Kandy Esala Perahera is famously known as The Festival of the Tooth, is celebrated across Sri Lanka and brings in a unique crowd of not only Buddhists but Hindus, Muslims and Christians as well. The festival lights up the town for ten days long celebration in either the month of July or August. Kandy Perahara procession is a procession where one can experience and witness the displays of traditional customs, the majority of the people becoming from the Buddhist and Hindu religious communities.
In 2020, the festival starts on the 26th of June till the 16th of July. The festival happens in Esala (July or August), the month which is believed to celebrate the first teaching given by Buddha after he attained enlightenment.
The Kandy festival began during the arrival of the Prince and Princess of the Kalinga kingdom in India to Sri Lanka during the rule of King Meghawanna in 305-331 AD. The order of King Kirthisiri Meghawanna states that the relic should be paraded around the city of Anuradhapura at least once a year. The Esala Perahera ritual was followed by the remaining succession of kings for the following years but was halted due to the local wars. They have always highlighted the high value of the Sinhalese culture. Most of the customs are taken from the “Dantha Dhathu Charitha” which is a book on the traditions relating to the sacred Tooth Relic written during the reign of Parakramabahu IV (1302-1326) of Kurunegala. These customs have been carried on for centuries throughout Sri Lanka.
The procession for Kandy Perahera has multiple stages, but it begins with the Kap Situveema or also called the Kappa. Here a blessed young Jackfruit tree is rooted and re-planted in the vicinity of each of the four Devales dedicated to the four guardian gods, namely Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and the goddess Pattini. In the olden days, it was meant to shower blessings on the King and the people of Sri Lanka. Multiple processions are involved in this festival which include:
1. Kumbal Perahera
The first procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic begins with the Kumbal Perahera, also known as Kumbal Procession. The first Kumbal Perhara is significant for infants, as it is believed to drive away evil spells and ill thoughts. It is a tradition that the procession parades the streets for five days. The Kumbal Perahara is famous, but as it is a semi procession, the Nilames do not work in this procession. The parade also has Drummers and Tuskers taking part without any ceremonial costumes. The march is repeated for the next five days and is spread all across Kandy.
2. Randoli Perahera
It is also known as the Randoli Procession and can be seen only with the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic on its five days street parade. In the olden days of the Kandyan Kingdom, the Chief Queen of the Kings used to partake in this procession in Palanquins.
The queens of the kingdoms were not allowed to have any role in the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Hence as a sign of honour and respect to the queens, a palanquin is paraded. In recent celebrations, it is usually the last item of the procession.
3. Maha Randoli Perahera
It is also known as the Grand Randoli Procession. The Maha Randoli Perahaera is not only the final procession but also the most majestic procession of the festival. Elephants are adorned with colourful garlands and accessorized with gold and red-stitched costumes. The drummers come dressed in ceremonial costumes of bright red and gold as well. The Diyawadana Nilame adds a fresh glamour to the procession by wearing a newly stitched outfit every year.
4. Diya Kepeema and the Day Perahera
After five more nights of the Randoli Perahera, the parade ends with Diya Kepeema. It is a water cutting ceremony at the Mahaweli River in a town called Getambe which is a few miles from Kandy. A day Perahera is held across the city to mark the celebration.
5. The Modern Perahera
The Modern Perahera dates back to the reign of King Rajasinghe in 1741 AD. However, at the time, the Tooth Relic was considered to be privately owned by the King and the public was not allowed to worship it. But King Rajasinghe had wanted the relic to be taken in procession for the people of Sri Lanka to see and revere.
After the colonial British Empire defeated the Kandyan Kingdom in 1815, the custody of the relic was given rightly over to the Buddhist Clergy. The clergy had appointed a person called the “Diyawadana Nilame” to safe keep and handled routine administrative matters of the Tooth Relic.
What To Expect At The Kandy Perahera Festival
1. The Inititation
Until the sound of gunshots for the start of the procession are heard, the dancers, tuskers, drummers and other artists are lined up. Diyawadana Nilame grants permission for the start of the procession.
2. Sound of Shots in the Perahera
It is customary to fire three shots into the air before the commencement of the procession. At the first shot, the procession of the ‘four devalas’ start to join the procession of the Maligawa. The second shot indicates placing the casket in the Ranhilige on the ceremonial tusker. The third shot suggests that the parade may commence.
3. Kasakaruwo (Whip Crackers)
When the procession starts on the streets, the first participants are the whip crackers. It is said and believed that the noise of the whips depicts thunder and lightning, and thirty whip crackers are appointed for the task.
4. Provincial Flag Bearers
The flag bearers here are dressed in traditional attire and are carrying out flags of 9 provinces of Sri Lanka.
5. Sword Carriers
The sword-carriers raise their swords to commemorate those who prevented the invaders who tried to take over the country by paying respect to the fallen heroes.
6. FireBall Dancers
The turning of the FireBalls, called ‘Pandampaliya’, is believed to drive out the darkness of the night by illuminating the procession. It is a genuinely magnificent sight to observe.
7. Gajanayake Nilame
He is the one in charge of the group of tuskers (elephants) of the King. As tradition follows. The Diyawadana Nilame hands over the Goad to the Gajanayake Nilame. He then carries it, pointing it to the sky and starts to walk majestically dressed in an ethereal costume.
8. Coconut Flower Dancers
The Coconut Flower is said to be a symbol of prosperity. To commemorate this, the dancers carry coconut flowers in their hands and perform a dance where they recite verses changing the decorated coconut from side to side.
The Kandy Perehera festival which takes place every year in Kandy is a culmination of history, grandeur, customs and celebrations across the town. It is sight to behold and definitely a must-visit for those looking to get a first hand glimpse into the culture of Sri Lanka.