The draping of the Upcountry Wes Dance costume is an elaborate process
Countless dancers and drummers in the thousands, ponderous tuskers and elephants numbered in the hundreds and more, breath life to the reverberating annual pageant of the hill capital Kandy. While its easy to be entranced by its rich exuberance, the days and months preceding the pageant is one of feverish preparation, laborious hours of work and invoking of age-old arts and crafts.
Words Prasadini Nanayakkara
Esala Perahera the annual pageant of the Temple of the Tooth Relic or the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy is one of elaborate regalia and cultural splendour. The pageant that commences in July for a duration of ten days summons throngs of eager spectators from all corners of the Island. The influence of this occurrence has over decades made an indelible mark upon the people and their livelihoods within the city and its outskirts. A dancer finds a ready platform to showcase his traditional art form passed down from a long line of ancestry, a seasoned craftsman pulls out all stops to transform or create attire, costumes and all manner of adornments while a mahout travels distant miles with his mammoth charge in tow.
The highlight of the pageant is easily the resplendent tusker bearing the Tooth Relic Casket. Tuskers and elephants draped in red, blue or gold embellished with intricate patterns shimmer across the path while all around bask in their dazzling aura. In these moments, little thought is spared to the deft fingers that have laboured tirelessly on the rich velvety cloth that effortlessly drape these magnificent giants. Just beyond the precincts of the Temple, resides the man whose name is often mentioned as the go-to person in making of the elephant costumes. Thadani, for the past 45 years has made elephants costumes his life's work. Devising an inventive method to drape the elephant by crafting a box dress on a dummy at his workshop, led to his success. This drape didn't require rope to secure it, but simply fell into place. The first of such costumes was offered to the Raja Aliya or the Temple's Royal Elephant in 1964 and he hasn't looked back since. Today he caters to many of the main pageants across the island. For the elephants of the Dalada Maligawa he simply needs the name of the elephant to gauge the required measurements. Usually materials for a height of ten feet or more are required for the mature pachyderms. For such tall animals, cloth segments of about seven are required to complete the costume.
From the selection of material, embellishment to designing and sewing, he oversees all costumes and a workforce of 25 work on the many intricate motifs that adorn the velvet expanse. While in the days of yore these designs were woven in silk, today combinations of sequins, and other intricate add-ons suffice for a dazzling display. The motifs are a range of the most traditional including pun kalasa, the lotus, pineapple flower, hansa puttu, and the mythical bird Garuda - one that is worked upon a blue velvet to depict the Vishnu Kovil. Incidentally, maroon is conventionally the colour of choice worn by the Royal Elephant. Ready made cut out motifs provide the designs that are required for the velvet canvas and the motif is meticulously handworked by sewing on individual sequins one by one. The worked cloth is shaped, and layered with a rubber form and lined further. The final result is a costume that comprise of three segments; the head cover that runs along the length of the trunk, ear pieces and the body. The busiest times arrive as the Perahera month approaches and orders of even seven costumes translate to long hours of work. It takes up to two months to complete a single costume involving two workers.
Not all tuskers fit the bill to bear the relic casket in the pageant, though elephants as young as three years old take part. However, it is only at the age of 17 that they are eligible to bear a relic casket. Tuskers reaching this age frequent minor pageants till they are seasoned and it is only at the age of 35 that they qualify for the much venerated task of bearing the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Dalada Maligawa. During the month of the Perahera, tuskers and elephants arrive from far, transported in open air trucks. They are bathed in the lake and stabled in the area in preparation of the big day.
Aside from the majestic pachyderms, the Perahera is an exuberant dose of culture. Among the many performances of the Perahera, the traditional dances comprise a melange of Upcountry, Low Country and Sabaragamu performances to the reverberating unison of drum beats. Of all these, the Upcountry Wes Dance is highly ritualistic and elaborate in its preparation and garb. While a number of dancers reside in the region of Kandy, many arrive on the day of the pageant to amass at the Maligawa precincts. It can be said that the Esala Perahera has greatly spurred the preservation of the traditional dances of Sri Lanka. A skill and tradition passed down from generations, veteran dancers of the Esala Perahera possess treasured ornaments and attire handed down to them by their ancestors. Thus they arrive with bags and baggage full of garb, ornaments and traditional jewellery.
The Wes Dance costume includes 60 items in its entirety with its characteristic silver head gear or Wes. Thus, the draping and completing of the attire in itself is a meditative and ritualistic occurrence as each piece is added on sequentially. The pleated white cloth and half cloth that runs waist down, another around the waist, the ornamental belt, and numerous other ornaments for the chest, ears, arms, ankles and feet come on one by one. Lastly, the head gear is placed as the crowing glory and is the climax of the dancer's dress routine. Traditionally it is customary to place the head gear at an auspicious time and the dancers themselves experience strong emotion as they gradually morph to a state of grandeur. Each costume vastly differs in their elements and manner of draping. The drum accompaniment for the Wes Dance, the Geta Bera performer must also dress in an equally baffling sequence of folds and turns of a 7.5 yard long cloth. Premadasa, one of the seasoned Geta Bera performers, echoes the sentiments of many dancers, in nurturing a reverent regard for the costumes.
As the Perahera days approach, preparations culminate to a stirring climax. With vibrance and diversity in every inch through and through, it is much more than a skill, a dress or a bejewelled presence. It is a collective elevation of spirit.
July 23, 2012 First Kubal Perahera
July 24, 2012 Second Kubal Perahera
July 25, 2012 Third Kubal Perahera
July 26, 2012 Fourth Kubal Perahera
July 27, 2012 Fifth Kubal Perahera
July 28, 2012 First Randoli Perahera
July 29, 2012 Second Randoli Perahera
July 30, 2012 Third Randoli Perahera
July 31, 2012 Fourth Randoli Perahera
August 1, 2012 Fifth Randoli Perahera
August 2, 2012 Day Perahera