The Kandy Esala Perahera (the Esala procession of Kandy) also known as The Festival of the Tooth is a grand festival celebrated with elegant costumes and is held in July and August in Kandy, Sri Lanka. This historical procession is held annually to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, which is housed at the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. A unique symbol of Sri Lanka, the procession consists of many traditional local dances such as fire-dances, whip-dances, Kandyan dances and various other cultural dances, in addition to the elephants who are usually adorned with lavish garments. The festival ends with the traditional diya-kepeema ritual, a water cutting ceremony which is held at the Mahaweli River at Getambe, Kandy.
The Esala is believed to be a fusion of two separate but interconnected "Peraheras" (Processions) – The Esala and Dalada. The Esala Perahera, which is thought to date back to the 3rd century BC, was a ritual enacted to request the gods for rainfall. The Dalada Perahera is believed to have begun when the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka from India during the 4th century CE, eight hundred years after the passing away of Lord Buddha.
According to tradition, the Tooth Relic was taken in procession to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamala & Prince Dantha.
After the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British in 1815, the custody of the Relic was handed over to the Maha Sanga (the Buddhist Clergy). In the absence of the king, a chief lay custodian called the "Diyawadana Nilame" was appointed to handle routine administrative matters concerning the relic and its care.
The Kandy Esala Perahera begins with the Kap Situveema or Kappa, in which a sanctified young Jackfruit tree (Artocarpus integrifolia) 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.
The Kumbal Perahera
For the next five nights, the "Devale Peraheras" take place within the premises of the four Devales with the priest of each Devale taking the pole every evening, accompanied by music and drumming, flag and canopy bearers, spearman and the Ran Ayudha, the sacred insignia of the Gods.
On the sixth night, the Kumbal Perahera begins and continues on for five days. Initially, the Devale Peraheras assemble in front of the Temple of the Tooth, which is Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist Shrine and where the Buddha’s Sacred Tooth Relic has been kept since the 16th Century) with their insignias placed on the ransivige (a dome-like structure) accompanied by the Basnayake Nilames (the lay custodians of the Devales).
The relic casket, which is a substitute 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. Whip-crackers and fireball acrobats clear the path, followed by the Buddhist flag bearers. Then, riding on the first elephant, is the official called Peramuna Rala (Front Official). He is followed by Kandyan Drummers and Dancers who enthrall the crowd, and are themselves followed by elephants and other groups of musicians, dancers and flag bearers. A group of singers dressed in white heralds the arrival of the Maligawa Tusker carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic. The Diyawadana Nilame (traditionally required to do everything in his power to ensure rain in the correct season) walks in traditional Kandyan-clothed splendor after the tusker.
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 Kataragama deviyo, identified with the warrior god Skanda) which is on Kottugodalle Vidiya (a street in Kandy). This procession includes Kavadi, the peacock dance, in which the pilgrim-dances carry semicircular wooden contraptions studded with peacock feathers on their shoulders.
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 following important times are announced by the firing of cannonballs, which can be heard all across Kandy.
- The commencement of the Devale Peraheras
- The placing of the casket on the tuskers back
- The commencement of the Dalada Perahera
- The completion of the Perahera
The Randoli Perahera
The Randoli Perahera begins after five nights of the Kumbal Perahera. Randoli refers to palanquins on which the Queens of the ruling Kings traditionally traveled. 2016 Kandy Esala Maha Perahera (Randoli Perahera) was held on 17 August 2016, the full moon poya day with the participation of hundreds thousands people.
Diya Kepeema and the Day Perahera
After a further five nights of the Randoli Perahera, the pageant ends with the Diya Kepeema, which is the water cutting ceremony at the Mahaweli River at Getambe, a town a few miles from Kandy. A Day Perahera is held to mark the ceremony.
Notable Sacred Casket Bearer Elephants
Organization of the Perahera
The rituals connected with the Tooth Relic are conducted by Monks of the Malwatte Chapter and Asgiriya Chapters of the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka. It is the duty of the Diyawadana Nilame to organize the Perahera and thus he summons the large number of officials of the Temple of the Tooth and entrusts them with various ceremonial duties connected with the conducting of the Perahera. He first gets the auspicious time from the Nekath Mohottala, the advisor on astrological matters. The task of organising the different types of drummers is handed over to the four officials known as the Panikka Mura Baarakaruwo.
The Maligawa officials also meet the owners of the elephants due to take part in the Perahera (most elephants are privately owned). The dance troupes are given time to prepare. The Basnayake Nilames (the lay custodians of the Devales) are then told to organise their processions.
On completion of the Perahera, the Diyawadana Nilame would lead a procession consisting of the Nilames of Sathara Maha Devalas and the Nilames of rural devalas to the President's Pavilion carrying a sannasa (formal letter) known as the Perahera Sandeshaya to the President stating the successful complition of the annual Esala Perahera. The President would meet and receive the sannasa at the entrance to the President's Pavilion.
The month of Esala (July), during which period this annual pageant is usually held, had been considered a month of celebrations and festivity, both among Indians and Sri Lankans. Even from the lifetime of the Buddha in the 6th century BC, the Esala festival was held to commemorate the Buddha's Conception, his Renunciation and the First Sermon. Esala is also considered to be the beginning of the raining season (Vassana) when the monks commence their Retreat. Also, this month is considered to be the period when ritual performances to the protective divinities are held, (eg Pattini puja) as recorded in the text 'Pattini-Halla'. Being considered a 'chaste' month, the period is held sacred for the availability of water, hence prosperity.
