The Kandy Esala Perahera is known to be a grand and one of the oldest Buddhist festival celebrated with elegant costumes and is held in July or August in Kandy in Sri Lanka. The historical procession is held annually to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, which is housed at the Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of Tooth Relic) in Kandy. A unique festival in Sri Lanka, this procession consists of many traditional local dances such as fire dances, whipdances, Kandyan dances and various other cultural dances featuring dancers, jugglers, musicians, fire breathers, in addition, elephants who are usually adorned with lavish garments. This is the only Perahera in the world which is held for ten days along with more than fifty Elephants and Tuskers, hundreds of drummers, dancers, singers and elegantly dressed pilgrims and spectators. The city of Kandy is fulfilled with tourists and local spectators during this period.
Esala perahera is held in July or August which is the month that is believed to commemorate the first teaching given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. The month of Esala is considered as a month of celebrations and festivity. This perahera lasts for ten days while various festivities can be witnessed right throughout. Even from the lifetime of Buddha in the
6th century BC, the Esala perahera was held to commemorate the Buddha’s conception, renunciation and the first sermon. After the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British in 1815, the
custody of the Relic was handed over to Buddhist clergy. In the absence of the king, a chief lay custodian called “Diyawadana Nilame” was appointed to handle routine administrative matters concerning the relic and its care.
Annually Kandy Perahera is inaugurated with the planting of the kapruka or kap, in which a sanctified young Jackfruit tree (earlier it was esala tree) is cut and planted in the premises of each of the four Devales dedicated to the four guardian gods Natha , Vishnu, Katharagama and the goddess Pattini . Traditionally it was meant to shower blessing on the King and the people. Reaching devale, the kap is duly planted at the allotted place in the premises facing east. For the next four days devale perahera is conducted within devale premises. Following this first stage, the perahera goes in procession for ten days. On each of these days, the processions of four devales proceed to the entrance to the Dalada Maligawa, where they join the Maligawa procession and then the combined procession goes winding along the prescribed route.
On the sixth night, the first procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic starts with the Kumbal Procession and continues over five days. This is the first Kumbal Perahera shown to the infants to drive away Evil spells and ill will which is a tradition. . But the Kumbal Perahara is popular and remains as an unfinished procession or a semi procession. The reason is that Nilames do not work in this procession. But the Drummers and Tuskers take part without any ceremonial costumes. The relic casket which is the replica for the Tooth Relic is placed inside the ransivige affixed to the Maligawa Elephant, the Maligawa Perahera joins the awaiting Devale Peraheras and leads the procession. The other four ‘devale’ peraheras follow in the aforesaid order.
During the first five days, the Devale Perahera is held within the grounds of four Devales dedicated to the four guardians God Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and the Goddess Pattinin by the chief priests of the Devales. Traditionally it was meant to shower blessing on the King and the people. The second procession is from the Natha Devale, which faces the Sri Dalada Maligawa and is said to be the oldest building in Kandy, dating back to the 14th Century. The third is from the Vishnu Devale (Vishnu being a Hindu god), also known as the Maha Devale. It is situated in front of the main gate of the Natha Devale.
The fourth procession is from the Katharagama Devale (dedicated to the God of Katharagama, identified with the warrior god Skanda) which is on Kottugodalle Vidiya (a street in Kandy). The fifth and final procession is from the Pattini Devale ( Pattini being a goddess associated with the cure of infectious diseases and called upon in times of drought and famine), which is situated to the West of the Natha Devale. This is the only procession that has women dances.
The Randoli Perahera begins after five nights of Kumbal Perahera. Five Randoli processions are continued after the Kumbal procession. Out of these processions most beautiful and spectacular is the Randoli Perahera. Randoli means palanquins on which the Queens of the ruling Kings traditionally traveled. This could be seen only with the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic and parade the streets for the whole five days which is a tradition. In the days of the Kings, the Chief Queen of the Kings paraded in this procession in palanquins. As the participation of the Queens was not proper to the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic they were stopped but a palanquin is taken in the procession as an honor to the Queen. Today it is taken as the last item of the procession. The Maha Randoli Perahara is the last Procession. It is the grandest event of the festival. The Tuskers come with garlands and decorated with ceremonial costumes. The Diyawadana Nilame adds a novel glamour to the procession by wearing a newly stitched costume.
The whole Perahera spectacle takes more than three hours. It constitutes a memorable cultural pageant which mixes the Buddhist and Hindu ritual practices, and also some Mahayana and Theravada elements. After the five nights of Randoli Perahera, four Perahera’s from the four ‘devales’ head towards the steppingstones of the Getambe Mahaveli River near Peradeniya. In there, the whole festival ends with the Diya Kepeema, which refers to the water cutting ceremony.This ritual is done by the chief priests of four devales which takes place on the morning of the last day of the festivities.
Main events of the Procession
- Whip Crackers – At the forefront of the procession is the Whip Crackers. They intimate the arrival of the King. Generally, they are used to make room for the Sacred Tooth Relic to be taken in the procession.
- Flag Bearers – Carrying standard flags and flags of the different Provinces and the Temples in single file on both sides of the road.
- Sword Carriers – They walk with raised swords along the path of the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic. They do not perform any dance but walk.
- Fireball dancers – The glow of lightning is magnificently shown by these Fire Ball Dancers. This Fire Ball Display is dangerous but with a balanced mind and body, it is a simple exercise.
- Peramune Rala (Front Runner) – Riding on the first elephant follows next carrying the register of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth at Kandy.
- Drummers – playing an array of traditional drums and blowing traditional flutes. These hereditary Drum Beaters beat their drums as a religious ritual to the Sacred Tooth Relic.
- Gajanayake Nilame – He is in charge of the group of tuskers of the King. As a tradition Diyawadana Nilame hands over a Goad to Gajanayake Nilame.
- Diyawadana Nilame – At the end of the retinue is the Custodian of the Temple of the Tooth titled Diyawadana Nilame, dressed in traditional regalia of the high officials of kings, who reigned at the medieval kingdom of Kandy. Diyawadana Nilame is attended by Murawadu (lance bearers), Wadana tal- athu (sunshade bearers and umbrella-bearers) as well as the other officials of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth.
- Horanekaruwo (Trumpet Blowers) – The tune Gajaga Wannama is well played right throughout the procession.The trumpet is made with skills pertaining to generations. It is an essential instrument of the Dalada Procession.
- Thammattamkaruwo (Thammattam Players) – The drum tied round the waist produce the rhythm by beating with the help of two sticks. The hands and feet are free for them to dance and play the drum easily.
- Maligawa Tusker – is caparisoned, robed and illuminated, walks majestically in supreme grace and great pride carrying the resplendent golden casket called the ‘Karaduwa’ sheltered with a canopy. The golden casket contains the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha.