WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Kandy Esala Perahera

Origins of a historic pageant steeped in ritual


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Beautifully caparisoned Maligawa tusker with the casket bearing relic

z_p21-kandy1.jpg (18993 bytes)Although the Esala perahera in Kandy, as we see it today, dates back to the period of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1780), there have been throughout history of the island, processions and festivals of great magnitude, which could be considered as the precursors of the present perahera. The early festivals connected with the 'Dantha Dhatu' (Tooth Relic of the Buddha) which were performed independently of festivals of gods seem to have taken place on the occasion of its annual removal temporarily from the Maligawa to the Abhayagiri vihara as required by King Sri Meghavanna (325-377), during whose reign the sacred Relic was brought to Sri Lanka, by Prince Danta and Princess Hemamala, from Kalinga (now Orissa).

Before 1775, the Esala perahera in Kandy was exclusively held to entreat and implore the four guardian deities of the island, viz: Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini. This is confirmed by Robert Knox, who was a captive in the Kandyan provinces for twenty years (1659-1679). He says" "That they (the Sinhalese) may therefore honour these Gods, and procure their aid and assistance, they do yearly in the Month of July, at a New Moon, observe a solemn feast and general meeting called Perahar."

Buddhists, in principle, do not totally repudiate polytheism, the concept of divine worship, but pay their benefactions to the divine, although they consider them completely subordinate in importance to the Buddha. Therefore, the deities too receive the reverence and honour of the Buddhists. The worship of Gods and other divinities became popular among the Buddhists, specially during the period when Dravidian kings from Malabar in South India were ruling the country for 76 years (1739-1815). It was during this period that the Pattini cult took deep root in the soil of Sri Lanka, and Pattini became the guardian goddess replacing God Saman (the tutelary deity of Sri Pada).

Four Devales

z_p21-kandy2.jpg (19064 bytes)It is of interest to know how the Dalada perahera came to be merged with the four devale peraheras. It happened this way. When bhikkus from Siam (now Thailand), headed by Pra Upali Maha Thera alias Buddhadhamma Upali came to Sri Lanka in 1775, in the Dutch vessels Oscarbel, to restore the defunct 'Upasampada' (the highest ordination qualifying a bhikku), their arrival coincided with the Esala festival that was being held in Kandy at the time to appease the four guardian deities, beseeching divine protection for the king, the country and the people.

When the Siamese (Thai) bhikku heard the noise of the jingalls (large swivel muskets of Indian origin), they surprisingly inquired from the king what the noise was about and the reason for all that unaccustomed practice. When the king explained to them that preparations were under way for celebrating the Esala festival in honour of the guardian deities of the island, they took umbrage at his words and expressed their sole disapproval and dissatisfaction for giving preferential treatment to Hindu practices in a country where Buddhism was the established religion. They expressed their deeper concern when they became aware that Hinduism has gradually triumphed over Buddhism under the patronage of the Dravidian kings who were Hindus.

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A spectacular performance by Kandyan dancers

The king using his wits and in order to appease the bhikkus, assured them that the perahera was mainly intended to glorify the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha. In order to convince them that it was so, the king proclaimed that the Relic too should be taken in the perahera and it should go foremost of the devale peraheras. This procedure still continues. At the same time, the king dedicated his own 'howdah' (ranhilige), which he used when riding on the back of the state elephant, to carry the Tooth Relic. It is said that since then no king used the ' ranhilige', and it was exclusively set apart to carry the reliquary. A 'ranhilige' was small gilded dome or cupola, supported by pillars about four feet high, well proportioned and handsomely built.

One may, perhaps, wonder why the perahera held in August is known as Esala perahera. Prior to 1915, it was held in July. The reason for the change is said to be that the holding of the perahera was banned in 1915, by the governor Sir Robert Chalmers (1913-1916), when the Sinhala-Muslim riots broke out with serious consequences. However, the governor William Manning (1918-1925), revived the situation and permitted holding of the perahera in 1919. Since it was held for the first time in August, the practice seems to have gained ground thereafter.

Kap Situweema

The perahera ritual complex beings with 'kap-situweema' (installation of the sanctified log), and ends with 'diya-kepeema' (water-cutting ritual), followed by the day-perahera. A few days before the new moon in August the 'kapuralas' of the four devales, go in search of a young jak tree (Artocarpus integrifolia), which has borne no fruit, and clear the ground beneath the tree. It is then fumigated with the smoke of burning resin and smeared with water mixed with sandalwood (Santalum album). Thereafter, flowers, betel and a lighted lamp are placed at the foot of the tree and the 'vruksha-devata' (tree-god), whose abode, perchance, it may be, is implored to leave. After this ritual, the tree is felled and the trunk is divided transversely into four equal parts and each piece is carried to the respective devales in order of preference, the Natha devale getting the first piece, Vishnu devale the second, kataragama devale the third and Pattini devale the fourth. Dr. John Davy, writing in 1821, says 'The felling of the tree is done by the wood-cutter of the Maha Vishnu devale, dressed in a clean white cloth and purified by washing himself with lemon juice.'

