Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Esala Perahara rituals and their significance

Sri Dalada
Sri Dalada
Esala Day Perahera
Esala Day Perahera
Kandy Esala Perahara

The annual Esala Pageant popularly known as the Esala Perahara, held in the month of Esala (July - August) in Kandy needs no introduction to the Buddhist world. Originating from Indo-Aryan traditions, Esala festivities signify the victories of the mythical Hindu God Indra over the demon Vritra who prevented the burst of rain clouds. In fact Esala Perahara was originally a ritual invoking the blessings of the Gods to cause rainfall in the dry month. Later the Sinahla kings who possessed the sacred Tooth Relic coupled that event with the procession in honour of the sacred Tooth Relic, maintaining some of the ancient rituals of yore.

The sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, from Kalinga during the reign of the King Kitsiri Mevan (A.D. 303 - 331). That was about 500 years since the arrival of Theri Sanghamitta and the planting of the sacred Bodhi Tree.

The Chinese Buddhist traveller Fa Hien given an account of the rituals associated with the sacred Relic when it was taken to Abhayagiri vihara for the annual festival during the month of Esala. The fourteenth century Sinhala text "Dalada Sirita" gives a vivid description of these rituals. There was a strong conviction particularly among Sinhala Buddhists that the legitimate claim for the Sinhala Throne could be made by the possessor of the sacred Tooth Relic. The belief that the sacred Tooth Relic was a harbinger of rain never diminished even after the British occupation of Kandy. When the perahara was suspended by the British rulers in 1815 a severe drought and a crop failure followed. Due to public protest the perahara was allowed. It was reported that torrential rains followed the initiation of perhara rituals. The author of Dāladā Sirita gives a vivid description of that event.

The perahara rituals begin with the planting of kap poles (about 60 cm in length cut from a lactiferous tree) within the premises of each dewale at an auspicious hour. Kapa symbolises god Indra and it is cut from a lactiferous tree to signify fertility and prosperity. When the kap-poles are brought to each Dewale they are placed on a clean mat where fresh mango and margosa leaves are spread. That ritual is associated with the Pattini cult. Goddess Pattini, according to mythical literature, was born out of a mango and her husband was killed under a margosa tree. When the kap poles are installed in each dewale premises the officiating priest (kapurāla) circumambulates the kap pole on three consecutive days carrying the insignia of the respective deity.

At the beginning for five days the procession is confined to the dewala premises. The second stage of the perahara is the Kumbal Perahara. Here the relic casket along with such regalia traditionally associated with the ancient royalty of Kandy are taken out. The Relic Casket is taken out amidst the blowing of conch shells. A gaily decorated elephant carries the casket. The military loans a gun to the proceedings, which is fired when the Diyawadana Nilame takes his place in the procession.

The Diyawadana Nilame, according to historical traditions was the minister who supplied water to the King. The title "Nilame" was given to a Minister of the royal court. However a contrary view was held by some writers with regard to the duties of the Diyawadana Nilame. He was required to do everything within his capacity to ensure rain at the correct seasons. This conclusion was arrived at because there was another official in the royal palace with the title Ulpange Rala who made bathing facilities for the king.

The third stage of the perahara is the "Randoli" symbolizing the participation of the royalty in the procession. Randoli was the name of a special palanquin in which the Queen was taken. The perahara parades with full splendour at this stage.

The "water-cutting ceremony" marks the final stage of the perahara rituals. Only a section of the overnight procession accompanied by the kapuralas in charge of the four shrines of Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini proceed to the ferry at Getambe and await the first light of the day for the performance of the ritual. When the first rays of sun fall they draw a circle in water with a sword. the water within that circle is taken to fill the pitchers.

by U. D. J. Jinadasa
2001 Sunday Observer Features