The History of the Sacred Tooth Relic
It was believed that if the Bodhi Tree that came into contact with the Buddha had the power to bring rains, then the parts of His own body had much greater power to invite rains. With this in mind, the sacred tooth relic was brought all the way from Kalinga in India to the island of Sri Lanka in the fourth century AD. At the time, the sacred tooth relic was brought to Sri Lanka, the king was Sri Megha varna. His name itself meant 'the Resplendent one whose complexion is that of the Rain-cloud'.
The time when the sacred tooth was brought to Sri Lanka was around six centuries after the sapling of the sacred Bodhi Tree was brought into the island country. However, very soon, the popularity of the sacred tooth surpassed that of the Bodhi Tree. The simple reason for this was that it could be moved any number of time from one place to another, very unlike the Bodhi Tree itself. Also, the possesion of the tooth relic soon became a matter of power and claim to rule the land. Whoever (kings) had the tooth relic had the authority to rule the land and tried every bit to avoid the relic from falling into hostile hand.
This is amply manifested in the attempt made by the kings when the Europeans enhanced their power in the island country. King Senarath quickly transported the relic a little distance away from Kandy when the Portuguese came to close for his comfort. Later, the significance of the tooth relic became known to the Europeans themselves. They wasted no time and made it their primary goal to get hold of the precious relic. The British succeeded in 1818, and the people themselves gave up all efforts to prevent the former from ruling them, all because the British possessed the tooth relic.
The Festival & Its Progress
As per history, a number of festivals were celebrated to honour the sacred tooth relic right from time it came to Sri Lanka. Initially, processions or peraheras were taken out for the tooth relic alone. However, later, the festival got incorporated with another festival meant to appease the rain god, the Esala peraheras. At this time, a Kandyan king, Kirti Shri Rajasinghe was in power and he made it possible for the common people to worship the relic by announcing that it would be taken out in a procession for the masses to see and offer their prayers. Before this, the tooth relic was the property of the king and the common people were not allowed to worship it.
The Procession Today
The Esala Perahera begins with a ceremony in which a young jack tree is cut and planted in the complex of the four devalas, or the four guardian gods, Natha, Vishnu, Katharagama and the goddess Pattini. In earlier times, this was aimed at seeking blessings for the king and the people. The successive five nights witness the Devala Peraheras taking place within the boundary of the four devalas. On the sixth night, the Kumbal Perahera starts and goes on for the next five days.
In the beginning, the Devale Peraheras gather in front of the Sri Dalada Maligawa with their insignias placed on a dome like structure called ransivige. The relic casket, which contains a replica of the original tooth relic, is placed inside the ransivige and is attached to the Maligawa Elephant. Later, the Maligawa Perahera joins the waiting Devale Peraheras and the procession begins amidst the blowing of the conch shell. On the first elephant is the official called Peramuna Rala. Preceeding him are the whip crackers and the flag bearers while following him are the drummers, dancers, musicians and flagbearers. Next, the singers announce the arrival of the Maligawa Elephant. Following this elephant is the Diyawadana Nilame who was, in earlier times, required to do everything to ensure that the rains fall on right time. The four Devala processions follow next.
The final stage of the procession is the Randoli perahera (palanquin procession) which is very similar to the devala perahera. This is held after five days of Kumbal Perahera and terminates at the Adahanamaluva Gedige Vihara of the Asgiriya monastery. This is because originally, before being transferred to the shrine within the royal complex, the Tooth Relic was housed in this Vihara for a brief period of time. The procession ends with the firing of the cannon ball.
The next day, a day Perahera, consisting of Dalada and the Devala processions, starts from Maligava and returns to the Sacred Tooth Temple with the casket which had been kept in the monastery for the night.