Saga of the Sacred Tooth Relic and Kandy Perahera
by Godwin Witane
Relic worship in Buddhism is as old as Buddhism itself. King Asoka of India built stupas enclosing relics of the Buddha and the first stupa in Sri Lanka built by King Devanam Piyatissa enclosing the relics of the Buddha including the right collar bone was Thuparama. The main object of the Kandy Perahera is paying homage to the "Danta Dhatu," the living embodiment, a part of the Holy Body of Lord Buddha which the devotees of Sri Lanka are fortunate to possess.
The Buddhists of Sri Lanka are in an envious position that they have the opportunity of prostrating before the Tooth Relic as much as they wish. This will be the most delightful memory in their lives so long as they live on this earth. When a child worships his parents the usual blessing bestowed on him by the parents will be the wish that he would one day behold the Buddha in person and attain Nirvana, "Budun deka Nivan dakinna".
The Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Lanka during the reign of King Megawanna (325-377 A.D.) by Prince Danta and Princess Hemamali from India in 371 A.D. In recorded history precursors of the present perahera carrying the Danta Dhatu was the procession which carried the Tooth Relic to Abhayagiri Vihara built by King Valagambahu. The Chinese monk Fa Hein in the 3rd Century A.D. describes how the Sacred Tooth Relic was publicly exposed on sacred days with gorgeous ceremonies and carried in procession through perfumed and decorated streets.
History records that with the dravidian conquest the country was unstable and the fate of the Tooth Relic rested on the devoted Buddhist Monks who guarded it with warm affection. King Udaya IV (946-954 A.D.) had to flee the Capital with the Tooth Relic for safety on the face of the Cholian invasion but they were unsuccessful in capturing it. It was taken to the South of the country. King Elara ruled for 40 years. The Tooth Relic was brought back to Polonnaruwa by King Vijayabahu I. It was safe in the hands of King Parakramabahu the Great (1153-1186 A.D.) and King Nissanka Malla (1186-1196 A.D.).
When the usurper Magha invaded Polonnaruwa the Tooth Relic was taken to Kotmale. From Kotmale it was taken to Dambadeniya, and in turn to Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte. The Tooth Relic was possessed by successive kings. It was believed that whoever possessed the Tooth Relic had the divine power to govern the country. At Kotte it went into the hands of the Portuguese. They lost no time in sending it to Goa in India and get it destroyed. However it was a fake one replaced by the devoted monks.
The actual Tooth Relic was in the hands of the devoted monks and was passed on to the Sinhalese kings. During the reign of King Rajasinghe I of Sitawaka this apostate king when he embraced Hinduism the people removed it to Delgamuwa. When Wimaladharmasuriya I (1582-1604 A.D.) ascended the throne of Kandy, he brought it to Kandy and was enshrined in a golden casket.
The present Dalada Maligawa building is the work of King Narendrasinghe (1707-1739 A.D.) The Octagon was built by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1798-1815 A.D.) along with the Kandy lake. When Major Davy of the British invaded Kandy the Sacred Tooth Relic was taken to Meda Maha Nuwara and brought back to Kandy after the defeat of the British troops. Then there was rejoicing and the King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe himself paraded in the procession riding in a royal carriage.
It is a known fact that the Sacred Tooth Relic had no fixed abode for about 15 Centuries unlike other relics that are enshrined in dagobas. In Sri Lanka people worship Vishnu not as one of the Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Siva but as the guardian deity of the island whose sacred duty is to see to the welfare of the Buddhist Faith. Therefore the Kandy procession is held to honour him. According to the next belief the perahera is held to celebrate the victory of Vishnu over the Demon Asura, the eternal enemy of the devas.
The third belief is that the procession at the beginning was started by King Gajabahu (113-115 A.D.) to commemorate his victorious return from the Cholian country in India along with 12,000 of Singhalese captives taken away by the invading Cholian army and an equal number of Dravidians from that country.
It is the prevailing belief that the "Demala Maha Seya" only half built situated close to the Gal Vihare in Polonnaruwa is the work of these conscripts. Thereby the origin of the Kandy Dalada Perahera is wrapped in mystery and legend. Year after year through the long centuries this colourful spectacle emerges to portray the annual splendour and religious fervour of the Buddhists.
The origin of the Kandy Perahera in its present form is the Dalada Perahera followed by four processions devoted to the four gods Natha, Pattini, Kataragama and Vishnu carrying their insignia dates back to the reign of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1781 A.D.). On April 1815 after signing of the Kandyan Convention the Tooth Relic was brought to Kandy in pomp and glory and O'Doily the Governor of Kandy once again commenced the procession carrying the Tooth Relic.
On 3rd May 1815 Governor Brownrigg held a procession in Kandy which excelled the processions of the Kandyan Monarchs. In this long procession the place of the King was taken by the deposed Chief Adigar Ehelepola who rode on horseback in the procession. The British now knew that the possession of the Tooth Relic had the authority to govern the country. After the capture of Kandy the Tooth Relic was in the custody of the British but in 1828 the Tooth Relic was transferred to the kandyan Chiefs. During 1915 riots Governor Charlmers banned the Kandy Dalada Perahera however later in 1919 Governor Sir Henry Manning removed this ban considering the peace in the country.
The Tooth Relic is held to be the palladium of regal authority.by Godwin Witane
Courtesy The Sunday Observer Features of 3 August 2003