The Sri Dalada Maligawa becomes a focal point of attraction as the Esala season dawns every year and the historic Kandy esala perahera with its ancient rituals parades through the streets of the hill capital. This year (2016), the perahera will be held from August 8 to 18.
his globally renowned cultural and religious pageant is held annually to pay homage to the sacred Tooth Relic of the Exalted One, Sakyamuni Tathagata and to invoke the blessings of the guardian deities (Sri Vishnu, Kataragama, Natha and Pathini of the four devalas) to seek peace and prosperity.
The Perahera is highlighted by five Kumbal Peraheras, four Randoli Peraheras and finally the Day Perahera and Water Cutting Ceremony.
The pageant comprises five main processions. The first is the Sri Dalada Maligawa, led by the Diyawadana Nilame and the Chief Tusker carrying the perahera relic casket. It is followed by the four devala peraheras with four Basnayake Nilames dressed in Kandyan regalia as custodians. Besides the religious aspects, the pageant has gained international attention owing to its glamorous cultural performances and diverse entertainment.
In addition to banners and standards, whip crackers, rhythmic drumb eaters, clarinet blowers, Kandyan dancers and torch bearers, a variety of other performances will take place. The most significant attraction would undoubtedly be the elephants and tuskers majestically marching through the crowded streets. Even the imperial rulers of the past were spellbound by the degree of discipline exhibited by these giant creatures. The origins of the Kandy Esala Perahera dates back to King Kitsirimewan (Megavanna) (301 – 328 BC). The Kings of India fought continuous wars for the ownership of the Buddha’s relics.
During the 4th century B.C., a sacred tooth relic of the Buddha was in the possession of King Guhashiva of Kalinga.Two powerful state princes declared war against King Guhashiva to gain possession of it. King Guhashiva, realizing the impending threat, was determined not to surrender the sacred relics. Accordingly, he entrusted his only daughter, Princess Hemamali and his son-in-law, Prince Danta to safeguard the sacred relic from the enemy in the event that they won the war. King Guhashiva instructed them to prepare to flee in disguise to Sri Lanka, directing them to hand over the sacred relic to his contemporary, King Kitsirimewan of Anuradhapura, as a royal gift. Princes Hemamali and Prince Danta’s Secret Mission On hearing of the demise of King Guhashiva and the defeat of their state, the duo gave up their royal regalia and disguised as Brahmin pilgrims, set forth on their mission.
Princess Hemamali discreetly carried the tiny golden relic casket on top of her head, hiding it within her knotted hair.
Their mission was a challenging one. They walked through forests infested with wild beasts, enduring thirst and hunger with little rest or sleep. As they crossed borders of the jungle, they came across a sandy valley. Throughout the journey, the princess had carried the relic casket, hidden in her hair.
They now decided to take a brief rest. To hide the relic casket, they made a pagoda of sand and hid it underneath.
While the couple was relaxing, a miracle took place and radiant beams of light illuminated from the relic. An Arahant named Khema, passing by above them to the Himalayas, noticed the phenomenon. He descended to the ground before the royal couple and was informed of their noble mission. The Arahant paid his obeisance to the Buddha’s relics and gave his blessing to the young couple so they would reach their successfully destination.
Prince Danta and Princes Hemamali fell into a deep sleep. Meanwhile, a powerful King Cobra named Pandubhara who lived by the banks of river Ganges observed the illuminations radiating from the sand pagoda. Being deceitful, he removed the Relic casket and vanished into the great Mountain ‘Mahameru’. The royal couple awoke from their sleep, prepared to resume their journey and looked for the golden casket. Though the Pagoda remained undisturbed, to their dismay, the sacred relic was missing. In desperation, they they prayed to Arahant Khema. The Arahant not only arrived but traced the whereabouts of the Relic Casket.
Then, assuming the status of an Eagle, he confronted the powerful Naga. Realizing the spiritual powers of the Arahant, the cobra pleaded with him to be allowed to keep the sacred relic, so as to acquire more merits. The Arant addressed the Naga kindly and explained that more merit would be generated by allowing the Relic Casket to reach the land of Sri Lanka, a meritorious nation capable of protecting, promulgating and preserving the doctrine of the exalted one.
