Classical Dances of Sri Lanka
The origin of Sri Lankan dances goes back to immemorial times of aboriginal tribes and "yakkas" (devils). According to a Sinhalese legend, Kandyan dances originate, 2500 years ago, from a magic ritual that broke the spell on a bewitched king.
An ancient chronicle, the Mahavamsa, states that when the culture hero Vijeya landed in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in 543 BCE, he heard the sounds of music and dancing from a wedding ceremony. Dance is still of paramount importance in Sri Lankan (Sinhala) arts. There are three main styles: the Kandyan dance of the hill country, known as uda rata natum; the low country dance of the southern plains, known as pahatha rata natum; and sabaragamuwa dance, or sabaragamuwa natum.
Kandyan dance takes its name from Kandy, the last royal capital of Ceylon, which is situated about 72 miles (120 kilometers) from the modern capital at Colombo. This genre is today considered the classical dance of Sri Lanka. In Sanskrit terminology it is considered pure dance (nrtta); it features a highly developed system of tala (rhythm), provided by cymbals called thalampataa. There are five distinct types; the ves, naiyandi, uddekki, pantheru, and vannams.
Ves Dance. Ves dance, the most popular, originated from an ancient purification ritual, the Kohomba Yakuma or Kohomba Kankariya. The dance was propitiatory, never secular, and performed only by males. The elaborate ves costume, particularly the headgear, is considered sacred and is believed to belong to the deity Kohomba. (See Kohomba Kankariya and Ves Dance.)
Only toward the end of the nineteenth century were ves dancers first invited to perform outside the precincts of the Kankariya Temple at the annual Kandy Perahera festival. Today the elaborately costumed ves dancer epitomizes Kandyan dance. (See Kandy Perahera.)
Naiyandi Dance. Dancers in Naiyandi costume perform during the initial preparations of the Kohomba Kankariya festival, during the lighting of the lamps and the preparation of foods for the demons. The dancer wears a white cloth and white rurban, beadwork decorations on his chest, a waistband, rows of beads around his neck, silver chains, brass shoulder plates, anklets, and jingles. This is a graceful dance, also performed in Maha Visnu (Vishnu) and Kataragama Devales temples on ceremonial occasions.
Uddekki Dance. Uddekki is a very prestigious dance. Its name comes from the uddekki, a small lacquered hand drum in the shape of an hourglass, about seven and half inches (18 centimeters) high, believed to have been given to people by the gods. The two drumskins are believed to have been given by the god Iswara, and the sound by Visnu; the instrument is said to have been constructed according to the instructions of Sakra and was played in the heavenly palace of the gods. It is a very difficult instruments to play. The dancer sings as he plays, tightening the strings to obtain variations of pitch.
Pantheru Dance. The pantheruwa is an instrument dedicated to the goddess Pattini. It resembles a tambourine (without the skin) and has small cymbals attached at intervals around its circumference. The dance is said to have originated in the days of Prince Siddhartha, who became Buddha. The gods were believed to use this instrument to celebrate victories in war, and Sinhala kings employed pantheru dancers to celebrate victories in the battlefield. The costume is similar to that of the uddekki dancer, but the pantheru dancer wears no beaded jacket and substitutes a silk handkerchief at the waist for the elaborate frills of the uddekki dancer.
Vannams. The word vannam comes from the Sinhala word varnana (descriptive praise). Ancient Sinhala texts refer to a considerable number of vannams that were only sung; later they were adapted to solo dances, each expressing a dominant idea. History reveals that the Kandyan king Sri Weeraparakrama Narendrasinghe gave considerable encouragement to dance and music. In this Kavikara Maduwa (a decorated dance arena) there were song and poetry contests.
It is said that the kavi (poetry sung to music) for the eighteen principal vannams were composed by and old sage named Ganithalankara, with the help of a Buddhist priest from the Kandy temple. The vannams were inspired by nature, history, legend, folk religion, folk art, and sacred lore, and each is composed and iterpreted in a certain mood (rasaya) or expression of sentiment. The eighteen classical vannams are gajaga ("elephant"), thuranga ("hourse") , mayura ("peacock"), gahaka ("conch shell"), uranga ("crawling animals"), mussaladi ("hare"), ukkussa ("eagle"), vyrodi ("precious stone"), hanuma ("monkey"), savula ("cock"), sinharaja ("lion"), naga ("cobra"), kirala ("red-wattled lapwing"), eeradi ("arrow"), Surapathi (in praise of the goddess Surapathi), Ganapathi (in praise of the god Ganapathi), uduhara (expressing the pomp and majesty of the king), and assadhrusa (extolling the merit of Buddha). To these were added samanala ("Butterfly"),bo (the sacred bo tree at Anuradhapura, a sapling of the original bo tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment), and hansa vannama ("swan"). The vannama dance tradition has seven components.
