Just off the Indian subcontinent of South East Asia, lies the pearl of the Indian Ocean. A Mecca of biodiversity, the island of Sri Lanka may be small in size, but it more than makes up for it in rich and diverse landscape, wildlife and culture. Nicknamed the pearl of the Indian Ocean because of the island’s shape and beauty, Sri Lanka boasts tropical rainforests, fringed coral reefs and enriched wildlife reserves.
Sri Lanka is diverse in more ways than one, with its people representing many forms of religion, ethnicity and language. The majority of Sri Lanka houses the Sinhalese; a native Sri Lankan population that speak the local Sinhala and practice the Buddhist religion, specifically Theravada, the oldest branch of the Buddhism faith. Sri Lanka is also inhabited by the Sri Lankan Tamils, a nation of Tamil speaking Hindus that immigrated to Sri Lanka in the 3rd century; who co-existed with the Sinhalese so well that the two ethnic groups became almost physically indistinct.
Sri Lankan people place a lot of importance into their origins. With their communities of; Sinhalese, Tamil, Moors, Burgher, Vedda and Kaffir, all established by their religion and more notably their lineage. Arab traders, European colonists, Indigenous Animists and Indian religious teachers formed ethnicities that grew into the rich and diverse nation Sri Lanka is today.
In this melting pot of culture, many festivals and religious celebrations are recognised by the people of Sri Lanka. The Tamil harvest festival of Thai Pongal and Maha Shivaratri, the Muslim Hajj, Ramadan and the Buddhist Esala Perahera are all commemorated within their home cities and honoured through tradition and ceremony.
This August sees the festival of Esala Perahera begin anew for the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka. Otherwise known as the tooth festival, the Esala Perahera is a fusion of two separate and connected processions, the Esala and the Dalada Perahera. The Esala Perahera honours an ancient ritual to the Gods for the request of rainfall, usually enacted through music and dance.
The Dalada procession first began when a sacred relic was brought to Sri Lanka from India. 800 years after the demise of Buddha, a tooth became a sacred and honoured vestige of the Buddhist religion. Housed in the Temple of the Tooth, the most important shrine to Sri Lankan Buddhists, it has been the resting place of Buddha’s tooth since the 16th century.
Today’s festival sees five processions through the city of Kandy. One Perahera is represented for each of the four guardian Gods; with the main procession of musicians, dancers and elegantly dressed elephants, marking the Perahera of the sacred tooth relic. A young Jackfruit tree is cut and planted into four designated places to honour the four guardian gods. After five days of worship, flag bearing, music and dance; the procession begins, assembled at the Sinhalese’s most sacred site, the Temple of the Tooth.
The procession is led by the Maligawa elephant, adorned in colourful garments, who carries the relic casket. Fireball acrobats and whip-dancers clear the path, followed by flag bearers, the official insignia of the gods, drummers and dancers; all displaying the beauty and culture of their people.
The Esala Perahera is high in both spiritual and religious content. It honours a Buddhist legend and a sacred part of their history. It is a parade of celebration for their life and culture, filled with the joy and honour this nation holds for such a sacred relic living among them. The Esala Perahera may have originated as a tradition of ensuring the blessings of the Gods on their people; time, however, has evolved this celebration into a pillar of history and beauty for the people of this beautiful island.
How important are festivals within a culture?