In the old days, the consecrated logs were installed on the ground, outside the devales, protected by a roof and covered and ornamented with palm-leaves, coconut, flowers and fruits. Today, they have diminished in size and are installed inside each devale where a special platform signifies its graceful position.

Water-cutting ritual 

The water-cutting ritual is performed at the Getambe ferry. Having reached the ferry, the 'kapuralas' of the four devales are led in a decorated boat to a reasonable depth and, conforming to custom, each of them cleaves the water with the sacred sword and at once, fills the pitcher from the spot where the sword touched the water. The water so collected is kept in the respective devales, for one year, to be fed back into the ferry at the next water-cutting ceremony. This ritual is woven into the fabric of mythology, reminiscent of king Gajabahu and his herculean soldier Nila, who using his massive rod, is said to have cleft the waters of the Indian ocean and walked to India, to bring back the 12000 Sinhalese captives taken to that country during the reign of Vankanasika Tissa alias Vaknehe Tissa (109-112). Most devales followed this ritual and has become part and parcel of divine worship.

The Randoli perahera is the highlight of the festival. It is an expanded version of the Kumbal perahera, to which are added the 'randoli' (palanquins) of the four devales. These contain the ornaments of the goddesses including the sword and pitcher of each devale. On the 5th day of the Randoli perahera, about half an hour after its break up, the perahera reassembles and makes its way to Asgiriya vihara, where the reliquary is placed and the devale peraheras return to their respective devales. When the devale peraheras make their return, they stop at the Ganadevi kovil (dedicated to the elephant-headed god Ganesha of the Hindus), where the assembled crowds receive the blessings of the God in the form of a 'tilaka' of sandalwood paste on the forehead, known as 'prasada'.

In 1928, after the fall of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, and when governor Sir Edward Barnes participated in the perahera, representing the Sinhala monarchs as was used to be, the Maligawa perahera consisted of the following: (1) peramune-rala carrying the 'lekam-miti' and riding the Yahaletenne elephant. (2) Gajanayaka nilame carrying the symbolic goad ('ankusa') and the elephant flag. (3) Kodituwakku nilame, his retinue and flag. (4) Disawa of four Koralaes with the sun and moon flag. (5) Disawa of Seven Korales with lion flag. (6) Disawa of Matale with white flag. (7) Disawa of Sabaragamuwa with yellow flag. (8) Disawa Walapone with peacock flag. (9) Disawa of Udapalata with lotus flag. (10) Disawa of Three Korales with Bherunda flag.

In 1968, it was as follows: (1) Flag and aw-ata. (2) Peramunerala with 'lekam-miti'. (3) Drummers, dancers and musicians. (4) Gajanayaka nilame carrying the symbolic goad. (5) Drummers, dancers and musicians. (6) Kariyakarawana-rala with dancers and his retinue. (7) The casket bearing relic on Maligawa tusker. (The Relic is never taken out of its chamber, but only the casket). (8) Diyawadana nilame led by dancers, drummers, musicians and his retinue. There was no provincial representation as in the old days. The extinction of old elements and the substitution of new ones have, doubtless, harmed the original integral symbolism of the perahera.

It is said that during the Kandyan times 'two peraheras were held one by evening and one by night'. It had so happened during the Randoli perahera. The dance by the 'balibat' caste (those engaged in exercising evil spirits), after the 'Waliyak-netuma' was a ritual that had existed in the days of our kings. The introduction of the 'ves' dance to the perahera by Punchi Banda Nugawela Nilame (1916-1937), gave a freshness of life to the renowned dance which is considered sacred.

The magnificent head-dress, known as 'Ves-tattuwa' and worn by the Kandyan dancers is protected by certain taboos, since the dance is said to be of divine origin. This head gear is a semi-circular tiara consisting a series of silver-plated ornamental wooden pieces fixed to one another. Little glimmering silver 'bo' leaves hang from the out edge of the tiara and the forehead plate. Behind the tiara is a set of silver spikes jutting upwards. An embroidered ribbon, usually red fixed to the spikes, trails down the back of the dancer. This special head gear is, not worn without the full regalia of the Kandyan dancer's costume.

In the past, the 'Ves' was confined to the ritual of the 'kohomba kankariya' performed at the Vishnu devale in Kandy. At the end of the perahera, the 'Waliyak-netuma' was danced in all the four devales, one not surpassing the other in performance. The 'Kohomba Kankariya' lasts for seven days to bring the Esala festival to a close. Among the rural folk of the Kandyan region, the cult of Kohomba remains the most elaborate and spectacular ritual conforming to dance, music, drama and embellished by arts and crafts.

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