One of the oldest and largest Buddhist celebrations in Sri Lanka is the Esala Perahera in Kandy, which features dancers, jugglers, musicians, fire-breathers, and elephants that have been lavishly decorated. This takes place in Esala (July or August), the month that is thought to honour the Buddha’s first teaching after attaining enlightenment. The ten-day Kandy Esala Perahera features a variety of celebrations that go on the entire time. The Sinhalese word “Perahera” refers to a procession of performers, including musicians, dancers, singers, acrobats, and other entertainers, together with a sizable contingent of caparisoned elephants and tuskers parading the streets in honour of a holy occasion.
History of the Kandy Perahera
There was internal conflict in Kalingadesha of India (modern Orissa) and the left-eye Tooth Relic of the Buddha (Vamadhata Dhatu) was in Dantapura of Kalinga during the reign of Siri Moghavanna of Sri Lanka (in his ninth regnal year). Prince Dantha and Princess Hemamali disguised themselves as nomadic travellers carrying the Trisula and water pots to safeguard the protection of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Hemamali travelled to Sri Lanka with the Sacred Tooth Relic hidden in the knot of her hair.
Prince Dantaha and Princess Hemamala, the son-in-law and daughter of King Guhasiva of Kalinga in India, brought the sacred tooth relic to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Kirthisiri Meghawanna (305–331 AD). Following the decree of King Kirthisiri Meghawanna that the Relic should be taken around the city of Anuradhapura once a year, the Esala Perahera had been followed by the succession of kings, though with interruptions caused by foreign invasions.
The most revealing narration of the Esala Perehera is found in the book written by the Chinese pilgrim ‘Fa Hien’ who visited Sri Lanka in the 5th century A.D. The sporadic invasions by the Dravidian Kingdoms resulted in the shifting of the seat of the kingdom from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, then to Dambadeniya and thereafter to other cities. In each retreat, a new temple was constructed to enshrine the Sacred Tooth Relic. Finally, after the shift of the capital to Kandy, the Relic has been undisturbed.
After the sacred tooth relic shifted to Kandy, the Esala Perahera began during the reign of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747–1782 AD), who ruled the Kandyan Kingdom. King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe ordered to take the sacred tooth relic in procession for the public to see and honour. After that decree, the grand Kandy Esala Perahera festival continued for hundreds of years until today.
The Kandyan kingdom was left without a king after the British conquered it in 1815. As a result, the precious tooth relic’s chief lay keeper, known as the “Diyawadana Nilame,” was chosen to manage regular administrative tasks.He currently serves as the Temple of the Holy Tooth’s chief custodian and is in charge of planning the Perahera festival. Diyawadana Nilame was clad in the customary Nilame garb worn by high-ranking officials under the rule of the Kandyan king. His staff is striding alongside him.
Esala Perahera is a unique symbol of Sri Lanka, featuring traditional dancers, drummers, musicians, whip crackers, flag bearers, and lavishly decorated elephants. The main attraction of this festival is the amazing traditional dancing performances, including Kandyan dances. Various other cultural dances mix both the Buddhist and Hindu ritual practices to Esala Perahera. As a result, Esala Perahera harmonizes the different nations in the country.
Order of the Procession
01. Whip Crackers
The Whip Crackers lead the procession at the front. The procession’s approach is signaled by the cracking of whips from the beginning to the finish of the route designated by Perahera.
02. Flag Bearers
The flag bearers follow the whip crackers in single file on both sides of the road, bearing the national flag, as well as the flags from the various provinces and temples. Following him with the register of the Holy Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is the official named Peramunerala riding the first elephant.
03. Fire Ball Dancers
After that, you may see fireball dancers, who play with burning balls of material, in action. This group puts on incredible dancing routines with lots of acrobatic skills.These fireball dancers, or “Pandampaliya,” represent the radiance of illumination. This dance piece is quite engaging and has amazing rhythm and motions.
The drummers playing traditional drums and flutes come next in the parade. It is a religious ceremony carried out to honour the relic of the sacred tooth. Hereditary drummers from multiple generations are participating in this parade. To venerate the hallowed tooth relic, they play the tunes with utmost reverence and respect.
05. Trumpet Players
Trumpet players play the traditional tune of Gajaga Wannama throughout the procession. This tune is very popular among Sri Lankans, as the tune of Dalada Perahera.
06. Traditional Dancers
Then you can see performers of traditional dances with coconut flowers. The coconut blooms are held in their hands as they dance. According to traditional Sri Lankan beliefs, the coconut flower represents prosperity. These coconut blossom dancers represent Esala Perahera’s intention to wish the nation success.
