The Teardrop of India is a fascinating country, with as much history, culture and colour crammed into its small landmass as its vast neighbour. For centuries, it was a lodestone for curious visitors from the western world and even today, with its golden beaches, blue waters – and of course, the famous teas – the island of Sri Lanka continues to draw thousands of visitors to its shores.
Celebrating Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, from the word Lanka which means “holy” or “beautiful”, are known to many for its beautiful beaches, sacred sites, great craftsmanship, gems, and its elephant sanctuary.
For some it is also known for its colourful festivals. It is said that Sri Lanka has more festival days than anywhere else in the world. Throughout the year, there are many festivals that mark the religious and also cultural events in Sri Lanka.
The most elaborate production of a festival is in the period of July to August, where the Esala Perahera takes place in Kandy. The Esala Perahera (the word Perahera which means procession), is held in honour of the sacred Tooth Relic (believed to be Buddha’s eye-tooth). It is also a ritual to invoke the blessings from the Gods to bless the villages with rain, to save them from severe draughts. The two weeks festival will see people from all walks of life, from all around the world, gathering in Kandy in honour of this festival.
The first ritual for the preparation of the Perahera is the “Kap situweema” or planting of the “kap”, which is performed at an auspicious moment. In this ritual, a young ‘jack’ tree is selected and its surrounding is cleared and cleaned. The tree is then sprinkled with water perfumed with sandalwood scent, and an offering is made with nine kinds of flowers along with an oil lamp with nine wicks which are lighted. A priest will recite his prayer before the tree is felled and the trunk is cut into 4 pieces. These four pieces will then each be taken to a temple, where each tree will be planted under a canopy decorated with leaves, fruits and flowers.
Many small processions or Perahera are held within the precinct of these four temples. These processions will go on for five consecutive days and nights. After that comes the most spectacular of all these Perahera, the ‘randoli’ (golden palanquin) perahera. This procession is led by men who crack their whips, which clears the path for men who carry the flags representing various provinces of the old Kandyan Kingdom. This is followed by the elephant that carries the Buddhist flag and an elephant that carries the ola leaf book wrapped in a piece of white cloth. Four official tom-tom beaters leads the path for what is deemed as a spectacular sight, the sight of elephants adorning gowns that are decorated with much splendour that carries the “Gajanayake Nilame”, the person who is responsible for the elephants taking part in the procession. Next comes ‘Raja’ the Maligawe Tusker that carries the relic casket and other elephants that is flanking ‘Raja’ as its company, (though the casket does not carry the actual Tooth Relic, homage is still paid to the sacred casket), followed by Diyawadana Nilame (Lay Custodian to the Sacred Tooth Temple). These processions if followed with the troupe of dancers and drummers. It is amazing to see these huge animals swaying and moving along with the sound of the drums, as though they are dancing to the beat.
Other processions or Perahera from the other four temples will follow suit. These four processions honours Natha, the benevolent god believed to be the next Buddha, Vishnu, the protector of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Kataragama, one of the most popular gods among Sri Lankans, and finally, Pattini, the deeply cherished goddess of purity, chastity and health. The processions, colourful with sights of dancers, acrobatic acts, drum beaters and torch bearers may last up till the wee hours of the morning.
The final stage of these processions is the ‘diya kapeema’ or the ‘water-cutting ceremony’. This ritual marks the final stage of the Perahera. Here, each priest from the four temples will be taken in decorated boats to the Mahaveli River, to the same spot where they took the water. At sunrise, these four priests will empty their pitchers and draw a circle with their sword and fill the pitchers again with water within the circle, which will be kept until the Perahera next year. The whole Perahera or procession, though is full of religious connotation, is not only for Buddhists or Hindus. The splendour and glory of it all leaves everyone in awe and is an event which is not to be missed for many visitors to Sri Lanka.