Esala, the lunar month in the Singhalese calendar ushers in a period of festivities in Sri Lanka and it occurs during the months of July and August. This year the full moon day of Esala falls on 16th of July 2000.
Most of these festivals take the form of a Perehara, a procession conducted mostly with a religious fervor embodying the customs and culture of the land depicting the art forms of the people and will consist of whip crackers, drummers, dancers, stilt walkers, fire eaters, acrobats, and host of other artists and performers. Of course, a perehara of any significance will have a couple of caparisoned elephants. The “piece de resistance” of these pereharas is the festival of The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, better known as the Kandy Perehara.
The origin of the perehara of the temple of the tooth dates back to the times of the King Kirthi Sri Megavanna, during whose regime the sacred tooth of the Buddha was smuggled out for safekeeping during the siege of Dantapura, the capital of Kalinga in India in the 4th century AD.
Princess Hemamali carried the sacred object hidden in her coiffure accompanied by Prince Dantha and on arrival in Sri Lanka presented it to the King, who had it deposited in a special building called the Dharma Chakra. The King was awed by the gift and decreed that so holy an object must receive due veneration, so it was carried through the streets of Anuradhapura once a year to enable the citizens to pay homage.
With the passage of time the custody of the Tooth relic became synonymous with the right to the Throne; like the “Crown Jewels” it became the proud possession of the Ruler. In the face of plundering invading South Indians, a change of capitols was forced, with the seat of Sinhala Monarchy relocating from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, Dambadeniya, and finally to Kandy, where it is now deposited in the holy precinct of the Temple of the Tooth.
Through the years the tradition of the annual pageant has been performed as it is today, with the solemnity of the ancient religious rituals which begins with the “Kap” ceremony, when the stem of a tree that oozes latex is planted in the precinct of the temple. First the “Kumbal” perehara parades the inner courtyards of the temple. In the last days it ventures out into the streets of Kandy, with the route becoming longer with each night.
Since the days of Kandyan kingdom, what was essentially a Buddhist ritual has included certain Hinduistic influences, such as the golden palanquins of the four Devales bringing up the rear of the perehara during the final five days of the Randoli Perehara. These devales, Natha (Guardian of the City), Vishnu (Protector of the Land), Skanda (God of Victory), Pattini (Goddess of Chastity) have now become an integral part of the perehara.
The ancient protocol of the Perehara is strictly observed. The Kasa Karayas, whip crackers, announce the perehara is on and also clear the way. Next is the Peramuna Rala, who rides on his elephant and carries the Lekammittiya, a scroll that was the edict of the King authorizing the perehara. The temple attendants follow him, and then comes the Gajanayaka Nilame, the Keeper of the Elephants. Drummers and dancers intersperse these officials.
The elite Ves dancers and the drummers precede the majestic tusker, caparisoned in all its finery, stately carrying the golden canopy which houses the Golden Casket containing the Tooth. The lay custodian chieftain, Diyawadana Nilame, follows with another set of dancers and drummers, followed by other chieftains who also march in the procession.
The Golden anklets of Goddess Pattini, called Ran Salamba, and the golden Armour of the other deities, known as Maha Ran Ayuda, are also carried on elephants, in their respective segments of the perehara, along with a golden sword and a pitcher.
The Final Randoli climaxes on the full moon night.
At daybreak following the full moon the pereharas of the four devales proceed to the ford of the Mahaveli River for the water cutting ceremony, when the water in the pitchers from the last perehara will be emptied and refilled with water from the spot where the water is cut by the sword. Then the day perehara returns to the temple.
The Diyawadana Nilame and the Basnayaka Nilames of the four devalayas and other Chieftains, the Chief Minister of the Province and other officials then visit the residency of the Head of State, The President, to report that the Perehara had been concluded successfully.
Being an agricultural society, most of these festivals are connected with paddy cultivation and have been performed traditionally to offer merits to Gods and pray for timely rain and a plentiful harvest. Some take the form of New Rice offerings to various places of religious importance.
Other Esala festivals take place in Kataragama for God Skanda, Ratnapura for Saman Deity, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa for Devol Deity, and other major celebrations include Gatabaruwa on the outskirts of Singharaja Rain Forest and Nawagamuwa near Colombo.