Kandy Perahera: World’s oldest religious pageant | Sunday Observer

Kandy Perahera: World’s oldest religious pageant

Pix: Sulochana Gamage
Pix: Sulochana Gamage

The Annual Esala Perahera in Kandy, is a stupendous pageant, that synthesizes religious fervour with an alluring worldly spectacle.

Practical Buddhism encompasses at once, both spiritual austerity and certain rites and rituals, which occasionally tend to be highly spectacular.

The world-renowned annual Perahera of Kandy, synthesizes both these aspects, and has continued to flourish over long centuries as an impressive pageant of mankind.

It is here, that I have an intriguing question for you. Can you guess how many times this Sacred Tooth Relic pageant has gone on?

I am sure, this exercise will prove a wee bit difficult.

The stark historical truth is, this is the 1709th time, this pageant is being held!

Given this background, it is quite safe to state that the Sacred Tooth Relic Perahera, is the world’s oldest religious pageant.

At this point, let us take a brief look at the events relating to the origin of the Pageant.

The second section of our uninterrupted written national chronicle, Mahawansa, is termed Culawansa part one. It begins, with the reign of King Sirimeghavanna. The following reference occurs there, about this ruler.

“In the ninth year of this King, a Brahman woman brought hither, to Anuradhapura, from the Kalinga country the Tooth Relic of the Great sage-Buddha. The ruler received it with reverence, paid it the highest honours, laid it in an urn of pure crystal, and brought it to the building called ‘Dhammacakka’ built by Devanampiyatissa, on royal territory. Henceforth this building was the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The King spent 900,000 Kahapanas and arranged therewith a great festival for the Tooth Relic. He decreed that it should be brought every year to the Abhayauttara Vihara...” (Culavansa Part one. Verses from 92.)

Now, here is the exact date, on which the Annual Tooth Relic pageant began in our noble land. The first of this series of annual pageants, began, in terms of the decree of King Sirimeghavanna. According to the Culawansa, the start happened in the 10th year of this King’s reign. We have only to find that date and obtain the relevant details.

According to established historical evidence, King Meghavanna reigned from 362 AD to 390 AD. Culavansa states that the King initiated the annual Tooth Relic festival in the 10th year of his reign. This works out to 372 AD. This is the date of the origin of the Sacred Tooth Relic Pageant begun 2,391 years ago. But, due to various ups and downs in the destiny of the land, there may have been some years, when the pageant was not held.

According to reliable sources, the present annual pageant in Kandy, marks the 1709th time it is being held.

What is most impressive is that, over those centuries, the cult of the annual pageant was kept vigorously alive by the rulers and the people of this land, displaying an undiminishing religious fervour.

Besides, the present day format preserves the major items of the pageant, almost totally intact.

Some of the families that contribute their specific talents to the pageant, may trace their group and clan origins to the far past.

Over the past centuries, the annual pageant of the Sacred Tooth Relic, has evolved into a built-in element in Sri Lankan cultural life. This is quite emphatically true of the lives of the folk groups, in the hinterland physically close to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

Their lifestyles are dominated by this central event, ‘The Annual Pageant of the Temple of the Tooth Relic.’

To them it is not at all a routine annual occurrence. It is a ‘divine’ gift with the potentiality of blessing their lives.

In their folk belief, they place tremendous trust on this annual pageant, to smoothen their existence, erasing the difficulties they have to face, in their day-to-day lives.

The compelling allure of the Kandy pageant to those visitors from abroad, is that, the event represents a living, spectacular facet of the exotic ways Sri Lanka’s indigenous culture can project.

To many, a central attraction is the parade of glamorously caparisoned elephants. Even for the local visitors, the sight of the amazingly disciplined elephants, taking part in this exalted spiritual event, is a highly impressive experience.

The pageant, when viewed while it travels the assigned perahera path, is in a way, not at all a complete experience. The perahera, is only the public display. But, the details that have to be worked out to make the pageant appeal to the spectators, call for an epic effort.

I had the privilege of observing the intricate process, that goes into the production of the bright caparisons for the Temple elephants.

A whole family is dedicated to this task. The meticulous care, with which they go through this specific facet of the pageant, highlights the dedication of all those devoted to the successful presentation of this sacred annual event.

When this annual pageant comes round, both print and electronic media, lavish their assets quite generously to wax eloquent about the spectacular facets of the perahera.

But, while all that happens. I feel a deep sense of sympathy towards, an extensively important duo, in this vast spiritual drama. They are really the central characters in this sacred epic.

The two personalities I have in mind, are Brahmin Princess Hemamala and her companion Prince Danta.

We are all aware of the troubling vicissitudes they had to go through to bring the Sacred Tooth Relic to our land.

I have never read any written document about the travails they had to face to come over to Sri Lanka from their country - Kalinga.

They assumed the austere dress travelling ascetics, to avoid harassment on the way, in their hazard-fraught trek. Hemamala had the Sacred Tooth hidden in her coiffure.

When you come to think of it, can we ever find this kind of profoundly moving spiritual material in any other religious chronicle? Can even well-crafted fiction match the spiritual appeal of this journey.

During this season of the Sacred Tooth Relic pageant, if someone dedicates one’s talents, to compose a chronicle of the adventurous spiritual trek of Hemamala and Danta, it would prove a valuable and unusual Esala offering.