The Kandy Esala Perahera: History & the Process of the pageant

The Kandy Esala Perahera is held annually in July August on days fixed by the Diyawadana Nilame (Chief Lay Head or Trustee) of the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic). Its origin, as one writer on Ceylon describes it, is "lost in the mists of centuries".

According to the Mahavamsa, from the time the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Ceylon in the reign of King Kirthisiri Meghawanna who ruled at Anuradhapura from 303 - 331 A.D., it was placed in a casket made of Phalika (Steatire or Soapstone) and lodged in an edifice called the Dharma-Chakra built by King Devanampiyatissa in the third century B.C. The Mahavamsa goes on to say that 900,000 Kahapanas (a great sum of money) were spent in celebrating the festival in honour of the Sacred Tooth Relic and the King Kirthisiri Meghawanna decreed that the Relic should be taken round the city of Anuradhapura once a year in spring. There is evidence to show that his decree was faithfully carried out by those Kings who followed him, and the famous Chinese traveler Fa Hien, in his book describing his travels in India and Ceylon in the 5th century A.D., confirms the view as follows :-

"They always bring out the tooth of Buddha in the middle of the third month. Ten days beforehand, the King magnificently caparisons a great elephant, and commissions a man of eloquence and ability to clothe himself in royal apparel, and riding on the elephant, to sound a drum and proclaim as follows : ' Bodhisattva during three Asankhyeya kalpas underwent every king of austerity ; he spared himself no personal sufferings ; he left his country, wife, and child; moreover he tore out his eyes to bestow them on another; he mangled his flesh to deliver a dove (from the hawk) ; he sacrificed his head in alms, he gave his body to a famishing tiger; he grudged not his marrow or brain. Thus he endured every sort of agony for the sake of all flesh. More over, when he became perfect Buddha, he lived in the world forty-nine years preaching the law and teaching and converting men. He gave rest to the wretched, he saved the lost. Having passed through countless births, he then entered Nirvana. Since that event it is 1467 years. The eyes of the world were then put out, and all flesh deeply grieved. After ten days the tooth of (this same) Buddha will be brought forth and taken to the Abhayagiri Vihara. Let all ecclesiastical and lay persons within the kingdom, who wish to lay up a store of merit, prepare and smooth the roads; adorn the street, and highways ; let them scatter every king of flower, and offer incense in religious reverence to the Relic'. This proclamation being finished, the kings next causes to be placed on both sides sides of the procession-road representations of the five hundred bodily forms which Bodhisattva assumed during his successive births. For instance, his birth as Sudana ; his appearance as Sama ; his birth as the king of the elephants, and as an antelope. These figures are beautifully painted in divers colours and have a very life-like appearance. At length the tooth of Buddha is brought forth and conducted along the principal road. As they proceed on the way, religious offerings are made to it. When they arrive at the Abhayagiri Vihara they place it in the Hall of Buddha, where the clergy and laity all assemble in vast crowds and burn incense, and light lamps, and perform every king of religious ceremony, both night and day,with out ceasing. After ninety complete days they again return it to the Vihara within the City".

It is doubtful whether the procession as described by Fa Hien continued to be held annually after Anuradhapura ceased to be the capital of Ceylon. It is clear, however, that the Dewale Peraheras that we have today in the Esala Perahera in Kandy did not form part of the Procession referred to by Fa Hein. From the information I have been able to gather, the Esala Perahera as we know it today, with the four Hindu Dewale Peraheras participating in it, had its origin in 1775 A.D. under the reign of King Kirthisri Rajasinghe.

The Perahera he inaugurated in his reign was confined at first to the four Hindu Dewales, because by then Hindu practices and rituals had crept into Theravada Buddhism owing to the influence of Mahayanism as well as that of the King's consorts who were Hindu Princesses from South India.

During this time a body of Siamese priests who came to Ceylon for the restoration of the Upasampadha ordination were surprised to find a purely Hindu ceremony in the capital of a pre-eminently Buddhist country.

