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Ancient and spectacular

Maha Saman Devale Perahera celebrating God Sumana Saman:

It is a clear evening, with even the weather gods looking down benevolently, holding the thundershowers at bay, as the annual perahera, the age-old ritual of celebrating God Sumana Saman, gets underway.

A much looked forward to event for the people of Sabaragamuwa, the evening sees men, women and children thronging Ratnapura's Sabaragamuwa Maha Saman Devale for ringside seats as the perahera winds its way around the Devale premises.

As darkness engulfs the area and drumbeats resonate everywhere, the Devale and its surroundings take on a carnival atmosphere with thousands of colourful bulbs strung from treetops to rooftops lighting up the area.

For five days in the third week of rainy September, the premises of the Maha Saman Devale get magically transformed by the ancient pageantry of the spectacular Saman Devale Perahera. This year's perahera got underway on September 23 and will continue till September 28.

 

Many dance forms add rich variety to the perahera

The annual perahera is a colourful devotional display that honours God Sumana Saman who is believed to be the guardian deity of Sri Pada or Adam's peak. The perahera is a tradition that goes back many centuries and is considered second only to the Esala Perahera in Kandy.

The perahera showcases the observance of age-old customs and rituals dedicated to God Sumana Saman and portray certain aspects of the Sinhala Buddhist culture, interwoven with the performing arts of the province that is strongly influenced by certain aspects of the folk religion of the Sabaragamuwa Province.

The perahera, overseen by the chief custodian of the Devale, the Basnayake Nilame is unique in its combination of local performing arts traditions including the upcountry (Kandyan) low country (Southern) and its own Sabaragamuwa regions- with dance.

The perahera has also given a platform to certain art forms, which were on the wane, owning to the lack of an appreciative audience and vanishing generations.

The pageant begins after the 'Kap Sitawima' ceremony at an auspicious time, which in keeping more with traditions than rituals, is announced by firing the Portuguese muzzle loaded cannon in what is known as 'Peramune Rajakariya'. This duty is passed from person to person each year.

Auspicious time


The impressive Mahabamba Kolama at the perahera

Before the perahera begins, the person who is in charge of 'Peramune Rajakariya' starts to clean the cannon, which is a remnant of the Portuguese period and is placed in a well-protected room in the Devale for the year.

Those watching the perahera, especially children, are mesmerized by the 'Mahabamba Kolama', an inherited feature in Sabaragamuwa and can only be seen at the Saman Devale Perahera. The huge, around 15 -foot high, colourfully dressed, two faced figure of Mahabamba, with a serene face on one side and a fierce demonic one on the other, is a remarkable feature at this Perahera. Legend has it that the huge figure depicts the character of King Rajasingha I.

Creating Mahabamba for perahera each year is also a duty of the two persons slated for 'Peramune Rajakariya'. Every year, a few days prior to commencing the perahera, the pair who are in charge of Mahabamba, start making the structure by first creating a bamboo skeleton of the body and hands. They then fix the mask onto the skeleton and dress it in colourful cloths.

The energetic between the two become the Mahabamba, donning on the frame, walking and rotating it each night of the perahera, while his companion walks alongside, instructing him about what to do and where to go.


Firing the Portuguese muzzle loading cannon at the auspicious time.

As the perahera readies for the parade, a beautifully ornamented relic casket and a gem-studded relic chamber are reverently placed upon the majestic tusker, especially chosen for the occasion, amidst a crescendo of conches, flutes and drums.

Special attendants lay white carpets along the path of the tusker, as it regally leads the way. And the people watching the spectacle bow their heads in reverence. The tusker is followed by many similarly caparisoned elephants.

Preceding and interspersed between the elephants are torch-bearers, acrobats, dancers, fire-ring twirlers stilt walkers and Hewisi drummers swaying to the beat of the Geta Bera. Adding to the glamour, a variety of dance forms of the low country, among them Kolam and Gini Sisila and Vadige Patuna, which is distinctive to Sabaragamuwa that enthral the crowd.

Another impressive repertoire of drums, including the Daula of the Sabaragamuwa Province, the Yak Bera of the South can also be seen in the perahera.

Traditional art forms


Exterior view of the Maha Saman Dewale at Ratnapura

The performing artistes are from guilds specializing in the various dance forms passed on from generation to generation, and their performances are of a high standard. One can witness several types of traditional art forms at this perahera.

The entire Devale premises is packed with people and the excitement grows as the dancers take turns to swirl and twirl and bring the whole area alive with sounds and twirling colours. More elephants join the drum beats echo and more people join to view the perahera.

The culmination of the perahera is the water-cutting ceremony on the last day at Ratabala Ella in Kalu Ganga, followed by the day perahera. On the night following the completion of the perahera, a ritual is performed to bless all those who participated in the perahera, including Basnayake Nilame, Kapuralas, dancers, drummers and the elephants.

The three - storeyed Maha Saman Devale of Ratnapura stands majestic on a hillock on the bank of the Kalu Ganga. According to historical records, it had been built by Arya Kamadeva, a minister of the courts of King Parakramabahu II, in honour of the God Saman in fulfilment of a vow made by him before commencing gem mining.

Subsequently, Rajasingha I of Sitawaka had restored the Devale. In the stone built ramparts in front of the Devale there is a plaque depicting two warriors standing in symbolic form. The destruction caused to the Devale by the Portuguese is depicted by the plaque.

(The images are from last year's perahera)

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