Accompaniment. The vannams tradition is to sing thanama, a note of the melody to each syllable. Thitha, the beat indicated with the cymbals, gives the rhythmic timing. Other elements include kaviya, the poem vocalized by the dancer; beramatraya, the rhythm of the drum; kasthirama, the finale of the first movement of the dance; and seerumarauwa, the movement in preparation for the addawwa, the finale of rhythmic body and foot movements, the last embellishment.
The drum is an integral part of Kandyan dance, and sanctity is associated with drums and drumbeats. The notes of the basic drum scale, tha-ji-thoh-nun, are salutations to Buddha, the gods, the master (gurunnanse) or the preceptor, and the audience, respectively.
The most important drum for Kandyan dance is the gete-bere (gete means "boss"); it is also called magul-bere (ceremonial drum) since it is used for all festive and ceremonial occasions throughout the country. It is believed to have been constructed under the directions of the Maha Brahma, the supreme god. The cylinder is scooped out of a single block of wood twenty-seven inches (67 centimeters) long. The skins are monkey skin on the right and oxhide on the left, to give very different tones. The braccs are made of deerskin and are adjusted to give the desired tension in tuning. The drum is slung around the waist of the drummer and is played with both hands. The davula and the thammattama are other drums that are also used in temple ceremonies, rituals, and road pageants, called pereheras. With the patronage of the Sinhala royalty, Kandyan dance has flourished over the years as an institution vital to the socio-religious life of the people of Sri Lanka.
Amunugana, Sarath. Notes on Sinhala Culture, Colombo , 1980. Boers, Faubion. Theatre in the East; A Survey of Asian Dance and Drama, New York, 1956.
De Zoete, Beryl, Dance and Magic Drama in Ceylon. London, 1937, Disanayaka, Mudiyanse. Udarata santikarma saha gami natya sampradaya. Colombo 1990.
Gunasinghe, Siri, Masks of Ceylon, Colombo, 1962. Kotelawala, Sicille P.C. The Classical Dance of Sri Lanka. New York, 1974. Makulloluwa, W.B. Dances of Sri Lanka, Colombo, 1976. Molamure, Arthur. "The Outlook for Kandyan Dancing," In Some Aspects of Traditional Sinhalese Culture, edited by Ralph Pieris, Peradeniya, 1956.
Nevill, Hugh. "Sinhalese Folklore." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch 14 (1971) : 58-90.
Pertold, Otaker. Ceremonial Dances of the Sinhalese (1930), Colombo, 1973.
Raghavan, M. D. Dances of the Sinhalese. Colombo, 1968.
Reed, Susan A. "The Transformation of Ritual and Dance in Sri Lanka; Kohomba Kankariya and the Kandyan Dance." Ph.D.diss., Brown University, 1991.
Sarachchandra, Ediriweera R. The Folk Drama of Ceylon. 2d ed Colombo 1966
Sedaramn J. I. Nrtya ratnakarya Colombo 1992
Sendrama J. I. et al. Udarata narum Kalava Colombo, 1992
Seneviratna, Anuradha, Trdinal Dance of Sri Lanka, Colombo 1978.
ARCHIVE, of special interest to the student of Kandyan dance are the Palm Leaf Manuscripts held in the National Muscum, Colombo; Bera Davul Tammattam Adiya Upata (82, v.16), Davul Upata (82, v.1, v.5), and Udakki Upata (82, v.1 ,v.5)
Dance and music of the Sinhalese
Our historical record, the ‘Mahavamsa’, tells us that the Aryan Prince Vijaya heard music on the day he landed on the shores of Lanka.According to Pali scriptures the ‘Yakkas’ (one of the tribes inhabiting the Island at the time) were fond of songs and dances.It may be that some of the devil dances that have remained with us to the present day owe their origin to the ‘Yakka’ dances.
That a well developed system of Sinhalese music existed in ancient Lanka seems probable. Numerous references in Sinhalese literature, stone carvings and frescoes support this assumption.
But to trace exactly what the system was from the imperfect fragments performed today by professional Sinhala musicians, is no easy task.
The art of music, like most of the other arts in the East has been handed down the centuries orally from teacher to pupil. It was not written down in notation as in the West.
