Rewriting the Chronicles of Navam

Oriental cultures are known to play with colours. Ceylonese have inherited it in their blood line that the occasional cultural pageants that decorate the streets of the country fearlessly showcase the traditional fervour like no other. One such world known procession would definitely be the Kandy Esala Perehera and the next in line would be the Colombo Navam Perehera. These two pageants are not less attractive than the other; both alluring every blink of each local as well foreigner.

Our focus this time, as it continued for the past two years too, was the Colombo Navam Perehera or in the best known terms, the ‘Gangarama Navam Perehera’.The pageant had been annually travelling the streets of Colombo since 1979. It is with great zeal that we coordinate and assist with man power the parading of a collection of statues of Lord Buddha donated by Mr. Bandara, a main benefactor of the temple. The trucks necessary to place the parading Buddha statues were sponsored by the Dimo Company. These Buddha statues were paraded with a purpose. After showcasing them to the public, these Buddha statues will be donated to rural temples throughout the island. In all sorts and means, it is an act which gathers a great deal of merit. There are temples in far away villages of Sri Lanka which have dedicated followers of Buddhism in numbers but are still thriving under minimum facilities. Most of these villages may also not have benefactors wealthy enough to single handedly or collectively support the upliftment of the religion in their respective villages. Each Buddha statue will provide great motivation on the spiritual paths of many villagers. This year, the pageant was held on the 21st and 22nd of February, as it always targets on the Navam full moon poya day as the second day. It was on a Navam poya day that the two chief disciples of Lord Buddha; Sariyuth and Moggallana Maha Rahath Theroes were appointed by Lord Buddha. But more than anything else, the pageant is known as a grand depiction of the rich culture of Sri Lanka.

There is much to say about the pageant but first, here are some pictures of us helping out to interrupt 😛

We gathered at the Hunupitiya Gangarama Temple on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. On Saturday we got engaged in decorating the trucks and hanging club banners on them. We also dedicated the day and Sunday afternoon for cleaning the Buddha statues to prepare them to be taken in the pageant later that day. On Saturday and Sunday, we placed the Buddha statues on the trucks and offered white and pink lotus flowers to them; a ritual followed by all Buddhists to remind about the uncertainty of the mortal world.

Towards the evening on Saturday, the boys got dressed in traditional costumes consisting of a white sarong and white long sleeved shirt to walk behind the trucks we decorated. The casket containing the relics of Lord Buddha was placed by His Excellency President Maithreepala Sirisena on the back of the elephant which had got gracefully dressed in stoned caparisons. Torch bearers positioned themselves along the pathway of the pageant with enough copra to light up the night. The pageant started with the thundering sound of whip crackers; the same way the Kandy Esala Perehera commences. Whip crackers announce the inception of the Perehera to the onlookers. The streets became silent, with everybody setting their eyes on the far end of the road. It is an aim of holding these pageants to invoke blessings of the triple gems and god. The whip crackers were followed by flag bearers. The tune for the walk of the pageant was supplied by drummers playing explosive beats, smoothened by flautists and pitched by conch shell blowers. The next in line were the fire dancers and fire breathers. They undoubtedly created magic on streets with their enormous capabilities. You could see them drawing short lived pictures on the night skies with rods lit up at both ends. Sometimes they rotated them so fast that they started looking like rings of fire. Troops of dancers spinning drums on wooden pointers and fingers added variety to the pageant. These skills usually are passed from generation to generation; there are families that have excelled in drumming, different styles of dancing and so on. Thus, holding these pageants also preserves traditional styles. The procession unveiled the three main dancing traditions of Sri Lanka namely, Udarata, Pahatharata and Sabaragamu. The traditional Ves dancers, dressed in their sacred costumes dedicated to deity Kohomba, Naiyandi dancers dressed in white turbans, beaded chest attire, brass shoulder plates and anklets and Udekki dancers playing their drums designed by deities were the main items that belonged to the Udarata tradition. Story says that in the Udekkiya, the two drum skins were given by God Ishwara, the sound by God Vishnu and that the drum was designed according to the instructions of God Sakra.  Pantheru dancers also merged a different jingling music with their instruments amidst drum beats.

Low country dancers marked a clear attraction in the procession. This dancing tradition, in a gist is called the ‘daha ata sanniya’, meaning that it consists of 18 main dances. The word ‘Sanniya’ is associated with the word disease. So these dances are done to chase away the evil spirits that are believed to be causing eighteen types of illnesses. By reason of that, these dancers wear beautifully designed masks with bulging eyes and tongues that are sticking out, depicting the traditional pictures of demons and reptiles. Sabaragamu tradition that originates from the Ratnapura district also entails a unique style and the dancers performed along the pageant to pay respect to God Saman. Outside these traditions, folk dances also received a prominent place in the pageant. Folk dances mainly include leekeli, kala gedi and raban dances.

Hindu tradition of dancing also got added to the list and made the pageant more and more interesting. The Kawadi dancers added fun and excitement to everyone who were watching. Some found it to be thrilling too. The trumpets and the Hindu drums provided such an enjoyable environment all of a sudden. It was indeed amazing to see how they would pin things to their bodies and jump and twist with them, still artistically! They also, like the rest of the traditions, perform these dances as a way of showing devotion to the God. Some Kawadi were decorated elegantly with peacock feathers. It is said by some that since this an act of devotion, the dancers enter a state of trance where they feel no pain and eventually heal their piercings with no scars left behind.

The lavish costumes of the performers were enticing but this article wouldn’t come to a close without praising the grandeur of the hundred elephants which marched all the way. They did not only look glamorous but some of them were killer dancers as well. They especially seemed to be enjoying the background beat of Kawadi dancing. The tuskers walked with attitude, probably because they are a limited lot. The others with no tusks popping out had their own fun having their leisure walk, shaking their tails to match the beat and occasionally taking time to wave a viewer or two with their trunks. The little confused ones who didn’t realize what the hype was about did their own thing like poking with their trunks at the next elephant.

Anyhow, at the end of about four hours of walking and also collecting panduru; coins thrown as funds towards the parade by the onlookers, we came to a stop. The rotaractors found it interesting to walk behind the trucks and collect coins. The collection was ultimately donated to the temple.

Article by Rtr.  Thamalee Wijekoon 🙂

Also look at our last year’s chronicles of Navam project at