The Kandy festival is an event of great historical and cultural significance that takes place annually in the charming hill capital of Srilanka in the lunar month of “Asala (July/August).
This event, known the world over as the Kandy ‘Asela perehera, is not only a religious ritual but also a folk festival that provides an occasion for local artists and the multi-racial populace to exhibit their reverence and devotion to the enlightened one – the Buddha- and to gods and Goddesses such as Natha, Vishnu, katharagama and pattini who with their divine blessing protect this island, the pearl of the Indian Ocean.
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Ever since the day when the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka in the reign of King Keerthi Sri Meeghavanna (303 – 331 A.D.), it has been the custom to celebrate this great event with the highest esteem and reverence.
Today this great and colourful pageant in the hill capital of Kandy symbolizes the religious harmony and ethnic unity among two main communities on the island, namely the Sinhala-Buddhists and the Tamil-Hindus. To the Sinhala-Buddhists the Dalada Maligawa is the most sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha.
The deistic Temple of Natha, the future Buddha-to-be, and the deistic temple of Pattini, the goddess of chastity who according to the Sinhalese is also destined to be a future Buddha, face the temple of the sacred Tooth relic. On the western and northern ends are found the two temples devoted to the worship of two popular and powerful Hindu gods, namely God Visnu and God Katharagama.
The last is also Called Sanmugam and Murugan but is better known to devotees as Skanda. Thus the Vaisnava and Siva cults of the hindus are represented as above. The Buddha is venerated by the followers of Theravada Buddhism, and also Natha is identified as bodhisattva Avalokitesvara of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Goddess Pattinni represents the cult’s symbol of Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu religious traditions. Thus Kandy is a centre of religious unity and harmony.
Origins of the Kandy Procession
A pageant of great aesthetics and socio-cultural value, the Kandy Asala preheat has been the subject of much scholarly and intense artistic appreciation. There are several theories and interpretations regarding the origin of the pageant which are complementary and not exclusive of each other. There are :
- The Asala festival celebrates the victory of Suras ( Gods) over the Asuras ( demons).
- This annual festival commemorates King Gajabahu’s invasion of the Cola country.Gajabahu(174-196 A.D). When he heard of the invasion of Sri Lanka by the Colas during his father’s reign and the consequent taking away of twelve thousand Sinhalese captives, together with another twelve thousand colas, and in addition, the golden anklets of the goddess patting, the scared utensils of the four Devales (deistic shrines) and the Bowl- Relic of the Buddha.
- The month of Asala was chosen because it commemorates the birth of Vishnu.
- The Asala festival is held annually to propitiate the gods to ensure timely rains for cultivation, and this suggests that it is an integral part of the complex fertility cult prevalent among the peasants. In any event, it is quite evident that the Asala (sky. Assdha) festival which in the course of its evolution, has assumed complex proportions, originated in India and continued throughout Sri Lanka in the month of Asala (July/August) with royal patronage and intense religious fervor
According to another belief the first Asala festival in Srilanka was celebrated during the reign of Gajabahu first in the second century. The great Tamil epic Silppadikaram says that the ruling king of Kerala Senguttuvan, invited King Gajabahu for the anointing ceremony of the newly built temple in honour of pattini, the goddess of Chasity. Having participated in the ceremony King Gajabahu brought him the golden anklet of the goddess built a temple and consecrated it to the goddess. In the hope that she would drive away all evils, he offered rich sacrifices at her altar every day. He also created a festival during the first month of the year. The rains came in time and the fertile earth produced an abundant harvest.
However, we see from the Srilankan chronicles that long before this annual festival was celebrated l, a ritual held in the 3rd century BC on the mountains to propitiate the rain god. It was probably the Vedic god Parjanya. This was called the Jethamula festival and was held annually under the patronage of the ruling king. It is quite possible that this practice continued in the succeeding centuries along with Buddhist worship.
