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Common Fieldwork

Religion on Stage - Traditional Performances in New Public Spheres and Media

From left to right: Eva Ambos, Prof. William S. Sax, Prof. Christiane Brosius, Dr. Heike Moser, Silke Bechler, Prof. Axel Michaels, the Tusker of the Dalada Maligave

From July 22nd until August 7th, in the Sinhalese month of Äsaḷa, the two project leaders Prof. Axel Michaels and Prof. William Sax together with Prof. Christiane Brosius, PhD-candidates Eva Ambos and Silke Bechler, and research follow Dr. Heike Moser (University of Tübingen) visited Kandy, the former capital of the Kandyan Kings in the mountains of central Sri Lanka.
Our goal was to observe, document, and analyze the annual “Äsaḷa Perahära,” one of Asia's most famous religious processions and a prominent example of “staging religion.”
The Kandy Äsaḷa Perahära is an excellent example how traditional rituals have developed, how they have changed, and how they are currently performed. The Perahära (procession) takes place every year in the month of Äsaḷa (July/August). It is not only a religious but also a folk festival that combines Sinhala-Buddhist and Tamil-Hindu traditions.
The Kandy Äsaḷa Perahära begins with the planting of a sanctified young jack tree (Kapa) in the premises of each of the four Devāles dedicated to the four guardian gods Nātha, Viṣṇu, Kataragama and the goddess Pattini. The central element of the festival is the Tooth Relic of Buddha, kept in the main temple of Kandy, the Daḷadā Māligāva. Traditionally the Perahära was meant to bring rainfall and fertility as well as to strengthen the bonds of the king with his vassals and people. Today the Kandy Perahära is an important national symbol for Sri Lanka and still serves not only cultural and religious but also political ends.  

The 'tooth relic' is carried by the Diyawadane Nilame who is followed by the two supreme monks of Sri Lanka

The Perahära is structured as follows:
1. Planting of the Kapa: At the beginning of the Perahära a young jack tree is planted in the premises of each of the four Devāles.
2. Devāle Perahära: For the next five nights the Devāle Perahära takes place at the four Devāles. During these days the Kapurāḷas of each Devāle take around the log every evening (formerly twice a day), accompanied by music and drumming, flag and canopy bearers and the sacred insignia of the gods.  

Kataragama devale, Kandy: The decoration of God Kataragama is taken out of the shrine by the sami

3. Kumbal Perahära: On the sixth night the Kumbal Perahära begins and continues for five days. In this procession the Devāle Perahäras assemble in front of the Tooth Temple (Daḷadā Māligāva) with their insignias placed on a dome-like structure accompanied by the lay custodians of the Devāles. The relic casket, which is a substitute for the Tooth Relic, is placed on the Māligāva Elephant. At an auspicious moment the Māligāva Perahära joins the awaiting Devāle Perahäras and leads the procession. Whip-crackers and fireball acrobats clear the path, followed by the Buddhist flag bearers. On the first elephant rides the front official (Peramuna Rala). He is followed by Kandyan Drummers and Dancers who enthrall the crowd and are themselves followed by elephants and other groups of musicians, dancers and flag bearers. A group of musicians waits for the arrival of the Māligāva tusker carrying the sacred Tooth Relic. The Diyavaḍana Nilame, a contemporary substitute for the king, walks after the tusker. The second procession is from the Nātha Devāle, which faces the Sri Daḷadā Māligāva. The third is from the Viṣṇu Devāle. The fourth procession is from the Kataragama Devāle. The fifth and final one is from the Pattini Devāle.  

Inside the Dalada Maligawe (Temple of the Tooth): A copy of the tooth relic is prepared to be shown during the Kandy Äsala Perahära

4. Randōli Perahära: The Randōli Perahära is an expanded version of the Kumbal Perahära, to which are added palanquins (randōli) of the four Devāles. On the 5th day of the Randōli Perahära, after a short break up, reassembles and makes its way to the Asgiriya Vihāraya, where the casket is placed, and the Devāle Perahäras return to their respective Devāles.  

Kandy Äsala Randoli Perahära

5. Diya Kapuna: Later in the night the four Devāle Perahäras make their way to the water-cutting site at Gatambe ferry. At the river the Kapurāḷas of the Devāles are led in a decorated boat to some distance, from where they cleave the waters with the sacred sword, and collect a pitcher full from the place where the sword touched the water, to be stored in the Devāles for one year, to be fed back into the river, at the next water-cutting ceremony.

All processions begin at the Daḷadā Māligāva, the Temple of the Tooth, the most recent of many shrines where Buddha's tooth relic has been preserved since it was brought to Sri Lanka more than 1600 years ago, and a major world site of Buddhist pilgrimage. This is regarded by many as the national festival of Sri Lanka and promoted by the state as a celebration of national unity, a theme that was particularly poignant this year following the defeat by the government of the separatist Tamil Tigers after more than thirty years of civil war.  In addition to the display of (a replica of) the tooth relic, the procession (which occurs every evening for ten days) includes numerous dance troupes, especially those connected with the famous “Kandyan Dance,” itself perhaps the most prominent symbol of Sri Lankan heritage. Today, the Kandy Äsaḷa Perahära the most prominent and „touristified“ aesthetic form in Sri Lanka.  

Kandyan ves dancers performing in front of the ‘tooth relic’

Team members documented the preliminary rituals of the Perahära, in which the four temples of Gods (Viṣṇu, Pattini, Nātha, Kataragama) in Kandy town are ritually incorporated into the larger event. We interviewed priests, temple officers, and dancers; organized a rare display of the Kohomba Kankāriya, an ancient healing ritual from which the Kandyan Dance is said to derive; and met on several occasions with Professors Tudor Silva and H. M. Herath from Peradeniya University, Kandy, the latter of whom is a national expert on Perahära. We extensively documented the Perahära procession itself, and collected various local commercial and official CDs, videos, and popular songs about it.  

Ritualists staging items of the ‘kohomba kankariya’ healing ritual at the Surumba Dance School in Amunugame

Team members Eva Ambos and Bo Sax travelled to the South of the island for five days to document the Äsaḷa Perahära festival at the temple compound of Kataragama, which occurs at the same time as the Kandy Perahera. In many ways the Kataragama Perahära, with its participation by Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, and its famous ecstatic practices (hook-swinging, piercing, fire-walking) represents a “multicultural” alternative to the Kandy Perahära and its close association with state Buddhism, and this is a topic about which Ambos and Sax have already begun writing an article. Ambos will visit the Kataragama festival again next year to continue this research.  

A devotee of God Kataragama/Skanda, preparing hook-swinging


We would like to thank the renowned Kandyan dancer and Professor of Aesthetics Dr. Waidyawathi Rajapake and her family for their generous assistance, and especially for “staging” an extract from the Kohomba Kankāriya.  This ritual dance is of particular importance for Eva Ambos' study of the transformation of religious into secular performance and is only rarely performed today. Even though it is one of the most important rituals in Sri Lanka, the Kohomba Kankāriya has hardly been investigated by European scholars.  That is, until now.  

More Photos

Artikel aus der "Spectrum der Wissenschaft-Epoc" (Dezember 2009)

All pictures are taken by the Author.