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Kandy Esala Perahera Pageant – An Icon of the Ages

Article by Pushpitha Wijesinghe

The Kandy Esala – Dalada Maligawa Perahera is one of the proudest and most revered institutions in the predominantly Buddhist country of Sri Lanka. The procession centres around the Temple of the Tooth in the scenic hillsides of Kandy, the capital of the last Singhalese monarchy. The Temple of the Tooth or the Dalada Maligawa in its turn is the most revered cultural and historical heritage site in the nation. This is a dual complex of the former palace of the last King of Kandy and the temple complex built to enshrine the left canine of the Lord Buddha, which has been under the custodianship of the Sri Lankan King since the 4th century AD, and the possession of which still symbolizes the right of sovereignty of the people of the island.

It is believed that the modern day cultural procession (or “Perahera”) of Esala traces its origins back to two separate processions. The original Esala Perahera is believed to be a ritual enacted to appease the gods and ensure the coming of the monsoon rains, upon which the harvests of the country depended. The Dalada Maligawa Perahera is thought to have been practiced ever since the Tooth was brought to Sri Lanka. The merging of these two rites now comprise the Esala-Dalada Perahera, which commences on the Full Moon Day of the month of Esala, which falls in July according to the Singhalese lunar calendar, and ends on the Full Moon of the Nikini month (which usually falls in early August).

The procession itself is arguably the most splendid pageant in the country, comprising over a hundred caparisoned elephants, dancers in ceremonial garb, and the nobility charged with officiating over the ceremonies in full cultural regalia. The Asgiri and Malwathu monastic orders who reside within the Temple preside over the ceremonies, assisted by the Diyawadana Nilame, the lay nobleman elected by the government specifically for duties pertaining to the Temple of the Tooth. The procession carefully preserved all the rites, ceremonies, traditions and garbs that hark back to the days of kings; whip-crackers and conch-shell blowers announcing the advent of royalty, drummers beating on a range of traditional Sri Lankan percussion instruments, flag, lance and standard bearers, acrobatic dancers, fire-dancers, stilt-walkers and a myriad of other gorgeously dressed performers follow one after the other all throughout the streets of Kandy. The Custodian of the Elephants, the Gajanayaka Nilame, follows on elephant back in the latter part of the procession. He in turn is followed by the main event – the majestic tusker bearing the golden casket of the Tooth Relic on its back, surrounded by a host of attendants. The one million odd tourists and devotees who throng the streets on the nights of procession are expected to stand in respect as the tusker passes; Buddhists will usually bring their hands together and call “sadu! sadu!” in worship.The Dalada Maligawa procession is followed by the processions of the four “dewalas”, or temples of deities, that are also housed within the premises of the Temple of the Tooth. The Natha dewala (the temple of the god who is believed to be the next in line for Buddha-hood) is seen first, followed by the dewala of Maha Vishnu (the Hindu god that Buddhists believe is charged with protecting Buddhism in Sri Lanka), the dewala of Katharagama (the regional god of war and protection) and the dewala of the goddess Pattini, who is said to provide immunity from disease and malaises. Each procession is accompanied by its Basnayake Nilame who presides over the dewala affairs and each procession has its own entourage of exotic dancers, musicians and standard bearers, not to mention an elephant carrying magnificently clad statues of each god. The procession concludes with a series of golden palanquins.

Any tourist staying at a hotel in Kandy will be easily able to find a good view of this splendid pomp and pageantry anywhere along the route. Jetwing Hunas Falls is recommended as a well-known Sri Lanka honeymoon hotel that provides access to a myriad of attractions in the cultural heart of Kandy, including the Dalada Maligawa Perahera.

About the Author

Pushpitha Wijesinghe is an experienced independent freelance writer. He specializes in providing a wide variety of content and articles related to the travel hospitality industry.

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