Bands of hereditary professional musicians and dancers kept the tradition alive.
Their patrons the kings, princes and nilames, freed them from want by rich presents and gifts of land and kept them at their palaces and mansions, so that they could devote time to perfect their art.
When as a result of foreign occupation, this royal patronage was withdrawn, the professional musicians had to turn to cultivation to eke out a living, and the standard of musical performance as well as the art of music naturally declined.
In the face of these drawbacks, it speaks well for the virility of Sinhala poetry, music and dance that these arts have been kept alive.
It is in the Kandyan Kingdom, that last stronghold to fall into the foreign hands, that the remnants of the art of music have been best preserve.
The Kandyan dances are world famous
The curious part about these dances is that singing as well as the playing of musical instruments such as the ‘udekki’ or ‘Geta-bera’ and ‘Talampata’ (hand cymbals) accompany the dance. In the ‘udekki’ dance, the dancers sing, play and dance.
This shows that from ancient times the Sinhalese ‘sangita-sastra’, the art of Sinhala music, had three component parts — dancing, singing and the playing of musical instruments. The art of music was considered incomplete without all three elements.
Incidentally the form of Buddhism that came into Sri Lanka about the third century B.C., forbade monks from indulging in these three arts — ‘nacca, gita and vadita’ on the ground that they roused the passions.
Most of the remarkable ‘Vannams’ sung by the Kandyan dancers during the Kandy Esala Perahera as a prelude to their dance are named after animals and are based on their movements.
Thus the ‘gajaga vannama’ moves to the slow majestic tread of the elephant. The ‘kudiradi’ or ‘thuranga vannama’ follows the trot and gallop of the horse.
A vivid portrayal of the leisurely gliding flight of the hawk and its sudden swoop to the earth to seize its prey, is characterized in the ‘ukussa vannama’.
These colourful dances are magnificently executed; but the descriptive song has hardly any definition of melody, though the rhythm supplied by the ‘udakki’ is rigidly observed.
The singing, too is usually unrefined, crude and nasal. One cannot imagine our cultured Sinhalese kings countenancing such poor voice production in any of their royal musicians.
This again goes to support my contention that there has been decadence owing to lack of patronage, especially from 1815 onwards when the last king ceased to rule the Kandyan Kingdom.
When Emperor Dharmasoka sent his daughter Sanghamitta with a branch of the sacred bo-tree to Sri Lanka, she was accompanied by bands of musicians and dancers who performed on the five kinds of musical instruments ‘panca turya nada’ thrice a day in honour of the sacred bodhi tree.
These five sorts of instruments were:
* Atata (one faced drum), * Vitata (two faced drum), * Vitata-taya (three faced drum), * Ghana (metal percussion, * sisiraya (wind instrument)
Seventy-five musical instruments used in ancient Sri Lanka comprise — twenty-six varieties of drums (one and two faced); eight kinds of ‘Vinas’ (three, five, seven, twelve, thirteen, twenty-one stringed etc.). Twenty-six varieties of wind instruments (bamboo and wooden flutes etc) and fifteen kinds of metal percussion (hand cymbals, metal bells, tinkling anklets etc).
Of these seventy-five instruments those in common use today are drums ‘magul-bera’, ‘geta-bera’, ‘mihingu-bera’, ‘maddala’, ‘udekki’, ‘pana-bera’, ‘davula’, ‘tammattama’, ‘hewisi’ and ‘rabana’.
The wind instruments used are ‘horana’ (large and small), ‘naga’, ‘sinnan’, ‘rak-sinnan’, ‘vas-dandu and sak’ (conch-shell).
The imposing ‘maha-kombu’ is some what like a tuba in appearance. Unfortunately, it is little used.
The revival of Sinhala music has been very marked during the past two decades. In our schools, Sinhala nursery rhymes and patriotic songs are replacing foreign rhymes.
Let us hope that Sri Lanka will find her soul through her culture and music. Sinhalese musicians will regain their lost foundations and build on them an edifice of Sinhalese music that will make its own contribution to the world.
Dances of Sri Lanka
There are three classical dance forms and several folk dances in Sri Lanka the classical dance forms are known as Kandyan dancing Ruhunu dancing and Saparagmu dancing; Kandyan dancing is practiced in the central hills of the island, Ruhunu in the coastal or low country areas, and Saparagamu in the province known as Saparagamuwa, particularly in the district of Ratnapura, world-famous for its gems.
