Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Robert Knox's impressions of the Kandy Perahara

Robert Knox (1660-1679)
Facsimile of title page of Robert Knox's 1681 edition

This is the Kandy Esala Perahara season during which time Kandy's ancient story is brought to life. It is a much looked forward to annual event throughout the world during which time the spirit of Lanka comes back to life. This traditional rehearsal of Kandy's past glory dates back to several centuries and many early writers have witnessed it from time to time and written about it in great detail. Among those pioneering writers is Robert Knox (1660-1679), an Englishman who was a captive of the king of Kandy.

Writing about the Kandy Perahera during his time Robert Knox says: "The Priest bringeth forth a painted stick, about which strings of flowers are hanged, and so it is wrapped in branched silk, some part covered, and some not; before which the people bow down and worship; each one presenting him with an offering according to his free will. These free will offerings being received from the people, the priest takes his painted stick on his shoulder, having a cloth tied about his mouth to keep his breath from defiling this pure piece of wood, and gets up upon an elephant all covered with white cloth, upon which he rides with all the triumph that king and kingdom can afford, through all the streets of Kandy. But before him go, first some forty or fifty elephants with brass bells hanging one each side of them, which tingle as they go."

"Next follow men dressed up like giants, which go dancing along agreeable to a tradition they have, that anciently there were huge men that could carry vast burdens and pull up trees by the roots. After them go a multitude of drummers and trumpeters and pipers, which make such a great and loud noise that nothing else besides them can be heard. Then followed the company of men dancing along and after these women of such castes or trades as are necessary for the service for the pagoda as potters and washer-women, each caste goeth in companies by themselves, three and three in a row, holding one another by the hand; and between each company go drummers, pipers and dancers".

"After these comes an elephant with two priests on his back; one whereof is the priest before spoken of, carrying the painted stick on his shoulder, who represents Allout neur Dio (Aluth Nuwara Deiyo) that is the God and maker of heaven and earth.

The other sits behind him, holding a round thing, like an umbrella, over his head, to keep off sun or rain. Then within a yard after him on each hand of him follow two other elephants mounted with two other priests, with a priest sitting behind each, holding umbrellas as the former, one of them represents Cotteragon Dio (Kataragam Deiyo) and the other Potting Dio (Pattini Deiyo).

These three Gods that ride here in company are accounted of all other the greatest each one having his residence in a pagoda. Behind go their cook-women, with things like whisks in their hands to scare away flies from them; but very fine as they can make themselves."

"Next after the Gods and their attendance go some thousands of ladies and gentlewomen, such as are of the best sort of the inhabitants of the land, arrayed in the bravest manner that their ability can afford, and so go hand in hand three in a row; at which time all the beauties in Zelone (Ceylon) in their bravery to go to attend upon their Gods in their progress about the city. Now are the streets also all made clean, and on both sides all along the streets poles truck up with flags and pennons hanging at the tops of them, and adorned with boughs and branches of coconut trees hanging like fringes and lighted lamps all along on both sides of the streets, both by day and night...Last of all go the Commanders sent by the King to see these ceremonies decently performed, with their soldiers after them.....Formerly the king himself in person used to ride on horseback with all his train before him in this solemnity, but now he delights not in these shows.

"Later Knox describes the water-cutting ceremony and says: "Just at the hour of full moon they ride out unto a river and dip silver pots full of water, which is carried back with them into the temple, where they are kept till the year after and then flung away. So the ceremony is ended for that year."

by Andrew Scott
Daily News - 23 July 2002