The Kandy Esala Perahera is one of the grandest Buddhist festivals exclusive to Sri Lanka. In Sinhalese, the term ‘Esala' refers to July or August which is believed to be the month that commemorates the first teaching given by the Lord Buddha after he attained enlightenment, while the term ‘Perahera’ means procession or parade which lasts for about 10 days, with the perahera held at night. This centuries-old religious and cultural festival has become a unique Sri Lankan festival-symbol attracting thousands of visitors to view its magnificent Perahera processions.
The Modern Perahera dates back to the reign of the Kandyan King Kirthi Sri Rajasingha (1747 – 1781 AD). During these times, the Tooth Relic was considered private property of the King and the public did not have an opportunity of worshiping it. However, King Rajasingha decreed that the Relic be taken in procession so that the masses could see and venerate it.
After the fall of the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, the custody of the Relic was handed over to the Maha Sangha (The Buddhist Clergy). In the absence of the King, a lay custodian called the ‘Diyawardana Nilame’ was appointed to handle routine administrative matters of the Dalada Maligawa.
The Esala Perahera in Kandy is believed to be a fusion of two separate but interconnected Peraheras – The Esala and Dalada. The Esala Perahera thought to date back to the 3rd Century BC, was a ritual carried out 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 AD.
The Esala Perahera is usually held in August arranged by the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy, to honor the Sacred Tooth Relic. The grandest day of the Esala Perehera, is on the full-moon day of the month of August. On the following day, the Perahera is held in the morning, ending the season with the traditional ‘Diya-Kapeema’ ceremony. The Esala festival with its colorful pageantry showcasing a variety of traditional cultural dances by dazzling fire-dancers, whip-dancers, Kandyan dancers and lavishly decorated parading elephants, converts the city of Kandy into a stunning, exciting city.
The Kandy Esala Perahera begins with the Kap Situveema where a sanctified young Jak fruit tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus) is planted in the premises of each of the four Devales dedicated to the four guardian Gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and the Goddess Pattini. Traditionally it was meant to shower blessings on the King and the people.
The Esala Perahera is held in two stages; the Kumbal Perahera (held on the first few days) and the other, the Randoli Perahera (held on the last few days) of the festival.
Kumbal perahera :for five nights, the ‘Devale Peraheras’ take place within the premises of the four Devales. The priests of each Devale lead the procession 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 Sacred Tooth Relic, 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 Nilame (the lay custodians of the Devales).
Fire dancers, acrobats and whip-crackers make a glittering entrance, followed by the Buddhist flag bearers. Then, riding on the first elephant is the official called Peramune Rala, followed by the next elephant carrying the register of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth at Kandy. Kandyan drummers exploding into enchanting beats and exotically dressed magical 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 majestic Maligawa Tusker who is luxuriantly, robed and illuminated, walks gracefully and proudly carrying the glittering golden casket called the ‘Karaduwa’ that contains the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha with a canopy held high above the tusker’s head protecting it. The Tusker’s walking path is covered by a continuous flow of white cloth called pavada. The Tusker is followed by two lengthy rows of vibrant dancers on each side of the road, facing each other while a team of glamorous drummers forming the middle row.
Bringing up the rear of the entourage is the Diyawadana Nilame (Custodian of the Temple of the Tooth), dressed in traditional ceremonial dress of the high officials of the kings, who reigned at the medieval kingdom of Kandy. The Diyawadana Nilame is attended to by Murawadu (lance bearers), Wadana tal-athu (sunshade and umbrella-bearers) as well as the other high officials of the Sacred Temple of the Tooth.
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 procession 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 Kataragama Devale (Dedicated to the God of Kataragama, identified with the warrior God Skanda) which is on Kotugodella Street in Kandy town. This procession includes Kavadi, the peacock dance, in which the pilgrim-dancers 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 west of the Natha Devale.
The Randoli Perahera: This Perahera begins after five nights of the Kumbal Perahera. ‘Randoli’ refers to palanquins on which the Queens of the ruling Kings traditionally travelled.
Diya Kapeema and the Day Perahera: After a further five nights of the Randoli Perahera, the pageant ends with the Diya Kapeema, which is the water-cutting ceremony held at the River Mahaweli at Getambe, a town a few miles from Kandy. To complete the proceedings, a Day Perahera is held to mark this ceremony.