Tradition in procession


The August Full-moon Poya which fell on last Thursday (11) marked the end of the glamorous and prestigious Kandy Esala Perahera which is a religious and cultural pageant filled with dance, music, colour, and spirituality. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this pageant, held for 10 consecutive days, represents the 2500 years old rich culture and tradition of Sri Lanka. It is not merely a parade filled with people, elephants, colour, dance, and music. It is a spiritual ritual, a blessing to the country, and a cultural event that is a combination of the age-old beliefs, practices, arts and crafts (dancing, music, textile and jewellery fashions and handicrafts, and so on) of the Sinhalese.

The Dalada Perahera and the Esala festival

It is said that the Kandy Esala Perahera is a combination of two separate but interconnected peraheras; the Esala festival and the Dalada Perahera. The Dalada Perahera is held in honour of the Buddha, and his sacred Tooth Relic.

It is also believed that the Dalada Perahera is associated with rainfall and prosperity. As per local tradition, the sacred Tooth Relic is also associated with the sovereignty of the Sinhala kingdom, hence many invaders including the Pandyas and Kublai Khan wanted to take away the sacred tooth relic to their custody.

The Esala festival: A festival of rain

The second perahera is the Esala festival. Esala is the lunar month that falls in July/August.

The month of Esala is special and its connection with rainfall explains why the Dalada Perahera is associated with rainfall. Esala or Asalha (used in Mahavamsa) is also referred to as Asanha, Ashadha, Aashaadha, or Aadiare in the Asian region. During this month, monsoon festivals are held in many of these ancient Asian cultures, in honour of the rain god and to celebrate the happiness of the arrival of the rain. In Buddhist culture, this is also the Vas season or the rain retreat.

The Esala festival held in Sri Lanka is also believed to be having its ancient origins with a festival held in honour of the rain god. Therefore, archaeologist Charles Godakumbure writes that the Esala festival was initially a festival held in honour of the rain god. He further writes that the Dalada Perahera, water cutting ceremony (diya kapeema), and the devala peraheras are related to the ancient rain festivals held in Sri Lanka, during early times.

The first Dalada Perahera in Sri Lanka

As per Buddhist texts and local history, the first Dalada Perahera was held in Sri Lanka by King Kithsirimewan (304 – 379 CE) of Anuradhapura. He paraded the sacred tooth relic to the Abhayagiriya temple from the Daladage (Temple of the Tooth of Anuradhapura). The sacred Tooth relic that was in the Kalinga Kingdom was brought to Sri Lanka during the time of this king by a Kalinga princess named Hemamala. She was accompanied by her husband, prince Danta. It is also known that the previous Sinhala king, King Mahasen (father of Kithsirimevan) was a friend of the King of Kalinga.

From Kalinga to Anuradhapura to Kandy

According to scholarly research that is based on historical records, the Kalinga king had performed extravagant rituals at the temple of the tooth and held annual perahears in honour of the sacred Tooth Relic.

Therefore, accordingly, after the sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka, extravagant rituals were held, continuing these cultural practices. Eminent Scholar Ven. Kamburugamuwe Vajira Thera states that an Esala festival parade still exists at the Jagannatha Kovil at Puri, India (the Jagannatha kovil has been a Buddhist temple, centuries ago. It is also believed to be a Temple of the Tooth in ancient times).

The present-day Kandy Esala perahera, as we have stated above, is a combination of two interwoven peraheras, a continuation of the 4th-century tradition. The present Temple of Tooth was built by King Sri Veera Parakrama Narendrasinha (1707 – 1739 CE). It has been fashioned by various cultural trends from time to time, adding more and more colour and art to the pageant.

A pageant of traditions

The Kandy Esala perahera is an event that showcases the Sinhala culture. The dances are traditional Sinhala dances. The drums, the tunes, the Vannams, and the poems are traditional Sinhalese poetry and music. The beautiful costumes and jewellery are traditional designs and fashions of the Sinhalese. These costumes are decorated with traditional motifs and designs such as the gal binduwa, pala pethi, and nelum mala. The jewellery is designed for such as the hansapuuttuwa, bherunda pakshiya, irahanda, and so on. The elegant and glamorous dresses of the elephants and their decoration items are all decorated with traditional designs.