07. Kandyan Dancers
Native to Kandy, the Kandyan dance represents the Kandyan way of life. In Sri Lanka, only male dancers execute it. Their leaps and movements are amazing and magnificent, and they have the power to mesmerize the audience. The acrobatic moves of the dancing teams of traditional Kandyan dancers work their charm. One of the pageant’s most impressive performances features strong leaps and spins.
A large team of traditional Kandyan dancers dance to the music of drums. Kandyan dancers wear colourful elaborate costumes adorned with rattling anklets, jingling bangles, and funky headgear. They are highly talented and experienced in participating in the Perahera festival.
08. Elephant Parades
The beautifully decorated elephants are one of the most captivating sights in Perahera. The elephants are adorned with lavish garments and illuminated with lights. The officials related to the Temple of Tooth are riding on top of the elephants, call as Peramune Rala and Nilames.
09. Ceremonial Tusker
The entrance of the majestic ceremonial tusker is unquestionably the most eagerly anticipated aspect of the parade. He is holding the golden reliquary containing the Lord Buddha’s precious tooth. He is surrounded by two more exquisitely decorated tuskers and is dressed in an attractive gown that is delicately lighted.
The arrival of the tusker is the center of attraction: the Maligawa Tusker walks majestically in supreme grace and great pride carrying the resplendent golden casket. The golden casket contains the sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha called the ‘Karaduwa’ and it is sheltered by a canopy.
When the majestic tusker is walking, the walking path covers with a white cloth called Pawada for him to walk on. This is the most awe-inspiring sight for the Buddhists, as seeing the sacred tooth relic of the Lord Buddha in front of the eyes in the golden casket atop the majestic tusker.
10. Traditional Dancers
Soon after the Maligawa tusker, two long lines of traditional Kandyan dancers can be seen. They create a vibrant dancing scene while laying the path for the Diyawadana Nilame, the custodian of the Temple of Tooth.
The Kumbal Perahera is an integral part of the Kandy Esala Perahera festival in Sri Lanka. It is the initial procession that takes place for five nights, preceding the Randoli Perahera. Adorned elephants, dancers, drummers, and various performers mesmerize spectators, showcasing the rich cultural heritage of the country during this vibrant and religious event.
Randoli Perahera is a significant part of the Kandy Esala Perahera festival in Sri Lanka. It is a procession held on five consecutive nights, featuring beautifully adorned elephants, traditional dancers, drummers, and other performers. The Randoli Perahera adds splendor and grandeur to the overall celebration, captivating spectators with its cultural richness.
Following the Kumbal Perahera, the Five “Randoli” Peraheras are held for five days in a row. The Randoli Perahera is the most stunning and impressive of these Peraheras (golden palanquin). At this time, Kandy is crowded with visitors and local onlookers.
In addition to more than fifty elephants and tuskers, hundreds of drummers, dancers, singers, and tastefully attired pilgrims and onlookers, this is the only Perahera in the world that lasts for ten days.
Four Devala Perahera
One of Senkadagala’s oldest structures is the Natha devale, which is thought to have been constructed in the 14th century by King Vikramabahu III of Gampola. The Natha Devalaya is a Dethis Pala Bodhi tree that was planted by a Brahman by the name of Natha, according to the Chulabod-hiwansa, which was published during the Kandyan period. People still come to this tree, also known as the Welbodhiya, to worship and take vows.
The Natha Devalaya has two Chaityas, which is unique. One chaitya is thought to hold one Pathra dhatu (the Buddha’s eating bowl). (dome shaped white structure). According to historical accounts, the Natha devale was where the monarchs of Senkadagala chose fitting names.
The names were written on pieces of puskola (ola leaf), arranged on a silver tray and placed in front of the statue of the deity. On a nekath day (auspicious day) the appointed king would enter the devale with his entourage and select a piece of ola leaf with a name from the tray and hand it over to a Nilame who would announce in public that this particular name has been given to the king by the deity. Following this custom, it is said that the Nayakkar names of Kannasamy –Muttusamy have been changed as Vijaya Rajasinha.
The Natha Devale is entirely made of rock. The architecture is distinctive from those of other Kandyan-era structures and resembles a Hindu temple. The god is alluded to by the sculptors in Sri Lanka as Shivanatha, Brahmanatha, Vishnunatha, Gaurinatha, Mathseyendranatha, Bhadranatha, Bauddhanatha, and Gananatha in the Sanskrit book Shariputra. The Natha deiyo is credited for creating the hue yellow. (deity).
