These glorious celebrations began with the selfless odyssey of a young couple from the Kalinga Kingdom in India. To protect the sacred Tooth Relic of the supremely Enlightened Buddha, two young people set out on an extremely hazardous trek that vehemently deserves the epithet ‘stupendous.’
The youthful Royal duo, donned the austere robes of wandering monks, to keep away inquisitive marauders who would harm them.
The potent ‘fuel that propelled Prince Danta and Princess Hemamala onwards, in their danger-fraught journey was a formidable combination of unreserved reverence and overwhelming devotion to the Supreme Buddha and the eternal faith he proclaimed. Comely Princess Hemamala travelling in the guise of a female ascetic, had the sacred Tooth-Relic concealed in her coiffure.
Concluding such an arduous and demanding spiritual Adventure the young Royals arrived in Sri Lanka.
When the miraculous Palladium - the Sacred Tooth Relic - was presented to the then ruler of Sri Lanka, King Siri Meghavanna, his ardent spiritual joy brimmed over. The monarch’s very first reaction was to offer his throne to the Sacred Tooth Relic. The magnificent pageant that ensued, at the behest of King Siri Meghavanna (362-390), continued over centuries, through the royal decrees and sponsorship, of a long line of monarchs.
When modern enthusiasts throng to soothe their souls with this multi-faceted spectacle presented by the Great Pageant of Kandy - it is quite essential - I firmly believe - they should be at least slightly backgrounded about its dramatic origin and sustained maintenance.
An awareness of history prevents us from sliding into an irresponsible tribalism.
The in-depth understanding of the beginnings of this compelling ritual in our far past will undoubtedly make even our visitors from abroad derive a fresh tinge of pleasure from this unparalleled spiritual display.
History embedded in some place names enables us to get at least a vague notion about the extent of the settlement that flourished then. ‘Puttalam’ is a Tamil adaptation of “Buththala” (Buduthala). And the well-known place name “Mannar” is a modern version of “Vanaarama” (Forest Hermitage).
From early times, Sri Lankans from various areas of the land, gathered annually in Kandy. While being fascinated by the alluring displays of sights and sounds that fuse to provide the main attraction there was yet another impressive reason that brought them to Kandy at Perahera season.
The entrenched folk-belief has always been that it is an unfading blessing to have viewed the Kandy Perahera. The rich folk nuances associated with The Great Kandyan Pageant have to a great extent remained un-recorded. This is primarily due to the overpowering grandeur of the main Perahera that dominates this total Esala Festival.
Throughout the long centuries, there has been a continuing series of folk practices that have grown around the central spectacle.
Many young persons from far and near tend very much to consider that their budding romances will thrive into full blossoming if they viewed the Perahera in each other’s company.
A strongly held view of newly married couples, is that if they experienced the fervent joy of viewing the Perahera together that activity will confer a great blessing on them.
It is very much an entrenched belief among expectant mothers that if they made a pledge while viewing the Perahera to the effect that they will accompany the newcomer to the family nest when they visit Kandy next, the child-birth will be happy and joyous.
Many devotees of the Sacred Tooth Relic, when confronted with a knotty issue in life assure themselves that they should not be worried because any problem will last only until the Perahera happens again. The main and the most alluring focus of the Kandy Pageant is the sight of Perahera elephants. These gaily caparisoned, solemn looking Sacred Temple Elephants tread upon the foot-cloth, in disciplined steps. One cannot help but feel that these sacred elephants are gravely aware of the holy task assigned to them.
The ornate caparisons that bedeck the Perahera elephants are meticulously created by a family traditionally responsible for this aspect of the Perahera arrangements. The family is dedicated to this task with an admirable fervour.
The series of elaborate festivities that ensure the uninterrupted perpetuation of this pageant have a beginning that extends to the far past. According to the national chronicles, King Siri Meghavanna initiated the pageant of the Tooth Relic setting aside 90,000 Kahapana Gold coins from the Royal Treasury. This was 1,647 years ago.
After endless innovations the pageant of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth continues to engender the fervour and the adoration, set in motion by King Siri Meghavanna.
The heart and soul of this Great Perahera considered by some to be the most spectacular spiritual pageant of the world are formed by a time-tested array of sight and sound offerings.
Variegated dance forms presented as part of the pageant, are presented by traditional “schools” of Gurus.
Stilt-riders, twirlers of fire-balls, whip-crackers keep up the interest of the engrossed spectator.
On the aural side we have adepts displaying skills through drum-tattoos.
It has to be fully appreciated that in spite of the non-stop march of time, that brings with it changes and ups and downs the core rites and rituals have continued to flourish.
The prelates of the Asgiri, Malwatu branches of the Siamese Sect, provide the spiritual guidance. Lay leadership is the responsibility of Diyawadana Nilame, who deploys a whole host of persons responsible for various assignments.
There is a touching and moving aspect to this Grand Pageant.
It is said that at times the sacred elephants who take part in the pageant have a way of showing emotion. Some leading elephants at the end of the festivities rest their heads on the Temple steps with eyes filled with tears.
You must keep on being in touch with this sacred annual ritual to fully realise how a sacred ritual lives, age after age.