To remove their scruples the King ordered a procession with the Sacred Tooth Relic to head the four Dewale Perahera, and that decree had been faithfully carried out ever since. Today, however, the Sacred Tooth Relic itself is not carried in the Perahera. Only a duplicate of the casket in which the Relic is kept together with a few Seevali relics is carried on the back of the gorgeously caparisoned Maligawa Tusker. This is because it is considered inauspicious to remove the Tooth Relic from its sacred precincts. Further more, taking it out would require special safeguards to protect its security as it became, in course of time, the palladium of Ceylon on the Preservation of which depended the security of the country.

While the Perahera referred to in the Mahawamsa was a purely religious one, it was customary, however, to hold peraheras to commemorate various events, mythical, traditional and historical, which were of special significance to the country or to propitiate and seek the help of the deities of the four Dewales for victory in war and success in secular undertakings. There are the following traditions connected with the origin of the origin of the Dewale Peraheras.

There was war among the Asuras (heathen deities) in which the God Kataragama was involved, and it came to an end on the day after the new moon in the month of July. To commemorate this event on the identical day in July every year an Esala tree (Ehala or Indian Laburnum Cassia Fistula), which is in full bloom in Ceylon at this time of the year, is cut , its trunk fixed as " Kap" (which means the token of a vow) and certain ceremonies performed. Although the Esala tree gives its name to the Perahera connected with the ceremony, it is usual in the present day to use a Jak tree (Artocarpus Integrifolia) or Rukkattana tree (Alstonia Scholaris) for the purpose. Both these trees exude a milky sap when cut, and this sap in supposed to be a sign of prosperity.

Another view is that during the reign of King Vankanasika Tissa, who ascended the throne in 109 A.D., the King of Chola (in India) invaded Ceylon and took back 12,000 prisoners. King Gajabahu (King Vankanasika's successor) avenged the insult by crossing over to India and bringing back 24,000 captives as well as the Sacred Bowl Relic (which had been taken away during the reign of King Walagambahu (103, and 89 - 77 B.C.) and the golden sacred rings of the Hindu goddess Pattinidevi.

The Perahera that was held to celebrate that victory is supposed to be the origin of the present-day one.

Still another theory is that it originated from an Indian Festival known as " the Asalhi Games" which was introduced in to Ceylon by Vijaya and his followers in the fifth century B.C.

The custodians of the Sacred Tooth Relic 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.

The lay custodian of the Sacred Tooth Relic is the Diyawadana Nilame.

According to tradition there were four Tooth Relics of the Buddha, one being in Possession of the Blessed Sakra (Lord of the Six Devas) who pays homage to it incessantly in devotion and godly splendor.

The second was given to the district of Gandhara (present day Afghanistan), the inhabitants of which worship it devoutly. The King of the Nagas (Cobras) is in possession of the third Tooth Relic, and is is worshipped with various religious rites. The Ascetic Khema, who came into possession of the Fourth Tooth Relic, handed it to King Brahmadatta of Dantapura in Kalinga (the present Orissa in India). Dantapura, according to Indian tradition, is the present seaside resort known as Puri in Orissa, the site of the famous Jagannath Temple. At Brahmadatta's death Prince Guhasiva became King, and when his enemies waged war against him to take the Kingdom, he called Prince Danta to him, and saying what a calamity it would be if the Sacred Relic were to fall into the hands of the enemy, directed him to take it to Lanka and hand it over to the great King Kirthisri Meghavanna who was ruling the country at that time. The Prince not only carried out these instructions but also offered to the Relic many priceless treasures.

Tradition too has it that a Princess who fled to Ceylon for safety brought the Relic hidden in the coils of her hair.

Since that time the Relic has been in various parts of the country. Ultimately King Vimaladharmasuriya the Second (1687 -1707 A.D.) brought the Relic from Labugama and deposited it in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa) built by him in Kandy.

In later years King Sri Wickrema Rajasinha (1798 - 1815 A. D.) the last King of Kandy - who had a keen sense of artistic beauty, added the Octagon to the Dalada Maligawa. He was incidentally the builder of the Kandy Lake.