The three classical dance forms differ in their styles of body-movements and gestures, in the costumes worn by the performers, and in the shape and size of the drums use to provide rhythmic sound patterns to accompany the dancing
The drum used in Kandyan dancing is known as the GETA BERE, the drum in Ruhunu dancing as the YAK BERE, and drum in Saparagamu dancing as the DAVULA (the word BERE or BERAYA in Inhale means “Drum”) The Geta Bere is beaten with the hands as is also Yaka Bere, while the Davula is played with a stick on one side and with one hand on the other side; the Geta Bere has a body which tapers on both sides while the Yak Bere and the Davula both have cylindrical bodies.
The main distinguishing feature between Kandyan and Saparagamu dancing, and Ruhunu dancing, is that Ruhunu dancers wear masks.
The classical dance forms are associated with the performance of various rituals and ceremonies which are centuries old and are based on the folk religion and folk beliefs going back to times before the advent and acceptance of Buddhism by the Sinhalese people in the third century B.C. These rituals and ceremonies reflect the values, beliefs and customs of an agricultural civilization.
The pre-Buddhistic folk religion consisted of the belief in a variety of deities and demons who were supposed to be capable of awarding benefits and blessings but also causing afflictions and diseases. Accordingly they had to be either propitiated or exorcised with offerings and the performance of rituals and ceremonies.
The repertoire of Dances in Kandyan dancing has its origins in the ritual known as the Kohomba Kankariya, which is performed to propitiate the deity known as Kohomba for the purpose of obtaining relief from personal afflictions or from communal calamities such as pestilence. Although this ritual is rarely performed at the present the various dances associated with its performance could be seen in the Kandy Perahere, and annual religion-cultural event which takes place in the city of Kandy in honor of the sacred tooth-relic of the Buddha housed in the Delude Malaga, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.
The repertoire of Ruhunu dancing has its origins in the rituals of Devol Maduwa to propitiate a deity of the same name, and in the exorcistic rituals known as Rata Yakuma and Sanni Yakuma. Rata Yakuma and Sanni Yakuma are associated with various demons who are supposed to cause a variety of afflictions and incurable illnesses.
Saparagamu dancing is associated with the ritual known as the Gam Maduwa, which is performed to propitiate a deity called Pattini, a female. The purpose is to obtain a good harvest or to ward off evil or to be rid of and infectious disease.
Apart from the classical dance forms there are also folk dances, which are associated with folk activities and festivities. Leekeli (stick dance), Kalageldi (pot dance) and Raban (a hand drum) folk dances prevalent at the present time.There is also in the low country a dance-drama called Kolam in which the performers wear masks depicting animals or people such as kings or high officials, and provides amusement and social satire. It has been suggested by scholars that Kolam may have developed from the ritual known as Sanni Yakuma and had later become a dance-drama independent of ritual elements.
Drums of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been having many types of drums in use from ancient times, and reference to these are found in some of the classical literature e.g. Pujawaliya, Thupawansaya, Dalada Siritha etc. Although there had been about 33 types of drums, today we find only about ten and the rest are confined only to names.
Drums in use today are:
1. Geta Bera (Bera Drum)
2. Yak Bera
8. Hand Rabana
9. Bench Rabana
10. Dandu Beraya,
and Sri Lankan Drum Tradition is believed to go as far back as 2500 years.
2. Yak Bera
8. Hand Rabana
9. Bench Rabana
10. Dandu Beraya,
and Sri Lankan Drum Tradition is believed to go as far back as 2500 years.
An examination of the village society in olden times would reveal that drums were used on special occasions during the life span of people, from their birth to the death. Drums, which were originally used, for pleasure and later for rituals, came to be used in the Buddhist Temples for the many ceremonies. At a later stage, Drums were also used as a means of communication. The Davula, Thammattama and the Bench Rabana have an important place in matters of communication. Some of these functions are:
1. Ana Bera - to inform the people about orders from the King.
2. Vada Bera - drums played when a criminal is taken for beheading,
3. Mala Bera - drums used in a funeral procession and
4. Rana Bera - drums used by the army when going out to meet the enemy.
2. Vada Bera - drums played when a criminal is taken for beheading,
3. Mala Bera - drums used in a funeral procession and
4. Rana Bera - drums used by the army when going out to meet the enemy.
Geta Bera: This is the main drum used to accompany dances in the Kandyan or the Hill Country tradition. This drum is turned out of wood from Ehela, Kohomba or Kos tree. The drum tapers towards the ends and on the right side, the opening is covered with the skin of a monkey while the opening on the other side is covered with a cattle skin. The strings that are used tighten the sides are from a deerskin. A student who begins his training in the use of the Greta Bera has to practice twelve elementary exercises.