After the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BC, the sacred Bodhi tree was bought here from Bodhagaya at the same time and planted in Anuradhapura. The sacred Tooth relic of the Buddha was brought here from Malinda country in India in the 4th century AD. People believed that both these objects of religious worship had the power to cause it to rain in due seasons when reverence was paid to them. An annual ritual festival in honor of the tooth relic anticipating rain was brought here. Therefore the origin of the present procession in Kandy with the tooth relic having the central place in the ritual could be traced to a time that goes back to nearly one thousand six hundred years.
Whatever the reasons attributed to the origin of the Asala preheat the general belief is that the pageant in Kandy commenced in the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasingha (1747-1781 A.D). This belief has probably arisen because it was during the reign of Kirti Sri Rajasingha that the procession as it exists today took from, with the amalgamation of the four devala processions with the Dalada procession ( pageant of the temple of the tooth relic). There is sufficient evidence, both historical and literary, to the effect that the annual celebrations in connection with the sacred tooth relic originated since its arrival in Sri Lanka.
Tradition says that the sacred Tooth relic of the Buddha now found in the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy was brought to Anuradhapura, the then capital, during the reign of King Kitti Siri Meghavanna. For five centuries before this period, the king and his subjects had been in the practice of paying homage to the sacred Bo tree which was in the sole custody of the maha Viharaya ( the great monastery). Both the rulers and the ruled very piously believed that the sacred Bo tree could ensure rain for successful cultivation and could guarantee the fertility of the soil. In the context of such beliefs, it is not surprising that the agricultural populace took no interest in the newly brought Tooth relic which was in the custody of the rival institution, the abhayagiriya . However, to awaken the minds of the people to the power residing in the Tooth relic, the great king Kitti Sri Meghavanna installed it in a shrine and arranged in its honor a great festival, with the decree that the relic should be brought every year in a procession to abhayagiri viharaya.
Fa-Hsien the Buddhist traveler describes this annual festival in his travels. He says that every year in the middle of the third month the festival was celebrated.
Four main festivals
Robert Knox an Englishman taken prisoner in Ceylon on 4th April 1660 during the reign of the above king, says in his book “A Historical Relation of Ceylon” that the Kandyan kingdom celebrated four great festivals known as “ Hatara maha Mangalle “ during the time he lived in the vicinity of Kandy from 1660-1680 AD.
These four festivals are
Aluth Sahal mangalle was celebrated on the full moon day of the month of Durutu which is January. The festival of new rice harvested from the paddy fields is cultivated, and new rice is first offered to the temple of the tooth relic.
Aurudu mangalle or the new year festival is the second great festival held in April which is celebrated even now. The new year is celebrated even now. The new year which begins at an auspicious time based on the satirical sign (lunar mansion / naksastra ) signifies the movements of the sun from the zodiac sign of Pisces to Aries. This festival is based on the solar calendar. according to the English calendar, it’s on the 13th and 14th of April.
The other festival is Asala Mangallya celebrated in the temple of the sacred tooth relic with the participation of four devales or deistic shrines the Asala Mangalle which is described in the article
A fourth festival is called Parthia mangalle a temple ritual celebrated along with the four devales to pay homage to god Skanda. The ritual would have begun during the times of the South Indian Nayakkara king in the hill country. It is said that King Sri Vijaya Rajasingha (1739-1747) issued a command that in their town, and the temples, people should make an offering of lamps. The Karthika mangalle which is a light festival is celebrated on the full moon day in November every year.
The procession begins
The Asela snakelike ( festival) begins when the Nakat mohottala (astrologer in the palace ) casts the time to give the most auspicious moment on the New moon day in April at the Kala should be planted. Accordingly the priests of the four devala Natasha, Vishnu, katharagama, and pattini – walk towards a young jack tree that has not born fruit, clear the ground around the tree and consecrate it with the paste of sandalwood and further by lighting a lamp with nine wicks which are places at the foot of the tree together with nine betel leaves and nine different kinds of flowers on a seat. The priest of Vishnu devale attired in clean white cloth after purifying himself by rubbing and washing the body with lemon juice, takes the axes fells the tree from its roots, and cuts the trunk transversely into four pieces of equal length to be given four devale.
