The spectacular Kandy Esala Perahera, which commenced on July 31 with the planting of the ‘Kapa’ (Kapsituvima), will parade the ancient city of Kandy in all its glory until August 14, when the final Day Perahera will be held.
With both local and foreign tourists flocking to the city, accommodation is something hard to find in Kandy during this period, unless you make your bookings early. Even private homes provide accommodation and a walk-in visitor would have to pay above Rs 7,000 for a modest room in a small guest house.
A common site during this season is the presence of a large number of rural men, women and children, who journey from long distances to witness this historic spectacle. For them, this annual pilgrimage is a much looked-forward-to event, where they come days ahead and reserve a vantage point along the lake side, sleeping on tarpaulin, eagerly awaiting the Perahera to begin.
The Kandy Esala Perahera has been held without a break in July/August every year for more than four hundred years. The ‘Dalada’ or the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha was brought to Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, from India during the reign of the King Kitsiri Mevan (A.D. 303 – 331). From then onwards, it was imperative that the King of the Land must be the guardian of the ‘Dalada’.
Historical records indicate the Esala festivities as an Indo-Aryan tradition, signifying the victories of the mythical Hindu God Indra over the demon Vritra, who prevented the burst of rain clouds. In fact, at the very beginning, the Esala festival was a ritual to invoke the blessings of the Gods to cause rainfall during the dry season. Later, the Sinhala Kings took the opportunity to parade the sacred Tooth Relic as well during this celebration, adhering to traditional rituals of the past.
The fourteenth century Sinhala text “Dalada Sirita” claims that there was a strong belief, particularly among the Buddhists, that the legitimate claim to the Throne could be made only by the possessor of the sacred Tooth Relic. When the Perahera was suspended by the British rulers in 1815, a severe drought and a crop failure had followed. Due to public protest the Perahera was allowed and it was reported that torrential rains followed the initiation of Perahera rituals.
The main Perahera procession consists of five separate Peraheras – Dalada Maligawa Perahera; Natha Dewala Perahera;
Maha Vishnu Dewala Perahera; Katharagama Dewale Perahera and Pattini Dewale Perahera. This order of precedence is maintained throughout.
The ‘Kap’ planting ceremony, which signifies the beginning of the Perahera, is conducted in the premises of the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini Dewales (shrines), at an auspicious time. ‘Kapa’ symbolizes God Indra, and kap poles – about 60cm in length – are cut from the lactiferous tree to signify fertility and prosperity. When the kap-poles are brought to each Dewale they are placed on a clean mat where fresh mango and margosa leaves are spread.
The kap ritual is associated with the Pattini cult. Goddess Pattini, according to mythical literature, was born out of a mango and her husband was killed under a margosa tree. When the kap poles are installed in each Dewale premises, the officiating priest (kapurala) circles the Kap pole on three consecutive days, carrying the insignia of the respective deity. The first five days of the procession is confined to the Dewala premises only.
The second stage of the Perahera is called the Kumbal Perahera. Amidst the blowing of conch shells, the sacred Tooth Relic enclosed inside a golden casket is brought out and placed on top of the gaily decorated Maligawa Tusker, following traditional rituals associated with ancient royalty. A gun is fired when the Diyawadana Nilame – the custodian of the Tooth Relic – dressed in splendid traditional attire, takes his place in the procession. The title “Nilame” was given to a Minister of the royal court.
It is an amazing sight to watch the Tusker carrying the casket, coming down the steps with such care and gentleness. One almost feels he realizes the solemnity of the occasion and the reverence attached to Lord Buddha’s tooth relic. Spectators – both Buddhist and non-Buddhists alike – are expected to stand, as a mark of respect, when the golden casket passes them.
The “Randoli” is the third stage of the Perahera, symbolizing the participation of the royalty in the procession. Randoli was the name of a special palanquin in which the Queen was taken, and at this stage, the Perahera parades with all its splendour along the winding and brightly lit Kandyan streets. Incidentally, in the days of the Sinhala Kings the King himself carried the sacred casket from the Maligawa and placed it on the back of the Tusker.
The Whip Crackers lead the procession and announce the approach of the Perahera by cracking their whips. This is quite an art and is not as easy as the onlooker may imagine. However, the whip crackers participate only at the commencement of the Randoli Perahera. They do not take part in the Kumbal Perahera. They also did not form a part of the traditional Perahera, but were added to it during the time of P.B.Nugawela Diyawadana Nilame
The flag bearers come next, in single file on either side of the road. The flags they carry are the standards of the different Provinces and the Temples. They are followed by the Peramunerala, who during ancient times carried the mandate from the King giving permission to hold the Perahera. The mandate had, in the present day, been replaced by an ola manuscript called the Lekam Mitiya.
Next in line are the dancers and drummers, playing various type of drums, adding rhythm, colour and cheerfulness to the entire procession. Then follows the Gajanayaka Nilame – ridding an elephant and carrying a silver goad (ankusa), which is the symbol of his authority. In ancient times, he was a very high official in the Kandyan kingdom and head of the King’s elephant stables.
Now comes the highlight of the procession eagerly awaited by all – the glittering Maligawe Tusker carrying the golden casket containing the Sacred Relic. A canopy is held over the Tusker and pavada (white cloth) is spread in its path (as a mark of respect), for it to walk on.
The Tusker is followed by two lines of dancers facing each other on either on either side of road, with the drummers in the middle. At the end of the retinue walks the Diyawadana Nilame in Oriental splendor, attended by lance (murawadu) bearers, umbrella-bearer as well as minor temple headmen.
The final stage of the Perahera is marked by the “water-cutting ceremony”. Only a section of the overnight procession, accompanied by the Kapuralas in charge of the four Dewales, proceed to the ferry at Getambe and await the first light of day. As the first rays of sun fall, they draw a circle in the water with a sword; the water within that circle is then taken to fill the pitchers.
While the lay custodian of the Sacred Tooth Relic is the Diyawadana Nilame, the official custodians according to tradition are the High Priests of Malwatte and Asgiriya. These two chapters are akin to the two Archbishoprics of Canterbury and York in the Church of England.