The Nuwara Esala Perahera: An Aged-old Testament of Cultural Fusion

“That they may, therefore, honour these gods, and procure their aid and assistance, they do yearly, in the month of June or July, at a new moon, observe a solemn feast and general meeting, called perhar[a]”.

           -Robert Knox, An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681), pg. 157

As once observed by Knox, in his famous travelogue documenting the island, to this date, every year in the lunar cycle between July and August or in the months of Esala and Nikini (according to the Sinhala calendar), the Sri Dalada Perahera takes to the streets of Kandy with all its splendor, colour and magnificence. The festival, also popularly known as the as the Nuwara Esala Perahera, garners thousands of devotees from all over the island to witness this spectacle representing the island’s traditional dancing, drumming, ornately bedecked elephants, and various dignitaries associated with the guardianship of the tooth relic. Perhaps the biggest festival of its kind, it spans over a period of ten days, paying homage to the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha and the deities safeguarding the Buddha Sasana. The festival usually begins on the day of the new moon, and concludes on an Esala or Nikini full moon night, depending on when it is scheduled.

The ritual at a glance

The commencement of the festival is marked by erecting the auspicious Kapa, a deified young jackfruit tree in each of the four devala premises, paving way to festivities that last for ten days. During the first five days, the procession will be called the Kumbal Perahera as it performs a trial procession of sorts, consecrating and marking sacred boundaries and a pathway for the later Randoli perahera, within the devale premises.  On the sixth night, the Randolis (golden palanquins also used to carry the main consorts of the King) carrying the idols of Gods take to the streets. A venerated and majestic tusker, Nadungamuwe Raja, in recent years has been carrying the golden casket, while two equally majestic tuskers guard each of his sides. The Diyawadana Nilame travels on foot close behind. Following this main procession emerges the processions from Natha Devale. Vishnu Devale, Katharagama Devale and Pattini Devale in that respective order. With its many dances ranging from Ves Natum, Pantheru Natum, Kavadi and a multitude of dances the festival transforms the atmosphere of Kandy under the flaming torch light. The pageant comes to a conclusion after five nights of Randoli, upon which a water-cutting ceremony in the Mahaweli river at Gatambe will take place.

It is fascinating to learn that the roots of this procession goes back a few thousand years and boasts of a multi-faceted heritage while intertwining lives of a multitude of families that come together each year to perform traditional dance and drumming rituals.

Ancient Beginnings

It is said that this festival dates back to the 3rd century BC, as a cultural ritual held annually in order to garner the favour and blessings of gods for the purpose of securing prosperous agricultural prospects, continuous rainfall, abundance and good health. It was only after the tooth relic was brought down during the reign of King Keerthi Sri Meghavarna, that it took the shape and life of a primarily religious occasion which encouraged public veneration of the tooth relic. There was also an underlying political motive behind the beginning of the perahera, for he who became the guardian of the tooth relic was considered as the rightful ruler of the country. Thus, it can be understood that the Dalada festival was held wheresoever the Kingdom was shifted to. The history of the Nuwara Dalada Perahera as we know it, seems to date back to 1754 A.D.—the time of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe. The island wide Buddhist revival under his patronage led to re-establishing higher ordination in Sri Lankan under the guidance and leadership of Ven. Weliwita Sri Saranankara Sangharaja. The Buddhist and Hindu cultures converge in this illuminated parade as the four devales, namely, Natha, Kataragama, Vishnu and Pattini send out their own processions to join the Maha Perahera. The story of how this cultural fusion came about is interesting:

It is said that the Siamese Upali mahathera who was residing at the Malvatu vihara premises at the time, heard the sounds of jingles of dancers towards the Dalada Maligawa. Having inquired about these sounds, and after learning that the Hindu Satara Maha Devala procession was in process, he put forth a suggestion to the king to incorporate the tooth relic as a significant part and priority of this procession. Therefore, it is believed that the Nuwara Perahera we witness today is a confluence of two cultural and religious rituals.