The Kandy Esala Perahera: The Process of the pageant
On the following the new moon in July an Esala tree (Cassia Fistula) or at the present time, usually a Jak tree (Artocarpus Integrifolia) or Rukkattana tree (Alstonia Scholaris) is cut and ‘Kap’ planted in each Dewale as a vow that the Perahera will be held. For five nights processions are conducted within the Dewale precincts round the Esala Tree( or its substitute) with flag , drums and torches. The Kapurala (lay official of the Temple) walks in these processions carrying a golden weapon called "Ran Ayudhaya" said to belong to the Deity of the Temple and supposedly used by him in battle. These processions are held in all the four dewales.

On the sixth night starts what is known as the KUMBAL PERAHERA. Its is called by that name because the Esala tree is placed in a clay structure resembling a humbaha, or ant-hill , round which the procession goes. It is on the sixth night that the Perahera is seen for the first time outside the Dewales and is joined by the Dalada Maligawa Perahera. The temple chiefs wear their traditional white Kandyan court dress to walk in the procession. Each night the number of elephants in the Perahera is increased, making the Perahera bigger, grander and more colourful.

After five such nights is held the RANDOLI PERAHERA. Randoli literally means " Queen’s Palanquin". Up to 1775 the palanquins were carried alongside the elephants in the Perahera. Once the Dalada Maligawa was brought into the procession, however , King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe decreed that the palanquins should be put at the end of the Perahera-presumably because females could not be permitted to travel alongside the Sacred Tooth Relic.(The generally accepted theory is that the palanquins are a sysbol of the presence of the Consorts of the Deities, but another tradition is that the Queens of the reigning monarch traveled in them.)

It is interesting to note that there were different kinds of palanquins. The King’s palanquin was called KOONAMA, the Queen’s one RANDOLI, the Priests’ PALLAKKIYA, the chieftain’s DOLAWA and the Concubine’s YAKADA DILAWA. The more important the user of a palanquin, the richer was its ornamentation.

It is said that during the reign of the Sinhalese Kings the King himself walked in the Randoli Perahera with his retinue, consisting of the two Adigars, the Dissawas and other officials of the Court, and that his section of the Perahera followed the last Dewale Perahera- the idea being that he could not take precedence over the Dalada Maligawa or the Dewales.

Yet another story is that the priests themselves took part in the Perahera and that the arrangements were made by the SANGAKKARA LEKAMA, who was one of the Secretaries of the Place who established liaison between the King and the priests. It is also said that he spied on the priests and reported to the king any acts of commission or omission against the VINAYA (the disciplinary code of the priests.)

The randoli Perahera goes on for five nights and the last night is the grandest of all.

After returning to the Dalada Maligawa that night the Perahera goes out again, joined by the Dewala processions, and passes along Dalada Weediya(Ward Street) and through Trincomalee Street to the ADHANAMALUWA VIHARA, where the golden casket is temporarily placed and is guared by the Basnayake Nilames of the Four Dewales . This visit to the Adahanamaluwa Vihara (Cremation Temple) is by royal decree of king Kirthisiri Rajasinghe as a mark of respect to the Queen Mother who was cremated there.

The Dewale processions return to their respective Dewales and go out again in the early hours of the morning for the DIYAKAPANA MANGALLAYA (water-cutting ceremony). Originally this ceremony was performed to commemorate a victory in battle, and the blood-stained swords of the God of Kataragama (which were supposed to have been used to kill the demons) were ceremonially cleansed. The present form of the ceremony is that each of the Kapuralas of the four Dewales fills a goblet of river water (purfied by the sword of the God). These four goblets are kept in the Dewales till the next year, when they are freshly filled again at the next year’s Diyakapana Mangallaya. After the water cutting’ ceremony the dewale Peraheras return along the Katukelle Road up to the Ganadevi (Elephant God) Kovila where certain ceremonies are performed.

