February 2017


Navam Perahera: The Spectacular Pageant in the City
February 2017




Fire spinners create circles of hypnotizing light

Religion and culture combine to parade the city streets in Colombo's annual Navam Perahera under the February full moon. A look at the vivid pageantry as the procession gets ready for the 38th year.


Words: Manu Gunasena | Photography: BT Images


The early morning arrival of scores of elephants from all parts of the countryside to the precincts of the Colombo Beira Lake trumpeted the announcement of the capital's greatest pageant of the year, the annual Navam Perehera by the Gangaramaya Temple.


For many consecutive years in the recent past, the February full moon had cast its eye and beamed its tender light on a religious and cultural fusion of sounds, lights and dance coupled with faith, worship and devotion staged to pay homage to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha.


Inspired no doubt by the long tradition of the perehera in Sri Lankan culture, its place in the country's history and its profound impact on the masses' collective conscious, the chief monk of the 130 year Gangaramaya Temple, the dynamic Venerable Galaboda Gnanissara Thero embarked, at the age of 33, on a mission to create an annual religious cultural pageant in the capital.


It was first held in 1979. But it was no one-off wonder. Through strife and storm, even during the turbulent years the nation faced in its recent past, the Ven Galaboda Gnanissara Thero (affectionately known as Podi Hamuduruwo) demonstrated to the world how capable he was in triumphing obstacles. Even in the midst of disaster his perseverance and strong will ensured its continuance year after year, thus making the perehera a permanent annual event in the nation's calendar of religious pageants. But then it was hardly surprising for Podi Hamuduruwo's own genius lay in his art of making the impossible possible.


The Perehera


It was seven o'clock and February's Navam full moon has already appeared in the night time sky to watch. With thousands of people flanking the streets, Colombo's dazzling spectacle began to unfold. All the participants of the parade, numbering more than 3,000 people in various regalia and over 50 bedecked elephants, were assembled in line and ready to roll.


The regal tusker bearing the casket stood majestically at the front of the temple's three storied edifice, richly caparisoned in decorative coverings complete with small flashing lights of different hues.

The perehera is not only about pageantry. Centred around it, every year Podi Hamuduruwo launches a new social development project aimed at uplifting the welfare of the people.


All were awaiting the moment, following some brief speeches, for the golden casket containing the sacred relics of the Buddha to be housed in the octagonal structure strapped to the tusker. Immediately after the sacred object was solemnly enshrined, away in the distance a specially made fire cracker was lit and exploded. It was the sound sign to announce to all that the perehera had officially begun; the signal the assembled participants had waited to start their four-hour long march. The Navam Perehera was now on the move. As the fire cracker's boom slowed down, the sound of whips lashing the ground arose. The whip snappers set off on their tasks of clearing the street to herald the advent of the perehera, replete with 150 segments including the appearance of richly clad elephants advancing with measured steps and swaying in rhythm to the beat of drums, between each different segment.

This year Navam Perahera will be held on February 9 and 10, from 7pm onwards.


Trumpets blew and double drums beat as the hevisi bands paid their homage with their horanewas and thammattams. The bare bodied Pantheru dancers shook and twirled their skinless tambourines with small cymbals attached around its circumference to create the music Lankan kings loved to hear whilst celebrating battlefield triumphs. The Uddekki troupe danced and sang as they held their small hourglass shaped hand drums making the sounds the gods love to hear in their celestial abodes, according to myths. The elite Ves dancers performed Kandy's famed sacred dance which held the spectators spellbound in a swirl of delight with their every skillful tumble, flip and somersault.

The Gangaramaya Temple was established in 1885 near the Beira Lake in Colombo 2 by the Ven Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero, a Buddhist scholar monk who was at the forefront of the Buddhist renaissance in Sri Lanka. In the early days of its existence the temple held an annual perehera in August but after a period of time it was discontinued. When Podi Hamuduruwo became the chief monk of the temple he was determined to revive the old perehera tradition. He chose February, for it was on such a full moon day in the month of Navam, the Buddha appointed the Arahants, Sariputta and Moggalana as his two chief disciples, and from whom the noble Order of the Sangha descends.


Dance forms from all parts of the country, Kandy, Sabaragamuwa and the low country, featured in the perehera. In their own idiosyncratic ways of dancing, the devil Mahasona sent shivers down spines, the lion roared with national pride and the monkey king Hanuman set the streets alight with his tail of fire whilst the Aatha and Muttha raised a chuckle with their kolam burlesque.


As each segment passed before the gathered spectators, each a purple verse of sheer poetry in motion adding up to create the perehera epic, suddenly the tempo slowed and the mood turned somber. The home stretch to the climax was about to begin.


After a fiesta of dance and sounds and at the end of the 100th feature, the Uddekki dance, a pair of elephants made their appearance again. But this time they were followed by another eight sets of elephants. The people sensed reverence in the air. A Buddhist flag bearing procession followed.Then more elephants. Then the hevisi band appeared and paid their ‘homage of the drums'. Then the conch shell blower came to trumpet the imminent arrival of the sacred relics. Then the lay guardians of the temple's sacred relics solemnly walked by, led by the chief dayake of the temple Ranjith Wijewardena. Thereafter a sesath and ceremonial spear carrying procession followed.


Then in a halo of shimmering light and flanked by two other bedecked tuskers, came the majestic chief tusker bearing upon his caparisoned back the most sacred relics of the Buddha placed in a stupa shaped casket of gold.


At that one singular moment in time, all eyes turned transfixed toward the golden casket, all hearts filled with shraddha and pulsating fervor; and all hands levitated with palms clasped in devout worship to pay homage and venerate the sacred relics of Gautama the Buddha, the founder of their religion and faith.

In all the 37 years of the perahera, it was the Head of State who enshrined the relic casket on the elephant before beginning of the procession. This year, too, President Maithripala Sirisena with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will do the honours.


Though that was the climax of the perehera, it was not the end. The casket bearing tusker left a trail of over 25 more segments to follow. The perehera wound is way along its route around the Beira Lanka, and by the time the tusker returned to the temple grounds and the casket bearing the sacred relics was removed from its back and placed in its usual repository, the time was close to midnight.


Another night had ended. Another perehera had been concluded. And as the chief monk of the temple Ven Galaboda Gnanissara would have looked back and recalled how he had first staged the perehera when he was only 33 years and two months old, he must surely have felt fulfilled and content that he had been able to accomplish his mission to stage the perehera year after year without a break for 37 years; and, with the blessings of the Noble Triple Gem and the Gods, hoped and determined to stage it for many more years to come.

 

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    President Maithripala Sirisena, Chief Dayake Ranjith Wijewardena and Ven. Kirinde Assaji Thero placing the sacred casket

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    Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe placing the sacred casket

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    The beautifully lit Seemamalakaya

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    Ven Galaboda Gnanissara Thero during his younger days

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    Bearing the various cultural emblems

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    The sacred casket atop the majestic tusker

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    The procession of flag bearers

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    Geta bera drummers

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    Raban dancers

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    Dance and acrobatics combined

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    Stilt walkers

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    Southern dancing traditions

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    Drummers are a key part of the procession

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    Wadige dancers from Sabaragamuwa

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