The historic Esala Perahera (procession) is a Buddhist religious festival held in Sri Lanka on a grand scale. The Perahera is an annual event usually staged in July or August and on days decided upon by the “Diyawadana Nilame” (Chief Lay Head or Trustee) of the ” Sri Dalada Maligawa” (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic). Traditionally the Perahera commences on Esala Full Moon Poya Day on the month of July and concludes on Nikini Full Moon Poya Day, in the month of August.
The procession traditionally consists of fire-dances, whip-dances, Kandyan dances and various other cultural features. Elephants are the main attraction of the Esala Perahera including the tusker, which carries the Golden Casket, containing the Sacred Tooth Relics of the Lord Buddha. The elephants are adorned with lavish garments and lighting.
It is believed that the Esala Perahera is actually a combination of two separate historic Peraheras – the Esala Perahera and the Dalada Perahera. The Esala Perahera is considered to have been held since the 3rd century BC. It is a ritual performed to request the gods for rainfall.
Meanwhile the Dalada Perahera is considered to have been started during the 4th Century AD, when the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka from India.
The Perahera begins with the “Kap Situveema”, in which a sanctified log is cut and planted in the premises of each of the four Devales dedicated to the four guardian Gods – Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and the Goddess Pattini. The “Devala Perahara” processions are conducted within each of the four Dewales for the next five nights.
The “Kumbal Perahera” begins on the sixth night, where the Perahera is seen parading the streets for the first time outside the Devales and is joined by the “Dalada Maligawa Perahera”. First, the Maligawa Perahera commences/ It is joined by the procession from the shrine dedicated to God Natha. The third is from the shrine dedicated to God Vishnu and the fourth procession is from the Kataragama Devale dedicated to the God of Skanda, the deity of Kataragama. The fifth and final procession is from the shine of Goddess Pattini.
After the five nights of Kumbal Perahera, the more elaborate “Randoli Perahera” takes the streets. The Randoli Perahera goes on for five nights – the last night being the grandest of all.
The ritual of the water-cutting ceremony is held on August 1, followed by the Day Perahera on the 2nd thus, bringing the grand spectacle to an end.
The Devale processions go out again in the early hours of the morning for the “Diyakapana Mangallaya” or the water-cutting ceremony. Here, each of the “Kapuralas” of the four Devales fills a goblet of river water, which is kept in the Devales till the next year, when they are freshly filled again.
The entire festival is draws to a close the following afternoon when the Maligawa Perahera returns to the Temple of the Tooth Relic and joins the Dewale Peraheras – after which they proceed three time round the Dalada Maluwa. The Perahera then breaks up and each Dewale procession returns to the respective Devales.
The best time to view the Esala Perahera is on the final two nights. The procession route from anywhere is supposed to give a good view of the Perahera that parade along the streets of Kandy.