February 2018


Navam Perahera: The Majestic Pageant in the City
February 2018




The beautifully lit entrance of the Gangaramaya Temple, all set for the Navam Perahera to begin

The Gangaramaya Temple hosts the much-anticipated Navam Maha Perahera, that illuminates the capital city with great pomp and pageantry.


Words: Manu Gunasena
Photography: BT Images


It's the day of the year when the capital's faithful are enthralled by a spectacular pageant as thousands of cultural performers and many elephants take to Colombo's streets to pay homage to the supreme enlightened Buddha.


They will come from every corner of the island to participate in a long colourful and cultural parade where heritage artistry, tradition and the doctrines of Buddhism take centre stage. As Colombo has done so for nearly four decades in February, as the full moon sheds its light on the land, the Navam Perahera takes place. This year the procession will be held on February 28 and March 1, 2018, the day of the Medin Full Moon Poya.


The perahera is organised by the Gangaramaya Temple, established in Colombo in 1885. It's a temple, which had been at the forefront of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka during the colonial years. The temple's founding monk was the great Buddhist scholar the Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero.


Years later, the spirit of renaissance continued to pervade the atmosphere of Gangaramaya Temple. It moved the present Chief Incumbent of the temple, Venerable Galboda Gnanissara Thero - affectionately called by all as Podi Hamuduruwo - to revive the temple's perahera tradition in 1979. He was only 33 years old at the time, just a few years after assuming the rank of Chief Incumbent upon the demise of his teacher, Venerable Devundara Vaccissara Thero. Today, this 133-year-old temple has become not only a shrine of worship but also a seat of learning and a museum of Buddhist art.


The perahera continuously held for 39 years is not only proof of his genius as an organizer, but stands out as a testimony to Podi Hamuduruwo's spirit and determination to have made the perahera an important event in the February calendar of the country.


The Perahera

On the first night of the Navam Perahera more than 3,000 participants in various regalia and over 50 grandly caparisoned elephants, will be assembled in line. Along the streets thousands of spectators will be in their seats awaiting the perahera to start.


The tusker who will bear the casket will be richly caparisoned in decorative coverings complete with small twinkling lights. He will be at the front in the temple grounds.

The vanguard of the procession will be the hevisi band who with their horanwa and thammattam – their trumpets and double drums – will formally herald the perahera’s advance.


The golden casket containing the sacred relics of the Buddha to be housed in the octagonal structure strapped to the tusker will then be brought from the temple's inner shrine. Then, as has been the custom, the Head of State will place the relic bearing casket upon the tusker's back. At this moment a fire cracker will set off a jubilant boom in a distance, the signal to announce to all that the procession has officially commenced.

The Route

The perahera will commence from the Gangaramaya Temple at Sri Jinarathana Mawatha. It will turn at Sir James Peiris Mawatha and head toward Slave Island junction. Before it will turn at Navam Mawatha, then turn left on Uttarananda Mawatha, and left again at Perahera Mawatha and head back to Sri Jinarathana Mawatha. Essentially, it will be a procession around the Beira Lake.


The first to announce their presence will be the whip lashers. Their job is to clear the streets to enable the procession to pass through without pause. There will be approximately 150 segments in the entire parade with elephants in intervals.


The vanguard of the procession will be the hevisi band who with their horanwa and thammattam - their trumpets and double drums - will formally herald the perahera's advance.


Then will come the bare bodied Pantheru dancers. Their instrument is the tambourine which has small cymbals attached to its circumference. It is believed that Sri Lankan kings, loved to hear the soothing music it creates when they celebrated their battle victories.


The Uddekki troupe will be next. They will sing and dance whilst playing small hourglass shaped hand drums. Myth holds that gods in their heavens loved to hear the sound of the Uddekki.

Why February?

Podi Hamuduruwo chose to hold the Perahera in February because in the Buddhist annals it was on such a full moon day in the month of Navam, that the Buddha appointed the Arahants, Sariputta and Moggallana as his two chief disciples. It is from them that the Noble Order of the Sangha descends. It is to pay homage to the 2,500-year Sangha, the noble order of Buddhist monks, which kept the teachings of Gautama the Buddha alive for generations.


Then comes the opulent and regal Ves dancers, who will perform the famed sacred dance of Kandy. They will flip, tumble and somersault and present to the spectators a form of dance art that takes years of training.


After a seemingly endless feast of music, dance and elephants, the audience will sense the approach of the climax nearing when the hevisi band makes a reappearance this time playing a somber note, playing their ‘Homage to the Buddha.' This will be followed by the conch shell blower who will trumpet the imminent advent of the sacred relics.


The majestic tusker, richly caparisoned, comes into view, bearing upon his back the casket of within which is placed the sacred relics of the Buddha. Devotees will rise from their seats, their hands will be raised in devotion, their knees will be bent in homage, their hearts will be brimmed with faith and fervour as they experience the exquisite joy of being in the presence of the sacred relics.


By the time the tusker bearing the sacred casket winds its way around Beira Lanka and returns to temple, it will be close to midnight. The Gangaramaya Navam Perahera will then be concluded.

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    Ven Galboda Gnanissara Thero, Chief Incumbent of the Gangaramaya Temple

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    A hevisi trumpet player

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    Daula drummers keep to the beat

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    Mesmerising rings of fire

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    The Route
    The perahera will commence from the Gangaramaya Temple at Sri Jinarathana Mawatha. It will turn at Sir James Peiris Mawatha and head toward Slave Island junction. Before it will turn at Navam Mawatha, then turn left on Uttarananda Mawatha, and left again at Perahera Mawatha and head back to Sri Jinarathana Mawatha. Essentially, it will be a procession around the Beira Lake.

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    Stilt walkers amuse the crowds

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    Pahatharata (low country) dancers move rhythmically

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    A vibrant Raksha dancer

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    Bedecked elephants and tuskers are the cynosure of the Perahera

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    The majestic tusker bearing the sacred relic casket

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