Origins of the Esala Perahera: A Portrayal of a Dynamic Culture

Each year, right around this time, the city of Kandy becomes enlivened with a festival that has become synonyms with our culture and the spirit of our nation. The Esala Perahera commenced last month (July 21st) as scheduled with the ‘Kap’ planting ceremony. Following the ‘Kumbal Perahera’, which continued from July 25th to the 29th, the ‘Randoli Perahera’ began on the 30th of July. The ‘Maha Randoli Perahera’ which marks the crescendo of the festival is to be held today (August 3rd), on the Nikini Full Moon Poya Day! The festival will conclude tomorrow (August 4th) with the ‘Diya Kepeema’ ceremony and the ‘Dawal Perahera’. Pause! But, what do all these terms and traditions mean?


Origins of the Kandy Perahera

During the mid-17th century, a British sailor named Robert Knox was confined in the kingdom of Kandy for 19 years. It is he who provides the earliest account of the grand Kandy Esala procession, in ‘An Historical Relation of Ceylon’ (1681). He illuminates that the Perahera was in honour of our gods, to “procure their aid and assistance”.

He mentions “gods” because the Kandy Esala Perahera originally honoured Hindu deities. It is thought to have begun in the third century BC, and continued during the period the Dutch ruled the coastal provinces and the Kandyan Kingdom remained independent, isolated from the outside world. Primarily, it was a ritual to appeal to the gods for rain, and then it was continued to bestow blessings on the king and the people. This is termed the ‘old perahera’.

The Old Perahera

In his account, Knox presents us with a fascinating firsthand depiction of the ‘Old Perahera’:

“The priest bringeth forth a painted stick, about which strings of flowers are hanged, and wrapped in branched silk… before which the people bow down and worship; each one presenting him with an offering.”

“These free-will offerings being received from the people, the priest takes his painted stick on his shoulder… and gets upon an elephant covered with white cloth, upon which he rides… thro all the streets of the city. But before him go, first some forty of fifty elephants…”

“Next follow men dressed up like giants… After them a great multitude of drummers, and trumpeters, and pipers, which make such a great noise… Then followeth a company of men dancing along, and after these women of such castes or trades necessary for the service of the pagoda… and between each company go drummers, pipers and dancers.”

“Next go some thousands of ladies and gentlemen… The streets are all made clean, and on both sides street poles stuck up with flags and pennons… and lighted lamps along both sides of the streets, by day and night.”


Modern Day Perahera

The modern incarnation of the Perahera was distinguished from the old Perahera due to one principle reason: the inclusion of the ‘Dalada’, the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, in the procession. In the beginning, only the ‘Devale Peraheras’ were held, which reflected Hinduism, because of the influence of the South Indian queens (and their customs and traditions) married by the Kandyan kings.


During the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe, the Sacred Tooth Relic was the private property of the king, and the public was not permitted to view or worship it. However, attributed to the efforts of Upali Thero of Thailand, who restored Canonical Ordination or ‘Upasampada’ in Sri Lanka, in 1775, King Rajasinghe decreed that the Relic be included in the procession for the people to view and worship. He interweaved the ‘Dalada Perahera’ (procession of the Temple of the Tooth Relic) and ‘Devale Perahera’ (processions of Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and Paththini Devales) and made it five interconnected processions.


Following the British occupation of Kandy in 1815, the custody of the Tooth Relic was transferred to the Buddhist clergy, and in the absence of the king, a lay custodian called the ‘Diyawadana Nilame’ was appointed to manage administrative tasks.

Interesting fact: Following the British occupation of Kandy, the Esala Perahera was discontinued and was reinstated in 1823.

Customs Surrounding the Dalada Perahera

A majority of the customs surrounding the Dalada Perahera have been adopted from statutes stated in the “Dantha Dhathu Charitha” or “Dalada Siritha” (a book on the customs pertaining to the Tooth Relic), written during the reign of Parakramabahu IV of Kurunagala. The Dalada Siritha comprises 38 statutes, obeying which the procession must be executed. These encompass the cleaning of the shrine room of the Tooth Relic at the auspicious hour, hanging of canopies adorned with silks, offerings that need to be made by the ministers of the king and the public, as well as the vivifying of the city.