The whole festival is brought to an end the following afternoon when the maligawa procession returns to the Temple of the Tooth from the Adahanamaluwa Vihara bringing back the golden casket, when the Dewale Peraheras join it at the junction of Kande Weediya(Hill Street) and Trincomalee Street and then down Raja Weediya (King Street), after which it proceeds three time round the Dalada Maluwa (Temple Square). The Perahera then breaks up and each Dewale procession goes back to its Dewale. In the days of the Sinhalese Kings the chiefs were then received by the King , to whom they did obeisance and reported that the Perahera had been held with due ceremonial.

After the advent of the British the custom was carried on, and the Government Agent of the Central Province, as representative of the Government received the Chiefs. At the end of the Day Perahera, Pirith(See glossary) is chanted in the Dewales and alms given so that the Gods might acquire merit; in addition, the mala Vishnu Dewale holds a "Walli Yakum" ceremony to counteract the effects of the "evileye". This ceremony consistes of a dance which is performed before the head and the trunk converings of the elephant that carried the "Ran Ayudhaya" of the Deity in the Maha Vishnu Dewale Perahera.

In olden times those who participated in the Perahera were temple tenants who held lands belongings to the temple, in return for which they performed certain services. This system was known in English as the Temple Service Tenure. With the commutation of services most of the tenants now pay money in lieu of services due by them.Unfortunately, these commutations are so out-of-date that the temples find it difficult to get the services performed without additional expenditure form the temple exchequers.In the olded days the temple services were looked upon as the privileged labour of piety which could not be replaced by hired labourers.


The main Perahera procession consists of five separate Peraheras:

+ The Dalada Maligawa Perahera
+ The Natha Dewala Perahera
+ The Maha Vishnu Dewala Perahera
+ The Katharagama Dewale Perahera
+ The Pattini Dewale Perahera
This order of precedence is maintained throughout

THE MALIGAWA PERAHERA is comprised as follows:

  • The Whip Crackers-They lead the way and announce the approach of the Perahera by cracking their whips.There is quite an art in this,and it is not as easy as the onlooker may imagine.
  • In the times of the Sinhalese Kings the Adigars (within their own territories) were entitled to have whip-crackers hearld their approach,and this practice was continued even in early British times.
  • The whip crackers come into picture only at the commencement of the Randoli Perahera.They do not take part in the Kumbal Perahera.
  • They did not form a part of the traditional Perahera but were added to it in the time of Dissawe P.B.Nugawela Diyawadana Nilame.
  • The Flag Bearers walk next in single file on either side of the road. The flags they carry are the standards of the different Provinces and the Temples.
  • The Peramunerala – This official rides on the first elephant. In olden times he 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,which is a register of the Maligawa lands as well as the tenants and the services due by them (Fa Hies also refers to an official who proclaimed the Perahera).
  • Next come the Drummers playing Hevisi or martial music on a variety of drums such-as Dawulas , Tammettams and Beres and bloeing Horanawes (flutes). The rhythem, combined with the measured movements of the drummers, vivifies the whole procession.
  • The Gajanayaka Nilame comes next. He rides an elephant and carries a silver goad (ankusa)which is the symbol of his authority.
  • In the time of the Singhalese Kings the Gajanayaka Nilame was a very high official-the head of the King’s Elephant Stables – and(except for royalty)He alone had the privilege of riding an elephant within the four Gravets of Kandy.He is follow by in numbers from time to time.
  • The Kariyakorale, who is next to the Diyawadana Nilame in order of Precedence and is responsible for all the ceremonies connected and is responsible for all the ceremonies connected with the Maligawa, walks next in the Perahera. He is attended by minor temple functionaries, drummers and dancers.
  • Now comes the highlight of the procession – the MALIGAWE TUSKER carrying the Perahera Karanduwa (golden casket) containing the Sacred Relics. (The Sacred Tooth Relic is not now taken in procession-see p. 3). 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.
  • Those who have the privilege of going up to the Octagon and watching the formation of the Perahera from there still get chance of seeing the Diyawadana Nilame come into the countryard of the temple accompanied by drummers and dancers walking on pavada and carrying aloft the golden casket.
  • He stands on a dias and places the casket reverently in the ranhilige (howdah) on the back of the Tusker. The animal then gose down the steps into the street and is hailed by cries of "Sudhu."It is amazing to watch the Tusker coming down the steps. He does it with such care, one almost feel he realizes the solemnity of the occasion and the reverence sttached it.
  • Incidentally, in the days of the Sinhalese Kings the King himself with the Diyawadana Nilamein attendance carried the sacred casket from the Maligawa and placed it on the back of the Tusker.
  • I might here mention that spectators- Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike-are expected to stand, as a mark of respect, when Perahera Karanduwa or golden casket passes them.
  • The Tusker is followed by two lines of dancers facing each other on either on either side of road with the drummers in the center, and at the end of retinue walks the Diyawadana Nilame in all the Oriental splendour. He is attended by lance (murawadu) bearers, wadana tal-athu sunshade bearers and umbrella-bearer as well as minor temple headmen.
  • THE NATHA DEWALA PERAHERA follows the Maligawa Perahera of witch it is a smaller edition. The howdah on the chief elephant’s back contains the apparel and insignia (Ran Ayudhaya) of the Deity of the Dewla. The head of the Dewale is the Basnayake Nilame. He walks in the Perahera with his retinue of dancers, and it is customary for him to be accompanied by the Basnayake Nilames of Dodanwela, Vegiriya nd Pasgama. These three Dewales are outside the Four Gravets of Kandy and are placed in the category of Pitisara ("outside") Dewales.

