Will the public be allowed to experience the Esala Perahera in 2021? 

  • Kandyans aren’t so sure 

The Esala Perahera or the Sri Dalada Perahera in Kandy is one of the oldest and grandest of all Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka. Also known as the “Festival of the Tooth Relic”, the historical procession is held annually to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, which is housed at the Sri Dalada Maligawa.

The perahera is held either in July, which is the month of Esala, or in August; Esala being the month that is believed to commemorate the first teaching given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment.

While paying respects to the Sacred Tooth Relic, the perahera also honours the four “guardians”, gods Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama, and Goddess Pattini. The Kandy Maligawa Perahera is therefore followed in order by those of the Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama, and Pattini Devala, which are the temples dedicated to said gods. The first five nights are known as the Kumbal Perahera, and the last five are known as the Randoli Perahera.

The purpose of the Kandy Esala Perahera is to beseech the blessings of the gods to obtain rain for the cultivation of crops and to enrich the lands of the kingdom, and the subsequent festivities entail many rituals performed by carrying the tooth relic through the streets of the Kandy. 

The Kandy Esala Perahera lasts for 10-11 days where various festivities can be witnessed right throughout, and this year, it has been scheduled to be held from 13-23 August. The first ritual “Kap Situweema”, which is the planting of a sanctified young jackfruit tree, will be held on 8 August to commence the rituals that start off the perahera.

Considering the historical, religious, and cultural significance of the perahera annually, it draws in a large crowd of people looking to get a glimpse and experience a moment in history. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in the year 2020, the streets of Kandy – which would have otherwise been crawling with tourists and locals who have travelled from the far corners of the island – were entirely closed off to the public during the perahera. The shops, which would have hosted guests hoping to get the best view, couldn’t do so, and the numerous viewing stations were not allowed. 

Speaking to a representative from the Sri Dalada Maligawa, we learnt that similar precautions will be taken for this year’s perahera as well. Diyawadana Nilame Pradeep Nilanga Dela corroborated the same, speaking at a meeting held at the Sri Dalada Maligawa recently regarding the holding of this year’s Kandy Esala Perahera. The representative stated that they will be seeking the support of the Police and the Army to implement recommended health and safety precautions. He further stated that the decision on whether they should open the streets to the general public to view the procession will be made upon the recommendations made by the government health authorities. 

The representative stated that all arrangements have been made to hold the perahera successfully, in keeping with ancient customs, and that the relevant decisions to ensure the safety of the artistes, as well as the public, will be taken on the advice of the health authorities.

Sharing her thoughts and current steps in place to carry out the perahera, Health Service Office Kandy Regional Director and Medical Officer of Planning Dr. Nuwani Weerathunga stated that so far, what is expected is that a similar procedure to last year will be followed. 

She said that what was recommended and was implemented previously was that the performers and all of the artists will be housed entirely for the 10-11 days during which they will be participating in the festival. They will be kept in their own separate bio bubbles, in allocated spaces, and will not interact with the other troupes. During the procession, as it is similar to a queue, she said that they will maintain the required physical distance from each different group and participate. All of these performers, dancers, musicians, etc. will all be vaccinated. Additionally, she said that they have all received the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, and on 29 and 30 July, they will be receiving the second and final dose. 

As for the decision as to whether they should allow the public to visit and view the procession, Dr. Weerathunga stated: “The health sector’s official stance is that we advise and oppose the allowing of the public to come and witness the procession.” She added that experts have speculated and forewarned about a potential fourth wave, and as such, they must take all precaution to soften this blow.

We spoke to some members of the public, a number of residents in Kandy, and business owners within the vicinity of the Dalada Maligawa, who expressed their thoughts on carrying out the Esala Perahara under these circumstances and their experience in the city of Kandy as the authorities prepare them for the upcoming festivities.

Saman Jayawickrama of Charlton Kandy Rest situated on Raja Veediya, Kandy, shared that while his establishment at present is closed due to the difficulties they are experiencing during the lockdown, he has been approached by the Police, who have come to collect the details of all of the residents, employees and guests. He said that he was asked to share daily updates via email if they receive any guests leading up to the perahera, asking that he send over all the necessary details; including ID numbers, names, and photographs of these guests. 

Jayawickrama said that last year they did block all the streets that were on the perahera route, and did not allow anyone to crowd to the sides of the streets. He said: “If there used to be a thousand people on the road, it seemed like only 40 watched the perahera last year, most of whom were residents from the nearby apartments and business owners,” he said. He added, however, that while nothing official has been announced, the Police shared with them that it is likely that they will be allowed to watch the perahera this year. 

Inoka Nandasiri, a resident of Kandy who works down D.S. Senanayake Veediya, also shared that even now, there really isn’t that much of a crowd in Kandy. “It is nothing compared to what it usually is during this time of the month, so close to Esala,” she said. She added that things are highly monitored and extremely controlled, and the authorities have communicated to all of the business owners and their employees that they must inform them if they are taking in any guests beyond those who are already in these places. She also said that “last year, by five o’clock, all of the shops were told to close down and everyone was advised not to step onto the streets, but we were told it’s okay to stay near our buildings and watch the perahera”. 

We also spoke to Bhavani Sundaralingam, the owner of Nagalingham’s Bhavan, a vegetarian restaurant situated at No. 77, Colombo Street, Kandy, and being a resident, she shared: “I vividly recall last year’s perahera, most notably because I lost my husband around this time last year when he went to Colombo.” She added that last year the guidelines were incredibly strict for everyone in the city and that this year she has observed that things are a lot more lax, with her adding that “last year, they did not even allow us to climb down to our ground floor, they said to watch from the first floor”. 

Sundaralingam stated that her son, who has been taking part in the Esala Perahera through the Natha Devalaya for over a decade now, was in fact vaccinated, and he will be receiving his second dose on the 29 July. She said that beyond getting the vaccination, he has not been given any other instructions in the context of the perahera. Last year, the performers were asked to isolate themselves in a strict bio-bubble and they were not allowed to interact with the public for the duration of the perahera. 

There appears to be no real consensus on whether the public will be allowed to experience the Esala Perahera this year. However, the Regional Director of Health Service Office in Kandy is quite clear on their stance, recommending that the public not be allowed to participate and for the same precautions be taken as they did in 2020. The general public also similarly expressed that while the environment doesn’t feel as strict as it did last year, it is possible that things would change closer to the date of the actual festival, as the authorities appear to be preparing to take the necessary precautions.