The Kandy Äsala Perahära by Lorna Dewaraja

Tissa Devendra, in The Island, 3 October 2018, with this title “Mirror of Civilisation” being a book review of  The Kandy Asala Maha Perahera – by Dr.Lorna Dewaraja (Vijitha Yapa Publications 2018)


In publishing this fine book, Vijitha Yapa has faithfully fulfilled the last wish that Dr. Dewaraja expressed to her family – to hand over to Vijitha Yapa the manuscript of her book on the Kandy Perahera. I now have the privilege of reviewing this publication.

I have had the great good fortune to have spent my boyhood in Kandy, enthralled by the magnificent Perahera as it paraded in front of our home in Cross Street. My scholarly father gave us children a ‘running commentary’ on the various aspects of the Perahera, from the lordly Gajanayaka Nilame astride his giant elephant, the significance of the various devales, the different bands of drummers, the noble palanquins carried shoulder-high at Randoli Peraheras followed by a group of traditional women devala attendants. We children were more interested in counting the gloriously caparisoned elephants, admiring the nilames’ stately gait swathed in bejeweled splendor, swaying to the mesmerizing rhythms of the corps of drummers. I must confess that to us youngsters the Perahera was just a wonderful spectacle – not a lecture demonstration of Kandyan history.

Professor Lorna Dewaraja, perhaps the most authoritative historian of the Kandyan Period, has in this, her last, book while delving deep into the origins and traditions of the Asala Perahera, gives readers a fine account of the life, times, and culture that prevailed in the royal kingdom of Sinhale during its last phase.

The early chapters reach back to the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura, the arrival of the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha – the Dalada –and its early adoption as the palladium granting legitimacy to the kings of the Sinhala Kingdom. It is noteworthy that, from the very beginning, there took place regular Peraheras to honour the Dalada. The Mahavamsa records that during the reign of Parakramabahu IV (1325) “Dancing girls performed delightful dances and sang songs” at the grand festivals to honour the Tooth Relic. These glorious processions have been vividly described by such foreign observers from centuries ago as Chinese Buddhist scholar-pilgrim Fa Hien and, centuries later, English prisoner Robert Knox, of extraordinary memory. Interestingly, our own chronicles also record that these Peraheras also featured women dancers. However, neither a Perahera honouring the Dalada nor women dancers feature in later accounts of Sinhala ceremonies during the Colonial period. I venture to suggest that this may have been a precautionary measure not to draw the invaders’ attention to the Dalada which had to be protected as the symbol of Sinhala kingship.

However, the Sinhala people loved Peraheras but seem to have shifted their emphasis from the Dalada (now in hiding) to the galaxy of deities they shared with Hinduism – though with Sinhala variation. These deities were Vishnu, Natha, Kataragama. Pattini — all connected with shamanistic practices and deeply embedded pre-Buddhist fertility rituals. The Kings of the Kandyan Kingdom encouraged the establishment of ‘devalas’ to these deities, within the precincts of the royal capital – where they yet flourish and are an integral component of the Perahera.

Portuguese hegemony and persecution of Buddhism in the Maritime areas led, inevitably, to the decline of Buddhism in the Kandyan Kingdom as well. The Sangha declined and lost all contact with other Buddhist kingdoms in East Asia. But worship of deities and their shrines flourished. So did their annual Asala Perahera parading the royal city – symbolizing the primordial beliefs and fertility practices of an agrarian society.

Buddhism in the Kandyan Kingdom had a great revival in the 18th century thanks to the learned ‘Samanera’ Welivita Sri Saranankara who persuaded King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe to negotiate with the Dutch rulers of Maritime Ceylon to transport a Kandyan delegation to travel to the Buddhist kingdom of Siam. Its mission was to seek help to re-establish the depleted Buddhist Sangha in the Kandyan Kingdom. The shrewd Dutch fully cooperated, thus scoring a diplomatic trump. The Kandyan delegation was successful and returned with a congregation of learned Siamese Bhikkus. Their great victory was the re-establishment of the Sinhala Sangha in the Sinhala Kingdom of Sri Lanka. Their leader the learned Upali Thera observed that the Sinhalese Buddhists annually held a grand celebratory procession to honor Hindu deities and fertility rituals. But he was deeply saddened that the Royal palladium of the Sacred Tooth Relic had no role in this most glorious procession. He expressed his views to an understanding King and Sangharaja Saranankara that the Dalada had to be give pride of place – as the Buddha and his Dhamma were superior to all deities. The Asala Perahera now was now reorganized as a Dalada Perahera, as in ancient times. The rituals of the Dalada Maligava were now given primacy into the procession and carried the golden casket from the Dalada Maligawa. Dr. Dewaraja gives a comprehensive account of the Maligava rituals, ceremonies and the responsible officials from bards, musicians and ‘alati ammavaru’ to the lay custodian Diyawadana Nilame.