Yak Bera: This drum is referred to by many names among which are the Ruhunu Bera, Devol Bera and Ghoskaya. This drum normally accompanies the dances from the low country, especially the mask dancing connected with rituals and the folk play Kolam. The drum is turned out of wood taken from the Kohomba, Ehela, Kitul or Milla trees. This is a cylindrical drum, fairly long and is played on both sides with hands. The openings on the two sides of the drum are covered with the stomach lining of a cow. The strings used to tighten the sides are from cattle skin. A student has twelve elementary exercises to learn to play this drum.
Davula: This drum is used in most of the Buddhist ceremonies all over the island. This drum is cylindrical, but much shorter than the Yak Bera. An important feature of this drum is that one side is played with the hand while the other side is played with a stick. The sides are covered with cattle skin and the tightening is done with a string made specially for the purpose. These are also twelve elementary exercises to be followed by a person learning to use the drum.
Thammattama: This is also referred to as the Twin Drum. This drum is played with two sticks. The tow drums are of different sizes and while the right one produces a louder sound, the left one produces a looser sound. The drums which have only the top side covered either with the skin of the cow or a buffalo. The wood used is from Kos, Kohomba and Milla trees. They used special sticks to play drums and the wood is from a creeper known as Kirindi.
Udekkiya: The smallest drum among the local drums is the Udekkiya. This is played with one hand the sound is controlled by pressure applied on the strings. The drum is lie the hour glass and is made out of wood from Ehela, Milla and Suriya. The drum is painted with lacquer. The openings are covered with skin from the iguana, monkey or goat.
Dakkiya: This is similar to the Udekkiya, but bigger. This is used mainly for rituals. The drum is hung on the shoulder of the player and the sound is controlled by applying pressure on the strings.
Bummadiya: This is the only drum turn out of clay. The single opening is covered with the skin of goat, monkey or iguana. The drum is hung on the shoulder of the player and it is played with both hands. During harvesting, people could be seen playing this drum accompanied by singing. The drum is in the shape of a pot.
Hand Rabana: Rabana is about one foot in diameter and is turn out of wood from Kos and Milla. The skin used is that of a goat. Some performers keep revolving the rabana on the tip of their fingers while others play it accompanied with singing. This is played with one hand only.Bench Rabana: This is the biggest of the drums used in Sri Lanka. The special feature of this drum is that it is played at a time by two or more people. They use both hands. This drum is commonly used for New Year festivals and there are many special rhythms played on them. It is mostly played by women.
The yakun natima - devil dance ritual of Sri Lanka
Garra yakka mask, 9 3/4 inches
A MIDNIGHT ceremony. Crowds milling, bodies slick with sweat in the tropical night. Torches lining an earthen arena. A patient is dazed with illness, propped on a low seat. The rhythmic beat of drums. The smell of smoking resin. A figure enters, back first and the rhythm of the drums changes, intensifies. The figure whirls and the patient is suddenly presented with the face of his tormentor!
The yakun natima, or devil dance ritual of Sri Lanka, is nothing if not full of drama. Not just a charade or interval designed to entertain, the yakun natima is a carefully crafted ritual with a history reaching far back into Sri Lanka's pre-Buddhist past. It combines ancient Ayurvedic concepts of disease causation with deftpsychological manipulation. Lasting up to twelve hours, it mixes raucous humour with deep-rooted fears to create a healing catharsis for both patient and community.
Kolam natima mask of the
wolf-headed Mahasohona, the Great Cemetery Devil; depth 9 1/2 inches
But while the beating of the bereya drums, the torchlight, and the smoky resin contribute to the aura of the night's magic, it is the masked face of the edura, or exorcist/shaman, that personifies the power of the moment-the devil incarnate (1). It is the mask or vesmuna which localises the fears and anxieties of both patient and audience. To the Sinhalese, it is this face, carved of wood, with bulging eyes, protruding nose and gaping mouth, disfigured and fierce, which represents both cause and cure (2).
For the ethnographer, the traditional belief systems and practices surrounding the yakun natima and other
Huniyam yakka mask, the Black Prince of Sorcery, 10 1/2 inches
masked dance rituals of Sri Lanka's southern coast provide a rich and fascinating field for research. For the collector, these ritual masks represent a sophisticated folk art form; beautiful and mysterious. Carved of wood and pigmented with natural hues and resins, these masks are infused with a spirit and animation which command attention. The patination of a ritual mask, darkened by years of use, and the repairs upon repairs of cherished examples bespeak their importance within their village communities. Within the context of the dance they are hypnotising. Taken out of that context and viewed on their own they are masterpieces of a rich folk art tradition (3).
