Ancient rituals of the Esala Perahera tradition
by H. A. W. Hewawasam
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
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.
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
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