Sri Lanka's Wayside Theater

By Gunawardana, A. J. | UNESCO Courier, April 1992 | Go to article overview

Sri Lanka's Wayside Theater

Gunawardana, A. J., UNESCO Courier

In Sri Lanka, as in many other South Asian countries, open-air entertainments are staged in cities, towns and villages throughout the land. In origin, style and content they can be broadly divided into traditional and modern, but the borderline between the two groups is often nuclear.

For over 2,000 years, Buddhism has been the principal shaping force of Sri Lankan culture. Sinhala-speaking Buddhists make up nearly 70 per cent of the population and preserve patterns of worship based on the time-honoured conventions and observances of their faith. So do the Tamils, who form the minority segment of the population and are largely Hindu.

Public events connected with religious worship in Sri Lanka, whether Buddhist or Hindu, tend to take the form of processions, or peraheras as they are called in Sinhala. The best-known of these processions is the Dalada Perahera, a magnificent nocturnal pageant featuring caparisoned elephants and traditional dancers which is held annually in the streets of Kandy to honour the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha. This act of homage to the Buddha attracts thousands of devotees and sightseers.

Many other processions, although less grand than the Dalada Perahera, are staged at regular intervals under the aegis of Buddhist temples, shrines and other places of worship dedicated to minor gods and regional deities. Although firmly religious and devotional, they often incorporate secular and sometimes even slightly profane features. Peraheras are public acts of oblation, but they are also meant to delight the eye and the ear.

A typical perahera today consists of elephants, dancers and devotees (men, women and children dressed in white), and may include costumed characters such as veddahs or wild men. These characters act in ways designed to highlight their principal attributes or take part in tableaux depicting familiar episodes from history and religious lore. The Poson Perahera, which memorializes the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka during the reign of Emperor Asoka of India, often incorporates a tableau showing the first meeting between the King of Lanka and Emperor Asoka's ecclesiastical emissary.

Sri Lankan street diversions reach their high point during Vesak, the most notable festival in the Buddhist calendar. Vesak, or Waisakha as it is known in Pali, the liturgical language of Buddhism, is the full Moon in the month of May which is reckoned to mark the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

The most striking aspect of the Vesak celebration, apart from its strictly religious side, is the centrality it accords to illuminations. Vesak is in effect a "Festival of Lights". No Buddhist home, however humble, would fail to light a few lamps or lanterns during the nights of Vesak. In their most characteristic form, Vesak illuminations consist of multiple arrays of electric lights that are integrated into high, elaborately decorated, arch-shaped facades known as thoranas. The lights go on and off, change colour and outline in cyclical configurations, and offer a much-loved source of visual enjoyment and wonder to the people.

But the thoranas are more than just a light show. They recount stories from the Buddhist canon, notably the Jataka Tales or Birth Stories of the Buddha. A typical thorana displays the main episodes of a story through a series of painted panels, like a kind of strip cartoon. Nowadays there is also a sound-track with voices for the main characters, a descriptive linking narration and a background musical score. The result might be described as a piece of radio drama tagged on to a set of primitive naturalistic paintings. Essentially an urban phenomenon, the thorana is an amalgam of popular art media that caters to both religious sentiment and the public taste for grand spectacles.

At the time of Vesak, wayside theatre and mime performances are also staged on specially erected platforms tall enough for the spectators to have a clear view of what is going on. …

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