The men and women who parade the perahera are all adorned with traditional outfits and the soothing colours such as white, yellow, and red are once again echoing the traditional costume fashions of the Sinhalese.

The various dances and acts such as the kasa karayo, pandam and kulu are all parts of the intangible culture of Sri Lanka. The traditional lights called pandam are used to light the perahera (modern technologies are used today).

The Palanquins used are old modes of transportation used by the royals and the nobles. The Kumbal Perahera symbolises the importance of the traditional craft of pottery and the importance potters were given in ancient Sri Lanka.

These are only a few examples. The entire perahera, carries and proudly represents the 2500-year-old culture and civilisation of Sri Lanka. This is why the perahera is important. Also, the beliefs such as the perahera is associated with rainfall and prosperity are once again linked with the history and culture of the region.

As the sacred Tooth Relic has been the symbol of kingship since the 4th century CE, the perahera also symbolises the sovereignty of the kingdom and the king. In today’s sense, it could be the sovereignty of the country and the ruler.

Also, most importantly, it is a religious festival held in honour of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism and the Buddhist philosophy. Therefore, this makes this festival a universally important event for Buddhists all over the world. 

As this is a pageant that is 17 centuries old, represents the Sinhala culture and at the same time holds values that have universal significance, it could be seen as an important event for humankind. If we could consider these things and make an attempt, cannot we declare this pageant as a World Heritage?

A fusion of cultures and what is wrong with that?

Some would say, the Kandy Esala Perahera is non-Buddhist as it has many Hindu practices and influences; hence it is not a pure Sinhalese or Buddhist practice. Especially as these vibrant dances and music and elephants are involved, some say that it is far from being Buddhist. However, there is no culture and race in the world that is known as ‘pure’ or ‘unmixed’. This applies to the Sinhala Buddhist culture too.

The Sinhala or the Buddhist culture that exists in Sri Lanka, the many foreign or especially Hindu cultural influences it has is evidence of the cultural and religious harmony and coexistence of Sri Lanka that has been practiced for many, many centuries. Also, these influences are a contributor to the diversity of Sri Lanka’s culture. The religious practices that existed in Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka never faded away; instead, they blended with Buddhism giving birth to a unique culture. The Kandy Esala Perahera, a combination of the Dalada Perahera followed by the Visnu, Natha, Kataragama, and Pattini devala peraheras is an example of the religious harmony of Sri Lanka. Four devalas were built right in front of the most sacred temple of the Buddhists, the Dalada Maligawa, and till do date there is no objection to this. They have become a part of ‘our culture’. Also, the large number of small shrines and statues of gods and goddesses inside temple premises and temple image houses are another fine example of religious harmony and coexistence. This cannot be seen elsewhere in the world.

 The bull, known by the Hindus as the vehicle of Siva, was removed from the Moonstones during the Polonnaruwa period. This was the time a Hindu influence was notably happening in Sri Lanka. Siva is considered the most powerful god by Hindus. His vehicle is the bull named Nandi. The Bull is one of the four animals in Buddhist arts, that is used to represent the four cardinal directions and was an important part of the moonstone. However, as the moonstone is always being stepped on, as a mark of respect, the Bull was removed from the moonstone.

It is also noted that Elara’s son, a prince of an unknown name, is being venerated at an ancient Buddhist temple in Kandy where his statue is also kept.

A Muslim mosque was allowed to build on the Kataragama devala premises and it plays a notable role in the rituals held at the Kataragama perahera and cult. Where else such true religious harmony exists?

 Accordingly, another significant aspect of the Kandy Esala Perahera is the beautiful cultural and religious fusion. This also represents the various phases, trends and influences of the history of Sri Lanka.

(Pix by Manilka Jayasingha)

By Ama H. Vanniarachchcy