Sri Lanka's Buddhist festival brings fractured country together

Christians as well as Buddhists travel from far and wide to see the world famous procession of the Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic
Sri Lanka's Buddhist festival brings fractured country together

Decorated elephants in procession during the Kandy Esala Perahera religious event that puts on public display Lord Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic. (ucanews.com photo by Quintus Colombage)

Nalini Puswella, a 48-year-old mother of three started her journey in the early morning and arrived in Kandy at 9.30 am. She came with children from her school where she works as a teacher and 20 relatives, all squabbling and laughing. They clustered together at the corner of the main road under the shade of several trees.

They waited there patiently for hours in the hot sun waiting for the procession — a wall of light, colour and noise — that finally came only in the evening. It was worth the wait.

"The Kandy Esala Perahera is a massive religious event," said Puswella, an Anglican who has attended the annual event for the past three years. "There are lots of religious people, large numbers of elephants who are usually adorned with lavish garments, many dancers and drummers dressed up in traditional costumes."

Thousands of Buddhists, some Christians and Hindus attended, waiting long hours for it to begin. Children attending with their parents and senior citizens could not move from where they were waiting because the streets were crammed with an estimated 700,000 people.

"Everybody including non-Buddhists waited hours for the procession with a great deal of patience, faith and relative harmony," said Puswella.

Nimal Ranasinghe, a Buddhist who came with Puswella, said people come from all over the country to attend the Kandy procession.

"Some years ago, my father and his relatives made a pilgrimage over four days from remote areas by foot to attend," said Ranasinghe who was having lunch on the street with his group. "They believed it was a blessing and good fortune for their families to see the Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic."

The origin of the Kandy Esala procession began following the arrival of the Lord Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic to Sri Lanka from India in the 4th century AD. It was enshrined at the temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, 115 kilometers northeast of Colombo. The temple was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO IN 1988.

The festival involves several processions that happen over several days beginning on Aug. 3. The holy pageant passes through Kandy on the penultimate day of the festival, which this year was Aug. 17, marking one of its most important moments in the festival.

 

 Drummers and dancers make their way during the annual Kandy Esala Perahera Buddhist procession. (ucanews.com photo by Quintus Colombage) 

 

Buddhist monk Venerable Narada Thero, who came with a group of monks from Anuradhapura, said that the first modern procession took place during the reign of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe in 1754.

"The king organized the Lord Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic to be taken in a procession for the general public to see. It is an annual celebration for blessing for rain, fertility and health," said the monk.

Father Ivan Jayasundera, parish priest of Kandy's St. Anthony's Cathedral, which is only a few meters away from a key temple on the processional route, said that the event promotes multi-ethnic and multi-religious harmony.

"We are a nation of different religions and diverse cultures. This is an opportunity to bring about a closer understanding and respect of each other's culture and values," said Father Jayasundera. "Priests are also invited to attend the organizing committee meetings before the event takes place."

"Some Christians take part in the event as an expression of their common cultural heritage," explained Puswella, a government teacher. It's an important point seeing as most of the 700,000 people in attendance have known some kind of strife — religious or ethnic — over the past decades in Sri Lanka.

"Our St. Paul's Anglican Church is situated on the right side of a temple," Puswella said. "When the Tamil Tigers in 1998 attacked the sacred Temple of the Tooth [where the sacred relic is kept]  the church was also damaged — destroying roofs, doors, windows and precious stained glass." That blast killed 10 civilians.

The Catholic bishops' conference condemned the attack in a press statement and called the temple a religious treasure for Buddhists as well as a religious and cultural heritage for which every Sri Lankan feels proud.

But today's peaceful event was, some hope a sign of good things to come for Sri Lanka. "Ten hours was a very long wait for the children but we would all love to come here again," said Puswella.

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