February 2016


The Navam Perahera: evoking inspiration and change
February 2016




Fire twirlers are a huge attraction in the perahera

Gangaramaya temple, a steadfast champion of causes that benefit society, sets the stage for the Navam Perahera, a pageant and parade in Colombo, held in February every year. The recent unveiling of a gleaming white Buddha statue at the temple stems from an important aspect of the perahera, which has influenced positive change since its inception in 1979.


Words
Prasadini Nanayakkara


The Navam Perahera can be regarded as the only significant pageant of its kind to take to the streets of Colombo each year. The perahera began at a time when most other pageants across the Island had stopped, stymied by the threat of conflict. The once elaborate and vibrant pageants, starting with the Dalada Perahera of the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, were reined in as a safety precaution.


The tradition of perahera came to a standstill, too. The Gangaramaya temple re-introduced the perahera to coincide with Poya Day, which falls in February. The artisans who had long ago laid their crafts to rest were given a new platform to showcase their skills. The Temple provided them with the necessary means to find new costumes and instruments, and the cultural arts turned over a new leaf.


It was the practice of the time to recruit prisoners as torchbearers for the perahera. However, the Navam Perahera sought the voluntary participation of schoolboys from leading schools in Colombo. This change elevated the status of the pageant. Where schoolboy volunteers could not be arranged, the Temple tapped into its own human resources - the students of the Temple's vocational training institute that serve to educated and empower the youth of the country.

The Navam Perahera will be held on February 21& 22, 2016 at 7pm.
Tourism had declined and February in particular had no particular significance in the tourist calendar. Navam Perahera did well in drawing attention to the Island, and to the arts and traditions of Sri Lanka. Ven Galaboda Gnanissara Thero, the Chief Incumbent of the Gangaramaya Temple, recognised the significance of reviving the age-old tradition of perahera and sought to recruit performers and manpower for the pageant. The tradition has carried on every year, reaching a spectacular scale in the present day with 5,000 participants and more than 100 elephants coursing along the streets.


The perehera gained a reputation as an instrument of change, thanks to the transformation it facilitated in the cultural sphere and for the lives of the participants. Understanding the positive change the establishment of the Navam Perahera created, the Thero used a similar concept to rejuvenate the hallowed grounds of Kataragama. The pooja nagaraya (city of worship), regarded as the abode of the god Kataragama, which in the past drew an endless throng of worshippers, had become a ghost town. The Thero arranged for 3,000 performers to assemble at the Kataragama Devale precinct and the perahera was conducted for three consecutive days. Souvenirs and plants were distributed amongst the spectators and Kataragama slowly returned to its former glory.


The Thero also viewed the Navam Perahera as something that could engage the masses while keeping crime at bay. When the city streets were awash with preparations for the festivities, those inclined towards petty crimes were swept up by the activities, their minds too preoccupied to be led astray.


The Gangaramaya Temple opens its doors to those of all religions and from all walks of life; its annual festival is also known for its inclusivity. Devotees of diverse backgrounds and faiths offer patronage for the upkeep of the temple as well as the perahera, and the grandeur that is unleashed along the perahera routes draws an equally diverse gathering of spectators along the sidelines. During the time of the festivities, all man-made distinctions are obscured.


The key positive outcome of the perahera is the social impact in terms of the participants' livelihoods. To encourage the performing arts, and people's continued participation in the perahera, the temple rewards them with gifts every year. These might be gold coins, or a sewing machine for a family, given by benevolent donors each year. Moreover, children of participants also gain opportunities to further their education or skills development at the temple's vocational training institute, if they so desire.


The religious aspect of the pageant is not only the sacred relic casket borne on an elephant, but also obeisance to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. Accordingly, one feature of the perahera is the display of a serene Buddha statue. In recent times, this display has increased to ten Buddha statues, courtesy of a generous benefactor of the temple. These statues eventually find their way to remote temples, to contribute to the spiritual fulfilment of devotees across the Island.


A celebration attended by enthusiastic Sri Lankans and tourists, this year the Navam Perahera will be graced by the presence of Maithripala Sirisena, President of Sri Lanka and Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.


During the perahera festival last year, the Thero experienced a great sense of satisfaction at the sight of the Buddha statues being conveyed along the streets. He wanted to strengthen such spiritual experiences for the masses on a daily basis. A well-sculpted Buddha statue within the temple premises would fulfil this need. Not long after, a donor from China offered to make the necessary arrangements to answer the Thero's wishes. A long-standing devotee of the temple Huang Yuping from Fujian, Quanzou in China, made attempts to bring down a large and valuable piece of white jade stone from Myanmar. However, the first two stones were cracked rendering them unsuitable for sculpting.


The third piece remained intact and Chinese crafts and artisan master Wenhong Sun set to work on the stone. The final result can be seen today; a highly polished serene white Buddha statue set within an image house before the stupa of the temple. At the centre of the forehead is a cluster of white diamonds.


Any visitor to the temple can easily appreciate the craftsmanship of this Samadhi or seated Buddha statue. The Thero himself says the statue is perfect - its proportions and features bespeak superior skill and finesse. Much like the reverence evoked among even casual spectators when viewing the Navam Perahera, the Thero hopes that the tranquil presence of the Buddha statue will serve as a refuge for the many who seek solace within the temple premises, for many years to come.

 

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    A whip cracker leads the procession

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    A naiyyandi dancer stuns audiences with acrobatics

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    Traditional drummers set the beat for the Navam Perahera

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    Performers playing Hewisi wind instruments

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    Students carry flags in current processions

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    Basnayaka Nilames carry the caskets of the four shrines

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    The procession leaves the Seema Malaka

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    The majestic tusker adorned in regalia carries the sacred casket

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    Kandyan Dancers keep step to the drum beat

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    A traditional dancer from the perahera

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    A dancer in the peacock costume inspired by Hindu tradition

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    A devol dancer in traditional costume

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    All forms of dancers perform in the procession

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    The new Samadhi Buddha Statue carved out of white jade

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    Students carry the banner of the Navam Perahera

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