2020 Jul 31
As little an island Sri Lanka might be, it is a nation swarming with ancient folklore, rich culture and time-honed traditions. And not a single month goes by without people getting together to celebrate their vibrant community. However, the month of August takes a special place amongst the rest, as it is during this time of year that Sri Lankans get together to celebrate four festivals, of four different communities, each held in the highest of regards: the Esala Perahera in Kandy, the Mahotsavam at the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Jaffna, the Feast of Our Lady of Madhu in Mannar, and the Hajj Festival.
Esala Perahera in Kandy
A celebration dating back to when the Buddha’s tooth relic was first brought to Sri Lanka, atop Princess Hemamala’s hair, accompanied by Price Dhantha, the Esala Perahera (also known as the Kandy Perahera or the Dalada Perahera), takes a forefront when it comes to religious celebrations in Sri Lanka.
Perhaps one of the most vibrant and awe-inspiring traditions of all time, the Dalada Perahera is a procession held annually to pay homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha, by the Temple of the Tooth Relic in the hill-city of Kandy. Consisting of some 5000 dancers, whip crackers, fire jugglers and acrobats, and an odd 100 or more elephants adorned in lavish garments, this procession goes on for 10 days – coming to a conclusion on the night of the Nikini (August) Full Moon.
The festivities start off with a quite modest and low-key procession of dancers and drummers, known as the Kumbal Perahera which goes on for a period of 5 days – this is said to drive away any ill will. The procession is a combination of 5 separate peraheras – four being from the Kandy devala’s (of the four guardian gods: Naatha, Vishnu, Kataragama, and the goddess Pattini), and the fifth and most splendid being from the Sri Dalada Maligawa itself – the four devala peraheras will gather in front of the Sri Dalada Maligawa, where the Dalada Perahera will join in and take the lead. On the 6th night will be the commencement of the Randoli Perahera – where the proceedings will escalate, the route will lengthen and the procession will become evermore splendid. This will further parade the streets of the hill-capital amidst the “hevisi naadha”, gyrating dance moves of Kandyan dancers and the rhythmic beat of drums, for another 5 days. Bringing in hundreds upon thousands into Kandy to view this spectacle, crowds would usually come in as early as 12 hours prior to the processions to get a prime viewing spot. However, this year given the situation of the Covid-19 outbreak,the masses are prohibited from viewing the perahera on the streets and are left to view the grandeur at the comfort of their homes.
Mahotsavam at the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Jaffna
The Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Jaffna is a beacon of Hindu worship in Sri Lanka. And the Mahotsavam (or the Nallur Festival) is a celebration held in adoration of Lord Murugan, filled with grandeur, and with Hindu traditions and customs, millennia old.
The Mahotsavam commencing with the Flag Hoisting Ceremony, is then followed by numerous festivals extending over a period of 28 days. The Mancham – where Lord Murugan and his consorts are carried in procession in the outer premises of the Kovil, the Kailasa Vahanam – a pageant where devotees are filled with awe seeing the stunning chariot representing Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, and the Chariot Festival Day – where Lord Murugan, in the manifestation of Sri Shanmuga, placed on an astounding silver throne adorned with exquisite regalia and is paraded around the premises by devotees, are some of the festivals that take precedence. And it is with Theertham, that the Mahotsavam will begin its culmination. Devotees would come from all corners of the world to witness this splendour, inundating the North in chants of “Haro Hara”. And this year, while measures are being taken to control the masses, considering that we are still recovering from the Covid 19 pandemic, the festival itself is set to proceed as usual.
The Feast of Our Lady of Madhu in Mannar
The Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in Mannar – a beacon of hope and faith – has long been considered to be the holiest place of worship for Roman Catholics in Sri Lanka. With a history of over 400 years, the church, with its striking portico painted cream and duck-egg blue, shelters Our Lady of Madhu, a petite yet revered Madonna-and-child statue brought here in 1670. The hallowed Christian monument celebrates the life of Mother Mary all year long, but it is in the month of August when the grandest celebration of all happens, coinciding with the Feast of Mother Mary’s Assumption to Heaven. So with the flag hoisting on the 6th of August, commences the nine-day preparatory period before the Feast of Our Lady of Madhu.
The festival is known to have, at times, be thronged with masses touching almost a million in numbers. And a time-honoured tradition is for devotees to camp at the church premises, and take part in the church services, in the days leading up to the day of the Feast. This year, however, the church has taken the decision to not allow the temporary camps to be set up as a precaution against the Covid-19 pandemic. On the day of the Feast, the statue of Our Lady is decked in blue and white and is taken in procession amidst calls of “Hail Mary!” recited in harmony, by devotees.
The Hajj festival, also known as Eid-Ul-Adha, is the celebration of the lives of Prophet Ibhrahim, his wife Hajar, and their son, Prophet Ismail. Much considered to be the largest gathering of Muslims across the world, this festival brings thousands upon thousands to the holy city of Mecca, in the desert valley of western Saudi Arabia. Here, devotees worship Ka’Ba, the holiest site of Islam, walking around it seven times, counter-clockwise. Many Muslims in Sri Lanka and around the world, make out the pilgrimage to Mecca as a journey of a lifetime. While many do try to make the journey to Mecca, people still carry out the festivities at their homes and mosques.
Reflecting on harmony and diversity, all these religious and spiritual festivals are a testament to the rich heritage, culture and tradition of our little island nation, that is Sri Lanka.