The Drum Beat of the Perahera

It is the season of the Kandy perahera, where the Tooth Relic is paraded along with a cohort of other items of amusement and splendour. Moreover, it is also the time of year where the Town of the Narrow Streets – Kandy – gets suffocated by its own physical narrowness and its impotency to accommodate the massive crowd (and the vehicles that toot in and toot out) that flock into it for the international pageant. Stationed at strategic intervals, Police persons are seen regularizing traffic – often, a losing battle and a losing of tempers, as well. The arrogant VIP convoy, of course, gets the right of way; but, that’s a foregone conclusion.

What does a pageant of the Kandy perahera’s magnitude have in offer for the common lay person? This “cultural extravaganza” – of which we write essays from a very young age; and is thus naturalized into our systems -, in reality, holds very little for the common streetwalker. At the worst, for him, the streets are barred for a good week or so; the peace and the breeze of strutting down this laid back town – say a quiet stroll around the lake or down one of the by streets – is denied. The public works are distracted making civil exchange exhaustive and the congestion retards the general speed and efficiency of things: outdoor purchases, transport etc. All in all, the common streetwalker is even denied a decent view of the perahera, since all spaces closest to the action are either reserved for VIPs, or has to be channeled through “guest passes”.

The “history” of the Kandy perahera has been vividly and variously told by different sources. But, the several narratives fundamentally infer one conclusion – that the parade, guised in religious fervor and misted with the awe of the uncritical masses, is at its base a showcasing of power and authority. The possession of the Tooth Relic – in the past – was a epitome of the right to power; and carried that semiotic value. The equivalent of the Kandy showpiece is seen in all cultures of all times. The triumphs the Romans would have after victorious conquests, the Pope’s self-exposition at the Vatican, the late Prabhaharan’s Heroes’ Day speech, Independence Day parades etc loosely fall into this collective category. The tooth relic, an essential proto-Lankan sentiment, – like many other of its cousins – has been ritualized into the power discourse and has been preserved (if not polished and enhanced) throughout the generations of rulership. 

The splendour of the display

Be it the English, the Sinhala / Sri Lankan nationalists, the Prime Ministers and the Presidents of this country, all have drawn on this semiotic and its parading as a self-proclamation to authority. In the modern democratic times, too, where the “ruler” of the country is elected out of the national ballot, the ritual of the perahera persists. However, the ruler now uses the ritual not necessarily to manifest his / her right to power; but, to keep the “tradition alive” and to concede to the body mass of the people that his / her rule is one that perpetuates the promise of “the glorious tradition” (whatever that vague reference implies. It doesn’t matter, as long as the uncritical masses do not question its definition). People who religiously take part in the perahera or sanction its ritualistic cycle – if they quiz themselves – will find no clear cut rationale behind their approval / partaking of it. As far as they are concerned, it is a part of “our culture”, it has “always already been there”, and – probably – will be there still when we pass over. Hence, we are persuaded to be approving of this seemingly “timeless pageant”, even if it gets in the way of your normal day-to-day civilian life.

In reality, the pageant has always been a VIP-oriented activity. While the VIPs are escorted in by convoys of sorts and willing traffic routes meant to please their will, the common masses toil and jostle one another for a place to rest their bum in, along the bare pavement. Isn’t it the live rehearsal of the misery in life – having to come hours in advance, desperately holding onto a plastic sheet and a few inches of space, sweating it out and braving all kinds of weather, sleeping on this secured spots overnight with the dirt and the dust around you. Children, limbs and legs sprawl all over. People tread over you without even a word of excuse. All this you endure for the script – the script internalized into you through your socialization processes – urges you that in its tolerance there is a “pleasure” if not a “Sense of harmony” at which you arrive. What arrests our attention is not the elephants or the maverick dances. It is the picture of disparity and the ignorance of the masses that stand out as the more striking display. 

The perahera is more crucial today as a tourist attraction. The Hotel Queen’s side of the perahera route is almost exclusively reserved for these sight-seers, for whom the perahera resonates the depth of “Sri Lankan culture”. Given the “post-war” state of affairs, a larger tourist package is expected and is being accommodated to that end. The revenue they bring in, in turn, will be utilized in “national projects” – projects that invariably benefit the political VIPs, the affluent social agencies and the rest, in that order. In fact, over the years, the perahera has become geared and oriented at “pleasing” these exotica-seeking eyes. The extensions to some acts and dances in recent times testify to the fact.

The Roman Triumph

The dissenter and discontent citizen would bother writing an essay about it – which, in the end, is a waste; for, the academic interest the observation makes does not counter the “fun” such pageants have in store for the rest of them. Go to the perahera, eat an ice cream at the carnival afterwards – have a safe return home; and power, as always, will take care of itself.

[This was originally carried in the LN]


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