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Kandy Esala Perehara 2007-05-25

An event of great historical and cultural significance takes place annually in the charming hill capital of Sri Lanka in a lunar month of Esala (July/August). This event, known the world over as the Kandy Esala Perehara is not only a religious ritual but also a folk festival which provides an occasion for local artistes and the multi-racial populace to exhibit their reverence and devotion to the enlightened one - the Buddha and to Gods and Goddesses such as Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama, and Pattini who with their divine blessings protect this Island, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean. Ever since the day when the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka in the reign of King Kirti Sri Meghavanna (303 -331 A.D.) it has been the custom to celebrate this great event with the highest esteem and reverence.

A pageant of great and aesthetic and socio-cultural value, the Kandy Asala Perahera has been the subject of much scholarly study and intense artistic appreciation. There are several theories and interpretations regarding the origin of the pageant which are really complementary and not exclusive of each other.

It is quite evident that the Esala (Sri- Esala) festival, which in the course of its evolution has assumed complex proportions, originated in India and continued throughout in Sri Lanka in the month of Esala (July/August) with royal patronage and intense religious fervour.

Whatever the reasons attributed to the origin of the Esala Perehara are the general belief is that the pageant in Kandy commenced in the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1781 A.D.) There is sufficient evidence both historical and literary to the effect that the annual celebrations in connection with the Sacred Tooth Relic originated since its arrival in Sri Lanka.

Tradition says that the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha now found in the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy was brought to Anuradhapura, the capital, from the Kalinga Country in the early 4th century during the reign of King Kirti Sri Meghavanna. From the beginning of the Polonnaruwa period the cult of the Tooth Relic assumed relatively more importance.

The rulers began laying more emphasis on the possession of the Tooth Relic in order to indicate their rights to the throne. It should be noted that consequent to the arrival of the Tooth Relic in Sri Lanka, a new concept of Kingship appears to have arisen possibly on the rational grounds that the possession of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha could easily justify a rightful and legitimate claim to the Sinhalese throne. With this shift of criteria of Kingship, a considerable number of literacy works developed round the Sacred Tooth Relic.

At the beginning of this period King Parakramabahu (1153-1186) proceeded to Rohana and brought the Tooth Relic in procession back to the new capital of Polonnaruwa.

The Culavamsa, in recording (85:43-45) a festival associated with the Sacred Tooth Relic during the reign of King Parakramabahu the II (1236-1270 A.D.) in the Dambadeniya period. Again, King Vijayaba IV (1270-1272 A.D.) of the Kurunegala period performed a similar festival.

According to the Culavamsa (90:66 ff) at Kurunegala, King Parakramabahu IV not only built a magnificient shrine to house the Tooth Relic but also promulgated an Ordinance to regulate the ritual and public celebrations in its honour. The Sinhalese literary work Dalada Sirita, written in the year 1318 A.D. in the reign of the above King gives a brief account of the history of the Sacred Tooth Relic until the time of Parakramabahu IV.

The student of the Perahara can vividly visualise the transformations and the vicissitudes that it has undergone over the years. These changes are very prominently observable particularly if one were to contrast two Peraheras, one of the nineteenth and one of the twentieth centuries. The characteristic of the Peraheras belonging to these two eras are well discernible. The Perahera of yesteryear reflected the spirit, the sociocultural milieu and the political and administrative structure of the times. The feudal elements - the Monarch, the aristocratic Adigars, the Manorial Disaves, the virtual counterpart of the freeman class represented by the Lekams and the Ratemahattayas, the Serfs or Vassala-akin to the toiling masses - comprise this social organization. With the passage of time this mediaeval and feudal pattern of cultural life showed quite inevitably an intense susceptibility and sensitivity to the transitory demands of society. The Perahera to day, though portraying a semblance of its past grandeur, has transformed itself into a mere folk pageant.

Before and after the all important Esala Pageant is celebrated with such devotion and reverence in the ancient hill capital of Kandy, similar though smaller Peraheras are celebrated in various other shrines in Lanka such as Kataragama, Devundara, Aluthnuwara, Navagamuwa, Ambakke, Gadaladeniya, Lankatilaka, Dodanwela, Sabaragamuwa, Pasgama and Hanguranketa, etc.

Esala is the month of serene and august ritual, the time of tinkling bells, jingling anklets, twinkling lights, resonant drums and blossoming Esala flower.

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