The Esala Perahera in Kandy is one of the oldest and grandest of all Buddhist festivals. Its one of the biggest Buddhist celebrations of the year , include featuring dancers, jugglers, musicians, fire-breathers, and lavishly decorated elephants This is held in the month of Esala (July or August) as to celebrate Buddha's conceive and many years later his leaving of the family home. The Kandy Esala Perahera lasting for ten days. The Sinhalese term 'perahera' means a parade of musicians, dancers, singers, acrobats and various other performers accompanied by a large number of caparisoned Tuskers and other elephants parading the streets in celebration of a religious event.
This Perahera is to honor of the Sacred Tooth Relic and the four 'guardian' Gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini.. Kandy Maligawa Perahera followed in order by those of the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini 'devales' (temples dedicated to these Gods) situated in the neighborhood of the Kandy Maligawa.
After the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the hands of British in 1815, the custody of the Tooth Relic was handed over to the Buddhist Clergy. In the absence of the king, a lay custodian called the Diyawadana Nilame was appointed to handle routine administrative matters.
The meaning of this Kandy Esala Perahera Pageant Procession is to beseech blessings of the gods to obtain rain for the cultivation of crops etc. This ritual is performed by carrying the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha through the Kandy city streets which is done with great ceremony. This is the most beautiful pageant in the Asia.
The first ritual 'Kap situweema' (planting 'kap') will be held to commence rituals to start the perahera after few days. The ritual is performed according to an auspicious time decided by astrologers. A young jak tree will select for this and will clear and clean it. The tree will sprinkle with sandalwood scented water perfumed with. An offering is made of nine kinds of flowers, an oil lamp with nine wicks is to light. The priest of the Maha Vishnu Devale recites his prayers to all the gods, after which the jak tree will cut. The trunk will cut into four separate pieces. The symbol of prosperity will be shown as the 'milk' or the latex that flows when cut the tree. The four pieces of the trunk of the tree are taken to the four 'devales', one piece each to a Devale. Each piece of the jak tree (called 'kap') will planted under a canopy decorated with leaves, flowers and fruits in the temple premises dedicated to each deity. Therefore this is what we called 'kap situweema'.
Perahera will be carried out for fifteen days. All these peraheras take place in the night. During the first five days the Devale Perahera is held within the grounds of four Devales dedicated to the four guardian gods Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and the goddess Pattini by the chief priest of the Devalas. Traditionally it was meant to shower blessing on the King and the people.
On the sixth night, the Kumbal Perahera begins and continues for five days. Initially, the Devale Perahera 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 emblems placed on the ransivige (a dome-like structure) accompanied by the Basnayake Nilames (the lay custodians of the Devales). Elephants,drummers and dancers will accompany in all these Peraheras.
Five 'Randoli' peraheras are carryout after Kumbal Perahera for five days. Out of these perahera's the most beautiful and spectacular Perahera is Randoli Perahera(golden planaquin). Kandy city is full of foreigners and spectators during this period.
Most people who visit are from other cities and from other countries. This is the only perahera in the world which carry on for fifteen days and with more than fifty elephants and hundreds of drummers, dancers, and singers.
The other four 'devale' peraheras follow in the aforesaid order. 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 from of the main gate of the Natha Devale.
The fourth procession is from the Katharagama Devale (dedicated to the God of Katharagama, 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 dancers. The following important times are announced by the firing of cannonballs, which can be heard all across Kandy.
The whole perahera spectacle takes more than three hours. It constitutes a memorable cultural pageant which mixes the Buddhist and Hindu ritual practices, and also some Mahayana and Theravada elements. The whole pageant is a reflection of Buddhist worship today; but it also represents a frozen image of the ancient outdated state service system known as the 'rajakariya' in terms of which people belonging to different occupation based 'castes' (Kula) performed duties for the king in return for enjoying royal land grants.
At the end of the last 'Randoli' perahera the Maligawa Perahera enters the 'Adahana Maluwa' and stops there. This is in remembrance of the King Vimaladharmasuriya I (1592-1604), on his way from Delgamuwa to Kandy carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic; spend the night at this spot, having temporarily placed the Relic in the Gedige Shrine there, before ceremonially proceeding with it to his palace the next day.
Diya Kepeema and Day Perahera
After the last night perahera the four peraheras from the four 'devales' go to the steppingstone of the Getambe Mahaveli River near Peradeniya. The chief 'kapuralas' (priests) of the 'devales' then wade into the middle of the river. One of the 'kapuralas' marks a circle in the water with the point of a 'golden' sword. The priests empty the water into the river in the 'golden ewers' (ran kendiya) which they had filled with water at the same spot the year before. Then fill them up again with new fresh water. (The ewers thus filled will be emptied and refilled here at the end of The Esala Perahera the following year). This ritual is known as the 'diya kapeema' (water cutting), which takes place on the morning of the last day of the perahera.
Then the four peraheras start marching back to Kandy. On their way they stop at the 'Pulleyar Kovil' (Selvavinayagar Kovil) at Katukelle. Next at the astrologically calculated auspicious moment they proceed to the Adahana Maluwa, where they join the Maligawa Perahera. The five peraheras parade along the D. S. Senanayake Street and King Street three times. The Maligawa Perahera enters the Maligawa and the devale peraheras wind up at the respective temples, bringing the annual Kandy Esala pageant to an end with this day perahera.
The way of the Perahera procession
The whip crackers (group of men cracking whips) and fireball acrobats lead the Maligawa Perahera. This serves to announcement of the arrival of the procession and to clear a path for it. There is a deeper meaning for the whip cracking. It symbolizes the lightning, thunder, and the arrival of rain, something that has direct relevance to the worship of the Tooth Relic.
Next come some men bearing flags representing the various provinces of the then Kandyan Kingdom. The elephant that follows these carries on its back a Buddhist flag, which shows that the perahera is a mainly Buddhist event.
Then comes the 'Peramunarala' (officer in the frontline) on the back of an elephant. He carries an ola leaf book wrapped in a piece of white cloth, that shows he is one of the administrator of the King. This was followed by the 'hewisi' band of the Maligawa led by its four official tom-tom beaters.
The 'Gajanayake Nilame' (the official who responsible for the elephants taking part in the perahera) road rides on an elephant next. The brightest, the most outstanding feature of the perahera is the Maligawa Tusker is carrying the relic casket. But this is not the real tooth relic but as a symbol, the Maligawa Tusker carries out it. The majestic Maligawa Tusker is accompanied by two other companion elephants. The gorgeously illuminated, bejeweled casket is held in position on the back of the Tusker. The relic casket marches the 'Diyawadane Nilame' (the lay custodian and the chief administrator of the Dalada Maligawa) amidst a troupe of dancers and drummers.