Devotees filled every nook and corner of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and the smell of flowers and incense embedded in the air. Despite the numbers, the temple was, however, enveloped with a deep sense of honour as devotees chanted Buddhist stanzas. Walking through the premises looking for Nayaka Thera was not that hard as his abode stands at the centre of the temple and people were seen flocking to worship him. Several women were seen sewing the costumes the elephants for the perahera (procession) would later adorn.
The Nayaka Thera while speaking to the organisers about the arrangements for the grand perahera, approached and asked us to follow him. The perahera has always been highly venerated by the people and is one of the main religious events of the island.
The Chief Incumbent of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, Ven. Prof. Kollupitiye Mahinda Sangharakkhitha Maha Thera, entered into the Sasana (Buddhist order of monks) in the 1960s and studied scripture at the Hunupitiya Gangarama Temple and graduated from the Vidyalankara Campus of the University of Ceylon in 1979.
The Thera was awarded thereafter a two-year scholarship to conduct researches at the Sorbonne University to gain a postgraduate degree in French language leading to Masters and doctoral research at the University of Delhi.
The perahera is a form of respect or offering to the Buddha, Nayaka Thera said.
“This is different from the other processions in Sri Lanka. The Kandy and Kataragma processions have a special ritual called the “Kap Hituweema or Diya Kepeema”, performed to worship gods. We don’t have that with the Kelaniya perahera. We have only Buddhist rituals like dhamma talks and Buddhist ceremonies. This year we have 63 dhamma talks,” he explained.
The Nayaka Thera said the history of the Kelaniya temple could be traced back to the pre-historic era.
Among the many Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, the Kelani Viharaya stands out as one of the most exquisite examples of the sculptor’s art. Its history runs back to more than 2,500 years. In the days of yore, it always received full royal patronage and to this day, it has been highly venerated by the Island people as well as by visitors from the Buddhist countries. Its significance as a place of Buddhist worship is clearly evident in the island’s folklore.
According to the island history book Mahawamsa, the Gautama Buddha visited the temple after the Dagaba (stupa) was built. According to the Ramayana, after king Ravana’s death, Vibhiaa was crowned at Kelaniya as King of Lanka by Lakshmana. Enshrined outside the temple, murals depict the crowning of Vibhiaa . The Kelani River is also mentioned in the Valmiki’s Ramayana, Indian epic poem, and Vibhiaa’s palace was said to have been on the river bank. Though Kelaniya has been a place of worship for over 2,000 years, the present temple buildings date mostly from 1880 to 1940.
The Kelani River is most significant today in the practical sense since it is the main water source across the Western Province. The temple’s chief patron being the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe himself, the perahera too is organised under his guidance, who is also the Dayaka Sabha President.
The sacred temple derives its religious and historical significance mainly from the Buddha’s third visit to the premises on the banks of the Kelani River. Since it is a highly venerated occurrence, the perahera is organised annually to invoke blessings of the Noble Triple Gem and gods to all living beings, marking the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka, which took place on the Vesak full moon poya day.
The Kelaniya Durutu Perahera Pooja Festival was halted for sometimes during colonial rule but was recommenced in 1927 with the guidance of Ven. Mapitigama Buddharakkhita Thera, the then chief incumbent of the temple, under the generous patronage of Helena Wijewardene Lamatheni. Then onward, this religious festival marks one of the major religious events in the island.
The annual religious ceremony of Kelani Rajamaha Viharaya began on last Saturday with the handing over of the Relic casket to Chief Basnayaka Nilame Dhammika Attygalle by the Chief Incumbent Ven. Prof. Kollupitiya Mahinda Sangarakkitha Nayaka Thera.
The Nayaka Thera said they earlier had nonstop chanting for seven days but as it was hard to keep all the monks for seven days, the number of days was reduced to four.
“The festival has four processions; Deva Dhootha Perahara, Uda Maduwe Perahera, Veethi Perahara, and Maha Perahera. The Maha Perahera comprises four sub Peraheras; Dhathu Perahera, Vishnu Perahera, Kataragama Perahera, and Vibhiaa Perahera. Three traditional dance groups, Udarata, Sabaragamuwa, and Pahata Rata as well as Tamil dances among others also take place in the perahera. We have another special ritual called “Manniyakkika Naagaraja” - one of the special rituals of the Kelaniya temple,” he explained.
The perahera displays the ancient traditions and the cultural heritage of the island. This highly respected perahera and related ceremonies demonstrate to the world the island’s traditional folklore, folk music and dance forms and drum beats developed throughout the ages around Buddhism and Buddhist practices.
The perahera is held at night on three consecutive days prior to the Duruthu (January) full moon. It commences with a series of sermons (Dharma Desana) held each night, followed by pirith chanting ceremony (paritrana desana). The ritual then culminates in the famous procession - the perahera. Before the commencement of the procession, the divine insignia of the respective gods are ceremonially taken out of each devala amidst the beat-sounds of hevisi drums and are securely placed on the decorated repository on the back of the respective tuskers.
The first-day perahera on the upper temple terrace is called “Udamaluwa Perahera”. The second-day perahera is more colourful than the first, and is performed on a more extensive and elaborate scale. The third and the final procession called the “Randoli Perahera” is the climax of the whole festival. It is usually held on the pre-poya day of the Duruthu moon. This is the most colourful and magnificent spectacle that the Sri Lankan Buddhists look forward to with great fervour and enthusiasm.
The Nayaka Thera said the biggest crowd turn-out for the Vihara’s annual perahera can be seen when people and elephants alike are dressed in their finest for an unforgettable pageant on the final day of the procession.
“The Kelaniya Vihara treasures the hair relics of the Buddha. Thousands of people gather to worship the Buddha. We conduct the perahera to pay respect to the Buddha. May all the people in the country irrespective of their differences lead a happy and prosperous life,” the Nayaka Thera blessed.