To look at a complete collection of late nineteenth century ritual dance masks provides insight into the imagery and beauty that are the essence of these powerful spiritual talismans.
Crop fertility talisman,
8 1/2 inches
Lanka, the land foretold by the Buddha to be the stronghold of Buddhism in the time to come; Ceylon, a colonial outpost for the Portuguese, Dutch and British in succession; the Spice Isle, source of teas and spices which titillated the world; Screndip, an almost mythical paradise. Sri Lanka, home to some of the world's most beautiful landscapes and the scene of seemingly endless turmoil and bloodshed, has had many names and wears many faces.
The medical systems of the Sinhalese have been renowned since the first century B.C. when the northern capital in Anuradhapura boasted some eighteen hospitals. Traditional Ayurvedic principles practised for centuries-balancing internal humours to promote and modify health-are now being studied and implemented by many Western healthcare professionals. But predating these systems, and stretching far back into antiquity, there has been an alternative system of healing, a system based on early Vedic concepts of aetiology, in which diseases and ills of all sorts were believed to be caused by demons. Identified predominantly by the symptoms manifested by the patient, these demons could be summoned and exorcised in stylised ritual mask dances, or natima.
Rukada pregnancy talisman, 7 inches
The various natima of Sri Lanka belong to that great Asian mask tradition which extends from the Indian subcontinent, across the high Himalayas, through the Southeast Asian archipelago, northwards onto the Siberian plains and into Korea. Within these diverse cultures the masked shaman plays a central role, bridging the gap between the natural and the omnipresent supernatural. Through various transformation rituals the shaman blurs these perceived boundaries, comforts his community, diverts evil and effectuates healing.
In Sinhalese society the edura works alongside the rest of society. He wears no special clothes, as a monk would, nor is he granted special status. He lives within the community with no divisions. It is only when his special services are required that the edura sets himself apart. Much of the preliminaries and ritualised aspects of the masked dance rituals are designed to distance the edura from the rest of society.
Dala sanni yakka mask, whoopingcough, 5 1/4 inches
Through a complex and sophisticated mixture of theatre and drama, which includes wearing special clothes, burning his own body and simulated death experiences, the edura creates a space where in his mind and in the mind of his fellow villagers he "becomes" something other and takes on the essence of and personifies the afflicting demon.
Most important to this transformation both visually and psychologically are the fantastic masks worn during these rituals. Representing specific demons and the maladies they inflict upon man, the masks allow the edura to embody, at least temporarily, demons which normally exist only on a supernatural plane. This personification allows for dialogue and, amidst frenzied dance and ritualised chants and speeches, provides an opportunity to discuss the troubles facing the individual and the community. The edura, cloaked in the power and visage of the demon, creates a visible and immediate link between the natural and the supernatural. As the embodiment of the afflicting demon he cites causes for disease, discusses immediate concerns for the community, and following the reception of a tribute, he promises to lift the illness: tindui nivarani ("it is done").
Naga sanni Yakka mask, nightmares, 9 inches
The cosmology of traditional Sri Lankan beliefs is a complex mixture of native Vedic gods, spirits, and demons, overlaid with imported Hindu and Buddhist deities, beliefs, and practices. This pantheon is vast, filled with hierarchies and sub-hierarchies which the uninitiated finds nearly impossible to grasp. The synthesis is a spiritual landscape where Buddha reigns supreme, but where the day-to-day is fraught with danger from the yakku (devils) and other malignant forces (vas) which seem all too ready to afflict man with scourges of every description. In this word, life is a constant struggle against these forces.
Central to this struggle are the natima devil dances-masked dance ceremonies to cure diseases, help failing crops (4), prevent drougth, and provide protection for troubled pregnancies (5). A cast of specific characters and dramas have developed over the centuries to counteract almost every affliction and ailment. The yakun natima, and the kolam natima (masquerade dance) represent two of the historically prominent forms these dance rituals have taken. Masks used in these rituals provide wonderful insight into the belief systems and practices which form the core of traditional Sinhalese beliefs regarding health.
Pita sanni yakka mask, bile, 6 inches
Of all the dance rituals, the yakun natima focuses most directly on healing. In Sinhalese thought diseases are either caused by the natural or the supernatural. In the case of the natural, traditional Ayurvedic and/ or medical avenues are pursued. In the case of the supernatural, or where the other systems fail, they have traditionally turned to the edura for aid through such rituals as the yakun natima.