Each piece is carried to its respective accompanied by the beat of the drums. The symbolic meaning and significance of these laps are intriguing. The kapa is the symbol of Indra, the god of rains, and signifies that Indra himself takes up his residence tree at the abode of the local deity. The priests carry the insignia of their deity for five nights in succession around the kapa within the precincts of its shrine. On the sixth night, the perehera of the four devale forms in the gate of the temple of the tooth relic in order of precedence, the Dalada perehera in the lead followed by four devale perehera. These processions which are Called kumbal perahara continue for five days. Unlike in the past, the perehera is now held only once daily at night. The spectator who is eagerly waiting for a glimpse of the perehera first hears the distant sound of the resonant drums beautifully echoed by the surrounding Kandyan hills. These are immediately followed by the sounds of whip crackers that herald the coming of the perehera.
As the perehera approaches one can see colorful banners and standers bearers on either side gently walking towards the spectators. The peramune rala with his long white beard rides the first elephant carrying the secretary of the palace, the ola record of properties and services owed by the tenants of the palace. The drummers play on the drums to the accompaniment of the horns. Riding the second elephant is the chief royal elephant stable, carrying the silver emblem of his office. Then the phalanx of elephants three in a row gaily dressed and decorated march to the beat of the martial beat alternating with troops of dancers. The master of ceremonies walks next attended by temple officials, drummers, and dancers.
It is only now that the palace’s tusker proud and majestic in appearance walks on white clothes spread for its feet to tread on unsoiled. He carries the golden casket of the Buddha’s sacred relic and is flanked by two tuskers who carry attendants that bless his precious burden with showers of fragrant jasmine. The main tusker carrying the reliquary containing the sacred relics is preceded by dancers and nagasinnam players. The poets of the palace follow the tusker immediately behind. Hands of the peasant man, women, and child are clapped in reverence with a murmur of sadhu as the palace tusker passes by each year with the Dhatu karaduwa the symbol of people’s culture and piety.
The lay custodian of the temple of the tooth relic, the diyawadana Nilame appears attended by weapons and his provincial leaders. In the past king walked instead of nilame. The temple officials bring up the rear with hundreds of skilled Kandyan dancers and drummers reaching the height of excellence in their art
It is on the sixth day that the Randoli perehera begins. Randoli perehera is so named because this is the first time at which the palanquins of the four devales are carried. Each palanquin is dedicated to the respective god or goddess and is furnished with a golden pitcher and sword. This procession continues for five nights and represents the most spectacular part of the whole pageant. Each of Randoli’s productions gradually increases its beauty and dimension until on the concluding night the maha perehera having reached a climax of pomp and grandeur, makes the longest circuit of the city.
The main monk of the temple receives the relic casket with respect and places it inside the temple. a guard is provided and the rituals of thevava and drumming are continued till the casket is removed to the temple of the tooth relic on the following day. After an offer of milk rice and other delicacies, the devale perehera proceed to the Mahaveli River to gamble with Randoli and golden swords. The four priests of the deistic shrines walk into the river accompanied by four attendants bearing swords and water pitchers. At the break of dawn, the priest strikes the water with the swords while the attendants empty the water that had been collected the previous year, and fill the blade of the sword to strike the water from that ritual while the festival comes to an end.
The procession – yesterday and today
The student of the procession can vividly visualize the transformation and the vicissitudes that it has undergone over the years. These changes are very prominently observable particularly if one were to contrast two processes, one of the nineteenth and one of the twentieth centuries. The characteristics of the processes belonging to these two eras are well discernible. The perehera of yesteryear reflected the spirit, the socio-cultural milieu, and the political and administrative structure of the times. The feudal elements- the monarch, the virtual counterpart of the freemen class represented by the secretary, the serfs or vassals – akin to the toling masses- comprise this social organization. With time this mediaeval and feudal pattern of cultural life showed quite inevitably an intense susceptibility and sensitivity to the transitory demands of society. The perehera today though portraying a semblance of its past grandeur, has transformed itself into a mere folk pageant. Strangers to the customs and rituals of an age that is dying are taking over and other strangers in increasing numbers flock to Kandy to watch and make merry at, what to them is, only a quaint though pleasing oriental spectacle.
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