The deities and the last dance
@ Sunday Times / 21Aug2005
Many of us think that Kandy’s Esala Perahera comes to an end with the Day Perahera, but only a few of us know about a ritual dance that takes place after the water-cutting ceremony. D. B. Kappagoda traces the origin of Valiyakun Natuma, which takes the form of a Shanthikarma
From ancient times people invoked supernatural forces for protection and prosperity. Rituals, ceremonies and festivals are some form of benediction to invoke blessings of deities on the people.
In the month of Esala, ceremonies were held in ancient Sri Lanka — also in India — to appease deities and obtain relief with people taking part in rituals and offering poojas.
Four major festivals — Aluth Sahal Mangallaya, Aluth Avurudda, Esala Keliya and Karthikeiya — were associated with Hindu deities Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini. These four deities are even today part of the Kandy Esala Perahera with processions being held in devalas devoted to them. Processions are also held at devalas at Aluthnuwara, Ratnapura, Kataragama and other areas as part of the Esala celebrations.
Hindu deities and beliefs became popular during the Nayakkars’ reign in Kandy. Such beliefs were also prevalent in the country when the Cholas held sway over the Raja Rata in the 12th century.
The Kandy Esala Perahera began as a procession in honour of deities Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini. But the main focus turned to Sri Dalada or the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha during the rule of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe of the Nayakkar dynasty when Upasampada or the Higher Ordination of bhikkhus was introduced from Siam (Thailand).
It is said that Ven. Upali Maha Thera, who arrived in Sri Lanka with other bhikkhus to conduct the Upasampada ceremony in Kandy, witnessed the Esala Perahera which consisted of four devala peraheras. The Thera then advised the king to include a Sri Dalada perahera which came to be known as Mahanuwara Esala Perahera.
Eventually, the peraheras of the four devalas in Kandy also evolved along Buddhist traditions. Today, the peraheras are considered a sacred event, especially the main perahera which carries the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha.
The most important ritual takes place at the conclusion of 10 days of perahera — after the water cutting ceremony which is followed by the Day Perahera.
The ritual in the form of dancing takes place at Maha Devalaya or Vishnu Devalaya, as it is popularly known. It is held to ward off evil effects on all those who took part in the peraheras. They include the Diyawadana Nilame, the four Basnayake Nilames and the retinue of dancers, drummers, elephants and their keepers.
Rama’s three sons
The ritual takes the form of a Shanthikarma — benediction known as Hath da Valiyakun Natuma performed at the Maha Devalaya premises. In the past, this ritual was performed at the Kataragama, Natha, Pattini devalas in Kandy, Wallahagoda devalaya in Gampola and Aluthnuwara devalaya close to Hingula. It is now performed only at the Maha Devalaya in Kandy.
The origin of Valiyakun Natuma can be attributed to Vishnu. Rama in the Ramayanaya was Vishnu incarnate. Sources such as Malaya Raja Upath Kathava, Ankeli Upatha, Palavel Dana and Salugath Kathava say that Rama and Vishnu are the same.
Rama had three children by Sita and they were referred to as Malaya Raja Tun Kattuwa in the Kohamba Kankariya — another ritual popular in and around Kandy. The day after the water-cutting ceremony, poojas and other forms of offerings begin throughout the night for seven days at Sri Dalada Maligawa.
The Valiyakun Natuma varies with the time of commencement and conclusion changing. Like in most of the Shanthikarma, there are offerings made after each performance.
People who watch Valiyakun Natuma can take part in Pirith Huye Kavigayuma, Siri Huge Vadima, Parahanda Gena Padurulena Keela Badima, Pandam Paliya, Kaliyama, Gara Nateema, Alathi Ammavam, Vannakurala, Bera Panguwa and Theva Panguwa.
The offerings are also made to Esala Geya, Muva Mula, Gavara Maha Siviliya, Sivili Valam, Valiyak Batha, Solos Mugala, Paduru Parahandu and Keelu.
The story in Valiyakun relates how the three children of Rama grew up. One day while they were returning home after their lessons they saw Palaga with Pattini Devi plucking mangoes using two long sticks that had hooks at the end of their sticks. Suddenly their sticks got entangled.
Pattini Devi saw the three princes passing by and appealed to them to release her entangled hook. The princes freed the stick and her appeal was fulfilled. Pattini Devi was pleased with their act and called them Valiyakun which meant clever in working in unison.
The dancing style in Valiyakun Natuma is a distinct form of Kandyan dancing. The performers are required to participate in the ritual under the ancient Rajakariya system of the devalaya. The land belonging to Vishnu Devalaya is given to those who perform.
Those who perform Gara Yakum Natuma, Keela Bendima and Kali Yama belong to one family of dancers. Pooja Narthana and drumming belong to another family who are conversant in the performance of Valiyakun Natuma.
Those who participate in the performance of this ritual do not belong to the dancing families who perform in the Mahanuwara Esala Perahera. The two families of dancers of Valiyakun Natuma are from Mawanella who serve the Aluthnuwara Devalaya.