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Origins of Local Deities; A historical study on devalas and peraheras of Sri Lanka

Part 11

The cultural and religious processions associated with devalas and temples in Sri Lanka are called as ‘Perahera’ in local languages. They are held in honor of the relevant god or spirit. Devotees believe that such processions will make the spirits happy and will fulfill their wishes on time. In Sanskrit it is ‘Pari-gruha’ which became Pari-graha, meaning going around the abode of the god in clockwise directions. A perahera can be simply defined as a number of people, animals and Ratha moving forward in an orderly fashion, especially as part of a ceremony of festival. Such can be religio-cultural, funeral or military processions. There are various processions all over the world, resembling various cultures. Perahera is a part of the rich intangible heritage of Sri Lanka. Annual repetition of movement of perahera over and over makes it a traditional cultural practice. And when it happens around a sacred shrine it gets established as a ritual of the particular shrine.   

A brief overview of the Perahera of the world

It is not clear exactly when and where humans held the first perahera procession. However, the origins of perahera processions can be traced back to the beginning of human civilization in many parts of the ancient world. A perahera or a parade is simply a procession of a row of humans walking one after the other, from one place to the other with music, chanting and dancing. Parades were held in honor of gods at various religious places to evoke blessings by pleasing the gods. Cultural parades were held to celebrate events such as anniversaries of victories, festivals and general events worth commemorating.

Carvings at Mesopotamia depict processions held to mark military victories with the king taking the lead. Paintings at ancient Egyptian tombs and pyramids shows evidences of parades with richly dressed people, animals, chariots and slaves walking in a row.

Christian / Catholic Parades – Christian or Catholic parades were held and organized by the church to honor saints.

Other Perahera in the world – Various parades are held all around the world. Some of them are not religious parades, but has become major cultural event and major tourist attractions in today’s world.  Brazil’s living pageant of Madigra is a major tourist attraction where the general public is permitted to take part in and god Bacuss (God of Wine) is worshiped.

Apart from this, almost all schools, colleges and organizations in the world held parades (perahera) for reasons of their institutions.

Hindu and Buddhist perahara are the most common and widely known parades in the world as they play a vital role in these two cultures.

Perahera of Sri Lanka

Perahera of Sri Lanka has a long history, some of them tracing their origins back to the pre-Buddhist civilizations. Buddhism was introduced to the island in the 3rd century BC and soon spread all over the country with the royal patronage and since then it was the state religion of Sri Lanka. Even after Buddhism established in Sri Lanka, all pre-Buddhist beliefs and cults did not completely fade away. In fact, some of them were absorbed into the Buddhist culture and took new forms. Eg. God Vishnu was brought into Buddhist Temples during king walagamba’s time having his statue made in all cave Buddhist temples. But God Siva was accepted by the community as Ishwara/ Natha/ Avoloka-Ishwara-Natha. Some of the Devalas and cults of gods that are prevailing today are remains of such pre-Buddhist beliefs while some are the influence of India and other neighboring countries.

In the classical period, gods and other spirits were not given space inside Buddhist temples/ shrines, but since medieval times, they were given space inside the premises of Buddhist temples, later even inside image houses, especially during the period of the Gampola kingdom. As a classic example, at Lankathilake Rajamaha viahra, where lord Buddha, god Vishnu, God Ganesh, god Kataragama, god Vibhishana, god Saman, and son of Elara as Pattiya deviyo is worshiped under the same roof.

The oldest known evidence of a perahera procession in Sri Lanka dates back to the early pre-Anuradhapura period. Mahavamsa records about a festival taking place at night on the day Prince Vijaya arrived on the island. Vijaya hears music coming from far away and inquires Kuweni, the local queen, about the music. The scripts records that music was played and songs were sung. That was a royal marriage festival and it took place for seven days.

Mahavamsa gives a detailed description of the royal coronation for the second time as acceptance of Asoka as the Emperor and Buddhism as the state religion, of King Devanampiya Tissa in and there are details of music and songs being played. Again, in chapter 14, Mahavamsa records that King Devanampiya Tissa was celebrating a festival in the month of Poson. Further, it states that the king followed by 40,000 kingsmen in a perehera, left the city gates premises, running, and reached the Missaka parwatha or mihintale.

King Devanampiya Tissa made arrangements for the festival of welcoming the young Bodhi sapling from the Mauryan Empire. The entire road from the Northern gate (of the citadel at Anuradhapura) to Dambakola patuna in Jaffna peninsula was decorated. The road from Dambakola patuna to Anuradhapura was purified covered with white sand and flowers. The Northern gate of the city was adorned and decorated.

A royal perahera was held in honour of Arhat Mahinda, after his parinibbana. King Uttiya, the monarch then, arranged for the perahera. The body was covered in a golden ‘dena’, filled with scented oil, and the golden ‘dena’ on a ‘rankulu geya’, was followed by devotees and officials, who were making offerings. The road of the procession-taking place was well adorned. A similar procession was held for Arhat Sangha-Mitra, after her parinibbana. This is recorded in Mahavamsa, chapter 19.

Mahavamsa (Chapter 17) states about a perahera organized by King Devanampiya Tissa to welcome the relics of the Buddha for the first time. Sumana samanera advised the king to decorate the city and roads and come in a procession riding the royal tusker with ‘sesath’ and music (Thurya wadana).

The perahera procession of King Dutta Gamini to welcome the relics that was to be housed inside the Maha Stupa is recorded in detail in chapter 31. The perahera is described as follows – The king was adorned with jewellery and complete royal attire. Dancing girls, strong generals with armor, the army, elephants, horses, chariots (Ratha), adorned a special rathaya, royal tusker adorned with jewels, men together with women carrying pun kalas and jewels, women holding flowers, lamps, well adorned children holding colorful flags.

A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms or the Travels of Fa-Hsien -The Chinese monk Fa-Hsien records elaborately about a perahera procession held at the capital, Anuradhapura during the 5th century AD. This was held in honor of the tooth relic, during the 3rd month of the year. The perahera begins with a messenger riding a well adorned tusker, traveling around the city, announcing that the procession would be held after 10 days from the day of announcement. After ten days, the tooth relic is taken out of the temple of tooth, and then taken in a parade to the Abhayagiri temple and kept there for some time. After 90 days, the tooth relic is taken from the Abhayagiri temple back to the temple of tooth at Anuradhapura.

Dr.John Doyle in his 19th century book, which he gathered information during his stay in the country from 1816 to 1820, mentions that there were four great festivals held in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). They are the New Year festival, the Esala Perahera festival, the Karthi (Nakath) festival, and the fourth was the festival to celebrate the first harvest (Aluth sahal mangallaya).

As such examples show us, perahera of Sri Lanka has a long history, dating back to the early Anuradhapura period. Earlier they were Buddhist perahara. During the medieval times, we have evidences of perahara held in honour of gods and deities. Especially during the medieval period, we can see evidences of devalas built for Siva, Vishnu and Kali.

The medieval period shows a strong influence of neighboring India and other Asian countries, resulting in Hindu and Mahayana beliefs popularizing in the island.

Traditional Devil Dancers of Sri Lanka

Traditional Devil Dancers of Sri Lanka

Perahera held in honor of the Buddha’s tooth relics

Perahera held in honor of the Buddha’s tooth relics

Dances at the Kataragama perahera

A painting of a parade, at the Mulkirigala rajamaha vihara

A painting of a parade, at the Mulkirigala rajamaha vihara

A carving of a parade, Sumerian Civilization

Uncategorized, gods of Sri Lanka, perahera of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan gods, SRI LANKAN HISTORY 

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