Kandy Esala Perahera

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Ceremonial Tusker carrying the Sacred Casket

The Kandy Esala Perahera (the Sri Dalada Perahara procession of Kandy) also known as The Festival of the Tooth is a festival held in July and August in Kandy, Sri Lanka. This historical procession is held annually to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, which is housed at the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. A unique symbol of Sri Lanka, the procession consists of traditional local dances such as fire-dances, whip-dances, Kandyan dances and various other cultural dances, in addition to the elephants who are usually adorned with lavish garments. The festival ends with the traditional diya-kepeema ritual, a water cutting ceremony which is held at the Mahaweli River at Getambe, Kandy.

The 2019 festival was held on 1 August – 15 August.[1]


Esala Perehera festival, around 1885

The Esala is believed[who?] to be a fusion of two separate but interconnected "Peraheras" (Processions) – 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.

According to tradition, the Tooth Relic was taken in procession to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamala & Prince Dantha.[citation needed]

It was also through the efforts of Upali Thera that the Kandy Esala Perahera came into being. This procession was originally focused on honor to Hindu deities, particularly those incorporated into Sri Lankan Buddhism. Upali Thera believed this to be inappropriate in a Buddhist nation, and his influence led to the king declaring that "Henceforth Gods and men are to follow the Buddha".

Modern Perahera[edit]

After the Kandyan Kingdom fell to the British in 1815, the custody of the Relic was handed over to the Maha Sanga (the Buddhist Clergy). In the absence of the king, a chief lay custodian called the "Diyawadana Nilame" was appointed to handle routine administrative matters concerning the relic and its care.

The Procession[edit]

The Kandy Esala Perahera begins with the Kap Situveema or Kappa, in which a sanctified young Jackfruit tree (Artocarpus integrifolia) is cut and planted in the premises of each of the four Devales dedicated to the four guardian gods Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and the goddess Pattini. Traditionally it was meant to shower blessing on the King and the people.

Dancers at the Esala Perahera

The Kumbal Perahera[edit]

For the next five nights, the "Devale Peraheras" take place within the premises of the four Devales with the priest of each Devale taking the pole every evening, accompanied by music and drumming, flag and canopy bearers, spearman and the Ran Ayudha (gold Armaments), the sacred insignia of the Gods.

On the sixth night, the Kumbal Perahera begins and continues on for five days. Initially, the Devale Peraheras assemble in front of the Temple of the Tooth, which is Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist Shrine and where the Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic has been kept since the 16th Century, with their insignias placed on the ransivige (a dome-like structure) accompanied by the Basnayake Nilames (the lay custodians of the Devales).

The relic casket, which is a replica for the Tooth Relic, is placed inside the ransivige affixed to the Maligawa Elephant, the Maligawa Perahera joins the awaiting Devale Peraheras and leads the procession. Whip-crackers and fireball acrobats clear the path, followed by the Buddhist flag bearers. Then, riding on the first elephant, is the official called Peramuna Rala (Front Official). He is followed by Kandyan Drummers and Dancers who enthrall the crowd, and are themselves followed by elephants and other groups of musicians, dancers and flag bearers. A group of singers dressed in white heralds the arrival of the Maligawa Tusker carrying the Sacred Tooth Relic. The Diyawadana Nilame (traditionally required to do everything in his power to ensure rain in the correct season) walks in traditional Kandyan-clothed splendor after the tusker.

The second procession is from the Natha Devale, which faces the Sri Dalada Maligawa and is said to be the oldest building in Kandy, dating back to the 14th Century.

The third is from the Vishnu Devale (Vishnu being a Hindu god), also known as the Maha Devale. It is situated in front of the main gate of the Natha Devale.

The procession of Katharagama Devale

The fourth procession is from the Katharagama Devale (dedicated to the God of Kataragama deviyo, identified with the warrior god Skanda) which is on Kottugodalle Vidiya (a street in Kandy). This procession includes Kavadi, the peacock dance, in which the pilgrim-dances carry semicircular wooden contraptions studded with peacock feathers on their shoulders.

The fifth and final procession is from the Pattini Devale (Pattini being a goddess associated with the cure of infectious diseases and called upon in times of drought and famine), which is situated to the West of the Natha Devale. This is the only procession that has women dances.

