Sri Lanka: Kandy Esala Perahera Maintains Its Traditions Amidst Modernisation

By Kalinga Seneviratne

The Kandy Esala Perahera a colourful nightly procession of dancers, drummers, whip-crackers, fire-dancers and gaily decorated elephants which winds along the streets of the ancient hill capitol of Kandy over ten days during the Esala full moon (in July or Ausgust) is world renowned for its grandeur and colour. Yet, perhaps less well known are the age old traditions which underlies this cultural pageant and how the Sri Lankans are balancing the demands of modernisation and the need to preserve its traditions.

Dalada Maligawa – Paying Homage to the Tooth Relic of the Buddha

The annual procession pays homage to the tooth relic of Gauthama the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, which is the main religion of the island. But, the Kandy Esala Perahera also reflects the close rapport Buddhism has with another major religion in the island Hinduism.

The month of ‘Esala’ marks the peak of the dry season in Sri Lanka, and being an agrarian society the people used to perform rain-making ceremonies by invoking the blessings of the gods of nature – thus the strong Hindu influence in the origins of this festival. But, in the 18th century when Buddhist monks from Thailand came to re-establish the order of monks – which was decimated by Portuguese colonisation – they suggested to the King that the ceremony should focus on paying respect to the tooth relic which was then residing in Kandy.

Drawings at Dalada Maligawa Inner Walls Depicting the Journey of the Tooth Relic to Sri Lanka and presentation to the King

‘Dalada Maligawa’ (Temple of the Tooth) is the most venerated Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka where a tooth of Gauthama Buddha, plucked from his funeral pyre, was brought to the island by Indian monks and is now enshrined in a gold casket here.

Today, this casket carrying the tooth relic is taken in the procession on top of the ‘Maligawa Atha’ (Temple Tasker) as a form of homage to the Buddha. Many Buddhists also believe that this act helps to bring plenty of rain for the next farming season.

The Devale Procession representing Hindu Temples with Kavadi Dancers

The Hindu origins of this water festival is still acknowledged in the fact that the processions of the four ‘Devales’ (Hindu Temples) representing the gods Pattini, Vishnu, Kataragama and Natha follow the ‘Maligawa’ procession. In addition, this festival still retains many aspects of the old water festival such as the ‘kapa’ ceremony which is performed at the four ‘Devales’ to herald in the festival.

‘Kappa’, a piece of wood separated from a young lactiferous tree which symbolise prosperity and the Rain God Indra is planted at each of the ‘Devales’ and for five nights a small procession of drummers accompanied by the ritual priest who carries the insignia of his temple deity march around the ‘kapa’ within the precincts of his own shrine. These processions are called the ‘Atul Perahera’ (Inner Procession) and on the sixth day they join the ‘Dalada Maligawa’ procession to march through the city streets.

The Inner Pereheras Carrying the ‘Kappa’

These processions on the first five nights are called the ‘Kumbal Perahera’ and the more elaborate processions on the next five nights are called the ‘Randoli Perahera’. The procession on the last night (full moon day) is called the ‘Maha Perahera’ (Big Procession) and consists of hundreds of drummers and dancers, and between 80 to 100 elephants who are all dressed up in coloured shiny costumes with some even having light globes attached to their dress. They carry caskets of relics or statues of deities and have temple dignitaries riding on their backs in traditional dresses dating back to the days of the Sinhalese kings. The elephants are followed by the ‘Nilames’ (Temple Custodians) who wear a special dress which is said to contain some 32 yards of cloth. The final perahera is today broadcast live by the national television networks.

Diyawadana Nilame Bringing the Casket to Place on the Tusker(left) and the Temple Tusker Carrying the Casket in Perahera (top rights) and Diyawadana Nilame walking behind the elephant in traditional dress(bottom right)

After the final night’s procession is completed, the four ritual priests of the ‘Devales’ known as ‘Kapurala’, go in a small procession with drummers early morning to the river, to perform the ‘water cutting’ ceremony. They pour out the old water from the pots they carry and fill it up with new water. This water is collected when the ‘Kapurala’ cuts the flowing stream of water with his ceremonial sword and collects the water which splash up into the pot. This water is carried back to the ‘Devales’ in the final day perahera which takes place after midday and kept there until the next year’s festival.

The Kandy Perahera today is also an exposition of the best of traditional Kandyan drumming and dancing. The drummers and dancers you see are the best exponents of this art form with centuries of tradition behind them. They see it as an honour to perform at the Kandy Perahera and they come from artistic families which goes back many generations.

The festival has played a major role in nurturing these traditions for centuries. Under Sinhalese kingdoms there was a system called ‘Rajakariya’ (Obligations to the King) where the traditional artistes were given land by the ‘Dalada Maligawa’ and in return they performed certain duties to the temple such as drumming and dancing for temple ceremonies including the perahera.

Land laws introduced as part of the British colonial policy in the 19th century undermined this system and today the drummers and dancers are paid for performing in the perahera but there are strict criteria applied to choose those who belong to these traditional families.

Modernisation has also effected the supply of elephants for the perahera. Elephant owners say that maintaining an elephant is beyond the means of most, except the very rich. It costs around Rs 10,000 – 15,000 (USD 100 -150) a month to feed an elephant and clearing of jungles for cultivation in the past 30 years has seen the dwindling of the elephant population in Sri Lanka.

The Final Day Perehera

The ‘Dalada Maligawa’ is keen to continue with the involvement of elephants in the festival and they maintain a herd of some 13 elephants. It is hoped that some of the elephant orphanages which raise revenue through tourism would be able to provide elephants for the perahera in the future, as the current stable of private elephant owners disappear.

Thus, the ability of the ‘Kandy Esala Perahera’ to overcome the commercial pressures of modernisation will be critical to maintaining the rich artistic traditions of the Sinhalese.

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