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The Nawam Mawa Perahera, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo

I have been visiting Sri Lanka for many years dating back to my first visit in 1983 after failing to get there in 1973 because the ferry service was suspended for bad weather. Sri Lanka is a marvellous mixture of cultural and natural spectacles. I was fortunate enough to get serendipitously involved with a wealthy philanthropist and a powerful conservationist on my next visit in 1993 after initially going there for two weeks for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to investigate the harpooning of dolphins. I ended up staying there for a year and had privileged access to many of that island jewell’s sparkling facets. The most unforgettable cultural spectacles are the Buddhist festivals called Peraheras; the ten day Kandy Esala Perahera being the most well known and one of the most colourful religious pageants in Asia. I have attended it twice and also the perahera in Colombo, and this was the last one that I witnessed in 2016.

The two day Nawam Mawa Perahera is held on the Nawam Poya day every February and is the only perahera to illuminate the streets of Colombo. The importance of the Navam Poya day is that it honors the day the Buddha’s first Chief Disciples, Saripuththa and Moggalana entered the order of the Sangha. Gangaramaya Temple near Beira Lake not far from the city centre houses the sacred “Sharirika Dhathu”, which is the physical remains of the enlightened one, the “Maha Bodhi” also known as the sacred Bo tree and Buddha Rupa, images of Lord Buddha. The Nawam Maha Perahera of the Gangaramaya Temple was started in 1979 during a period of economic turmoil, student unrest and massive unemployment in Sri Lanka. During this unsettling time, the traditional Sri Lankan performing artists and their cultural talents were being neglected by lack of recognition and opportunity, and many of the village groups had sold their costumes, masks and instruments and found new employment in the industrial or agricultural sectors. The Gangaramaya Temple recognised that many of the traditional parts of the Sri Lankan cultural heritage were quickly disappearing and could well be lost forever so they responded by organising the first Nawam Perahera and buying back or making new costumes, sourcing instruments, masks and other traditional apparatus and began subsiding and supporting many village cultural troupes. 

The elephants and their mahouts that participated in the original events had to walk all the way to Colombo. This sometimes took weeks and some were even hit by cars at night on the dimly lit roads. As a safety measure, battery operated bicycle head lights and tail lights were strapped onto the elephants and many motorists in the early eighties got used to passing what appeared to be big, grey four legged bicycles at night. There are a few resident elephants permanently housed on the Gangaramaya Temple grounds so now the majority are trucked in just before the parade. They have to be cared for by their individual mahouts, fed, bathed and watered. They are assigned to any vacant land or public park that the temple can find, and through private donations and corporate sponsors the temple makes sure that the elephants and their mahouts are well looked after. Nearly 5,000 participants and their musical instruments, costumes and various paraphernalia arrive in town, followed by nearly 300 Buddhist Monks and 150 elephants. They come from all over the Island and converge on or near the temple grounds each February just before the Nawam Perahera.














When I first arrived at Beira Lake I gravitated to where all of the elephants were chained up around the lake and a cricket pitch. The lakeside ones looked as they were participating in afternoon picnics like oversized family dogs and the ones around a cricket pitch were being hosed down from water tankers to cool them off, which they evidently loved and couldn’t get enough of! Watching them having their euphoric showers was one of the highlights of this amazing event. I then visited a small Buddhist temple on the lake to photograph the novice monks in their saffron robes. When the sun started to sink the elephants were getting dressed in their finest brocade robes and started to proceed in procession to the streets around the Gangaramaya Temple along with all of the performers. When I arrived there it felt as if I was entering a dream world where most of the people were in costumes from another age or reality like court jesters. They were milling around the darkening streets and doing everything that normal people do like going into eating places for dinner. I entered one such place to eat and felt as if I was arriving at a fancy-dress party. When I photograph the street festivals in Puerto Princesa I always like to mingle with the participants while they wait for the event to commence and I can always be assured of getting some interesting group photos of costumed and body-painted people.

















Once the procession kicked off the atmosphere, ambient energy and sounds went through the roof. The pulsating energy of this perahera is magnified because the procession does a continuous circuit around a fairly narrow two-way street with a central reservation in between right in front of the temple. The dance troupes and drummers perform in waves of activity along the street with lulls and crescendos. There were the familiar Kandy dancers and drummers, clowns and demons from Buddhist lore, garish masks and crazy wigs, men dressed and made up as women and women with beards, flag-bearers, fire whirlers creating Catherine wheels of flames and smoke, men spinning tops on flexible poles, and one of my favourites, the stilt-walkers doing impossible things on stilts. The medieval atmosphere is heightened by the flaming braziers lining the procession route.



















Amid all of the cacophony and commotion the elephants provide some contrasting calm as they plod and sway along as if it’s a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. The pride of place in the procession as always goes to the largest temple tusker in his finest ceremonial dress adorned with lights like a Christmas tree and carrying the Karanduwa casket for the sacred relics. There is always some controversy surrounding the use of elephants for these parades. Animal welfare is always at the forefront of my thinking but realistically I know that these elephants represent the cultural background of these traditional events, and I think that it is important to maintain the respect for elephants in their culture if we are going to protect them in the wild. There is so much population pressure and fragmentation of their habitat with all the conflict with people that brings. These elephants must spend a lot of time chained up so maybe they get some enjoyment from these occasional outings in their finest clothes. Animals need stimulation just as much as people and maybe this is just as much an exciting party for them as it is for people.







There was a big crowd of people lining the street with many other photographers and videographers so there was a lot of jostling around to get the best photos and videos. My objective was to try to capture as much of the colour, energy and movement as possible in still photos, and as with any street event like this it was exhausting but exhilarating. A Sri Lanka perahera is a must see cornucopia of Asian culture, which is overflowing with colour and vibrancy. The annual Nawam Maha Perahera has preserved and sustained Buddhist traditions that are significant to the Sinhala culture, but the event is also a showcase for Sri Lankan cultural diversity; included are Muslim traditional synchronised dancing with wooden batons and traditional Hindu Kavadi dancing.








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