INSIDE SRI LANKA A monthly insider’s report by Royston Ellis, July 2015
Next month, August, the world famous Perahera takes place in Kandy. It’s a 14-day event open to the public as spectators, beginning on 17 August culminating in the glorious evening Perahera on the night of the Full Moon, Saturday 29 August and followed by a less elaborate day Perahera on Sunday 30 August. It’s well worth visiting Kandy on the Full Moon evening, to be thrilled by this annual parade of dancers, acrobats, jugglers, drummers, singers, elephants, and the sacred relic of Lord Buddha’s tooth.
Officially known as the Kandy Esala Perahera it is a grand affair of street pageants to honour the Sacred Tooth Relic and the guardian Gods: Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Goddess Pattini. The Kandy Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) Perahera is followed in order by those of the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini ‘Devales’ (shrines dedicated to these Gods) which are situated in the vicinity of the Kandy Maligawa.
The history of the Kandy Esala Perahera goes back over 2,300 years and it is believed to be a fusion of two separate but interconnected Peraheras, the Esala and the Dalada. It is originally thought to have been a ritual enacted to request the gods for rainfall. The incorporation of Dalada Perahera is believed to have begun when the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Anuradhapura from India during the 4th Century AD.
The sporadic invasions by armies from the Dravidian kingdoms in India resulted in the shifting of the seat of the kingdom from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, then to Dambadeniya and thereafter to other cities. With each retreat, a new temple was constructed to enshrine the Sacred Tooth Relic. Finally, after the shift of the capital of the kingdom to Kandy, the Relic remained there and the Esala Perahera has been held annually since then to rejoice and revere the Sacred Tooth Relic.
After the Kandyan 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 High Priests of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Temples were appointed custodians.
The purpose of the Kandy Esala Perahera Procession, as well being obeisance to the Relic, is also to seek blessings of the gods to obtain rain for the cultivation of crops and to enrich the lands of farmers. Actually the Sacred Tooth Relic itself is not carried in the Perahera. It’s a duplicate of the casket in which the Relic is kept that is carried on the back of the gorgeously caparisoned Maligawa tusker elephant. This is because it is considered inauspicious to remove the Tooth Relic from its sacred precincts. So the pageant is symbolic of the respect Buddhists have for the Relic as well as a celebration of the steadfastness of faith.
Even if you can’t get to Kandy for the Perahera, the two storey Temple of the Tooth with its golden canopy is open to visitors (fee: Rs1,000) with special offering (puja) times being 6.30, 10.00 and 18.00 hours daily.
Another festival worth seeing in Sri Lanka this year will be the 14-day carnival and exhibition being planned by the Western Province Tourist Board (WPTB) at the Nawaloka Grounds, Welisara (on the main road linking the International Airport with Colombo) 18-31 December 2015.
In a novel initiative to share the message, spirit and excitement of Christmas, the WPTB plans to erect and display the tallest Christmas tree in Asia as the focus of the Christmas carnival.
The erection of tall trees at Christmas has become a tradition in many countries. In Italy, the original structure was built for a tree reaching 750m (2,460ft) in height in 1981, and has been renewed and re-lit every Christmas since then. In Mexico, a tree of 110.35m (362ft) claimed a Guinness World Record for a tall tree.
Statistics on tall trees in Asia are difficult to obtain and the height of Sri Lanka’s tree will not be revealed until its unveiling – in case another country tries to do better this year! The idea is to spread by word of mouth to the international community that Sri Lanka is safe to visit after decades of strife.
Although Sri Lanka’s Christian population amounts to about 1.5m (the majority being Buddhists, with Hindu and Muslim minorities) the rationale behind the project is that it will spread worldwide awareness of Sri Lanka as a harmonious, multi religious and multi ethnic tourist destination.
The planned construction of the tree will be under the consultation of an expert engineer who built the tallest hotel in the world. The structure, covered by decorated mesh, is expected to be built in steel with a star adding to the ultimate height. It will be circled by a railway track with an operating mini train in the form of a Sleigh ridden by Santa Claus which will transport children for a merry time.
Not just at Christmas, but at any time of the year in Sri Lanka, the word to use is “Ayubowan.” This text comes from the reverse of this old card: “In Ceylon the person who offers the salutation holds his hands with the palms together and the fingers extended. If the salutation is to a superior, the hands are held in front of the forehead and the head is bent. If to an equal or inferior, the hands are held in front of the body. The words: “Ayu bowan” are used. “May you (ayu) live long (bowan).”
A British resident of Sri Lanka since 1980, Royston Ellis is an erstwhile beat poet and author of “The Bradt Guide to Sri Lanka.” His most recent book is “Cliff Richard and The Shadows, a Rock ‘n’ Roll Memoir.” (Tomahawk Press, UK). His weekly blog is available by free subscription from www.roystonellis.com