Several records have been left behind by dignitaries and other visitors to the island such as Robert Knox, John Davy, etc. The description of the perahara. These accounts provide much evidence as to the constitution and organization of the present day perahara. Yet many features seem to have been added and some changed to suit the time and the available resources and conditions.Dalada procession and the social traditions are linked so much together; the month of Esala has been named as the procession month, because of the Esala feast. In the 18th century at the time of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe the four Devala Peraharas and Dalada Perahara were amalgamated and were made series of Peraharas. The procession is a complex procedure in which various customs are involved.
The preliminary preparation for the perahara commences at the beginning of every year. Immediately after the Wesak and Poson pageants steps are taken to inform the owners of elephants the number of tuskers and elephant required measures of repair the dresses worn by the elephants and prepare new dress if required. Measures are taken to repair the required implements like oil torches etc and to fulfill the requirements to make the perahara a success. The astrologer attached to the Sacred Tooth (Nakath Mohottala) is required to prepare an auspicious time for pageant to be inaugurated. Later a meeting of state official and delegates of voluntary associations with the patronage of the Mahasangha is summoned to discuss matters pertaining to services to be executed to make the perahara a glorious event.
Kumbal Perahera (Kumbal Procession)
- The first procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic stars with the Kumbal Perhara. This is the first Kumbal Perhara shown to the infants to drive away Evil Spells and Illwill. It is a tradition that the procession parades the streets of Kandy for five days. 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.
Randoli Perahera (Randoli Procession)
- This could be seen only with the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic and parade the streets for 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.
Maha Randoli Perahera (Grand Randoli 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 newly stitched costume.
SOME OF THE MAIN EVENTS IN PERAHARA.
- Until the sound of shots for the start of the procession is heard the tuskers, drummers, dancers and other artistes are lined up. Permission for the start of the procession is granted by Diyawadana Nilame. All the officials Kariya Korala, Gajanayake, Kapuwas Vidanes, Kankanam Rala, Mohottala and Wattorurala greet the Diawadana Nilame and proceed. These traditions are carried out regularly
Sound of Shots in the Perhara
- It is the custom to fire three rounds of shots before commencement of the pageant. At the first sound the processions of the four devalas line up and move to join the procession of the Maligawa. The Second sounds indicate that the casket is placed in the Ranhilige on the ceremonial tusker. The Third sound indicates that the pageant is set off.
Kasakaruwo (Whip Crackers)
- When the procession parades the streets the first participants you see are the whip crackers. It is believed that the noise of the whips depicts thunder and lightning. There are thirty of them. 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.
- To indicate that Kumbal Perahra and Randoli Perahahra are Buddhist rituals, Buddhist flags are taken in the procession. The youth clad in white cloth carrying Buddhist flags and their solemn walk is a spiritual and pleasant sight. The cool breeze from the Kandy Lake and the colours of the Buddhist flags add glamour to the procession.
Provincial Flag Bearers
- According to the traditions of Kandy era the provincial flags are added to the procession and at that time Nilames in charge of provinces carry these flags. This tradition could be seen even today. First is the Sun and Moon flag of Sathara Koralaya, second the white flag of Matale, third the Silk flag of Sathara Koralaya,second the white flag of Matale, third the Silk flag of Sabaragamuwa, fourth the mythical bird of Thun Koralaya,the flag of the Peacock of Uva Walapane and the flag of the Lotus Flower of Uda Palatha taken in the Procession.
- From the time, the Sacred Tooth Relic arrived in Sri Lanka and established in the temple it faced so many hostilities and hazards. However the swords which were raised to prevent these hostilities are remembered by the feature of these sword bearers in the procession. They walk with raised swords along the path of the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic. They do not perform any dance but walk.
Fire Ball Dancers
- The glow of lightning is magnificently shown by these Fire Ball Dancers. Turning of the Fire Balls is called 'Pandampaliya' which drives darkness of the night illuminating the procession.This Fire Ball Display is dangerous but with a balanced mind and body it is a simple exercise.
Peramune Rala (Front Runner)
- Traditionally after the whip crackers comes the Peramune Rala on a tusker with his set of documents of tailpots containing the religious activities of procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic as well the duties with regard to the properties of the temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This set of documents should be taken with both of his hands.He wears a white costume and a triangular hat(Thuppottiya).
First Hewisi Group
- They come behind the tusker with the Peramune Rala (Front Runner). They are the first four Hewisi Players of the Temple. Their Presence in the front of the procession is a tradition. They Perform with a majestic skill.
- He is in charge of the group of tuskers of the King. Symboling this Gajanayaka Nilame walks as if he is in charge of the Elephants and tuskers who walk as if he is in charge of all the Elephants and tuskers who walk in the procession. As a tradition Diyawadana Nilame hands over a Goad to Gajanayake Nilame. He carries this pointing it to the sky and walks majestically dressed in a colourful costume.
- These hereditary Drum Beaters beat their drums as a religious ritual to the Sacred Tooth Relic. The procession consists of a collection of several generations of Drum Beaters who play the tunes pertaining to their own tribe. Start of the beat,Welcoming beat,Walking beat,Walinada beat are performed. These professional musicians perform with great respect and honor.
Horanekaruwo (Trumpet Blowers)
Trumpet is a well tuned instrument and is to be mastered. It has been popularized as the sound of Dalada Perahara. The tune Gajaga Wannama is well played right throughout the procession.Trumpet is made with skills pertaining to generations. It is an essential instrument of the Dalada Procession. White dress red cotton belts and shoulder are parts of the trumpet blower’s costumes and bare chests.
Coconut Flower Dancers
Coconut Flower is the symbol of prosperity. That is because they decorate the Punkalasa with Coconut flowers. The purpose of the Dalada Perahara is to wish prosperity to the country. To symbolize this, dancers carry coconut flowers in their hands. They perform a simple dance reciting verses changing the coconut flower from hand to hand.
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. Their costumes are made of white and red cloth.