beginning of the Dalada perahera in the island.

The significant and widespread belief regarding the origin of the Esala perahera is woven into the fabric of mythology, especially in regard to the water-cutting ritual. During the reign of Vankanasika Tissa alias Kasubu (109-112), a band of Cholians from South India, invaded the island, and having slain the king, took away 12,000 Sinhala captives to South India. His son, king Gajabahu, along with his herculian soldier Nila, crossed the Indian Ocean to India, by cleaving the waters of the sea with his massive iron rod

After peaceful negotiations with the Colian king Senguttuvan, king Gajabahu was able to bring back the captives, along with an equal number of Cholians, in recompense. Later, they settled down in the villages of Hewaheta, Tumpane, Udunuwara, Yatinuwara, Alutkuruwa etc. The water-cutting ritual at the Getambe ferry reminisces the exploit of Nila in cleaving the sea to go to India.

King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) of Polonnaruwa, held a Dalada perahera, when there was a severe drought in the country threatening a famine. The following day, rains came down in torrents inundating the low-lying areas, and filling the lakes that had gone dry.

In the Dalada Siritha, a treatise on the Tooth Relic, it is said: “Vesi novasnakala mama lesin Dalada pooja karanawa isa”. (When there is no rain, make offerings to the Tooth Relic in this manner). There is belief among the Buddhists that whenever there is severe drought, the Tooth Relic should be carried in procession.

Kandy Perahera History tells us that during the governorship of Sir Edward Barnes (1824-1831), a Dalada perahera was held in Kandy in 1829, on the advice of the Kandyan chiefs, to avert a severe drought. It resulted in a heavy downpour when the flood waters spilled over the Kandy lake submerging the low-lying areas, and making roads impassable.

The flood waters came to be known as the Dalada Watura (Relic water). The governor was surprised over the miraculous power of the Tooth Relic, about which a dispatch was sent to the Colonial Secretary in England Kandy Perahera.

The Esala perahera ritual complex begins with the installation of kapa, a pole about four feet in height, within each devale. A few days before the new moon in August, the Basnayaka Nilames of the four devales, along with the kapuralas, go in search of a young jak tree (Artocarpus integrifolia) that has borne no fruit, and clear the ground around the tree. It is then fumigated with the smoke of burning resin and sprinkled with specially prepared sandalwood water

Flowers, betel, leaves and a lighted lamp are placed at the foot of the tree, and the deity, whose abode, perchance, it may be is implored to leave the tree, before it is felled. Earlier an asala tree (Cassia fistula) was selected, instead of the lactiferous jak tree, to make the kapa poles.

Once the tree is felled, it is cut into four equal parts and distributed among the four devales, the Natha devale getting the first kapa. The traditional procedure followed in felling the tree is mentioned in the Sinhala text Maimataya (Skt. Mayamata). Each log is carried in procession and planted inside the devales.

Earlier they were installed outside the devales, but now having reduced in size, they occupy an elevated ground inside each devale, specially built for the purpose. It is known as kap-situweema.

For five days from the date of installation of the kapa, the kapurala of each devale take around the log every evening (formerly twice a day), accompanied by music and drumming, flag and canopy bearers and spearmen and the sacred insignia of the gods (ranayudha).

This takes the form of a little procession in each of the devales, and is known as Devale Perahera. On the fifth day, the insignias are taken out of the devale premises and borne inside a dome like structure, known as the ranhilige, on the back of an elephant, accompanied by the Basnayaka Nilame and his retinue.

The Devale peraheras come at the appointed hour and assemble in front of the Dalada Maligawa. The Relic casket which is a substitute for the Tooth Relic, is placed inside a ranhilige, which is tied on to the back of the caparisoned Maligawa elephant.

The Maligawa perahera joins the waiting Devale peraheras in front and gives the lead in moving on. The perahera consisting the Maligawa and Devale peraheras march through the prescribed streets, and it is called the Kumbal perahera.

Randoli perahera is an expanded version of the Kumbal perahera, to which are added palanquins (randoli) of the four devales. These contain the ornaments of the goddesses, sword and pitcher of each devale. On the 5th day of the Randoli perahera, after a short break up, reassembles and makes its way to the Asgiri vihara, where the casket is placed, Kandy Perahera and the Devale peraheras return to their respective devales.

Later in the night the four Devale peraheras make their way to the water-cutting site at Gatambe ferry. At the river the kapuralas of the devales are Kandy Perahera led in a decorated boat to some distance, from where they cleave the waters with the sacred sword, and collect a pitcher full from the place where the sword touched the water, to be stored in the devales for one year, to be fed back into the river, at the next water-cutting ceremony .

On their way, the peraheras stop at the Ganadevi Kovil, Kandy, where the assembled crowds received the blessings of the gods, in the form of a tilaka (prasada) of sandalwood paste on the forehead.

In the afternoon, the peraheras of the four devales form into one unit and go to Asgiri vihara to join the Maligawa perahera. Thus, the full procession is formed again and the Day perahera, takes a prescribed route and goes back to the Maligawa, where at the prescribed auspicious moment, the casket is replaced at the sanctum sanctorum

The introduction of Ves dancing to the perahera is of recent origin. Ves is a sacred dance. The ves-tattuwa (the magnificent head dress of the Kandyan dancer) is a sacred object guarded by a system of taboos and traditions. As a form of dancing Ves is considered fit for the gods. The Diyawadana Nilame, Punchi Banda Nugawela Nilame (1916-1937), who introduced it to the Maligawa section of the perahera, has made this great change

In 1828, when Governor Barnes participated in the Dalada perahera, the Maligawa perahera consisted of the following: (1) Peramune Rala riding the Yahalatanne elephant. Kandy Perahera (2) Gajanayaka Nilame carrying the symbolic goad. (3) Kodituwakku Nilame and his retinue. (4) Disava of Four Korales. (5) Disava of Seven Korales. (6) Disava of Matale. (7) Disava of Sabaragamuwa. (8) Disava of Walapone and (9) Disava of Udapalatha, each carrying their respective flags.

Today, the provincial representation has been forgotten. The Kodituwakku department is absent. The Peramune Rala and Gajanayaka Nilame are solitary representatives. The extinction of old elements and the substitution of new elements have, doubtless, harmed the original integral symbolism of the Esala festival.

The elephants are less in number than in the old days, when more than one hundred elephants participated in the perahera. The winds of change have affected the old customs and rites to a perceivable degree

In conclusion, the Esala Perahera, (Kandy Perahera) in Kandy is believed to be a fusion of two separate but interconnected “Peraheras” (Processions) – The Esala and Dalada. The Esala Perahera, which is thought to date back to the 3rd century BC, was a ritual enacted to request the gods for rainfall. The Dalada Perahera Kandy Perahera is believed to have begun when the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka from India during the 4th Century AD.

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