Visiting the grand old city of Kandy is a favorite pastime of mine, especially during the season of the Esala Perehara. This annual festival which occurs in the months of July/August attracts thousands of devotees from around the country as well as local and foreign tourist who want to catch a glimpse of this mystical festival. I usually make my way up to the hill capital a couple of days prior to the festival and make my self feel at home at the Hilltop Hotel where I have been staying for the past ten years during my frequent visits to Kandy. The hotel is a convenient base as it is centrally located and I have always been impressed by the hospitality offered at the hotel.
I would like to share with you a few facts about the Esela Perehara which never ceases to intrigue me. The all important date for the Perehara is fixed by the Diyawadana Nilame
(Chief Lay Head or Trustee) of the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic). According to the Mahavamsa, from the time the Sacred Tooth Relic was brought to Ceylon in the reign of King Kirthisiri Meghawanna who ruled at Anuradhapura from 303 - 331 A.D., it was placed in a casket made of Phalika (Steatire or Soapstone) and lodged in an edifice called the Dharma-Chakra built by King Devanampiyatissa in the third century B.C. The Mahavamsa goes on to say that 900,000 Kahapanas (a great sum of money) were spent in celebrating the festival in honour of the Sacred Tooth Relic and the King Kirthisiri Meghawanna decreed that the Relic should be taken round the city of Anuradhapura once a year in spring. There is evidence to show that his decree was faithfully carried out by those Kings who followed him. It is not documented if the Perehara held in Anuradhapura continued after it ceased to be the capital of Ceylon.
The Esala Perahera as we know it today, with the four Hindu Dewale Peraheras participating in it, had its origin in 1775 A.D. under the reign of King Kirthisri Rajasinghe. The Perahera he inaugurated in his reign was confined at first to the four Hindu Dewales, because by then Hindu practices and rituals had crept into Theravada Buddhism owing to the influence of Mahayanism as well as that of the King's consorts who were Hindu Princesses from South India. During this time a body of Siamese priests who came to Ceylon for the restoration of the Upasampadha ordination were surprised to find a purely Hindu ceremony in the capital of a pre-eminently Buddhist country. To remove their scruples the King ordered a procession with the Sacred Tooth Relic to head the four Dewale Perahera, and that decree had been faithfully carried out ever since.
Today the Sacred Tooth Relic is not carried in the procession as it is considered inauspicious to remove the Sacred Tooth Relic from its precincts. This ten day festival commences with the ritual of Esala trees been cut and planted in each Dewela as a vow that the Perehara will be held. For the first five nights processions are held within the temple premises around the Esala trees and on the 6th day the Perehara is taken to the streets of Kandy which commences the Randoli Perehara. On each day the procession gathers momentum as the number of elephants, dancers, jugglers, whip crackers, flag bearers and fire breathers’ increase with the last night being the grandest of them all.
Being an ardent traveler and having witnessed many cultural events around the world, I can guarantee that the Esela Perehara celebrated in Sri Lanka is an event not to be missed. I would recommend that one finds accommodation away from the immediate surrounds of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic as during the days of the Perehara many of the streets in the area will be blocked due to security concerns. The Hilltop Hotel where I stay is ideally situated as it is not far from the location of the festival but it is still far enough from the hub so that you are not inconvenienced by the festival preparations.