Kandy Esala Perahera as seen by Knox and Fa-Hien | Daily News

Kandy Esala Perahera as seen by Knox and Fa-Hien

As a predominantly Buddhist country, Sri Lanka is home to a number of colourful festivals and celebrations that mark the life and teachings of the great Buddha. Perhaps none are as spectacular as the Kandy Esala Perahera, a religious pageant that ranks as one of the best in Asia.

It is an annual event usually held in July or August on days fixed by the DiyawadanaNilame of the Dalada Maligawa.


Its origin, according to Mahavamsa, dates back to the 4th century AD. King KirthisiriMeghawanna was ruling the country based at Anuradhapura from 303 - 331 A.D. It was during his reign that the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha was brought to Sri Lanka. The King placed the relic in a casket made of Phalika (Soapstone) and deposited in an edifice called the Dharma-Chakra built by King Devanampiyatissa in the third century B.C.

The Mahavamsa states that a great sum of money was spent in celebrating the festival in honour of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The King decreed that the Relic should be taken around the city of Anuradhapura once a year. There is evidence to show that his decree was faithfully carried out by those Kings who followed him.


Fa-Hien, one of the famous Chinese monks who arrived in Sri Lanka on a pilgrimage in the fifth century A.D. also gives a full description about the Perahera.

"By the side of the King's Palace is the Vihara of the Buddha's Tooth, several hundred feet high, brilliant with jewellers and ornamented with rare gems. Above the Vihara is placed an upright pole on which is fixed a great Padmaraja (ruby). The Tooth of the Buddha was always brought forth in the middle of the third month.”

"Ten days beforehand, the King magnificently caparisons a great elephant, and commissions a man of eloquence and ability to clothe himself in royal apparel, and riding on the elephant, to sound a drum and proclaim as follows : “Bodhisattva during three asankhyeyakalpas underwent every type of austerity; he spared himself no personal sufferings; he left his country, wife, and child; moreover he tore out his eyes to bestow them on another; he mangled his flesh to deliver a dove (from the hawk) ; he sacrificed his head in alms, he gave his body to a famishing tiger; he grudged not his marrow or brain.”

“Thus, he endured every sort of agony for the sake of all flesh. Moreover, when he became Buddha, he lived in the world forty years preaching and teaching and converting men. He gave rest to the wretched, he saved the lost. Having passed through countless births, he then entered Nirvana. After ten days the tooth of (this same) Buddha will be brought forth and taken to the Abhayagiri Vihara.”

“Let all ecclesiastical and lay persons within the kingdom, who wish to lay up a store of merit, prepare and smooth the roads; adorn the street, and highways; let them scatter every king of flower, and offer incense in religious reverence to the Relic”.

Devale Perahera

It is doubtful whether the procession as described by Fa Hien continued to be held annually after Anuradhapura ceased to be the capital. However, it is clear that the Devale Peraheras that we have today in the Esala Perahera in Kandy did not form part of the Procession referred to by Fa Hein.

It is the belief of the historians that the Esala Perahera as we know it today, with the Hindu Devale Peraheras participating in it, had its origin in the mid-18th century during the reign of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe. During the initial period of his reign, the Perahera was confined to the four Hindu Devales.

Robert Knox reports that even in the 17th century, the Perahera consisted only of the DevalePeraharas. He says, “After all these comes an elephant with two Priests on his back: one whereof is the Priest carrying a painted stick on his shoulder, who represents neurDio (Aluth Nuwara Deiyo), that is the God and maker of Heaven and Earth. The other sits behind him, holding a round thing, like an umbrella, over his head, to keep off sun or rain.”

UpaliMaha Thera

On 20th of July 1753 on the full moon day of UpaliMaha Thera and his retinue from Siam arrived in Kandy, to confer on the Sinhala monks the gift of the Upasampada, which had long disappeared from the island.

UpaliMaha Thera who witnessed the Perahera was quite disturbed that in the heart of a Buddhist country, the deities should be honoured in all pageantry and the Buddha ignored. It is said that as a result of the representation made by UpaliMaha Thera, the King ordered that henceforth "Gods and men should follow the Buddha", in the procession. This is how the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha became the focus of the EsalaMaha Perahera.

The King’s decree had been faithfully carried out ever since.

Dalada Maligawa

The sacred Tooth Relic has been in various parts of the country. Ultimately King Vimaladharmasuriya the Second (1687 -1707 A.D.) brought the Relic from Labugama and deposited it in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa) built by him in Kandy.

In later years King Sri WickremaRajasinha (1798 - 1815 A. D.) the last King of Kandy added the Octagon to the Dalada Maligawa. He was also the builder of the Kandy Lake.


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