Festival under the full moon

Posted - 17 May, 2014

The most colourful event in Sri Lanka’s festival calendar, the Kandy Perahera, begins and ends with two shamanistic ceremonies of prehistoric antiquity: the kap vow, in which stakes cut from a young ehala tree are planted in the courtyards of the principal Hindu shrines of the city of Kandy, andthe ‘water-cutting’ ceremony in the Mahaveli river, which circles the city on three sides. In between is a fortnight of religious and cultural celebration during which the traditions of mediaeval Kandyan culture are on brilliant display.

The climax of these festivities is the Perahera, a procession that winds its way through the streets of city under the waxing moon, led by whip-crackers and featuring fire-artists, dancers, drummers and other performers. The biggest crowd-pleasers of all are the elaborately caparisoned elephants. Some are ridden by costumed officials, others carry the insignia and regalia of the four shrines, but most impressive of all is the massive tusker from the Temple of the Tooth, who bears on his back the golden casket containing a holy relic, said to be a tooth of the Buddha himself. The precious burden is shaded under an awning held by costumed bearers, and the tusker walks on a white carpet that is continually rolled up before, and taken up behind him.

The exhibition of the Tooth Relic is today the principal focus of the Perahera, giving it a strongly Buddhist character. This is a relatively recent development, dating to the beginnings of the revival of Buddhism in eighteenth-century Sri Lanka under king Kirti Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1782). Prior to this, the Perahera was a largely Hindu festival; but its roots lie even deeper, lost in the obscurity of myth and folk religion. It may be older than the city of Kandy itself.
Reaching its climax on the full moon of Esala, the lunar month of July-August, the Kandy Perahera is an ever-popular spectacle. Accommodation and vantage-points around the city are at a premium.

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