One of the most important and colorful events happening in Sri Lanka is the Esala Perahera pageant. Most of them are with the great honor of Lord Buddha. This Perahera concept became popular in the era of Emperor Asoka in India displaying their own traditional customs. The Sinhalese term Perahera (Processions) implies a parade of musicians, dancers, acrobats, and various other performers accompanied by a large number of caparisoned Tuskers and Elephants parading the streets in celebration of a religious event.
The most unique and sacred perahera we are having in Sri Lanka is Kandy Esala Perahera, which is celebrated to honor the Sacred Tooth Relic and four Gods Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and the goddess paththini. The Kandy Maligawa Perahera (Temple of the Tooth) is followed in order by those of the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama, and Pattini Devales (Temples dedicated to these Gods) which are situated in the vicinity of the Kandy Maligawa.
The Esala is believed to be a fusion of two separate but interconnected Peraheras – The Esala and Dalada. The Esala Perahera, which is thought to date back to the 3rd century BC, was a ritual enacted to request the gods for rainfall. The Dalada Perahera is believed to have begun when the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka from India during the 4th century CE, eight hundred years after the passing away of Lord Buddha.
As per the ancestors, one of the main duties of the ruler in the country (back then, the king) was to protect the Tooth Relic, as that was the symbol of prosperity. But after the Kandy Kingdom fell to the British in 1815, the custody of the Tooth Relic was handed over to the Buddhist Clergy. In the absence of the King, a lay custodian called the Diyawadana Nilame was appointed to handle routine administrative matters. The purpose of the Kandy Esala Perahera Procession is to beseech the blessings of the gods to obtain rain for the cultivation of crops and to enrich the lands of the kingdom. This ritual is performed by carrying the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha through the streets of the Kandy city which are done with exceptional panache. This is considered as one of the most beautiful pageants in Asia.
The Kandy Perahera originates with the arrival of Prince Dantaha and Princess Hemamala, in India to Sri Lanka during the reign of King Kirthisiri (Keerthisiri) Meghawanna (305-331 AD). Following the decree of King Kirthisiri Meghawanna that the Relic should be taken around the city of Anuradhapura once a year, the Esala Perahera had been followed by the succession of kings, though with interruptions caused by foreign invasions.
But then the invasion of Dravida resulted in the shifting of the kingdoms from one place to another. On each retreat, a temple was constructed to enshrine the Sacred Tooth Relic. Then finally the Sacred Tooth Relic was placed in the Kandy Dalada Maligawa with the great honor. Since then the Esala Perahera has been held annually to rejoice and honor the Sacred Tooth Relic at Kandy.
The festival is held in July with the colorful processions with entertaining circus-like elephants, stilt walkers, fire eaters, and different kinds of traditional dancing items. However the main attraction of the event is the Tooth Relic brought out on the back of a decorated elephant for all to worship. The Kandyan dancers too play a major role in the procession.
On completion of the Perahera, the Diyawadana Nilame would lead a procession consisting of the Nilames of Sathara Maha Devalas and the Nilames of rural devalas to the King’s Pavilion carrying a sannasa (formal letter) known as the Perahera Sandeshaya to the king stating the successful completion of the annual Esala Perahera. The king would meet and receive the sannasa at the entrance to the King’s Pavilion. Today the same ritual is conducted by the president of Sri Lanka.
The Temple of the Tooth and the Esala Perahera are part of Sri Lankan tradition and must be seen by most of the Sri Lankans and absolutely by the visitors all over the world.