Gladdened by the discovery the couple recovered the sacred relic and reached Tamalingamu, a naval city.
Raja the Chief Tusker, who carried the Perahera Relic Casket for half a century.
(Pix by Kumar Wethasinghe – 1967)
There, they were warmly welcomed by a large crowd who paid obeisance to the relic. The deities too offered perfumes and flowers.
Delighted by the assurance received from the Arahant Khema, the Royals reached the Indian shores and hired a ship to sail to the island of Serendib.
The vessel moved speedily and the sky remained blue. During their voyage and amidst music, the Prince and Princess performed poojas and offered alms to the sacred Tooth Relic.
Once again the voyage was obstructed by thousands of spiritually advanced Nagas - the reptiles of Naga Loka, who began to circle the ship. When the reptiles began to venerate and worship the relic, it appeared in the sky for their benefit and all others who wanted to pay obeisance. The joyful Nagas began to dance, causing the ship come to a standstill.
Once again, with intervention of Arahant Khema, the problem was solved and the ship reached
Upon their landing on Sri Lankan shores, Prince Danta and Princess Hemamali took refuge in a Kovil. Thereafter, following the guidelines given by the Brahmin, the royal couple made their way to the Capital city of Anuradhapura. Via jungle paths and travelling great distances on foot, they finally arrived at Meghagiri Viharaya, to meet the incumbent Thera.
"The Kings of India fought continuous wars for the ownership of the Buddha’s relics. During the 4th century B.C., a sacred tooth relic of the Buddha was in the possession of King Guhashiva of Kalinga"
Having listened to the story of the royal visitors, the Maha Thera conveyed an urgent message to King Kithsirimewan (meghavanna).
On hearing the welcome news, the King was delighted and ordered immediate preparations to ceremonially welcome the visitors and to receive the royal gift.
King Kithsirimewan gave a full hearing to the royal visitors and listened to the chain of events that resulted in them bearing the sacred relic to Sri Lanka under a veil of secrecy. Having paid due respects and obeisance to the Buddha’s relics, the King inquired as to why the sacred relic bore a tainted shade.
Dispelling all doubts, the sacred Relic miraculously emerged from the casket and appeared in the sky.
Thereafter, under Royal patronage, the city of Anuradhapura was gaily decorated, pandols were erected and Princes Hemamali and Prince Danta were conducted in a pageant along with the sacred Tooth Relic of Tathagata Gautama. Upon reaching the royal yard of the King’s Palace, King Kithsirimewan went down on his knees and carried the sacred relic on his head. He then placed the sacred gold relic casket on his royal throne, covered with jasmine flowers. Thereupon, the King declared a vow, offering the Island of Serindib as well as the population of the entire nation, to the custody and protection of the holy and sacred Tooth Relic of Tathagata Goutama.
The King also provided arrangements for the Princess and Prince to permanently reside in Sri Lanka.
In response to the plea by the people, the King ordered a public exhibition of the Sacred Tooth relic in Anuradhapura. The relic was later placed at Isurumuniya and Dhamma Cakka Vihara, in a specially built chamber and offerings were made regularly.
Several years later, following foreign threats, the relic was secretly moved to the mountain of Udundora, in Southern Sri Lanka.
During the reign of King Parakramabahu the Great, the sacred relic was brought back to the then capital Polonnaruwa and was housed at special a Dalada Maligawa.
Under different rulers, the relic was later transferred to several ruling cities. From Kotmale, Wijeyabahu 3 brought the sacred relic to Dambdeniya. It was brought from Rajangana to Yapahuwa during Buwanekabahu 1. At one point, the Pandyans invaded the city and took the Tooth relic to their country. King Parakramabahu 3, through diplomacy with the Pandyan King Kulasekera, obtained the sacred relic and brought it back to Polonnaruwa. From Polonnaruwa the sacred relic was taken to Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola and Kotte.
