Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Esala festival and the Dalada Perahara

Kandy Day Perahera

Esala is the month of festivals held annually to glorify the gods and goddesses of the pan-Indian pantheon, and to beseech their divine help for peace and prosperity of the country. D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), the British poet and novelist, writing about the Esala perahara, says "Perpetual fire-laughing motion among the slow shuffle of elephants".

During the Kandyan kingdom from 1739 to 1815, the Esala festival was given much prominence, with the four devale peraharas, dedicated to the four guardian deities, Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini, participating in the grand pageant, with a series of tableaux or dramatic scenes connected with socio-religious history.

The merger of the four devale peraharas with the Dalada Perahera (carrying the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha), took place during the reign of the Malabari king, Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1780), when the bhikkus from Siam (now Thailand), came to Sri Lanka, to restore the defunct 'Upasampada' (the high ordination qualifying a bhikku) on the invitation of the king. The Thai bhikkus, one day, hearing the unusual noise of the jingalls (large swivel muskets of Indian origin) inquired form the king as to what was going on.

This year (2002) the historic Esala perahara in Kandy took place on July 14, with the installation of the 'kapa' (a log dedicated to each deity), at the four devales on July 11, and was conducted within the devale premises until July 13. The Kumbal perahara was held from 14th to 18th, and the Randoli perahara from 19th to 23rd. The Day Perahara was held on the 24th, and this grand ritual came to an end with the water-cutting ('diya-kepeema') ceremony conducted at the Gegambe ferry.

Although the Dalada perahara in Kandy, as we see it today, is 227 years old, there have been throughout the history of the island, peraharas and festivals of great magnitude, which could be considered as the precursors of the present perahara.

The perahara ritual complex is known as the 'Esala-keliya' or the 'Esala dev-keliya' (the play of the gods in the month). It begins with the installation of the 'kapa' in each devale. A few days before the new moon, the Basnayake Nilames of the four devales go in search of a young jak (Artocarpus integrifolia) tree, which has borne no fruit, and clear the ground around the young tree. Earlier the tree chosen was the 'asala' (Cassia fistula) tree, but it has now been substituted by the lactiferous jak tree, the trunk of which should be 18 ins. in circumference.

In keeping with the ritual, for five days, from the date of erection of the 'kapa' the 'kapuralas' of each devale, take it around every evening (earlier it was done twice a day), accompanied by music and drumming and along with flag and canopy bearers and spearmen, and also the sacred insignia of the gods (ranayudha'). This takes the form of a little procession in each of the devales and, hence, it is known as Devale Perahera.

On the 5th day, the Randoli perahara begins, which is an expanded version of the Kumbal perahera, to which are added the palanquins ('randoli) of the four devales. These contain the ornaments of goddess, sword and pitcher of each devale. On the full moon day in Esala, about half an hour after its break up, the perahara reassembles and makes it way to Asgiriya Vihara, where the casket is placed, and the Devale peraharas return to their respective devales. This practice reminds of the ancient custom of the removal of the Tooth Relic to the Abhayagiri monastery in Anuradhapura.

Later, in the night, the four Devale peraheras bearing the insignia and the 'randoli', make their way to the water-cutting site at the Getambetota. At the river, the 'kapuralas' of the four devales, are led in a decorated boat, to some distance in the river, where each 'kapurala' cleaves the water with the sacred sword and collect a pitcher full at the place where the sword touched the water, to be stored in the respective devales for one year, and fed back into the river, at a similar ceremony in the ensuing year.

For seven days after the day Perahara, 'Waliyak-netuma', an abridged form of 'Kohomba-kankariya' is danced at the Vishnu devale, and with masked dancing, on the seventh day, the Esala festival comes to an end.

According to Millawa Disawa, the people of the 'balibat' caste (sorcerers and exorcists) did the dancing in the days of our kings, as a form of 'rajakariya' (service to the king).

The Esala perahara in 1828, consisted of the following:

  1. Peramune Rala carrying the 'lekam miti', riding the Yahalatenne elephant;
  2. Gajanayaka Nilame carrying the symbolic goad ('ankusa') and his retinue;
  3. Kodituwakke Nilame and his retinue;
  4. Disawa of Four Korales and his retinue;
  5. Disawa of Seven Korales and his retinue;
  6. Disawa of Matale and his retinue;
  7. Disawa of Sabaragamuwa and his retinue;
  8. Disawa of Valapone and his retinue; and
  9. Disawa of Uda Palatha and his retinue.

In 1963, the following participated. Flags and 'aw-ata', Peramune Rala with 'lekam miti'. Drummers, dancers and musicians. Gajanayaka Nilame carrying the symbolic goad. Drummers, dancers and musicians. Kariyakarawana Rala with his retinue. The Relic bearing casket on the Maligawa tusker. Diyawadana Nilame with his retinue. Provincial representation has been forgotten. The extinction of old elements and the substitution of new elements have, undoubtedly, harmed the original integral symbolism of the Esala perahera.

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe
Ceylon Daily News - 23 July 2002