Worshipping of Gods

Today, the four deities Vishnu, Saman, Kataragama and Vibhishana are regarded as the heavenly guardians of the Buddha-sasana in Sri Lanka. Originally, Natha also used to be among these four guardian deities. The benevolence of these deities is also believed to extend to the devoted followers of the Buddha.  Therefore, it is common for Buddhist temples to allocate shrines on behalf of them. It is also said that this deity worship is one that was established by King Gajabahu after his return to the island following the defeat of Cholas. It was then that Gajabahu is said to have also brought back the anklet of Goddess Pattini or Kannaki Amman, thereby accepting her into the Sri Lankan deity worship pantheon. While these deities and gods have parallel lives in Hinduism, their adoption as guardian deities of the Sasana has declared them specific roles to play in the lives of Buddhist devotees. It is interesting to look at the Buddhist afterlives of such deities in order to understand the effect of rich cultural beliefs and traditions in re-defining our own religious practices.

The Nuwara Esala Perahera is a living testament to this intertwining of Hindu and Buddhist cultures, and following the trace of these gods is particularly interesting given the significance of deities in the lives and livelihoods of the island’s people.

Natha: The One Who Protects

The first procession that follows the main Dalada Perahera, is the Natha devala procession, which used to take priority in the Sathara Devala Perahera as a guardian deity of the island, before the procession of the tooth relic took precedence. Out of the four deities, Natha can be identified as an essentially Buddhist god. It is said that he is still engaged in battle with Mara in order to protect Buddhism for the remainder of the 5000 years, as declared by the Buddha. The god is often associated with the Maitreya Bodhisattva, and is also identified as the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Mahayana tradition. The current devale premises is said to retain the oldest building in Kandy, dating back to the 14th century.

Vishnu: The Blue-hued Bodhisattva

Then follows in second, the often-blue clad procession of the Vishnu Devala. The Buddhist devotees identify the Hindu god Vishnu as the god Upulvan—the sole protector of the land of Sri Lanka. It is said that, after the Buddha realized that his dhamma would flourish and live on in Lanka for thousands of years, he assigned the task of protecting this island nation to Indra who entrusted it to the blue/black skinned god Vishnu. As Uppala-Vanna refers to a blue-lotus-coloured god, these two gods are believed to be one and the same. In Buddhist imagination Vishnu was also redefined as a bodhisattva and a firm guardian of the Sasana. It is said that the Vishnu as he appears in Buddhism, retains an earlier subordinated form of Vishnu in Hinduism.

Kataragama: The Warrior God

The third procession is often clad in red and is an offering to the god Kataragama who is also a guardian deity of Buddhism. Kataragama who is identified with the warrior god Skanda is also said to be an incarnation of a local ruler called Mahasena, who vowed to protect the Sasana. Buddhists also venerate Kataragama as an all-powerful god, a bodhisattva himself, hoping to attain Buddhahood one day.  Perhaps even to date, it is the procession of this devala that retains the closest roots to Hinduism. This is symbolized by the vibrant Kavadi dance which is also a Hindu ritual that enacts a form of repentance performed by carrying a burden to venerate a god. The Kavadi dancers in the Kandy Esala Perhaera carry wooden contraptions with symbolic peacock feathers, and wear glittery garments that remind one of its Hindu heritage.

Pattini: The Mother Goddess

Following the four processions comes, last but not least, the perhera for Pattini or Kanaki Amman, the only known female deity venerated in the Buddhist tradition. She is also known as a Bodhisattva who aspires to attain Buddhahood in the coming eons. The goddess is associated with the livelihoods of the agrarian community as she is said to have once eradicated an epidemic that affected the hooves of oxen in farming communities. She is venerated today as a goddess that cures infectious diseases, brings about fertility and eradicates droughts and famines. Interestingly, in the procession this is also the only instance in which one can see the participation of female dancers. Interestingly enough, it is said that women used to travel beside the Randolis in the main processions up until King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe declared that women should not be allowed to travel together with the sacred Tooth Relic. This initial inclusion of women is highly likely given that it was Princess Hemamala who brought down the tooth relic hidden in her hair. Today, female participation is limited to the Pattini devale procession.

As the Nuwara Esala Perahera is often identified as the island’s unwavering symbol of Buddhist devotion one might not usually dig into its roots, to unravel its origins that indicates a fusion of Buddhist and Hindu cultures. What is most interesting here is how in the inclusion of the tooth relic in the Sathara Devala Perahera, the Hindu deities have been adopted into the Sinhalese culture by giving them parallel lives as Bodhisattvas.

Given this incomparable significance it gives to the island’s cultural and political histories, in recent times, proposals have been submitted to declare the Kandy Esala Perahera as an intangible heritage under the UNESCO World Heritages in order to ensure its undisputed continuation.

by Phusathi Liyanaarachch

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