During the Kotte disputes, the sacred relic was secretly taken to Delgamu Viharaya Ratnapura and kept hidden.
King Wimaladharmasuriya of Kandy built the present Sri Dalada Maligawa and the sacred relic was brought back to Kandy in a grand pageant. The relic was periodically moved from place to place for its own safety: Ududumbara, Kivulgama, Pitigoda, Hanguranketa, Kandenuwara, Kotmale and Puhulpitiya until it was permanently enshrined at the Sri Dalada Mandiraya.
During the time of the Kandyan Kings, processions and festivals were held to invoke the blessings of Gods Sri Vishnu, Kataragama, Natha and Pathini during the Esala season.
An era of religious renaissance was ushered in under the reign of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe. At the time, most Ven. Asarana Sarana Saranankara Welivita Sri Sangaraja Mahathera of Malwatta Maha Viharaya Kandy reestablished the higher ordination. The Devala Perahara used to precede the Sri Dalada Maligawa until Upali Maha Thera of Siyam proposed to the King that the Sri Dalada Perahara should lead the procession. In this way, the annual Kandy Esala Perehara was initiated by King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe and is conducted in a similar manner to date.
When Ceylon became a British Colony, under terms and conditions, the relic was placed under their custody. Before long the Mahasangha of the Asgiri and Malwatta chapters became dissatisfied with the British rulers. Accordingly, in consultation with the Kandyan chieftains, the great National Patriot Most Ven. Waryapola Sri Sumangala Maha Thera, who deflagged the Union Jack, took charge of the Tooth Relic and disappeared into the Dambulla forests. The British rulers learning that the Maha Nayake of Asgiriya was in the hiding with the sacred relic, offered cash rewards for his capture, with no success. They arbitrarily jailed 40 members of the Maha Sangha for three years. Finally, following peace talks between the British and local heads, the situation was amicably settled. Thereafter, the Ven. Wariyapola Mahanayake Thera returned to Kandy. The sacred Relic has remained at the Sri Dalada Mandiraya Kandy ever since.
Since the demise of the Buddha, the relics of the Exalted One were distributed among the eight kings who reigned the Mahabharata during the day. They were removed under royal patronage with colourful flags and in ceremonial processions.
British Governor’s Astonishment
The Kandy Esala Perehera became a state sponsored event during the British period. On one occasion, an untimely epidemic and disaster broke out in the country. Upon the advice of the Maha Sangha, the Governor was convinced of the necessity to perform rituals in honour of the sacred relic. When the tooth relic was uncovered by the Governor, a torrent poured out of it, ending the deadly epidemic. Astonished, the Governor approved the conduct of regular religious practices.
This miraculous rain was named “Dalada Vessa”.
Distribution of Buddha’s Relics
According to the Chronicles in the Mahaparinibbhana, the State Kings of Maha Bharata confronted the Blessed One, announcing that they were all worthy to receive a portion of the remaining relics. Settling the calamity Dona, an elderly Brahmin intervened to distribute the sacred relics “Let us all, Sirs, with one accord unite in friendly harmony to make eight portions. Let thupas rise in every land.”
“Eight measures of relics there were of him of the farseeing eye,
Of the best of the best of men. In India seven are worshipped,
And one measures in Ramagama, by the kings of the serpent race.
One tooth, too, is honoured in heaven and one in Gandhara’s city.
One in the Kalinga realm and one more by the Naga race”.
From Kalinga Desha the sacred relic was gifted to Sri Lanka.
“Eka data Tidasapure
Eka Naga pure Ahu
Eka Ghandara Visaye
Ekapi Puna Seehale”
Through their glory the bountiful earth is made bright with offerings painless –
For with such are the Great Teacher’s relics best honoured by those who are honoured,
By gods and by Nagas and kinds, yea, thus by the noblest of monarchs –
(The article is based on facts narrated by late Ven. Neluwe Naghita Thera and eminent lay preacher Late O.K.W. Atigala of the hill Capital).