Perahera: a pageant in a fragile peace
Evelina Rioukhina, UNECE
«All the senses have been constantly assailed throughout the long nights drama and the impact of this marvellous event is never forgotten. All who have witnessed this marvel have visited another world. Its unique and should not be missed (David Leask)
There can be few festivals in the world to match the Kandy Esala Perahera pageant of Sri Lanka for passion and splendour. It is an annual event of great historic, aesthetic and cultural significance that takes place in the lunar month of Esala (July/August). It has been the subject also of much scholarly study and intense artistic appreciation. There are several theories and interpretations regarding the origin of the pageant. One of the main theories is based on the Sacred Tooth Relic, which is indeed in the centre of the ceremony. The Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha (a tooth of the Buddha) was brought to Sri Lanka from Kalinga in India in the reign of Kind Kirthi Sri Meghavanna (303-331 A.D.) and it has been the custom to celebrate this event with the highest esteem and reverence. However, Sri Lankan chronicles suggest that long before this annual festival a ritual was held in the 3rd century B.C. in the hills to propitiate the rain god. It is quite possible that this practice continued in a new guise in the succeeding centuries along with the Buddhist Sacred Tooth worship. Whatever the origins of the Esala Perahera, the general belief is that the pageant in Kandy commenced in the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-1781 AD). At any rate, it was in his reign that the Perahera took its present form: it is the Dalada Perahera (pageant of the Buddhist Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the most venerated Temple in Sri Lanka where the relic is kept) with the amalgamation of the four Devale Peraheras (processions associated with Hindu deities, such as shrines of the Gods Visnu and Natha, the Goddes Pattini, and the God Kataragama, especially significant in the context because venerated by the Tamil Hindu population of the island). This year an old dream of mine came true. I was fortunate to participate in the Perahera and was lucky that the Sri Lankan friends organised my participation on the last day and most eventful day, the Randoli Perahera which combines the four Hindu Devale Peraheras with the Buddhist Dalada Maligawa Perahera.
I will never forget that marvellous day. We were a group of four (my daughter and myself together with a very nice couple Edith, a writer from Geneva, and her husband) accompanied by our Sri Lankan friend and guide Tori and the driver. Knowing that the way is long, we started at 6 am and arrived in Kandy around 4 pm. As the city was overcrowded (with literally millions on the streets!) we had to be at our seats several hours prior to the procession. Excellent places were kindly reserved for us in the spectators balconies, close to the countrys officials seats and opposite the TV cameras, providing a perfect view of the event. But it was agonizing to get to these seats even so well in advance. After careful security checks by a dozen armed people we could hardly squeeze through the crowd and would never have managed without Tori who made a path for us near the police line. At last we got to our seats. We had to wait several hours more before the procession started at nightfall. More security checks: each detail in our balconies was carefully examined. Chains of policemen on both sides of the road, mounted police every few minutes. All was done to secure order and provide safety.
At last, we heard the boom of a cannon heralding the start of the Perahera. The ceremony got under way! First we saw a group of muscular men carrying long hide whips, which they cracked menacingly at intervals as they advanced in the vanguard of the procession. Then flag bearers carried the flags, the standards of all provinces of the country and the Temples, as well as the Buddhist flags. After that we saw the first elephant with the Peramunarala (the official) on its back. In ancient times, he carried the mandate from the king to hold the Perahera; today, this is replaced by a register of the Maligawa lands, with the tenants and the services owed by them. Then we saw and heard the drummers playing Hevisi or martial music on a variety of drums Dawulas , Tammettams and Beres and blowing Horanawes (flutes).Then followed the Kariyakorale, responsible for all the ceremonies who is next in rank to the Diyawadane Nilame, the lay custodian of the Sacred Tooth, and so on (only to list the sequence of events would need three pages!). The order of the Perahera is strictly followed from ancient times.
Finally, the highlight of the procession the Maligawa Tusker, a splendid temple elephant, walked majestically into sight. His immense bulk seemed to fill the street, and on his back he was carrying the huge, high and brightly illuminated chamber with the casket containing a duplicate of the Sacred Tooth Relic on a blue cushion. (The Sacred Tooth Relic itself is no longer carried in the procession. Only a duplicate of the casket in which the relic is kept, together with a few Seevali relics, is carried on the back of the gorgeously caparisoned elephant. It is considered inauspicious to remove the tooth relic from its sacred precincts. Furthermore, taking it out would require special safeguards as in the course of time it has become the very symbol of the countrys security). Richly caparisoned, dressed in a magnificent costume, it moved to the rhythm of the music, walking on a white cloth (pavada), which was spread for it as a mark of respect to the relics. All spectators- Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike stood up, in deference, when Perahera Karanduwa , the golden casket, passed.
The crack of whips, the brass instruments and horns barely audible above the beat of the drums, the chanting of devotees, the clanking of the chain shackles on the elephants and the dull thud of their feet, the wheels of the carts, torches being struck on the road in order to disperse the ashes these sounds of Perahera, so long awaited and dear to the Asian ear, however exotic and cacophonous to the European, will always be with me. Twinkles of lights, changing Devale and Dalada colours, dancing flames of fire swallowing acrobats, endless colourful movements, folkdances, gorgeous elephants lit with fairy lights along their trunks, the majesty of the Maligawa Tusker elephant with the semblance of the Sacred Tooth Relic in the casket these images of the Perahera will remain with me unforgotten.
That night I was feeling privileged and honoured to be a part of Sri Lankas most fervent celebration the Esala Perahera, the most important event in the life of all the people living in this land.
This year the Perahera can be called the first peace Perahera in Sri Lanka. Great efforts are being made under United Nations auspices to reach a peace agreement between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Negotiations are still under way, most recently in Paris (end August-September 2003). A cease-fire agreement was signed in 2002. Huge progress was made in previous negotiations in Oslo, Norway during September 2002. Agreement was reached there on many topics, but others remain in dispute. Pending the final outcome of the negotiations, there is peace now in Sri Lanka, but this peace is still very fragile. As so often happens, the first apparent success of the early negotiations was succeeded by setbacks as might be expected in a country that has been torn by 20 years of civil war.
Still the good will of both sides in the conflict as well as the interests of the international community should eventually result in a lasting settlement. The desire for peace internationally was once more confirmed by 47 countries meeting in Japan (June 2003) for an aid conference to help Sri Lanka end and recover from the war. The Perahera surely contributed to this process. After 20 years of civil war it was the first Perahera in a country at peace, however fragile. Despite many divergences, the Perahera is a symbol of ethnic and religious unity, combining not only the Sinhala-Buddhist and Tamil Hindus the two main communities of the island, demonstrating their religious and ethnic harmony, but it also combined millions of other devotees (Muslims, Christians and others) of this country, and from other parts of the world. The Perahera once again demonstrated the wish for tolerance of all ethnic groups, majorities and minorities of the population, raising the hope that this time the peace process will be irreversible.
(With all my thanks to Sri Lankan colleagues, and personally to Mr. Milan Abrahams who made possible for me to securely participate in this event and to be able to collect documents and photos for the publication in the UN Special).