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Kandy Esala Perahera | Procession in Honour of Buddha's Tooth Relic

Kandy Esala Perahera
Esala Perahera (Sinhala: මහනුවර ඇසල පෙරහැර) is a historical festival that is conducted in July and August every year by the Temple of Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa) in Kandy, Sri Lanka. The procession is held in honour of the sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha, which is housed at the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The authorities of the Temple of the Tooth Relic and the four Devalas (Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini) participate in conducting this religious event. Although this procession is called the Perahera of the Temple of the Tooth Relic, the Tooth Relic is not taken in the procession but the relics of the Buddha deposited in a casket are escorted.

Perahera generally refers to a flamboyant street parade that is organized by a Buddhist temple. Although there are various Peraheras held in Sri Lanka, the Esala Perahera in Kandy is considered the greatest of all (Abeywardana, 2004).

Kandy Esala PeraheraHistorical evidence is there to prove that the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was venerated by the people by conducting processions since it was brought to the country during the reign of King Sri Meghavanna (301-328 A.D.) of the Anuradhapura Kingdom in the 4th century A.D. (Abeywardana, 2004; Wisumperuma, 2012). Chronicles reveal that the king ordered to convey the relic to Abhayagiri Viharaya and to hold the same celebration in honour of it annually and this indicates the origin of the Perahera tradition for the Tooth Relic (Wisumperuma, 2012). Fa-Hien, the Chinese monk who visited Sri Lanka in the 5th century A.D. has described the procession conducted in honour of the Tooth Relic (Wisumperuma, 2012). Some festivals conducted in honour of the Tooth Relic by kings such as Sena II (853-887 A.D.), Vijayabahu I (1070-1110 A.D.), Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.), Parakramabahu II (1236-1270 A.D.), Vijayabahu IV (1270-1272 A.D.) are mentioned in the chronicles (Wisumperuma, 2012). Also, the Dalada Sirita, an early 14th-century Sinhala prose compiled during the time of King Parakramabahu IV (1302-1326), contains a manual of the traditions and festivals of the Tooth Relic (Wisumperuma, 2012).

The Kandyan Kingdom remained independent until 1815 and although there are colonial invasions, the ritualistic practice of the Perahera was performed on the streets of Kandy (Jayasinghe, 2019). During the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1782), the arrangement of the procession was consolidated to accommodate the annual processions of the four Devalas with the procession of the Temple of the Tooth Relic taking the lead (Abeywardana, 2004). However, the conduct of the procession was suspended when the British annexed the Kandyan Kingdom to the British empire in 1815 but it was resumed after the British Governor gave the approval to conduct the procession in 1828 (Abeywardana, 2004).

The festival season
Beginning of the festival season
The festival begins at the dawn of the Esala Poya day in July with a ritual called Kap-situveema (planting a Kapa/a branch separated from a milky tree). This day is of significance to Buddhists as it is the day on which the Buddha was conceived by Queen Maya and the day on which Prince Siddharta (the young Buddha) renounced his royal lifestyle (Jayasinghe, 2019). The dates of the processions differ each year because an auspicious time for the start and end of the performance is calculated by the astrologer of the Temple of the Tooth (Jayasinghe, 2019). The astrologer issues this information to the Diyawadana Nilame, the chief lay custodian of the Tooth Relic (Jayasinghe, 2019).

The Diyawadana Nilame plays an important role in performing rituals and announcing auspicious times for each event related to the festival (Jayasinghe, 2019). He publicizes the dates given to him by the astrologer to the government and the media and also gives the times and dates to the four Devalas (Jayasinghe, 2019). After this the Kariya Karavana Rala, another temple official sends letters to the headmen of Ten Villages (Gandhaya) and requests them to provide traditional goods and services for the Perahera (Jayasinghe, 2019). During the festival season, Natha Devalaya takes responsibility for distributing food items such as rice, coconuts, vegetables and fruits to other Devalas (Abeywardana, 2004).

