Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka

The Kandy Perahera

by M.D. Raghavan, Ethnologist Emeritus, National Museums of Ceylon

In the religious and social life of Ceylon there is nothing more resplendent than the annual Kandy perahera pageant. By tradition, a celebration commemorating the victory of the Devas against the Asuras, on the day after the new moon in the month of Esala, it possibly began as a celebration sacred to Maha Vishnu, the Lord of Sri Lanka. A festival of the Gods, it was later incorporated with the festival of the sacred Tooth Relic.

The Kap Inauguration

Wanakku Rala Herath hands over the kap to an official of Kataragama Devale
Wanakku Rala Herath delivers the kap to an official of Kataragama Devale

The annual Kandy Esala Perahera is inaugurated with the planting of the kap at the four devales of Natha, Maha Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini on the day following the new moon in Esala. An Esala tree (the Indian Laburnum—Cassia Fistula) in full bloom at this time of the year, is supposed to be cut and its stem planted as the kap at the four devales. It has in modern times been replaced by a jak tree (Atocarpus Integrifolia) cut into four sections, one for each of the four devales. A drum tattoo from the Naha devala announces the ceremonial conveyance of the stumps to each of the devales.

Reaching the devale, the kap is duly planted at the allotted place in the premises facing east. For the next four days the devale perahera is conducted within the devale premises. Following this first stage, the perahera goes in procession for ten days in succession over a prescribed route along the main streets of Kandy. On each of these days, the peraheras of the devales proceed to the entrance to the Dalada Maligawa, where they join the Maligawa perahera and the combined procession goes winding along the prescribed route.

The Two Phases

The first six days of the perahera, is called the Kumbal Perahera, and the second phase of the perahera, the Randoli Perahera, from the randoli or the gilded palanquins of the four devales, which are a feature of the processions the next five nights. To the average visitor the religious side of the perahera scarcely impresses as much as the spectacular side of it. On all these days the vast precincts facing the Dalada Maligawa is a scene bustling with excitement, alive with dancers in several stages of bedecking themselves with the costumes and jingles that lend colour and resonance to the perahera pageant. The great man behind the perahera is the Diyawadana Nilame in a resplendent costume of an embroidered tunic and shining silk, of some twenty yards wrapped round his waist with a head gear of a four cornered golden coronet.

Kandy Day Perahera

The Progress of the Procession

To the visitor who comes to see the Perahera, for the first time, it is an exciting event. Expectantly and patiently he waits at a point of vantage commanding a good view of the procession. Faint sounds of the flourishing of whips are the first indication that the procession is approaching and the perahera bursts to view, with the whip crackers standing in a ring wielding enormous snaky whips. The whip crackers herald the perahera. The component parts of the procession open out in their proper order and the perahera spreads out in all its stateliness, to the brilliant illumination of hundreds of torches.

The Diyawadane Nilame and the three Basnayake Nilames of the devales and the Kandyan chiefs walk in the procession in measured steps and slow with all pomp and dignity. At intervals in majestic stateliness come the elephants in colourful trappings, the Dalada Maligawa tusker leading and bearing aloft the sacred relics in a gorgeously bedecked ransivige, the golden howdah brilliantly lit with electric jets, the cynosure of all eyes.

Kandyan dancers in brilliant array, delight the beholders with their impressive performance of Kandyan dancing. Folk plays, Li-Keli and Kalagedi malai add to the variety and charm of the procession which in all its pomp and orderliness proceeds over the appointed route of the main streets of Kandy.

The Water-Cutting

On the last night of the Randoli Perahera, the procession after going round the city, separates itself into two parts. The Maligawa part proceeds to Adhana Maluwa Gedige Vihare where the golden karanduwa containing the sacred relics, is deposited. The Devale peraheras proceed to their respective Devales, and before dawn proceed to Getambe Tota for the Diya Kapana Mangallaya, "the water-cutting" ceremony. Reaching the Mahaweli Ganga, the procession halts. The Kapuralas and the functionaries of the Devales row up the river in decorated boats. Reaching the middle of the river, the kapuralas with a golden sword describe a circle in the waters. Each throws out the water taken at the previous year's "water-cutting" ceremony, and dips the golden kendiya taking fresh water.

The ceremony over, the procession returns to the Ganadevi Kovila for the performance of a series of customary ceremonies. Proceeding from the Ganadevi Kovila, the devale peraheras join the Dalada Maligawa perahera returning from the Adhana Maluwa in the afternoon. This, the Day Perahera, proceeds thrice round the temple square. The devale peraheras return to their respective devales towards the evening, and the Maligawa perahera to the Maligawa. This concludes the Kandy Esala Perahera.

Kandy Perahera: The Historical Background

Sacred Tooth Relic, Daladamaligawa, Kandy

A link with the past, the Kandy Perahera reflects the glory of the days that are no more, the days of the pomp and splendour of the Kandyan monarchy when the King personally directed the arrangements for the great event. It then served the further purpose of a royal levee, at which were present the two Adigars, (Governors of Provinces) and all the other chiefs. The King took his stand at the Octagon of the Dalada Maligawa—termed the Pattiruppuwa, and presented himself to the view of his assembled subjects in the square below, who eagerly awaited a sight of his Royal Majesty.

