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KANDY ESALA PERAHERA

Kandy’s ten-day Esala Perahara is the most spectacular of Sri Lanka’s festivals, and one of the most colorful religious pageants in Asia. Its origins date back to the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka in the fourth century AD, during the reign of Kirti Siri Meghawanna, who decreed that the relic be carried in procession through the city once a year. This quickly developed into a major religious event – the famous Chinese Buddhist Fa-Hsien, visiting Anuradhapura in 399 AD, described what had already become a splendid festival, with processions of jewel-encrusted elephants.

Occasional literary and artistic references suggest that these celebrations continued in some form throughout the thousand years of upheaval which followed the collapse of Anuradhapura and the Tooth Relic’s peripatetic journey around the island. Esala processions continued into the Kandyan era in the seventeenth century, though the Tooth Relic lost its place in the procession, which evolved into a series of lavish parades in honor of the city’s four principal deities: Vishnu, Kataragama, Natha and Pattini, each of whom had (and still has) a temple in the city.

The festival took shape in 1775, during the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinha, when a group of visiting Thai clerics expressed their displeasure at the lack of reverence accorded to the Buddha during the parades. To propitiate them, the king ordered the Tooth Relic to be carried through the city at the head of the four temple processions: a pattern that endures to this day. Sri Rajasinha’s own enthusiastic participation in the festivities, and that of his successors, also added a political dimension – the Nayakkar kings of Kandy (who were from South India) probably encouraged the festival in the belief that by associating themselves with one of Buddhism’s most sacred relics, they would reinforce their dynasty’s shaky legitimacy in the eyes of their Sinhalese subjects. The Tooth Relic itself was last carried in procession in 1848, since when it’s been considered unpropitious for it to leave the temple sanctuary – its place is now taken by a replica.

The festival

The ten days of the festival begin with the Kap Tree Planting Ceremony, during which cuttings from a tree – traditionally an Esala tree, though nowadays a Jak or Rukkattana are more usually employed – are planted in the four devales, representing a vow (kap) that the festival will be held. The procession (perahara) through the streets of Kandy is held nightly throughout the festival: the first five nights, the so-called Kumbal Perahara, are relatively low-key; during the final five nights, the Randholi Perahara, things become progressively more spectacular, building up to the last night (the Maha Perahara, or “Great Parade”), featuring a massive cast of participants including as many as a hundred brilliantly caparisoned elephants and thousands of drummers, dancers and acrobats walking on stilts, cracking whips, swinging fire pots and carrying banners, while the replica casket of the Tooth Relic itself is carried on the back of the Maligawa Tusker elephant.

Following the last perahara, the water-cutting ceremony is held before the dawn of the next day at avenue near Kandy, during which a priest wades out into the Mahaweli Ganga and “cuts” the waters with a sword. This ceremony symbolically releases a supply of water for the coming year (the Tooth Relic is traditionally believed to protect against drought) and divides the pure from the impure – it might also relate to the exploits of the early Sri Lankan king, Gajabahu (reigned 114–136 AD), who is credited with the Moses-like feat of dividing the waters between Sri Lanka and India in order to march his army across during his campaign against the Cholas.

After the water-cutting ceremony, at 3pm on the same day, there’s a final “day” perahara, a slightly scaled-down version of the full perahara. It’s not as spectacular as the real thing, though it does offer excellent photo opportunities.