Kandy is filled with a picturesque bustle of activity during the week of celebrations at the full moon in the month of Esala (July or August). The complete name of this festival, which is unique to Sri Lanka, is Maha Nuwara Esala Dalada Perahera. Its highlights are the processions (peraheras) which take place at night.
Originally these were parades featuring effigies, statues or symbols of divinities, such as can be seen in India or in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka. Until the reform carried out by Kirti Sri (1747-1780) they were held in honor of the gods worshiped in the dewalas, following age-old traditions. From 1766 onward, however, the Siamese monks who restored the purity of Buddhist observance in Sri Lanka induced Kirti Sri to give the prime place in these ceremonies, which they considered pagan, to the cult of the Buddha. They were shrewd enough to realized that they could not abolish the celebrations altogether, and sought instead to turn them in a more acceptable direction.
Since that time the Esala Perahera has been a celebration of the sacred Tooth and Kandy’s leading Buddhist festival. On seven successive nights processions set out from the dewalas in which each divinity, represented by a symbol in solid gold carried in a howdah borne by an elephant, is taken to pay homage to the Buddha. The sixth night sees the most solemn occasion of all, the Maha Perahera or Great Procession, when there are processions from the four dewalas and from the Dalada Maligawa as well.
Thousands of people take part in these processions, which are watched by large and enthusiastic crowds. There are innumerable torch-bearers, hundreds of musicians wearing gorgeous costumes or gilded breastplates, and hundreds of jugglers and dancers, some of them half naked, others wearing ancient Sinhalese dress. All of them are decked with jewellery, some of it genuine and some of it false, but all of it sparkling in the light of the torches.
Up to 200 elephants are part of the procession, splendidly caparisoned with brilliant and colorful trappings, bearing attendants of the deviyos, Buddhist monks and other dignitaries who have a part to play in the ceremonies, and effigies or symbols of the various divinities. The last elephant, the largest and most magnificently caparisoned of all, carries a splendid howdah scintillating with gold and precious stones, the reliquary containing the Tooth. It is flanked by two other elephants and surrounded by a guard of honor of musicians and dancers.
The celebrations have all the splendor of a royal ceremony in the heyday of the kingdom of Kandy in the 18th century, in a tumult of noise and color made up of the beating of many drums, the blaring of horns and trumpets, the cracking of the royal whips (an emblem of royal sovereignty), the gorgeous costumes, the brilliant decorations, the flashing of many torches and the gyrations of the dancers and jugglers all bathed in the perfume of incense and jasmine water.
The shaven-headed monks in their saffron robes walk devoutly in front, while the dignitaries on their elephants clad in ceremonial garments of the time of Kirti Sri, are a reminder of the courtly ceremonies of earlier days.
The Great Procession (6th night of Esala Perahera)
After the processions of elephants from the dewalas comes the procession from the Dalada Maligawa. At its head are torchbearers and banner-carriers from the different parts of Sri Lanka, and behind them comes a single elephant bearing the Keeper of the Temple, the Peramunerala, followed by groups of musicians and a whole army of elephants in twos and threes. The leading group is headed by the Constable of the Royal Stables, the Gajanayaka Nilame, holding a silver ankus (a kind of harpoon, ankusa in Sanskrit, henduwa in Sinhalese one of the attributes of Shiva). Numerous groups of musicians and dancers are interspersed among the elephants. Then come the monks, and immediately after them the Master of Ceremonies, on foot, surrounded by the keepers of the various dewalas and followed by a group of musicians and dancers. Behind them come servants, who lay out linen cloths in the path of great elephant carrying the howdah with the sacred relic, which follows close behind. After a further group of dancers the procession is closed by the Keeper of the Tooth, the chief official of the Temple, surrounded by servants and temple guards. The crowds of worshipers then fall in at the tail of the procession.
The 7th night or Randoli Perahera is a less solemn occasion but is interesting as a further example of the survival of ancient rites. In this procession the symbols of the deviyos are accompanied by elephants bearing richly decorated howdahs which represent the consorts of the three gods. This is, in theory, the only procession at which women are entitled to be present.