01 August 2012

Pageant of the Uththama Muni Dalada

The tooth relic of the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama is by virtue of the fact naturally made for veneration in a country where not only is the majority Buddhist but whose history and civilizational-making carries the stamp of that religion and philosophy.  It is not surprising then that the sacred tooth relic has become embroidered on the larger political and cultural canvass of the island.  It has been for centuries to ‘legitimator’ of kings and regimes, for example.  It is however not the preserve of king and other royalty, but a meaning giver for the ordinary and extraordinarily devout. 

‘Dalada Samindu Pihitai’, or ‘May the Sacred Tooth Relic bless/protect you’ is a common blessing uttered at parting and even inscribed on buses and three-wheelers.  It is, as such, personified with the personification engraved by the honorific ‘Haamuduruwo’.   Of all the relics of our Budun Vahanse , this is the most venerated, perhaps due to the prominence inscribed by the political, but probably due to the periodic expositions.  In any event, the Dalada Wahanse and the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhiya remain the most important religious artifacts for Buddhists in Sri Lanka. 
Every day, thousands visit the ‘Maligava’ which houses the tooth relic and during the annual Esala Perahera thousands and thousands flock to Mahanuwara to witness what is by far the most colourful and splendid pageant in the country.  One doesn’t have to know the history or the meaning of the pageant.  One doesn’t have to identify with the belief systems that craft each and every element.  On the face of it alone, it is a show that’s well worth spending half a day to ensure one gets a ringside seat, so to say.  It’s more than a spectacle though and if one were to delve into the vast reservoir of meaning symbolized by each element then those stories themselves inspire, stimulate and provoke wonderment. 

At one level, as spelled out by one of the most compelling of Nanda Malini’s songs (‘Perahera Enava…’ or ‘Here comes the procession’) there are stories that are hidden by the brilliant costumes, the choreography, the snap of whip, the balls of fire, thunder of drums and elephantine majesty; narratives of hard work, sweat, sleeplessness, exploitation and all the usual things that get footnoted.  There is a reason, after all, why the tempo and verve of dance gets sharper when the procession passes the ‘nobles’ and in this century why this event so pregnant with the sacred gets scarred by all types of branding. 
Beneath it all, though, there is faith.  There is symbol and meaning; some of it known, some not.  We know that rain-making is an integral element.  We know that the elephants symbolize raincloud, the drums and cracking of whips represent thunder and the fire-dancers symbolize lightning.  We know about the Devales too and that the segment pertaining to the Kataragama Devale is the most colourful.  A lot has been written about the pageant and about those who make it.  When perahera time comes, it is customary almost for newspapers to feature the preparations that precede it. 

It is of course a dream topic for Anthropologists, Sociologists and others fascinated by culture, cultural reproduction and meaning generation.  Indeed it is frequently referred to by scholars and poets.  And yet, one gets the sense that it resists capture (like most things cultural) in one narrative or analytical sweep, which of course is not a bad thing.  What can be comprehensively described is eminently made for destruction and/or purchase.  Still, it is always useful to move aside the glitter and cast gaze on the core.  Trees after all have roots and roots tell us a lot more about the tree than would a leaf. 
This is why ‘Splendour of the Pageant’, i.e. the ‘Historic Kandy Esala Perahera, a Sinhala-Englih bilingual work makes compelling reading.  Published by the Sri Dalada Maligawa, this elegantly laid out book, replete with fine photography and excellent description, touches on all the key aspects related to the Perahera which the vast majority of spectators know very little about.  After mentioning the relatively mundane ‘facts’ about route and schedule, the Chief Editor of the volume Krishantha Dayananda and his editorial team gives the reader an invaluable treat of historic information, touching inter alia, on the relative cultural significances. 

Reading it, one realizes that what might appear to be random at various points are actually carefully sequenced and invested with specific meaning within a larger cultural statement.  Moreover, the text includes important and fascinating information linking artist with location.  These specificities themselves speak to ways of passing down tradition.  Not only are drums and drummers symbolic of natural phenomenon, each drum-type has a purpose and each type of drummer linked to particular villages in and around Mahanuwara.  The same goes for dancers.  One sees troupe after troupe of dancers and the execution so graceful and grand that it becomes a blur.  But each dance, each troupe, has a role to play and a role that has been carefully scripted in within the larger and longer cultural narrative.  These details are included and they enlighten in many ways. 
So, for those fascinated with detail this book is a treasure trove. For those who want to access the meaning behind movement, music and arrangement, there’s titillation of sensibility.  For those who want more than the perahera, i.e. the before and after, as well as all ceremonies and festivals that are part and parcel of the overall event, this book would serve as an excellent introductory text.  To the scholar, too, this is a veritable index of ‘must-cover’ aspects related to the pageant. 

The book is therefore a collector’s item.  Read it and then go see the Perahera: it will be more colourful and the blend of meaning would be more apparent.  


SANDIKA said...

this is a 'great article' ..............