Village life in Sri Lanka revolves around agriculture and so ensuring there is enough rain at the right time of year is very important to the cycle of life here. The Kandy (a main city here) Perahera or pageant held after the southwest monsoon and just before the northeast monsoon is a rain making festival that involves honouring the sacred tooth relic. Buddhist believe this relic, believed to be a tooth of the Buddha’s has the power to invoke the rain gods and bring down the monsoons breaking the drought.
Legend has it that the British suspended this pageant for 3 years in 1826. The village chiefs and monks finally persuaded the then Governor, Sir Edward Barnes to hold the pageant once more. The final day of the pageant was celebrated with a massive downpour that resulted in floods and the pageant has now become a time honoured tradition.
Many similar pageants are held during various times of the year in other parts of the country and we were lucky to witness one in Ella during Poson, which marks the occasion when Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. While these other pageants are not strictly rain making festivals, they have the same elements of the Kandy Perahara. Poson is an occasion worthy of a celebration, and the pageant is a way of bringing the village together in a moment of joyous bonding.
I’ve walked down the street with Patrick, his uncle and Naufer my guide. The procession commences with lots of colour and noise. The whip crackers lead the procession symbolising the sound of thunder followed by a number of elephants who represent rain clouds. This pageant will be played out again at night with fire dancers who symbolize lightning.
This is also a time for the famous Kandyan and other dancers to show off their skills. Sri Lanka dance is a very important part of the culture and the dancers are intricate and graceful and always a crowd pleaser. They are performed to the accompaniment of traditional instruments that include drums, wind instruments, and cymbals. Growing up Kandyan dancing had been part of our curriculum and I still remember learning some of the more simpler versions of this dance.
It is also a time to amuse the crowds and the masked dancers with their antics never fail to draw a laugh.
The pageant while mainly a Buddhist celebration also brings together elements of Hindu beliefs which are shared with the Buddhist faith. This intermingling of beliefs has its origins in the days when Sinhala Kings took Indian brides who were of the Hindu faith to be their wives. The Kavadi dancers, always a part of these pageants are an example of this.
The evening pageant over, we break for dinner. Patrick invites me to join them and I help them choose their food. It is great to be finally in a country where I understand the language, know what is on the menu and I can be of assistance to fellow travellers. We chat over dinner and exchange travel tales and share our personal stories.
Patrick has grown up in France but has spent the last 4 years in Florida. We find out we are almost the same year, born in the same year but a few months a part. Originally involved in the restaurant business he is just about to get his licence as a physio therapist. He has dreamt of visiting Sri Lanka for more than 20 years and is happy his dream has finally been realised. He is on a 5 week vacation, resting and recovering from the pressures of his life and will spend part of this time in France. We drink a toast to our shared passions and tuck into dinner.
After dinner we walk down the road again to watch the night procession. There is a buzz in the air and you can feel the excitement and anticipation. The place is packed and we try and manoeuvre a vantage point that will enable us to both see what is going on and get some good photos. The entire village and all of the visitors in town have turned up to watch.
It is basically the same procession but with lights and fire and somehow the same occasion at night seems to be filled with much more excitement coupled with the throb from the throng around me. I am so happy to have witnessed this. It is probably more than 20 years since I have seen a pageant and it was wonderful to have also shared this experience with a couple of fellow travellers.
“For a people involved in agriculture, is there a god higher than the rain cloud?” J.B. Disanayaka