The City of Kandy comes alive for ten days in the month of Esala n the local lunar calendar (July - August) to pay homage to the most sacred relic of the Buddha, an event of utmost significance to Buddhists worldwide.
The most important of the corporeal relics of the Buddha is the Dalada, the sacred Tooth, which is enshrined in a golden casket at the Dalada Maligava, The Palace of the Sacred Tooth Relic at Kandy. The sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, from the Kalinga Region of India during the reign of the King Kitsiri Mevan (A.D. 303 - 331). That was about 500 years after the arrival of Theri Sanghamitta and the planting of the sacred Bodhi Tree.
Nearly 100 caparisoned elephants, dancers and torchbearers parade down the streets of this central city decorated with colourful lights and flags as the annual Buddhist festival of Kandy Perahera (pageant) is celebrated with great passion.
This colourful parade begins from the sacred Buddhist shrine of the Dalada Maligawa, showcasing the temple custodians known as Nilames, who are dressed in traditional ceremonial royal attire. The festivities also include traditional Kandyan dancers, fire-juggling acrobats, palanquins, musicians and torchbearers, who follow the elephants through the streets.
The Esala Perahera has been celebrated annually ever since the sacred tooth relic of Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka. Similar festivals take place in other parts of the country, including the capital Colombo, but none as grand as the Kandy pageant.
Apart from its religious significance, the event provides a platform to traditional folk artists to exhibit their reverence and devotion to the enlightened one - the Buddha - and to gods and goddesses such as Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama (lord Muruga) and Pattini.
The highlight of the parade is the brightly festooned Maligawa Tusker, the biggest elephant in the procession, proudly carrying the Perahera Karanduwa, a replica of the casket in which the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha is kept. The actual relic is kept inside seven caskets in the inner sanctum of the Dalada Maligawa.
In Sri Lanka, the lives of elephants are interwoven with those of humans. They are a part of the history, culture, religion and tradition of the island nation, which has 20 million people and nearly 4,000 elephants. Originating from Indo-Aryan traditions, Esala festivities signify the victories of the mythical Hindu God Indra over the demon Vritra who prevented the burst of rain clouds. In fact Esala Perahara was originally a ritual invoking the blessings of the Gods to cause rainfall in the dry month. Later the Sinahla kings who possessed the sacred Tooth Relic coupled that event with the procession in honour of the sacred Tooth Relic, maintaining some of the ancient rituals of yore.
The Chinese Buddhist traveller Fa Hien given an account of the rituals associated with the sacred Relic when it was taken to Abhayagiri vihara for the annual festival during the month of Esala. The fourteenth century Sinhala text "Dalada Sirita" gives a vivid description of these rituals. There was a strong conviction particularly among Sinhala Buddhists that the legitimate claim for the Sinhala Throne could be made by the possessor of the sacred Tooth Relic. The belief that the sacred Tooth Relic was a harbinger of rain never diminished even after the British occupation of Kandy. When the perahara was suspended by the British rulers in 1815 a severe drought and a crop failure followed. Due to public protest the perahara was allowed. It was reported that torrential rains followed the initiation of perhara rituals. The author of "Dalada Sirita" gives a vivid description of that event.
At the beginning for five days the procession is confined to the dewala premises. The second stage of the perahara is the Kumbal Perahara. Here the relic casket along with such regalia traditionally associated with the ancient royalty of Kandy are taken out. The Relic Casket is taken out amidst the blowing of conch shells. A gaily decorated elephant carries the casket. A traditional cannon is fired when the Diyawadana Nilame takes his place in the procession.
The Diyawadana Nilame, according to historical traditions was the minister who supplied water to the King. The title "Nilame" was given to a Minister of the royal court. However a contrary view was held by some writers with regard to the duties of the Diyawadana Nilame. He was required to do everything within his capacity to ensure rain at the correct seasons. This conclusion was arrived at because there was another official in the royal palace with the title Ulpange Rala who made bathing facilities for the king.
The third stage of the perahara is the "Randoli" symbolizing the participation of the royalty in the procession. Randoli was the name of a special palanquin in which the Queen was taken. The perahara parades with full splendour at this stage.
The grand finale of the 10-day celebrations in Kandy, known as Randoli Perahera, begins at an auspicious time. Thousands of devotees amongst whom are hundreds of foreign tourists, attend the nights of pageantry.
The "water-cutting ceremony" marks the final stage of the perahara rituals. Only a section of the overnight procession accompanied by the kapuralas in charge of the four shrines of Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini proceed to the ferry at Getambe and await the first light of the day for the performance of the ritual. When the first rays of sun fall they draw a circle in water with a sword. the water within that circle is taken to fill the pitches.
Today the Tooth relic is housed in Kandy because it was the last seat of the Sinhalese kingdom. Till the fall of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815 the Dalada remained as strong a symbol of sovereignty as ever. Safeguarding the Dalada against European powers was of prime importance. In 1611 when the Portuguese approached Kandy, the King (Senarath) quickly hid the Dalada in a safe place not too far from Kandy, and brought it back to Kandy when they retreated. The Europeans themselves were quick to realise the political importance of the Dalada, and its capture became their prime objective. When in the rebellion of 1818 the British captured the Dalada, the people gave up resistance, acceding that since they have the Dalada they are indeed the masters of the country.
The annual procession in Kandy held today may be viewed as an amalgamation of two separates but interrelated processions the Dalada Perahera and the Esala Perahera.
Thus the procession at Kandy is sometimes called the Esala Perahera, and sometimes the Dalada Perahera, and is considered the most colourful of the Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka. The Esala festival is not only the largest festival of the Temple; it is also the largest festival in Buddhist Ceylon, and is perhaps one of the largest ever held in the Buddhist world. Each year about 200,000 people participate as observers. The people who perform functions in it and directly related to it number over one thousand. It is also a large festival in terms of duration as it now lasts twenty-one days, whilst in the times of the Kandyan Kings, it lasted longer.