The Esala Perahera in Kandy is one of the oldest and grandest of all Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka, featuring dancers, jugglers, musicians, fire-breathers, and lavishly decorated elephants. Even from the lifetime of the Buddha in the 6th century BC, the Esala festival was held to commemorate the Buddha’s Conception, his Renunciation and the First Sermon.
The Kandy Esala Perahera lasts for ten days while various festivities can be witnessed right throughout. The Sinhalese term ‘Perahera’ means a parade of musicians, dancers, singers, acrobats and various other performers accompanied by a large number of caparisoned Tuskers and Elephants parading the streets in celebration of a religious event.
The Esala Perahera in Kandy is celebrated to honour the Sacred Tooth Relic and the four ‘guardian’ Gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Goddess Pattini. The Kandy Maligawa Perahera is followed in order by those of the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini ‘Devales’ (Temples dedicated to these Gods) which are situated in the vicinity of the Kandy Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth).
After the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British in 1815, the custody of the Tooth Relic was handed over to the Buddhist Clergy. In the absence of the King, a lay custodian called the Diyawadana Nilame was appointed to handle routine administrative matters. The purpose of the Kandy Esala Perahera Procession is to beseech blessings of the gods to obtain rain for the cultivation of crops and to enrich the lands of the kingdom.
This ritual is performed by carrying the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha through the streets of the Kandy city which is done with exceptional panache. This is considered as one of the most beautiful pageants in the Asia.
Month Esala is also considered to be the beginning of the raining season (Vassana) when the monks commence their Retreat. Also, this month is considered to be the period when ritual performances to the protective divinities are held, (eg Pattini puja) as recorded in the text ‘Pattini-Halla’.
Being considered a ‘chaste’ month, the period is held sacred for the availability of water, hence prosperity. Several records have been left behind by dignitaries and other visitors to the island such as Robert Knox, John Davy, etc. The description of the perahara. These accounts provide much evidence as to the constitution and organization of the present day perahara. Yet many features seem to have been added and some changed to suit the time and the available resources and conditions.Dalada procession and the social traditions are linked so much together; the month of Esala has been named as the procession month, because of the Esala feast. In the 18th century at the time of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe the four Devala Peraharas and Dalada Perahara were amalgamated and were made series of Peraharas.
The procession is a complex procedure in which various customs are involved. The preliminary preparation for the perahara commences at the beginning of every year. Immediately after the Wesak and Poson pageants steps are taken to inform the owners of elephants the number of tuskers and elephant required measures of repair the dresses worn by the elephants and prepare new dress if required. Measures are taken to repair the required implements like oil torches etc and to fulfill the requirements to make the perahara a success. The astrologer attached to the Sacred Tooth (Nakath Mohottala) is required to prepare an auspicious time for pageant to be inaugurated. Later a meeting of state official and delegates of voluntary associations with the patronage of the Mahasangha is summoned to discuss matters pertaining to services to be executed to make the perahara a glorious event.
Kumbal Perahera (Kumbal Procession)
The first procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic stars with the Kumbal Perhara. This is the first Kumbal Perhara shown to the infants to drive away Evil Spells and Illwill. It is a tradition that the procession parades the streets of Kandy for five days. But the Kumbal Perahara is popular and remains as an unfinished procession or a semi procession. The reason is that Nilames do not work in this procession. But the Drummers and Tuskers take part without any ceremonial costumes.
Randoli Perahera (Randoli Procession)
This could be seen only with the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic and parade the streets for whole five days which is a tradition. In the days of the Kings the Chief Queen of the Kings paraded in this procession in Palanquins. As the participation of the Queens was not proper to the procession of the Sacred Tooth Relic they were stopped but a palanquin is taken in the procession as an honor to the Queen. Today it is taken as the last item of the procession.
Maha Randoli Perahera (Grand Randoli Procession)
The Maha Randoli Perahara is the last Procession. It is the grandest event of the festival. The Tuskers come with garlands and decorated with ceremonial costumes. The Diyawadana Nilame adds a novel glamour to the procession by wearing newly stitched costume.