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Kandy Esala Perahera and its significance to Christians

By W. T. A. Leslie Fernando

(August 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) July-August is the Perahera time in Sri Lanka. There are so many Peraheras such as Senkadagala Dalada Perahera, Saman Devale Perahera in Ratnapura, Vishnu Devala Perahera in Devinuwara, Kataragama Perahera, Munneswaram perahera, Bellanvila Perahera etc.

The Esala Perhera in Kandy-where pride of place is given to pay homage to the Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha - is the grandest of all. Its pomp and ceremony, glamour and majesty with gaily decorated dancers, drummers, elephants, elegant and imposing Kandyan Chiefs, melodious music, rhythmic movements and other colourful features depict its refined culture and splendid civilisation.

Although the Kandy Esala Perahera has no religious significance to the Christians, we could hardly find any Catholic in Sri Lanka who did not consider this spectacular pageant as a national event.

The origins of Kandy Esala Perhera dates back to the Anuradhapura period. It is said that the Esala pageant was initiated by King Gajabahu I to commemorate his victory over the Cholas and to offer thanks to Gods Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and Goddess Paththini, whose favours he sought to win the battle.

Until the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe (A.D. 1747-1780) the perahera was held to honour the four deities. It was only in A. D. 1775 the Sacred Tooth Relic procession was introduced to lead the perahera so as to make the pageant mainly a Buddhist festival.

It is said that the Siamese Buddhist monks who came to Kandy to perform Upasampada to the monks in Sri Lanka suggested to King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe that this festival could be used to honour the Sacred Tooth Relic and the King carried out their suggestion.

It is also stated that Ven. Welivita Sri Saranankara Thera, who at this time brought about a Buddhist religious and cultural revival played a major role to get the Dalada Maligawa procession to lead the Perhera. In due course the Kandy Esala pageant came to be known as the Dalada Perahera.

There had been a rich tradition of Sinhala music and dancing in Sri Lanka. The musicians and dancers were endowed with lands by the Kings and the Chiefs for their maintenance. They in turn had to perform music and dancing on royal occasions, festivals, ceremonies, pageants and also in the battle field.

The traditional art of Sinhala music had three aspects - dancing, singing and playing musical instruments. The instruments like bera, davul, udekki, pantheru, tammattam, rabana, flute and cymbals were played in harmony with singing and dancing. There are numerous references in Sinhala literature and stone carvings about musical pageants in Sri Lanka.

The traditional Sinhala music and dancing suffered a setback under the foreign domination. However in the Kandyan territory, the last Kingdom to come under the foreign rule, the traditional Sinhala music was preserved. The world famous Kandy Dalada Perahera is a magnificent display of traditional dancing, music and drumming.

There are many well known Buddhist, Hindu and Catholic festivals in Sri Lanka where processions form a part of the celebrations. In Buddhist and Hindu processions amidst the chants of "Sadhu Sadhu" and "Haro Hara" there are oriental cultural forms that give them a native outlook. Do we get the same degree of national fervour in our Catholic processions?

In 1658 when the Dutch ousted the Portuguese in Sri Lanka for both political and sectarian reasons they began to persecute the Catholics. They prohibited Catholic worship, drove away the priests, confiscated Catholic churches and schools and proscribed the religion.

For nearly 30 years there was not a single priest to minister to the Catholics and Catholic activity almost disappeared in the island. It was Blessed Joseph Vaz who came to the island under the guise of a coolie in 1687 that revived the Catholic faith in Sri Lanka.

Blessed Joseph Vaz, known as the Apostle of Sri Lanka made an attempt to set up a Church adapted to the country and suited to its needs and circumstances. He organised Catholic feasts and processions with a national outlook.

There were sticks dances ( lee Keli)and traditional music at the feast of St. Anthony, celebrated in Kandy under the patronage of Blessed Joseph Vaz in the reign of King Wimaladharmasuriya II. There is evidence that in the past some Catholic processions were held in an indigenous background.

It is on record that at the time of King Vijaya Sri Rajasinghe an ivory statue of Our Lady of Rosary was brought from Senkadagala to Bolawatta with Kandyan dancing troupe, drumming, elephants and other traditional aspects. In the Dutch period when the Oratorian priests at Bolawatta went to Catholic feasts in churches in Pitigal Korale they were welcomed and taken in procession with bera, davul, tammattam, Sesath, Murayudha and other traditional forms.

In the 19th century under the European missionaries the Catholics in Sri Lanka began to imitate Western forms and our traditional cultural aspects were superseded. Our religious festivals took an alien form with Western bands, decorations and pandals. However there are still some remnants of traditional cultural forms in some churches.

There is Kandyan dancing drumming and music at the procession of St. Anthony's Church, Wahakotte. At the feast of St. Francis Sales at Kattuwa till recently there were traditional dancing and drummers in the procession. The traditional Lee Keli dancers are prominent at the procession in the feast of St. Sebastian's Church, Katuwapitiya in Negombo.

Today holy services are performed in Sinhala, Tamil and English instead of Latin. Magul Bera and chanting of Jayamangala Gathas with a Christian outlook are appreciated at Catholic weddings. Tamil Bhajan recitals are modified to suit the Christian ideals and are being introduced to Catholic festivals.

At a time when an attempt is made to set up an indigenous Church, we could draw inspiration from the Kandy Esala Perahera in the sphere of enculturation. We should make an endeavour to introduce traditional dancing, music and drumming to church processions. This is being done at the processions of St. Mary's Church Waikkal and St. Sebastian's Church, Katuneriya.

The best way to glorify God and honour the Saints is to pay homage in following our own ways and cultural forms.

(The writer is a former High Court Judge and Vice-President of the Newman Society Alumni Association)
-Sri Lanka Guardian

1 comment

MissMV18 said...

Esala Perahara in Kandy, Sri Lanka is one legendary festival of Skanda & Buddha since 300 AD. A devout to both hindu & Buddhist idols, there is a procession with entertainments like canons, whips, performers, drums, rings, rituals, fire throwing & sword fights. But the most embellished elephants - symbol of fertility & fortune, carry Buddhist monks, temple VIPs & sacred antiques. To find out more, refer: http://www.travelfront.com/pulsating-esala-perahera/

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