The following important times are announced by the firing of cannonballs, which can be heard all across Kandy.

  1. The commencement of the Devale Peraheras
  2. The placing of the casket on the tuskers back
  3. The commencement of the Dalada Perahera
  4. The completion of the Perahera

The Randoli Perahera[edit]

The Randoli Perahera begins after five nights of the Kumbal Perahera. Randoli refers to palanquins on which the Queens of the ruling Kings traditionally traveled. 2018 Kandy Esala Maha Perahera (Randoli Perahera) was held on 25 August 2018, the full moon poya day with the participation of hundreds thousands people.

Diya Kepeema and the Day Perahera[edit]

After a further five nights of the Randoli Perahera, the pageant ends with the Diya Kepeema, which is the water cutting ceremony at the Mahaweli River at Getambe, a town a few miles from Kandy. A Day Perahera is held to mark the ceremony.

Women's Participation in the Kandy Esala Perahera[edit]

Women do not take part in the Dalada Perahera, except in the final Randoli Perhera, where only the two Alaththi Ammas could go behind the Randoliya (Queen's palanquin) that is being carried at the end of the Dalada Maligawa Perahera, on the final day of the Esala Perahera Mangallaya. The Esala Perahera comprises ten processions altogether. The first five processions are called Kumbal and the remaining five are called Randoli. “The Randoli Perahera is the most magnificent event in the whole of the perahera process […]. It begins […] immediately after the last Kumbal Perahera of Sri Dalada Maligawa. The word “Randoli” derives from the words “Queen’s Palanquin”. The palanquins were carried alongside the elephants in the procession until King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe passed a decree in 1775 A.D. that the palanquins should be added at the end of the Perahera [...] There are two opinions about the palanquins. One is that the palanquins are a symbol of presence of the consorts of the Deities. Yet, the other is that the queens of the reigning monarch travelled in those palanquins. At the present, Alaththi Ammas of [the Dalada Maligawa] and the four devalayas walk alongside the palanquins. [2] As K. Meegahakumbura states, women are not directly involved in rituals performed in veneration of the Tooth Relic, except for the two women called Alaththi Ammas who “engage in a ritual blessing called Alaththibama on the days of nanumura mangallaya (days of applying shampoo), on the days of the full moon, on the days of conducting the perahera mangallaya, on the days of the exposition of the Sacred Tooth Relic and on the days of holding special events” . In fact, "Alaththibama was a ritual done [by two selected women] as a blessing by oscillating two silver lamps in their hands while staying in front of the ‘gandha kutiya’, but away from the silver step. Folk tradition stated that the service of Alaththi Ammas had been obtained in order to disclose confidential information which would be harmful for the security of the Sacred Tooth Relic”. [3]

However, according to Chulavamsa, there have been female dancers and female musicians in the Dalada Perahera during the reign of King Parakramabahu I. As it records, “මණ්ඩපය පිරිවරාගත් සියගණන් වාහන තුළ ඒවායේ නාට්‍යාංගනාවෝද සංගීත වාදකයෝද වූහ. මෙසේ චූල වංශයේ දැක්වෙන දළදා විස්තරයට අනුව එම යුගයේදී […] දළදා පෙරහැරේ වූ සංගීත අංශයෙන් වූ දායකත්වය ලබා දෙන ලද්දේ කාන්තාවන් විසිනි (There were female dancers and musicians in the hundreds of carriages that were in the pavilion. According to the narrative of the Relic provided by the Chulavamsa, women have contributed to musical performances in the Dalada Perahera during that period)”. [4] This shows the different conditions during that time which gave women an opportunity to participate in the Dalada Perahera unlike today. As Dambadeni Asna reveals, female dancers have been there in the Perahera during the Dambadeni period too. [4] Moreover, Robert Knox records the nature of the Dalada Perahera in the Kandyan period as follows: ...පෙරහැරේ පැවති අනෙකුත් ක්‍රීඩා අතර කළගෙඩි ක්‍රීඩාවේ යෙදෙන නළඟනෝද තුන්දෙනා බැගින් අතිනත ගෙන රඟන ස්ත්‍රීහුද වූහ [...] මෙයින් පසු ගමන් කළේ මල් බඳුන් අතින් ගත් ස්‍ත්‍රීහුය​. දෙවියන් වෙනුවෙන් ගමන් කළ කපුවන් ගෙන් පසු එම දෙවියන්ගේ මෙහෙකරුවන් වශයෙන් සළකන රටවැසි වංශාධිපති ස්ත්‍රී පුරුෂයන් දෙන්නා බැගින් එක්ව අත්වැල් බැඳගෙන ගමන් ගත්හ​ (Among the other performances in the Perahera, there were female dancers who were performing pot dance, women who danced while holding hands in groups of three. This was followed by women who carried baskets of flowers. Following the lay priests who marched in the Perahera in veneration of the gods, noblewomen and noblemen of the country who were deemed the servants of the gods marched hand in hand). [5] Knox's description on the Dalada Perahera discloses that there have been female dancers in the Dalada Perahera which was held during the Kandyan period too, whereas today, female dancers could be seen neither in the perahera of the Dalada Maligawa nor in the peraheras of Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama devala, except in the perahera of the Paththini Devalaya.

