Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Kandy Perahera: Are its time honoured traditions in jeopardy?

The Nayake Thero in charge of the Thevava (daily rituals) of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, hands over the "Perahera Karanduwa" to the (former) Diyawadana Nilame, Neranjan Wijeyaratne, for the Perahera to begin. The tenure of Thevava rotates between Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters and is currently held by the Malwatte Chapter.

National solidarity descending from generations. An ancient ritual brings together (former) Diyawadana Nilame Neranjan Wijeyaratne and the chiefs of the Pulleyar Kovil, Kandy, before the first Kumbal Perahera commences.

The "Day Perahera", the last happening in the calendar of Kandy Perahera, is over. Faithful to the customs, a tusker rises in homage at the main wahalkada of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, reverendly taking his leave, until the next Perahera.

The "Hewisi Band" of the Maligawa, a key component of the Kandy Perahera, against the splendidly lit-up Maligawa. this year the lighting for the Maligawa will be courtesy of ANCL.

by Jayanthi Liyanage

The Maligawa Tusker in his full regalia, carrying the "Perahera Karanduwa" (or Dathu Karanduwa) in the midst of flanker-tuskers. Only in the last Randoli procession, "Maha Perahera" that the Karanduwa is borne under "udu wiyana" (overhead canopy) and on "pavada" (carpet of white cloth).

Due to changed star configurations, after many years of conducting the Esala Perahera in the months of June or July, this year's (2003) procession will revert to its namesake month of Esala (or August). Four hundred and ten years have passed since the Dalada or the Sacred Tooth Relic came to occupy the present Dalada Maligawa. Prince Danta and Princess Hemamala brought it to Sri Lanka during the Anuradhapura Era from when it became imperative that the King of the Land must be the guardian of the "Dalada".

This living memory of Lord Buddha, considered as the most precious possession of Buddhists the world over, has stayed miraculously unscathed through many human-made catastrophes such as wars and foreign invasions including the bomb attack a few years ago, although its residency has passed through many temples such the ones found in Arattana, Yapahuwa, Polonnaruwa and Isurumuniya, to mention a few.

For residents of Kandy, Dalada Perahera is an annual event. Tourists from all over the world come to Sri Lanka just to be eyewitnesses to the dazzling spectacle. Tour agents grab all rooms in hotels and guest houses well before the Perahera and even private homes keep a room in readiness for tourists. In the final Randoli stages of the Perahera, one could hardly find a vacant room in Kandy and the few available could charge as much as Rs. 7,000 per night.

While the Perahera attracts a large number of international tourists, a regular feature is the traditional journey made by rural men, women and children. For them, this annual pilgrimage is a celebration looked forward to for ages. They come days ahead and reserve their lake side space by spreading a tarpaulin, waiting for the perahera to begin.

In recognition of these rustic pilgrims, the Kandy local authorities have been restrained from erecting seats along the lake rounds, as they do in other parts of the Kandy city, the cost of which changes with the viewing advantage. As in the last year, the on-going peace process is expected to bring in throngs of Northern and Eastern tourists to Kandy, uniting peoples from two ends of the country in common appreciation of a common culture, native to and shared by all who inhabit this island, as a heritage of Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher or any other race living here.

Though the modern Lankan culture has much to do with the play of market forces with the profit motive topmost, the essence of Dalada Perahera continues to remain unaffected and indifferent to the social changes around.

The tusker bearing "Perahera Karanduwa" comes down the steps of main Wahalkada of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic to join the Randoli Perahera.

The Guardian of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Diyawadana Nilame Neranjan Wijeyaratne is quite firm that the sanctity of Perahera should not be tainted by the demands of tourism. "Dalada Perahera is essentially a religious ritual perpetuated from the ancient ages and its sacred structure cannot be adapted to accommodate the different tourist needs," emphasises the Diyawadana Nilame. "What we do in Perahera is a pooja to invoke the blessings and protection of Lord Buddha on people and its not a celebratory festival."

Yet, it undoubtedly is one of foremost World Heritage events named by the UNESCO, attracting thousands of pilgrims and tourists to the scenic hill city of Kandy every year, not only to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic, but also to see the Buddhist art, culture, the rituals of Thevava and the Kandyan dancing so unique to the Dalada Perahera.

But, the future of these ancient customs is today, in jeopardy. As the Diyawadana Nilame laments, the modern local traditional artistes train with an eye for the stage and its financial gains, ignoring the need to train for the ancient pooja rituals. "It was only in 1917, after we included
in Dalada Perahera the Wes Dance used in Kohomba Kankariya that Wes caught the eye of the international dancer," says the Diyawadana Nilame.

"Wearing the Wes Tattuwa is like a sacred coronation and performing Karanam (somersaults) goes against the traditions of Wes. Yet, dancer who has no idea of Wes, perform Karanam." Similarly, he points out that many artistes today can neither distinguish between different drum beats (bera pada) played at Thevava or Perahera, or the costumes worn for rituals and the stage.

"I have suggested to the Government that three foundations be set up to train young artistes for the Kandyan, Ruhunu and Sabaragamuwa traditions of dance and song so that before the older generation, the sole repository of these art forms, dies out, the young can be taught them." He is also very critical of fusion music fusing Davul, Thammattum and other local drum beats which he calls a mutilation of its traditional religious nature and calls for the need to enlighten the young to preserve them in their original form.

The Kandy Perahera is also eroded by the looming extinction of the local pachyderm, an animal very precious to this procession. Tuskers eligible to take part in the Dalada Perahera must possess five features of which a flattened spine which can accommodate the Dalada casket is one.

"In the 23 years I have been here as Diyawadana Nilame after my father Nissanka Wijeyaratne's tenure, I have seen the death of many Maligawa elephants and tuskers," says the Diyawadana Nilame. "Those days, one could see about 100 elephants parading in Perahera but now finding 50 elephants is a problem.

Now the owners of captive elephants are not allowed to get licences to capture elephants. From the 1970s, there have been no auctions for tuskers or elephants and all captured elephants are brought to the Pinnawala Sanctuary. The Sanctuary has gifted elephants to local temples but these temples hardly lend animals to the Perahera as they have their own Peraheras.'

He explains that once the breeding by private owners of captive elephants is no more, the Perahera would have no source to obtain tuskers as the State does not provide them. "I have tried to enlighten the President and the Prime Ministers of this need. We need five tuskers to Karanduwa, Peramuna, Gajanayake and the Flankers.

Although my "Ath Panithiya" has 12 tuskers, during Perahera, we can only use about six as the others are in musk. We have suggested that Pinnawala tuskers and elephants be trained for Perahera. The State can, retaining its ownership allow people who have bred elephants for generations, to hire tuskers from Pinnawala.

Such people would be well-equipped to look after the animals and send them for Perahera. Or else, the State could let us hire tuskers directly from Pinnawala." But neither the politicians or the successive governments do not seem to understand that these ancient rituals must be preserved, the Diyawadana Nilame is sorrowful. "If only the tourist industry matters to them, in another 25 years we might have to take tuskers made of rattan in the Perahera! There used to be a time, when the main attraction of the Perahera to the children was to count the number of elephants parading."

"The Buddha Sasana Ministry has an obligation to protect the Buddhist rituals of the country that is why we hand over a Sandeshaya to the President after every Perahera. But nothing has materialised so far."

If we are to preserve this national heritage which is funded by the interest generated from the Esala Perahera Trust Fund, attention need to be paid to the shortcomings which its guardian, the Diyawadana Nilame, has been voicing year after year, at the close of each Dalada Perahera.

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by Jayanthi Liyanage
2003 Sunday Observer Features