The four processions
The Esala Perahera is sub-divided into four Peraheras: the Kumbal Perahera, the Randoli Perahera, the Maha Randoli Perahera and the Day Perahera (Jayasinghe, 2019).  The Kumbal Perahera is on the first five nights and the Randoli Perahera takes place on the next four nights. The Maha Randoli Perahera comes next, and the final performance is the Day Perahera which commences at noon (Jayasinghe, 2019).

Kap-situveema & Kumbal Perahera
Kap-situveema is performed in each four Devalas and Wannaku Rala of the Vishnu Devalaya is the one responsible for this ritual on his premises (Abeywardana, 2004). Following this, processions escorting ornaments of deities are conducted for five consecutive nights in each Devala premises. On the sixth day, the procession named Kumbal Perahera commences and is conducted for five consecutive nights (Abeywardana, 2004). Each Devala processions proceed towards the Temple of the Tooth Relic and join the procession of the temple which takes the lead in the arrangement of the pageant (Abeywardana, 2004). However, the Kandyan Nilames, or the officials of the Temple of the Tooth, don’t participate in the performance (Jayasinghe, 2019).

The procession of the Natha Devalaya is the first of the four Devalas who come after the procession of the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The Basnayaka Nilame of Natha Devalaya and the Basnayaka Nilames of other affiliated village Devalas such as Dodanwala, Wegiriya and Pasgama participate in this procession (Abeywardana, 2004). The next Devalaya who comes after the procession of Natha Devalaya is Vishnu Devalaya and the Basnayaka Nilames of Lankatilaka, Gadaladeniya, Hanguranketha and Morape Devalas participate in this procession (Abeywardana, 2004). The processions of Kataragama and Pattini come after the Vishnu Devalaya procession (Abeywardana, 2004).

Randoli Perahera & Maha Randoli Perahera
On the eleventh day after the Kap-situveema, the Randoli Perahera begins. This Perahera includes the Kandyan Nilames and it consists of more elaborate costumes for the participants and for the elephants than the Kumbal Perahera (Jayasinghe, 2019). One of the significant features of the Randoli Perahera is the exhibition of the golden palanquins that were used to parade the king and queen during the period of the Kandyan Kingdom (Jayasinghe, 2019). The Perahera is held for five consecutive nights and the pageant on the final night is the grandest of all processions and it is known as Maha Randoli Perahera (Abeywardana, 2004; Jayasinghe, 2019). Deviating from other processions, this Perahera has a special route. It proceeds to Gedige Viharaya and after having deposited the casket containing the Buddhist relics, it marches to Gatembe ferry for the  Diya-kepeema ritual (the water-cutting ceremony), the final ritual of the Esala Perahera.

Over a hundred caparisoned elephants, flags, banners and several hundreds of traditional dancers participate in the Maha Randoli Perahera making it the most glamourous Buddhist event in the country. 

End of the Perahera
After the Maha Randoli Perahera, the planted Kapas are uprooted from the four Devalas and sent down the Mahaweli Ganga River in Kandy. This is called the Diya-kepeema ritual (the water-cutting ceremony) and is performed in the Mahaweli Ganga river at Getambe on the last day following the Day Perahera (Jayasinghe, 2019).

The day following the last day of the procession, the Diyawadana Nilame and Basnayaka Nilames of the other four Devalas call on the president of Sri Lanka to report the successful completion of the Esala Perahera festival (Abeywardana, 2004). After that, a special ritual called Viliyak Shanti Karmaya to invoke blessings on all those responsible is held on the premises of Vishnu Devalaya for one week (Abeywardana, 2004).

1) Abeywardana, H.A.P., 2004. Heritage of Kandurata: Major natural, cultural and historic sites. Colombo: The Central Bank of Sri Lanka.  pp.273-276.
2) Jayasinghe, H., 2019. Archive and Repertoire of the Esala Perahera Performance in Sri Lanka. University of Arkansas. pp.1-7.
3) Wisumperuma, D., 2012. Religious Use of Elephants in Ancient Sri Lanka. GAJAH. pp.16-21.

This page was last updated on 2 April 2023

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