In both cases, however, it is the cause rather than the symptom that must be addressed. And in the case of the supernatural it is the yakku demons that are the cause (6). Collectively, these disease-afflicting demons are known as the sanni yakku. They are a group of demons who, in past battles with the Buddha, were ultimately banished from earth. Living under the loose control of their king Vesamuni (from which the term for mask, vesmuna, is derived), the yakku are unable to appear physically upon the earth, but retain the power to afflict, and through the influence of the Buddha, to heal.
Kana sanni yakka mask, blindness, 5 1/2 inches
The Eighteen Sanni Yakku
Every demon has an identity, a story. Unlike among the Balinese, where demons often represent types (i.e., hero, villain, clown, etc.), the Sinhalese yakku represent individual demons whose lineages and exploits are recited and commemorated. The masks used in the various rituals are carved to represent particular demons and can, with some exceptions, be specifically identified. Although the yakku. seem limitless in number, there is a core group of eighteen which form the focus for the yakun natima rituals.
Known as the daha-ata sanni yakka, these demons represent specific afflictions, both mental and physical, which commonly afflict the Sinhalese villagers. Although the number eighteen has now become standard, indications are that this number has decreased over time. Nor are the identities of the eighteen consistent. Different areas, or even different communities within the same area, will count different demons among the list.
Kona sanni yanna mask, leader of the eighteen sanni yanna 9 inches
Paul Wirz, in his seminal work Exorcism and the Art of Healing in Ceylon (1954), lists the following demons and their effects: Kana-sanniya (blindness), Kora-sanniya (lameness/paralysis), Gini-jala-sanniya (malaria), Vedda-sanniya (bubonic plague), Demala-sanniya (bad dreams), Kapala-sanniya (insanity), Golu-sanniya (dumbness/muteness), Biri-sanniya (deafness). Maru-sanniya (delirium). Amuku sanniya (vomiting), Gulma-sanniya (parasitic worms), Deva-sanniya (epidemic disease, i.e. typhoid, cholera), Naga-sanniya (evil dreams particularly with snakes) (7), Murta-sanniya (swooning, loss of consciousness), Kala-sanniya (black death), Pita-sanniya (disease related to bile) (8), Vata-sanniya (shaking and burning of limbs), and Slesma-sanniya (secretions, epilepsy).
Surveys by individuals such as Alain Loviconi and E.D.W. Jayewardene, have demonstrated significant differences between various areas and the impossibility of creating a universally recognised list. One area might include 0lmada sanniya (babbling) and another area Avulun sanniya (breathing difficulties, chest pains). Contemporary ethnographers such as Obeyesekere have also noted the addition of certain more contemporary maladies to the list. For example Vedi sanniya as relating to gunshot wounds, dramatically reflecting the change in times and the adaptability of this indigenous system.
Kori sanni yakka mask, paralysis, 9 inches
Although there is no single, uniform list or all eighteen demons, certain demons do seem consistent and universal, such as Biri for deafness, Kana for blindness (9), and Golu for dumbness.
Presiding over these eighteen yakku is the demon known as the Kola sanni yakka (10), a composite demon containing and regulating the other eighteen. In the yakun natima it is appeasing the Kola and gaining his benediction that is most important. His origin story, as recorded by Wirz, is as follows:
A certain king left for a great war, leaving behind his queen. He was unaware that she was pregnant. Upon his return he found his wife to be in an advanced state and ready to give birth. A handmaid to the queen, through lies and deceptions, convinced the king that it was not his child but that of the war minister, who had remained behind. In a fury he ordered the queen tied to a tree and cut in two. The child managed to survive, living off the remains of his mother. As he grew, the child vowed revenge on the father.
Amuku sanni yakka mask, stomach
disorders, 7 inches
He gathered poisons from the different parts of the forest and formed them into eighteen separate lumps which transformed into demons. Kola sent these demons into the city and charged them to "capture humans and cause illness through wind, phlegm, and bile".
The havoc wreaked on the city was awesome. Buddha, sensing this, came to the city and, appearing overhead, ordered Kola and his demons to stop. Angered, Kola attempted to refute the Buddha, vehemently justifying his actions based on the grievous wrongs done to him. But with a "single glittering ray" Buddha subdued Kola and ordered his chiefs to use water to cleanse the city and wash away the demons. Kola persisted in trying to justify his actions and the Buddha ultimately relented, granting Kola and his demons the power to afflict, but charging that they must also heal these afflictions when tribute is paid.