The Adigars satisfied the King as to the disposition of the several components of the long procession each in its due order of precedence. The procession being duly formed and marshalled in the temple square, the King with all ceremony brought the Karanduwa, or the relic casket containing the Tooth Relic which he placed within the ransivige on the howdah upon the Maligawa tusker.

The story of the Kandy Esala Perahera runs con-current with the history of the Kandyan monarchy. All Peraheras of Ceylon are annual celebrations of a devalaya dedicated to one of the Gods. An additional sacredness of the Kandy Perahera is its association with the Danta Dhatu, the Tooth Relic. As the safety of the kingdom depended on the Tooth Relic, the Perahera at the capital where the Tooth was enshrined, received royal patronage.

The Kandyan King was the source of all pageantry and pomp. Two of the main devales of Kandy, the Maha Vishnu Devale and Naha Devale are regarded as built by King Narendra Sinha (1707-1739). The subsequent Kings, Sri Vijaya Raja Sinha (173-9-1747), Kirti Sri Raja Sinha (1747-1780), Sri Rajadhi Raja Sinha (1780—1798) and Sri Wickrama Raja Sinha (1798—1815) maintained the tradition.

All the Peraheras of the Island follow the pattern of the Kandy Perahera, and all Peraheras were continued to be held by the Kandyan Kings. At Kandy the responsibility of conducting the Perahera was vested in the First and Second Adigars during the days of the Kandyan Monarchy. Subsequently this became the responsibility of the Diyawadana Nilame of the Dalada

Adigars during the days of the Kandyan

Maligawa, who dons the gorgeous dress of a Kandyan Chief with the distinctive head dress. The chief official of a devale is termed the Basnayake Nilame and such dignitaries at most of the devales of Ceylon are Kandyans. An interesting exception is the Basnayake Nilame of the Dondra (Devundura) devale, who though a Low-country Sinhalese, wears the costume of a Kandyan Chief.

Kandy Sets the Pace

All the Peraheras follow the pattern of procession of the Chief officers, the elephants, drummers and dancers. Among the time-honoured peraheras are those of Kandy, Gampola, Ratnapura, Dondra, Kotte, Alutnuwara, and Kataragama. For pageantry and magnificence of display, the annual perahera of the Kotte Raja Maha Vihare, comes close to the Kandy Perahera. No perahera approaches the Kandy Perahera in the wealth of its picturesque variety, its inordinate length, and its exuberance of dancers and folk-plays. Kotte having been an earlier Capital of the Kings, the perahera there is indeed brilliant, next only to Kandy. The tradition at Kotte is one established by King Sri Parakramabahu VI, who ascended the throne in 1415 A.D. Successive Kings respected and maintained the tradition, even in the Kandyan period.

Queyroz, the eminent Portuguese historian has left an account of the Kotte Kings in his book "The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon" in these words:

"This the ancient King of Kotte signified by certain celebrated processions called peraheras, which lasted 16 days some being held by day and others at night, which amounted to thirty two, and these by night were more famous. In them women took part with the same licence as in the Feast of Bacchus. The King used to go in them with a bangle on one foot, made up of fifteen beads, which represents those over whom he dominated."

Day Perahera, Kandy
Photo courtesy: Lakpura Travels (Pvt) Ltd.

De Queyroz has over-drawn the picture of the place of the women dancers—who in the early and late Middle Ages were a feature at all temple processions in South India and Ceylon, and temples maintained families of dancers and musicians, who were remunerated by lands held on service tenure.

Water-Cutting: A Ceremony in Sympathetic Magic

A ceremony often misunderstood or misinterpreted, is the "water-cutting". The conception is erroneous that it is symbolic of the parting of the waters of the Palk Strait with the magic weapon of King Gaja Bahu (174–196 A.D.) when he crossed over on his South Indian expedition. The water-cutting ceremony is indeed the most essential of the ceremonials of the Perahera. At the ceremony, the water collected and stored in the kendiya at the previous year's ceremony is poured out. Plunging the vessel in the stream, fresh water is taken and preserved until the next season. The Kapurala, the ritual priest, cleaves the water with a golden sword, pours out the water, and replenishes the vessel with fresh water. The splashing of waters, and the pouring out and refilling, are all part of the symbolisms of the rain making ceremonies of the East, particularly of India.

"Water-cutting" ceremony conceived in its proper perspective as symbolic of rain making, is an illustration of sympathetic magical rites. In all lands where agriculture is the mainstay of the peoples, altogether dependent on an adequate supply of water, society and state have been at pains to seek divine aid for sufficient rainfall.

From: Ceylon: A Pictorial Survey of the Peoples and Arts by M. D. Raghavan, Ethnologist Emeritus, National Museums of Ceylon (Colombo: M.D. Gunasena & Co., Ltd.) Chapter 18 (pp. 119-125)