THE NATHA DEWALA PERAHERA is a scaled-down version of the Maligawa Perahera. The attire and emblem (Ran Ayudhaya) of the Deity of the Dewla are shown on the howdah on the lead elephant. The Basnayake Nilame is the Dewale’s leader. It is usual for him to be escorted by the Basnayake Nilames of Dodanwela, Vegiriya, and Pasgama when he goes in the Perahera with his entourage of dancers. These three Dewales are classified as Pitisara (“outside”) Dewales because they are not part of the Four Gravets of Kandy.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 Devalaya is another name for Visnu Devalaya. This devalaya’s original location was on the Colombo-Kandy road in Aluthnuwara, close to Mawanella. During the rule of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinha, it was moved to Kandy. This resulted from the Portuguese invasion that came to the upcountry regions. On their journey up to Gannoruwa in Kandy, the Portuguese looted and demolished the Aluthnu-wara devale.
It is said that the Vishnu devale was the site of the Kandyan kings’ coronation. Following the Natha Devale Perahera is this devale perahera. The god is blue in colour. All of the elephants are dressed in blue “Eth Hetta,” the cloth used to clothe them, to keep with the motif. Additionally blue are the bulbs on the tusker bearing the deity’s emblem.
After the conclusion of the Esala Perahera, the ‘Valiyak Mangalya’ is performed for seven days in the devale premises. This is a shanthi karmaya – to bless all artistes and others who were involved in the Perahera.
Kataragama Devalaya is situated in the present Kotugodella Vidiya in the centre of the busy city. In earlier times, this street was known as the ‘Kavikara Vidiya.’ This deity is also known as Skanda Kumara. People believe that the deity protects them from enemy action. The main devalaya in the name of this deity is situated in Ruhunu Kataragama, south of Sri Lanka.
The Kapuralas, who originally performed the ceremonies, were Brahmins from India. The Kataragama god is regarded as a Hindu deity. In contrast to the previous devale peraheras, the Kataragama Devala Perahera comes after the Vishnu Devala Perahera. There are unique Hindu cultural objects there. The vehicle, or “vahanaya,” of the deity is a peacock. Always shown seated atop a peacock, the deity. Red is prevalent, as drummers and dancers wear red clothing.
A unique feature is the ‘Kavadi’ dance and also young men with iron hooks fixed on to their skins hanging from a string attached to a contraption, or being pulled by others with long strings. It is said that this is a penance to honour a vow they have made. The flute music and the drumming are also different to that of the other devales.
Hindu women’s goddess Padmini is revered for prosperity and well-being. The Kandy Pattini Devalaya’s specifics are unclear. The devale is attributed to King Narendra Sinha. The deity’s anklets are said to have been carried to this country and placed in this devale, and a duplicate that resembles anklets is said to have been placed in each Pattini devale. Being a female idol, Goddess Pattini, it is unusual to solely witness female dancers performing during this Perahera.
The Daval Perahera serves as the Perahera’s high point. (Day Perahera). The Randoli are positioned at the Pillayar Kovil in Katukelle upon the return of the devale peraheras following the water-cutting ceremony. Around 2:00 p.m. on the day of the Daval Perahera, the devale peraheras travel to Kandy and join the Maligawa Perahera, which will be arriving from the Gedige Viharaya. Another Sri Dalada Esala Perahera comes to an end when the procession disperses and everyone returns to their individual devales after making three complete laps of the temple square (Maligawa Chaturassaya).
Diya Kepeema and Day Perahera
After the final Perahera four Perahera from the four ‘devales’ head towards the stepping stones of the Getambe Mahaveli River near Peradeniya. The chief ‘kapuralas’ (priests) of the ‘devales’ then wade into the river’s middle. A ‘golden’ sword point used by one of the ‘kapuralas’ to draw a circle in the water. Then the priests’ empties the water into the river that is held in the ‘golden ewer’ (ran kendiya) which they had filled with water at the same spot the year before.
After that, they re-fill them with new water (the ewers will be emptied and re-filled here at the end of The Esala Perahera the following year). This custom, known as the “diya kapeema ” (literally, “cutting of the water”), is performed early on the final day of the celebrations.
The four Peraheras then begin their marching retreat into Kandy. They stop at Katukelle’s “Pulleyar Kovil” (Selvavinayagar Kovil) en route. Afterwards, at a time determined by astrology to be favorable, they move on to the Adahana Maluwa and join the Maligawa Perahera. Three times, the five Peraheras parade down King Street and D. S. Senanayake Street. The annual Kandy Esala Pageant comes to a close when the Maligawa Perahera enters the Maligawa and the devale Peraheras arrive at their respective temples.