John Davy, a physician of the British forces, has also recorded how women took part in the Dalada Perahera in a very sportive manner. In Ralph Pieris’ book Sinhala Samaaja Sanwidhaanaya Mahanuwara Yugaya, Davy's records are translated as “කඹ උඩ ගමන් ගනිමින් විජ්ජා පෙන්වූයේ ස්ත්‍රීන් දෙදෙනෙකි. සමබරතාව රැකගැනීම සඳහා රිටි භාවිත නොකළ බැවින් ඔවුන් ගේ දස්කම් හා ශූරවීරභාවය සුළුකොට තැකිය නොහේ. එයින් ස්ත්‍රියක් කඹේ උඩ සිටියදීම අඩි හත අටකට නොඅඩු උසකට පිට පිටම ශීඝ්‍රයෙන් පැන්නාය​ (These spellbinding acts were performed by two women who walked on ropes. They did not use poles/sticks to maintain balance, hence their talents and bravery cannot be belittled. One of those women kept jumping rapidly about eight feet in height, while being on the rope)”. [6] This is a statement which captures the position of women in the Dalada Perahera during the Kandyan period. It indicates that women were allowed to play a significant role in entertaining the public, even though the Dalada Perahera was a religious procession. At the same time it suggests that women have been able to take part in the Dalada Perahera even though there were restrictions for them to contribute to the rituals and practices within the inner space of the Dalada Maligawa.

Sudarshana Bandara, in his article “Mahanuwara Dalada Perahera saha Samaajaya”, discusses the representation of women in the Perahera as follows: විශේෂයෙන් සඳහන් කළ යුතු කරුණකි දළදා මාළිගාවේ පෙරහැර තුළදී කිසිදු ස්ත්‍රී චරිතයක් හමු නොවීම​. එයින් එදා සමාජයේ ස්ත්‍රීයගේ තත්වය පිළිබඳ අවබෝධයක් ලබාගත හැකිය​. මන්දයත් ආගමික කටයුතුවලදී, විශේෂයෙන් දන්ත ධාතුන් වහන්සේට පුද සත්කාර පැවැත්වීමේදී ස්ත්‍රී පාර්ශවයට එතරම්ම වැදගත්කමක් හිමි නොවූ බව පෙනේ. බොහෝ විට ඒ සඳහා බලපෑ හේතූන් ගණනාවකි. රොබට් නොක්ස්ට අනුව "ඔසප්වීම" හෙවත් "බැරිකම" පවතින තුරු ස්ත්‍රීහු අශුද්ධ ලෙස සළකති. මෙය කොතරම් උග්‍ර වීද යතොත් ඇය සිටිනා නිවස පවා කිළිටි වූවක් සේ සලකා එතැනට යාමටද බොහෝ දෙනා පසුබට වේ. මෙවැනි වාතාවරණයක් පැවතීම නිසාම බොහෝ විට ස්ත්‍රීන් දළදා පෙරහැරට හා දළදා මාළිගයේ වත්පිළිවෙත් සඳහා යොදා නොගත් බව පෙනේ [...] මෙලෙස මහනුවර සමයේ ස්ත්‍රී පාර්ශවය තරමක් පුරුෂ පාර්ශවයට වඩා අඩු තක්සේරුවකින් ඇගයීම් කළ බව දළදා මාළිගාවේ පෙරහැරේදී කිසිදු ලෙසකින් යොදා නොගැනීම මගින් තහවුරු වේ. දළදා පෙරහැර අතිශය ශුද්ධ මංගල්‍යයක් ලෙස විවිධ පේවස් වී සිදුකරන නිසා ස්ත්‍රියක් යොදා ගතහොත් එය කිළිටි වේ යැයි පාරම්පරිකව මිනිසුන් තුළ බියක් තිබුණ බව දැකිය හැක. එමෙන්ම ස්ත්‍රියට සමාජයේ පුරුෂයාට වඩා පහළ තත්වයක් හිමි වූ බවද මෙයින් ගම්‍යමාන වේ (No female character was found in the procession of the Dalada Maligawa. It enables an understanding of the status of the woman in the society in the past. It seems that the women were not given an important role to play in religious activities, especially in the rituals that are held in veneration of the sacred Tooth Relic. A number of factors seems to have affected the given situation. According to Robert Knox, women are deemed “impure” as long as they menstruate, which is considered to be their “weakness”. (As Knox states) many were reluctant to go to a house where there was a menstruating woman. It seems that such conditions that prevailed (during that time) prevented women from participating in the procession of the Temple of the Tooth Relic. [...] Thus, this suggests that women were deemed somewhat inferior to men in the Kandyan period. Since the Dalada Perahera was a ceremony that comprised many special rituals, it was feared that employing a woman in it would make the whole procession an impure one. This also suggests that back then women occupied a lower status than men). [7]

