One of the grandest and oldest cultural festivals in Sri Lanka is the Esala Perahera in Kandy. It is said to be the most beautiful ceremonial pageant in Asia and is celebrated in July or August according to the full moon. It lasts for 15 days.
The purpose of the ancient Esala Perahera is to parade the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Lord Buddha and ask blessings from the gods. The earliest Perahera was held in the early 4th century AD.
This Buddhist Festival combines the Kumbal Perahera with the Randoli Perahera. The word Perahera means parade and each of these two parades lasts five days. There are also special ceremonies and events in the days leading up to the Esala Perahera and a final Diya Kapeema or Day Perahera.
Visitors from all over Sri Lanka and the world flock to Kandy for this spectacular event which is of high religious significance. The colourful pageant processions include many opulently decorated elephants and elaborately costumed performers, musicians, dancers, singers and acrobats.
The first ritual of the Perahera is the choosing of a young Jak tree which is cleaned and sprinkled with sandalwood-scented water. An offering is made of nine flowers and a lamp with nine wicks is lit. The priest of the Maha Vishnu Devale offers prayers, the tree is felled and the trunk is cut into four pieces.
The symbol of prosperity is measured by the amount of milk sap that the tree produces. The trunks are then displayed in the four different Devale shrines to the Hindu gods Natha, Maha Vishnu and Katharagama and the goddess Pattini.
The next five days each have a procession to celebrate the Buddhist Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic and the four Devale shrines of the Hindu gods and goddess.
At the head of each procession are whip dancers to clear the way for the flag bearers carrying the standards and flags of the various temples from different provinces. These precede the beautiful gold casket (ransivige) containing the sacred tooth relic from the temple. It is transported around the city on top of a decorated tusked elephant. After the casket come drummers and flute players.
The parade also includes hundreds of fire dancers, Kandian dancers and cultural dancers along with more than 50 elephants covered in lavish garments and ceremonial decorations. At the end of the parade is the elephant carrying the Diyawadana Nilame or Custodian of the tooth relic who is dressed is regal attire. He is accompanied by lance bearers, decorative umbrella bearers and temple officials.
The fourth day procession is particularly beautiful as it includes Kavadi, the Peacock Dance. Pilgrim dancers carry wooden contraptions decorated with peacock feathers on their shoulders.
The five days of Kumbal Perahera are followed by the even more splendid Randoli Perahera with five more days of pageants and processions.
Diya Kapeema or Day Perahera
On the final day of the Perahera, the four Devale priests go down to the Getambe Mahaveli River. One of the priests marks a circle in the water with a golden sword and the priests empty the water into the river from their golden ewers. They then refill them with fresh water which is carried back to the temple and emptied again at the end of the next year’s Perahera.
This is known as the Diya Kapeema or water-cutting. The Devale priests then parade back to their temples to mark the end the Kandy Esala Perahera.
Viewing Galleries for Kandy Perahera
Visitors to the Kandy Perahera may want to book a place on the Viewing Galleries to ensure a good view of the elaborate parades. These ticketed places are offered in hotels and businesses along the parade route such as the Queens Hotel, Pizza Hut, the Seetha Book Shop building and the MPCS building.