    The Natha Dewala is given precedence over the other Dewales because, according to tradition, the Deity of this Dewala is the Buddha-to-come.

    THE MAHA VISHNU DEWALAE PERAHERA COMES NEXT. The Basnayake Nilame walks in the procession. He has the usual retinue of dancers and attendants, and it is customary for him to be accompanied by the Basnayake Nilames of the Pitisara Dewales of Lankathilaka, Gadaladiniya , Alawatugoda, Hanguranketha, Morape and Mediri.

    The traditional history of the Maha Vishnu Dewale is that chief of the gods (Sakra Devendrayo) entrusted the protection of Buddhism in Ceylon to the Deity of this Dewala.

    It is also the accepted tradition that Sakra is in the line of succession (next to the Deity of the Natha Dewale) for Buddhahood.

    THE KATHARAGAMA DEWALA PERAHERA follows. Katharagama is supposed to be the General of Sakra and is believed to be all-powerful in war. His assistance was invoked by the kings before battle.

    (This Dewale should not be confused with the Maha Katharagama Dewale in Uva.)

    The Basnayake Nilame of the Dewale walks in the procession, and it is customary for him to be accompanied by the Basnayake Nulames of the Pitisara Dewales of Embekke and Ganegoda.

    THE PATTINI DEWALE PERAHERA, coming last of all, headed by the Basnayake Nilame, is accompanied by the Basnayake of the Embekke Dewale. Pattni is agoddess who is supposed to exerices control over diseases such as snmall-pox, chicken-pox and measles, and the inclusion of her Dewale in the Perahera is to placate her.

    The long procession ends with the Randolis borne by the tenants of the Dalada Maligawa. The Diyawadana Nilame may, if he so desires, invite the Adgars and Dissawes to walk with him in the Perahera. (This is usually done in a raja-Perahera – see Chapter IV.) Further, if for any reason he is unable to officiate in the procession, he may ask one the Basnayake Nilames to take his place.

    The choice of acception or refusing the honour is given to the Basnayaker Nilames in the order of precedence of their Dewales, viz., the Natha Dewale, Maha Vishnu Dewale, the Katharagama Dewale and the Pattini Dewale.

    Incidentally, the best time to see Esala Perahera is on the last two nights; partically anywhere along the route gives a good view of the procession under way.
    @Ccom. Courtesy: THE KANDY ESALA PERAHERA by Sir Richard Aluwihare K.C.M.G., C.B.E.