Have you ever danced during the carnival in Rio? Have you ever witnessed the carnival in Venice? I haven’t made either experience yet – but I have been charmed and humbled, awed and fascinated by the Kandy Esala Perahera held annually in Sri Lanka. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a mere carnival, but my point is that it should be just as famous as the well-known festivities I mentioned.
The Kandy Esala Perahera is one of the oldest and biggest religious festivities in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean called Sri Lanka. The word perahera translates to ‘procession’, but it is so much more than that. The Perahera as we know it today is actually a fusion of two separate processions. One can be traced back to the 3rd century BC and was held to usher in the rains needed for the agricultural season. The other started roughly 800 years after Lord Buddha’s passing away, after the sacred tooth relic had been smuggled onto the island by Indian royalty (4th century CE). During the 18th century, both occasions were fused into one procession by Sri Lanka’s last king, Keerthi Sri Rajasingha. He had made the tooth relic private property instead of letting everyone worship it, but once a year he organized the Dalada Perahera to display the relic to the masses and conclude it with ‘water-cutting’ ceremonies that were supposed to make the rainy season commence. The name Dalada Perahera hints at the place where the tooth relic was and is kept, the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic).
The Kandy Esala Perahera is celebrated once a year in the hill capital of Sri Lanka, usually falling on the months of July and August (after the esala full moon day). Before the processions begin, astrologers determine an auspicious date and time for the festival season. Young jackfruit trees are blessed and planted on the grounds of the four temples for the Hindu deities Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and Pattini. These old temples / shrines are called devale in Sinhalese and were once constructed to protect the main temple of the Maligawa and bestow blessings on the king and his nearby palace.
The following five nights see the smaller Devale Peraheras that are held within the temple premises. The sixth night marks the beginning of the Kumbal Perahera. It lasts for five nights and encompasses normally dressed dancers, a few un-caparisoned elephants, the insignia of the gods, the tooth relic, and musicians such as drummers and flautists. Each devale has its own colour scheme, traditional dances and rituals, and every night the procession is reserved for only one of the temples, with the first night belonging to the Maligawa Perahera.
The festivities culminate in the Randoli Perahera, the longest and most spectacular procession. It is also held on five consecutive nights, with the first one supposedly the best occasion to receive blessings for little children and pregnant women, and with the last one being the grandest and the one with the most visitors. Each Randoli Perahera encompasses the four temple processions and the Maligawa Perahera with the tooth relic on display. There is an official route that the procession takes every evening, starting from the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, and winding through the neighbouring roads and lanes in a circular route that stretches for 2 to 3 km and leads back to the temple.
The procession is led by whip-crackers, and the spectators throw coins onto the road for blessings. Then follow several flag-bearers carrying the Buddhist flag and the ancient provincial flags as well as swords. After that you can see groups of drummers (there are hundreds of them altogether, with different types of drums) and dancers with anklets and cymbals. Every bare-foot participant of the Perahera is male and has to adhere to certain rules like eating vegetarian food during the days of the festivities. There is only one exception: The procession for the goddess Pattini now allows female dancers. The dancers are dressed in traditional, richly embroidered clothes of a specific colour, and most of them carry old, basic instruments. There are also many acrobats, juggling with fire, dancing on stilts, turning somersaults. Solemn torch-bearers line the sides of the road to cast a magical glow on the ancient, artful rituals.
More than the dancers, the elephants steal the show. Sometimes there are up to 50 of them, ranging from small elephant cubs to grown tuskers. They are dazzlingly decked out in expensive silk cloths, artfully embroidered (all of this is done in India on special request) and they look majestic. Sometimes, their tusks are decorated too, and they carry strings of tiny coloured light bulbs. Four specially selected elephants belonging to the temple carry palanquins of gold on their backs, with the tooth relic and other religious symbols. I know from personal experience that the elephants are what draw thousands of tourists from around the globe to watch the Kandy Esala Perahera with wide eyes and endlessly clicking cameras, for there is no festivity on earth that holds this special thrill.
The little-known details
Most people – especially those living in Kandy – watch the Perahera every year. They throng the designated area from the previous day or early morning onwards, defending their place on the pavement as if their life depended on it. Others book the tickets in advance and come to the city in busloads in the afternoon. There are only a few seats to be had, most of them reserved for the rich and famous, the important elite, and the well-paying foreigners.
Of course the Kandy Esala Perahera has long lost its debatable importance of heralding rains—but I swear on my writer’s honour that the following is true: Every night when the procession starts, we have a few minutes of rain. Not everywhere in town, and not for long, but still the crowd hushes momentarily and stares in wonder at the glittering drops that seem as if the gods above are watching the sacred splendour and sending their approval.
Devika Fernando is a romance novelist of half-German, half-Sri Lankan descent. She also works as a web content writer and translator in the “Pearl of the Ocean” island country of Sri Lanka.
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