Ancient rituals of the Esala Perahera tradition

by H. A. W. Hewawasam

Kandy Perahera during the colonial times

Kandy Perahera during the colonial times. Picture: ANCL library

Esala is the month of festivals. Temples and devalayas conduct their annual peraheras according to traditional customs in this season. The month of Esala is so famous and synonymous with pageants. Ven. Moronthota Thera in a verse to King Rajadhi Rajasinghe writes "Esala masa dutimi yanawa Dev-Keliye".

Kap planting heralds all the peraheras in our country. It is terminated with water cutting ceremony.

Why do various societies give prominence to peraheras? Sri Lanka is predominantly an agro-based society. The main focus of the perahera is to seek the blessings of gods for the prosperity of their cultivation.

This idea is clearly manifested during the post-harvesting season where the foremost, offer part of their harvest as kiri ahara to Buddhist temples, and in certain areas until their offerings are made they do not even consume the newly reaped harvest.

Dalada Perahera holds a predominant position among all the peraheras in Sri Lanka. This is the most spectacular pageant where the historical glory, religious significance, cultural ornaments are brought to light. Then Śrī Dalada Maligawa and the Kandy Esala Perahera are inseparable, the people of our country believe.

The month of Esala brings a moderate climate, and the surrounding is oozing with abundance and prosperity. Trees are adorned with fruits and new blossoms. The month is an important month for the Buddhist clergy, as it is a chapter for them to devote in high meditation. This is named as Vas and the period of seniority of the bhikkhus is measured by the number of occasions they observed Vas -

Sri Lanka experiences an inclement weather in Poson, Esala and Nikini where we experience less rain. Sometimes prolonged period of dry weather continues. This people of Anuradhapura too hold Esala Perahera for success and prosperity of their cultivation.

Thus, we find the aim of the Esala Perahera is quite different of the focus of the Esala festival of Kandy. Anuradhapura takes water from Tissawewa and people pour it to JayaŚrī Maha Bodhi and invoke blessings on the god Kalu Kumara, who is supposed to have take abode in this tree.

In the meantime, people believe the miraculous power of the JayaŚrī Maha Bodhi in causing rain at times of distress. The Esala Perahera was first held at Anuradhapura, Ven. Fahian, a Chinese, the adventurist bhikkhu gives an account of the Anuradhapura Esala Perahera. Besides, the blessing for agricultural prosperity the Perahera had several other aims as well. The Mahavamsa says with the arrival of the Aryans there used to be annual pageants to satisfy the Gods.

It was known as 'Nakath Keliya' with the passage of time, King Gajabha commemorated the victory over the Cholas by conducting peraheras. Mixing all these historical items, the Kandy Esala perahera has taken an auspicious role centred on the Sacred Tooth Relic.

The Sacred Tooth was brought to Kandy Delgamuwa Viharaya in Sitawaka as the King Rajasinghe embraced Hinduism. King Wimaladharma, defeating the King Rajasinghe, established sovereignty in Kandy. Thus the King wanted to have the Tooth Relic taken into his possession to have the right to kingship. Several people helped the King to have his intention fulfilled. There were Diyawadana Nilame of Sitawaka known as Hiripitiye Ekanayake Rala - Ven Dewanagala Rathnaloka and Galauda Thera. Under their help the Dalada was brought to Kandy from Delgamuwa Viharaya via the Uva road.

The King had decorated the city to receive the Sacred Tooth at Ampitiya according to the Dalada Puwatha. For a short period, the Dalada was kept at Asgiriya Gedige and even today the Dalada is taken to the Asgiriya Gedige during the Perahera time as a mark of respect.

Dalada Puwatha further says, a compartment of the King's palace was made to keep Sacred Tooth Relic until a two storied palace was built to place it.

According to Robert Knox, we did not have a Dalada Perahera in Kandy these days. What we had was a Perahera of Gods devoted to God Aluthnuwara for which Kataragama and Paththini Dewala did take place. However, Natha Dewalaya whose God "Natha" supposed to be the Maithree Buddha did not take part in the Perahera.

The Kandy Esala Perahera has taken a new shape, and a concept during the reign of Kirthi Śrī Rajasinghe with the advice of Ven. Welivita Saranankara Sangha Raja Thera.

A prominent Buddhist Association in Kandy, the YMBA requests that the statue of Ven. Welivita Saranakara Thera be carried out in the Dalada Perahera as a mark of respect for his great ideal of converting the Perahera in a significant pageant of the Buddhists of the world.

After the revival, the former Perahera of Vishnu-Kataragama, Natha and Sama Devalayas became an integral part of the Kandy Esala Perahera.Today, we have the fifth Maligawa built in Senkadagala. It was built by Veera Parakrama Narendrasinghe - Dutch aggression caused damage and destruction to the Maligawa - but the King continued his restoration over 10 years. During the British time the Dalada Perahera was forbidden. In 1828, the Dalada Perahera resumed.

Description of the Perahera

The casket with the Sacred Tooth Relics takes the foremost place in the Dalada Perahera. This is followed by other Devala peraheras namely, Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pathini.

Customs of the Perahera

'Kap' planting is the auspices proclamation of the Perahera customs. Here, a branch is cut from a milk pouring tree, namely jak and it is cut into four posts and planted in the four dewalayas.

Kumbal Perahera

The initial stage of the Perahera is known as the Kumbal Perahera, the most spectacular Perahera in the Randholi Perahera.

The last Perahera is the marked by 'Water cutting' which is done at Gatambe, where a casket is taken and the previous year's water collection is released into the river.

The water cutting ceremony has a special significance. It reminds classical warfare between Sura and Asura, and also it used to be the symbol of rain.

Natha Devalaya in located just in front of the Dalada Maligawa. God Natha is an aspirant of Buddhahood. He is also known as Atalokithesvara.

The oldest building in Kandy is the Natha Devalaya. Vishnu Devalaya is located by the palace of the King. God Vishnu is believed to be the custodian of the Buddhism and the Dalada Maligawa.

Earlier Aluth Nuwara Devalaya used to be her. King Narendrasinghe built the Vishnu Devalaya at the place where Aluth Nuwara Devalaya used to be.

By the Vishnu Devalaya there built the Aluth Nuwara Devalaya. The building plan is similar to the Dodanwela Devalaya of Yatinuwara. God Vishnu's influence is immersed in the soul and minds of the Sinhala Kings. They attributed their success in the warfare due to the blessing of God Vishnu. King Rajadhi Rajasinghe said I have made an offering of golden conch to the devalaya after his success against Dutch.

Kataragama Devalaya is located at Katugodella street. It was built during the time of Narendrasinghe. All these Devalayas have prescribed duties to be done for the Dalada Perahera.

Courtesy: The Ceylon Daily News (Colombo) of Wednesday, 29 July 2009