Two historic Processions | Sunday Observer

Two historic Processions

7 August, 2022

The Kandy Esala Perahera

The Kandy Esala Perahera (the Sri Dalada Perahera in Kandy) is also known as The Festival of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It is a festival held in July and August in Kandy. This historical procession is held annually to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, housed in the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy.

A unique feature of Sri Lanka, the procession consists of traditional dances such as fire dances and Kandyan dances. The festival ends with the Diya-kapeema ritual, a water cutting ceremony which is held at the Mahaweli river in Getambe, Kandy.

The peraheras (Processions)

The Esala Perahera is believed to be a fusion of two separate but Interconnected peraheras or processions, the Esala and Dalada peraheras.. The Esala Perahera, which is thought to date back to the 3rd century BC, was a ritual enacted to request the gods for rainfall. The Dalada Perahera is believed to have begun when the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka from India during the 4th century CE, eight hundred years after the passing away of the Buddha.

According to historical, religious records, the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamala and Prince Dantha.

It was also through the efforts of Ven. Upali Thera that the Kandy Esala Perahera came into being. This procession was originally focused on honouring Hindu deities, particularly those incorporated into Sri Lankan Buddhist culture. Ven. Upali Thera believed this to be inappropriate in a Buddhist nation, and his influence led to the king declaring that “Henceforth Gods and men are to follow the Buddha”.

The modern perahera

After the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British in 1815, the custody of the Sacred Tooth Relic was handed over to the Maha Sanga (the Buddhist clergy). In the absence of the king, a chief lay custodian called the Diyawadana Nilame was appointed to handle routine administrative matters concerning the Sacred Tooth Relic and its care.

The Kandy Esala Perahera begins with the Kap Situveema or Kappa, in which a sanctified young Jackfruit tree is cut and planted on the premises of each of the four devalas dedicated to the four guardian gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and the goddess Pattini. Traditionally, it was meant to shower blessings on the King and people.

The initial peraheras are held within the premises of the four devales every evening, with music and drumming, flag and canopy bearers. The Ran Ayudha (gold ornaments), the sacred insignia of the Gods are also included.

The Kumbal Perahera

On the sixth night, the Kumbal Perahera begins and continues for five days. Initially, the devale peraheras assemble in front of the Temple of the Tooth, which is Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist shrine and where the Buddha’s Sacred tooth Relic has been kept since the 16th Century, with their insignias placed on the ransivige (a dome-like structure) accompanied by the Basnayake Nilames (the lay custodians of the devales).

The Maligawa Perahera joins the awaiting Devale Peraheras and leads the procession. Whip-crackers and fireball acrobats clear the path. They are followed by the Buddhist flag bearers. Riding on the first elephant is the official called Peramuna Rala (Front Official). He is followed by Kandyan drummers and dancers who enthrall the crowd, and are themselves followed by elephants and other groups of musicians, dancers, and flag bearers.

A group of singers dressed in white heralds the arrival of the Maligawa Tusker carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic. The Diyawadana Nilame is (traditionally required to do everything in his power to ensure rain in the correct season) walks in splendid traditional Kandyan costume after the tusker.

The second procession is from the Natha Devale, which faces the Sri Dalada Maligawa and is said to be the oldest building in Kandy, dating back to the 14th Century.

The third is from the Vishnu Devale (Vishnu being a Hindu god), also known as the Maha Devale. It is situated in front of the main gate of the Natha Devale.

The procession of the Kataragama Devale

The fourth procession is from the Kataragama Devale (dedicated to the God of Kataragama identified with the warrior god Skanda). It is on Kottugodalle Vidiya or street. This procession includes Kavadi, the peacock dance, in which the pilgrim dancers carry semicircular wooden contraptions studded with peacock feathers on their shoulders.

The fifth and final procession is from the Pattini Devale (Pattini being a goddess associated with the cure of infectious diseases and called upon in times of drought and famine), which is situated to the West of the Natha Devale. This is the only procession that has women dancers.

The following important times are announced by the firing of cannons, which can be heard all across Kandy

1. The commencement of the Devale Peraheras

2. The placing of the casket on the tusker’s back

3. The commencement of the Dalada Perahera

4. The completion of the perahera

The Randoli Perahera

The Randoli Perahera begins after five nights of the Kumbal Perahera. Randoli refers to palanquins on which the Queens of the ruling Kings traditionally travelled.

Diya Kepeema and the Day Perahera

After a further five nights of the Randoli Perahera, the pageant ends with the Diya Kepeema, which is the water cutting ceremony at the Mahaweli river at Getambe, a place a few miles from Kandy. A Day Perahera is held to mark the ceremony.

The Kataragama Perahera

The Kataragama Perahera or Festival is an annual festival that takes place in July/August in Kataragama, in the Southern part of Sri Lanka and runs for about two weeks, and is dedicated to the Hindu God of war and wisdom God Skanda. He is known to Sri Lankans as Kataragama Deviyo.

The Kataragama Perahera or Festival is a procession of elephants, dancers and drummers like in any Perahera in Sri Lanka and commences from the Devale of Kataragama and devotees (Sri Lankans and tourists) of all religions join in the festivities including the Aadhivasi of Sri Lanka. They cleanse themselves in the Menik River, Kataragama and make their offerings to the shrine.

Excruciating acts

Some devoteees perform excruciating acts such as swinging on hooks pierced to their skin, some roll barely clad on hot sands near a temple, and some Sri Lankans tread on red-hot embers.

The Kavadi dance is the dance of the peacock, the vehicle of God Skanda. The prop used for the Kavadi (burden) Dancing is a two-piece arched structure attached to a cross pole and can weigh up to 30 kgs. This demonstrates the devotees’ (Sri Lankans’) gratitude in return for favours sought or granted..

The Pada Yathra

The 15 days of the festival is a deeply sacred time in Kataragama. There is an air of exultation, with streets beautifully lit and decorated for the celebrations worshipping the deity also known as God Skanda and Lord Murugan. Worshippers of the God travel from across Sri Lanka for the festival.

One of the most important aspects of the Kataragama festival is the Pada Yatra. It is a walk of faith by devotees who travel from Jaffna to the island’s south coast in time for the Kataragama Perahera.

Generally, the procession commences from Nagadeepa in the North, and thousands of pilgrims walk through wild terrain amidst rain and sun. The origins of the Pada Yatra are linked to the Aadhivasi or indigenous people of Sri Lanka, who made the long journey in honour of their jungle princess Valli Amma, who was God Kataragama’s consort


Yashodhara Paranagama


Musaeus College

Colombo 7