According to the information taken from the given sources, it could be said when it comes to the Dalada Perahera, it is not women's abilities, skills and the potential that have been taken into consideration, but the presumptions of men that women are “dirty” and “feeble”, which is seemingly constructed on the basis of the biological difference between men and women.

Notable Sacred Casket Bearer Tuskers[edit]

Organization of the Perahera[edit]

Elephants at the Esala Perahera

The rituals connected with the Tooth Relic are conducted by Monks of the Malwatte Chapter and Asgiriya Chapters of the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka. It is the duty of the Diyawadana Nilame to organize the Perahera and thus he summons the large number of officials of the Temple of the Tooth and entrusts them with various ceremonial duties connected with the conducting of the Perahera. He first gets the auspicious time from the Nekath Mohottala, the advisor on astrological matters. The task of organising the different types of drummers is handed over to the four officials known as the Panikka Mura Baarakaruwo.

The Maligawa officials also meet the owners of the elephants due to take part in the Perahera (most elephants are privately owned). The dance troupes are given time to prepare. The Basnayake Nilames (the lay custodians of the Devales) are then told to organise their processions.

Perahera Sandeshaya[edit]

President William Gopallawa receiving the sannasa.

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 President's Pavilion carrying a sannasa (formal letter) known as the Perahera Sandeshaya to the President stating the successful completion of the annual Esala Perahera. The President would meet and receive the sannasa at the entrance to the President's Pavilion.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Kandy Esala Perahera | Sri Dalada Maligawa". sridaladamaligawa.lk. Retrieved 2019-08-10.
  2. ^ Costa, Sunil De. (2011). Chronicle of the Sacred Tooth. Sri Dalada Maligawa. p. 119.
  3. ^ Meegahakumbura, K. (2011). Heritage of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Translated by Ratnapala, Mahindadasa. Padukka: State Printing Corporation. p. 202.
  4. ^ a b Hettiarachchy, Ramani. ""Dalada Sanskruthiya thula Kaanthaa Bhuumikaawa"". Poojaneeya Dalada Sanskruthiya: 62.
  5. ^ Knox Dutu Lakdiva. Translated by Alwis, Premachandra. Colombo: Suriya Publishers. 2004. pp. 104–106.
  6. ^ Pieris, Ralph (1964). Sinhala Samaaja Sanwidhaanaya Mahanuwara Yugaya. Boralesgamuwa: Visidunu Publishers. p. 130.
  7. ^ Bandara, Sudarshana W.M.P. ""Mahanuwara Dalada Perahera saha Samaajaya"". Poojaneeya Dalada Sanskruthiya: 112–113.

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