Historic pageant of the Hill Country

Saturday, 17 August 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Indrajith Senadhira The Esala Maha Perahera of Kandy has once again commenced parading the streets of the hill capital, bringing much joy, veneration and enthusiasm among the Buddhists as well as many non-Buddhists in Sri Lanka. This historic annual pageant is held as homage to the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, in keeping with the age old traditions. The annual Esala Maha Perahera of Kandy has many facets in it, being a religious, cultural as well as a historical event in Sri Lanka. The sacred tooth relic of the Buddha which is believed to have been brought to Sri Lanka by Prince Dantha and Princes Hemamala from India during the reign of Keerthi Sri Meghawarna (303-331 AD) gradually became a great religious object in Sri Lanka and also the personal property of the king, which symbolised the kingship of the country. Ancient beginnings The ancient kings always treated the scared tooth relic of the Buddha with much respect and veneration and had built special temples (Dalada Maligawas) to house this great religious object. With the movement of ancient kingdoms to different parts of the country in the wake of enemy invasions, the sacred tooth relic too had been moved to various parts of the country, from Anuradhapura to lonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte by the respective kings who ruled Sri Lanka. King Wimaladharmasuriya I (1592-1604 AD) is considered to be the monarch who finally brought the sacred tooth relic to Kandy from the famous ‘Delgamuwa Viharaya’ where it was kept in a secret enclave. The present Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), where the sacred tooth relic is placed, is believed to have been constructed by King Veera Parakrama Narendrasinghe (1707-1739 AD) and was subsequently renovated by King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe (1798-1815 AD) who is reported to have constructed the present Paththirippuwa (octagon) of the Dalada Maligawa and also the present Kandy Lake which has brought much scenic beauty to the historical city of Kandy. The historical narrations indicate that the Esala Perahera in Kandy had originally commenced by King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1784 AD) to give an opportunity for the common people to view and pay homage to the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. Symbolism According to Professor Senarath Paranwithana, who was the first Sri Lankan Archaeological Commissioner, the Esala Perahera was performed as a ritual to invoke the blessings of the deities for rain and the different aspects of the Perahera, commencing from the whip-crackers to the elephants, represent various stages of an impending rain such as thunder, lightening, dark clouds’ etc. The Kandy Esala Perahera is popularly believed to have got its name due to it being held in the month of Esala (July) traditionally. The Esala Perahera of Kandy commences with the ritual of planting ‘Kap’ at an auspicious time in the precincts of the four ‘devales’ near the Dalada Maligawa. It is believed that a pole made out of the ‘Esala Tree’ or a substitute like Jak or Rukattana was planted as ‘Kap’. Thereafter, for five nights, each ‘devalaya’ conducts its own peraheras around the ‘Kap’ planted within their precincts and on the sixth night commences the first ‘Kumbal Perahera’ which comes out of the respective ‘devales’ and are joined by the Dalada Maligawa Perahera and parades along certain selected streets of Kandy. After five nights of ‘Kumbal’ which parades along the streets of Kandy, the Randoli Perahera commences parading the streets. The Randoli Perahera is considered to be the most colourful procession and has got its name due to the tradition of ‘Ran Dolis’ or the ‘golden palanquins’ of the four devales being carried in the perahera. It is said that this ritual symbolises the participation of royal queens in the perahera during the ancient times. After five nights of parading, the Randoli concludes with the grand pageant on the final night which is believed to be the longest and the most colourful perahera with the participation of the highest number of dancers, drummers and elephants. Five peraheras The usual Kandy Esala Perahera consists of five distinctive processions, namely the Dalada Maligawa Perahera, Natha Dewala Perahera, Vishnu Dewala Perahera, Katharagama Dewala Perahera and Paththini Dewala Perahera. The main perahera commences with the whip-crackers who are followed by the Buddhist flag bearers, provincial flag bearers and the ‘Peramune Rala’ who rides on an elephant carrying a ‘sannasa’ believed to contain details/history of the perahera. The ‘Hewisi’ drummers and the dancers follow thereafter, whilst traditional torchbearers provide illumination from either side of the road. The performances of the Kandyan dancers in their traditional costumes are an eye-catching item in the Kandy Esala Perhera along with over 40 attractive traditional dancing items including the fire ball dancers, rattan dancers and tambourine (raban) dancers which add splendour to the Esala Perahera. It is reported that over 1,500 people take part in the Kandy Esala Perehera directly, in addition to a few thousand more including the security forces/police personnel etc. who indirectly support the successful completion of the perahera. Majestic elephants The many elephants of different ages and heights led by the ‘Gajanayake Nilame’ (official in charge of elephants) riding an elephant with a symbolic ‘Ankusa’ in hand are an important and colourful component of the Kandy Esala Perahera and it is very interesting to see as to how these magnificent animals walk so majestically in their colourful garments and illuminations, shaking their heads according to the beats of the drums. The ‘Sacred Relic Casket’ carried by the majestic tusker with two other tuskers besides is the cynosure of the Esala Perahera and it is a very moving gesture to see how the viewers stand up from their seats and pay homage when the tusker carrying the casket containing the relics passes by. The Majestic tusker carrying the relic casket is followed by the ‘Diyawadana Nilame’ who is the lay custodian of the tooth relic, in his colourful costume surrounded by several of his other key officials. Thereafter the four Devala Peraheras follow the main Dalada Maligawa Perehera. The Kandy Esala Perahera concludes with the traditional ‘Diya Kepeema’ (literally, water-cutting ceremony) performed at ‘Getambe’ ferry in the Mahaweli River, in the early hours of the next day after the conclusion of the final night of the ‘Randoli’ Perahera. Multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious Today, the Kandy Esala Perahera has become one of the foremost events in the calendar of the hill capital with a multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious blend and there are many thousands who flock to Kandy to glimpse this annual religious and cultural event. Hundreds of tourists come to Sri Lanka especially to view the Kandy Esala Perahera during this period and this year too, almost all the tourist hotels in Kandy are fully booked in advance by many local and foreign tourists who are eager to view the Kandy Esala Perahera in this present peaceful setting. The Kandy Esala Perahera is a national event which is internationally acclaimed and it is heartening to see as to how age-old traditions are still being maintained towards conducting this great religious and cultural event for almost a period of two and a half centuries by several generations of Sri Lankan people with much devotion and veneration. (The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and is the Regional Head of Hatton National Bank – Central Region.)