The Perahera (The Procession)

The Perahera is commenced with ‘Kap Situweema’. Performed in commemoration of the Katharagama deity’s defeat of the ‘asuras’ (demonic entities) on the new moon day of the month of Esala (July), on the new moon day prior to Esala full moon Poya day, at an auspicious hour, an Esala tree is anointed and fell, and its trunk is divided into four parts and planted in each of the devale grounds. These parts of the tree trunk are known as ‘Kap’. Over the years however, in place of an Esala tree, a jackfruit or ‘Rukkattana’ tree is used. The milky sap which secretes from these trees when they are cut is believed to be a sign of prosperity.


The first procession of the festival is the ‘Kumbal Perahera’, which continues for five days. Believed by the locals to ward off evil spells and ill will from pregnant mothers and infants, amid the bleak weather in the nights, people accompany pregnant mothers and children to view the procession. Drummers and tuskers bereft of ceremonial costumes, as well as the absence of ‘Nilames’, render the procession modest and is considered a semi procession.

Following the Kumbal Perahera, ‘Randoli Perahera’ in which the Sacred Tooth Relic is carried colours the Kandyan streets for the next five days. As history reveals, in the kingdom of Kandy, the main queen of the prevailing king, known as the ‘Randoli’,  would accompany the procession in a palanquin alongside the elephants.  With the integration of the Dalada Perahera, this tradition had to be altered, as the participation of queens is unsuited for the procession of the Tooth Relic. Henceforth, the palanquins joined the procession at the very end. This tradition can be observed even today, however, with the inclusion of emblems of the tutelary deities of the four devales, it is now being incorporated predominantly to pay homage to the divine.


The last procession of the festival is the ‘Maha Randoli Perahera’. The most magnificent of all the processions of the Esala Perahera, this comprises tuskers adorned with garlands and lavish garments, drummers dressed in their complete ceremonial costumes and the Nilames. Among the crown jewels of the procession is the ‘Diyawadana Nilame’, dressed in a majestic attire.

On the last day of the Perahera ceremony, the processions from the four Devales continue to Mahaveli River at the Getambe Diya Kapanathota Temple. Here, the ritual of ‘Diya Kepeema’ (which translates to ‘cutting water’) is performed by the head priests of the Devales. It is then followed by a day time procession back to the city, which is termed ‘Dawal Perahera’ in the vernacular.


Interesting fact: En route to the city, the ‘Dawal Perahera’ procession would stop at the Hindu shrine ‘Pulleyar Kovil’. This has signified harmony between religions since the era of the monarchy.

During the period of the Kandyan dynasty, the day time procession would conclude with the chiefs meeting the king and reporting that the Perahera had been held with due ceremony. Derived from this tradition, today, upon completion of the Perahera, the Diyawadana Nilame, along with the Nilames of Sathara Maha Devalas (Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and Paththini Devales) and the Nilames of rural devalas, would present a ‘Sannasa’ (a formal letter) known as the ‘Perahera Sandeshaya’ to the President, stating the successful completion of the annual Esala Perahera.

Historical Accounts of the Esala Perahera

Intriguing accounts written during the British colonial period detailing the splendour and even the darker aspects of the Esala Perahera, are abound. Among them is Major Forbes’ account in ‘Eleven Years in Ceylon’ (1840). He echoes Robert Knox’s account of the grandeur of the Perahera festival, but furthermore, references the Tooth Relic, which post dated Knox’s experience of the Perahera: “It was very imposing, from the multitude of people, rich dresses, brilliant lights, and large elephants. On the last night, the casket containing the Dalada, borne on an elephant, accompanied the procession to the limits of the town.”

Charles Henry Sirr in ‘Ceylon and the Cingalese’ (1850) writes about the horrors associated with the perahera at this time, describing the vindictive actions of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe.

Another rather intriguing account of the Esala Perahera is by the English occultist Aleister Crowley, in his ‘Confessions’(1969): “…as a spectacle it is certainly gorgeous. The very wildness and lack of appropriateness add to its charm… The Perahera is a gigantic jollification; they bring out all their elephants, dancers, monks, officials, drums, horns, torches – anything that makes a blaze or a noise, and let them all loose at once.”

Esala Perahera in 2020

Unlike in the past, this year the Kandy Esala Perahera does not allow public participation due to preventive measures employed to subdue the Covid -19 pandemic. The number of elephants and artists who would take part in the festival are also reduced. But the essence of the festival is in no way dampened. As our ancient folklore narrates, through the centuries, the Esala Perahera has always remained a beacon of strength to our nation during difficult periods. It is our hope that as we face these current hurdles, it would help reignite the spirit of strength and perseverance of our nation. 

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