When Kandy was yet ruled by a king, the Perahera also performed a definite political role. It was the traditional gathering of “all the King’s men” – every Chieftain administering the outlying regions, their entourages bearing regional banners had to pay symbolic tribute to the monarch and follow him in the procession. This was a traditional expression, and public display, of loyalty to their King. The chapter on ‘State and Society in the Kandyan Kingdom’ is a scholarly, but readable, account of the Kandyan polity and a comprehensive listing of its officials according to precedence and function. Significantly, this custom yet prevails, though much diluted, when the participant nilames and dancers present themselves to the President of the Republic to announce the successful conclusion of the year’s Asala Perahera.

The chapter on the Randoli Perahera comprehensively describes the composition of the procession, the role of the Nilames, dancers, drummers and, of course, the majestic elephants. This account encapsulates the heart of the book.

Dr. Dewaraja goes on to give an account of the confused history of the Perahera under Colonial rule. In the ‘Kandyan Convention, of 1815 the British, clearly dishonestly, gave a ‘sop’ to the Nilames that “The religion of the Budhhoo is declared inviolable and its rites and ministers anh its places of worship are to be maintained and protected”. The Governor, however, came under attack from Christian missionaries and chauvinistic Britishers who contended that the English monarch, sworn to defend the Christian faith could not also defend a heathen faith. The Governor was, however, acutely aware that as the Asala Perahera was integral to Kandyan Buddhist practice, any interference with it would subvert loyalty to the British ruler. The ill-fated ‘Kandyan Rebellion of1818’ provided the British with the opportunity to ban the Perahara. In spite of intermittent spells of re-establishment, this was a ploy they resorted to whenever there was trouble from Kandyans. The Governor, however, remained legal custodian of the Dalada. At last in 1853 this role was abolished and the Dalada came under the custody of the Kandyan Sangha. Strangely some Kandyans deplored the replacement of royal patronage by mere ‘civilians’!

I now retail a snippet of recent history, regarding the Perahera, that has escaped the historian’s eye. During WW II the Japanese Airforce launched a few bombing raids on the British colony of Ceylon. The colonial government immediately went into war preparation mode. Rice and petrol were rationed, ARP [Air Raid Precautions] were imposed – most importantly – black-outs. No visible lights at night, illuminations banned at places of worship, in company with all other night-time processions the Kandy Perahera was “banned for the duration” as Kandy was Mountbatten’s SEAC HQ, crowded with Allied troops and, therefore, a prime target. The Japanese did not bomb Ceylon again, but the ban remained till Hiroshima ended WW II. The Perahera now emerged from its ‘hibernation’ and , once again, paraded the streets of Kandy in 1946 and continues to this day.

As a true historian Dr. Dewaraja’s narrative continues to the present era. Perhaps the most significant events in this regard were the Service Tenure Ordinance and the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance of the late Colonial period which began chipping away at the centuries old system by which hereditary peasant clans had been ‘granted’ Temple owned lands and were expected, as tribute or ‘rent’, to perform their traditional (caste) skills [as dancers, drummers etc] at Maligawa functions and Peraheras. The Paddy Lands Act of independent Ceylon was a’ socialist’ law which “freed the peasant cultivator from hereditary land owners” – but almost dried out the flow of experienced dancers, drummers and such artistes into temple functions and processions.

Fortunately, Kandyan culture has proved remarkably resilient. Traditional clans have now established ‘kalayathanayas’ [dance academies] whose trained corps of dancers and drummers now perform at temple functions, peraheras and official functions. Traditional, as well as professionally trained. artistes now teach dance and music at schools and there is now a prestigious University of Visual and Performing Arts. The Army, Navy, Airforce and Police now proudly parade their much admired, corps of traditional musicians and dancers, both women and men.

A fine portfolio of photographs illustrates this admirable account of Sri Lanka’s most ancient and magnificent Sinhala Buddhist festival by Dr. Lorna Dewaraja, our great scholar of the Kandyan Kingdom.


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