Navam Perahera – Colombo’s annual cultural pageant

It is a serene evening. Seated alongside the road opposite Gangaramaya, the ‘Temple by the Lake,’ we wait for the Navam Perahera to start.

At the auspicious time, the chief prelate hands over the relic casket to the chief lay devotee who takes charge of it to be carried in the procession. If the head of state or another distinguished personality related to the temple is present, he is invited to place the relic casket on the back of the gaily-decorated senior elephant.

The Perahera starts as dusk falls.

Bringing life to the city

The Navam Perahera is the annual procession which brings life to the city of Colombo. It is a fine mix of religious and cultural traditions of Sri Lanka – a grand pageant that is enjoyed by the locals living in and around the city as well as the expatriate community and tourists. It is the ‘Spectacle of the Year’ in Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.

This year’s Navam Perahera is scheduled for Monday 2 and Tuesday 3 February. It always coincides with the full moon Poya day in the month of Navam in the Buddhist calendar, which follows the Duruthu Poya in January. Incidentally, the year began with the Duruthu Perahera in Kelaniya, the sacred place of worship visited by the Buddha. This year’s Navam Poya falls on 3 February.

Navam Poya commemorates the acceptance by the Buddha of Arahants Sariputta and Moggallana as his two chief disciples. The former was renowned for his profound learning and wisdom (pragna) and the latter for his exceptional spiritual powers (irdhi).

Held under the personal supervision of the vibrant chief incumbent of Gangaramaya, Venerable Galboda Gnanissara Nayaka Thera – Podi Hamuduruwo to all – the Navam Perahera is a well-planned and well-executed event bringing joy and satisfaction to the many thousands who throng the Perahera route.

New look and new meaning

Podi Hamuduruwo has given a new look and a new meaning to the Navam Perahera. It is much more than a mere parade of elephants, drummers and dancers. These do play an important role in the Perahera but there is more.

Young men dressed in white carrying 50 Buddhist flags, 50 national flags and 50 provincial flags lead the procession. They are followed by 50 torch bearers carrying ‘pandam,’ a traditional form of torch lights. Next is a bevy of 25 hewisi drummers.

It is unusual for monks to walk in a procession. In the Navam Perahera hundreds of monks clad in saffron robes solemnly march in the procession providing a colourful and inspiring sight.
Following tradition each carries a ‘vatapatha’ – the fan traditionally taken by the monks when they go out of the temple. In the Perahara, they represent the Maha Sangha, one of the three refugees that a disciple of the Buddha abides by – the ‘tisarana’.

Of the other two, the Buddha – the Exalted One is symbolically represented by the relics enclosed in the casket. The ‘Tripitaka,’ the Dhamma texts are also taken in the procession to signify the presence of the second refuge.

Vast array of dances

The traditional dancers taking part in the Navam Perahera are not restricted to a particular form of dancing or the type prevalent in a particular area of the country. They come from all parts of the country. They represent the numerous forms of dance ranging from ‘udarata netum’ – Kandyan dances to the ‘ruhunu netum’ – dances of the south.

The vast array of dances varies in their form and style and the dancers, clad in colourful costumes representing the different styles of dancing, perform throughout the procession. They keep to the rhythm of the drummers who are also in traditional dress.

While the saffron robes worn by the monks and the costumes of the dancers add a lot of colour to the Perahera, white is the predominant colour seen with the lay officials and other staff marching in the procession wearing white. Most of them have their own style of dress.

Podi Hamuduruwo’s Perahera

Podi Hamuduruwo organised the Navam Perahera for the first time in 1979. It continues uninterrupted to this day except on two occasions when there were national calamities and the procession was not held on a grand scale. One was when the Central Bank was bombed by the terrorists and the other was the tsunami disaster (December 2004). Both were occasions of deep sorrow and distress.

He makes it a point to unearth talent among lesser known dancers and drummers in numerous parts of the country to participate in the Perahera. This gives them a rare opportunity to prove their skills publicly. They are brought to Colombo well in advance and well looked after.

Being a strict disciplinarian, Podi Hamuduruwo gives pride of place to maintain discipline in the conduct of the Perahera. He told me how once he caught a dancer who had consumed liquor although everyone had been warned not to do so. He was immediately sent back and was not allowed to participate in the Perahera thereafter.

Just like the dancers and drummers, elephants are brought to the city from many parts to take part in the procession.

Seating arrangements are made to view the procession from vantage points along the route. The Beira Lake, with a treasured history dating back to the 17th century when the Dutch administered the maritime provinces, provides an ideal backdrop to leisurely enjoy this unique cultural event held in the heart of the City.

Today the Seema Malaka, based on the traditional platform erected for the Buddhist monks to sit and conduct special religious proceedings away from land where humans reside, adorns the lake.

[Via DailyFT]

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