Kolam natima mask of the golden woman with five bodies, 7 1/2 inches
Accounts and photographs of masked dancers with bulging eyes, tusks, and gaping mouths have long attracted ethnographers and the curious. The result is that European museums boast significant collections of wondrous masks carved of wood with exquisite artistry, depicting a phantasm of creatures. The masks of the yakun natima, befitting their function, are generally gruesome, with distorted faces, cobras (called naga) coiled like crowns atop their heads, eyes bulging and strong protruding noses with flaring nostrils. They are powerful carvings designed to inspire fear, awe, and a recognition of the presence of these supernatural beings in our daily lives.
Kolam natina mask of Hettiya the moneylender, 7 ½ inches
Although the identities of some demons are difficult to ascertain out of context, many masks can be readily identified by form and colour. Biri-sanniya, the demon for deafness, for example, is consistently depicted with a cobra emerging from one eye and covering the side of the face where the ear would be. This relates directly to the Sinhalese belief that the cobra has no ears and therefore must "hear" with its eyes. Kora sanniya, the demon for lameness/paralysis, is often depicted with the features of one side of the face drawn up, approximating the signs of a stroke (11). Amuku sanniya, the demon for stomach disorders and vomiting, is often depicted with a green face, wide open eyes, and a partially protruding tongue (12).
Kolam natina mask of the old man, 10 inches
The yakun natima and other masked dances of the Sinhalese are all based on the concept of appeasement. They acknowledge the influence and power of the yakka as both the cause and the cure. They recite their histories, extol their power, and pay tribute to their prowess. These ceremonies are designed to call forth the "essence" of the offending demon. Through sweet-talk and offerings or through cajoling and threats, the yakka is made to remove the affliction.
The kolam natima belongs to a different category of ritualised mask dance than the yakun natima. Today it is rarely practised and has been gradually losing its importance over the last hundred years. The early twentieth century writer Otaker Pertold commented that, even in his day, much of the original import of the dance had been lost, and that on the few occasions that it was still performed it was undertaken by laymen rather than edura or those specifically versed in ritual dances. Because some forty masked characters are involved in this elaborate drama, with commensurate offerings expected for certain devils and demons, Pertold cites the great expense involved in staging a full kolam natima as responsible for its gradual abbreviation.
Kolam natina mask of the old woman, 7 inche
As a ritual, the kolam natima broadly centres around pregnancy issues. The cravings and desires (dola duka) that often accompany a pregnancy were traditionally viewed with great suspicion, and were believed to be some sort of supernatural possession. The masked dance is thought to have been principally directed against these cravings and to protect the fetus in general.
The origin story and characters depicted in the kolam natima reflect some of this original intent:
The queen of a powerful king was pregnant. As her pregnancy neared term she developed an irresistible craving to see a masked dance performed. So intense was her desire that her health rapidly began to fail. 'She beseeched her husband, the king, to grant her this wish. The king asked his ministers what should be done, but no one knew what a masked dance was. In his desperation the king pleaded to the god Sekkria, asking that he should reveal what must be done. Hearing his plea, Sekkria instructed one of the four guardian gods, the God of Curiosity, to carve masks of sandalwood and place them in the king's garden with a book detailing what must be done. In the morning the gardener found masks distributed throughout the garden, some with the faces of devils, others of animals, and others of noble courtiers and ladies. The gardener rushed to the king and told him the news. He and the ministers gathered in the courtyard, discovered the explanatory text and a masked dance was performed immediately for the benefit of the queen.
Kolam natina mask of a monkey, 8 inches
It is assumed that the mask dance did the job, and that she suffered no more dola duka, and that the infant was a healthy one.
Near the final stages of the performance, as translated by Calloway in 1829, a pregnant woman enters the scene and after much anguish gives birth to a son, exclaiming: "The beauty of the child I have now got is like a flower. His prattle will be pleasant, and he will like much to chew betel [nut]." Care is urged for her son, and the demons and devils that threaten it are placated with offerings.
There is very little structure to the dance itself. Following a brief introduction and a retelling of its origins, the ritual consists primarily of a series of dances and walkthroughs by a set of characters; gods, humans, animals, and devils, each successive character being only loosely connected with what preceded. From the introduction at the court, we move out through the village catching glimpses of village life before moving into the woods, where the threats and ferocity of the animals give way to the terror of devils and demons.
Kolam natina mask of a Nanda Gara, 11 1/2 inches
Thus the impact of the kolam natima lies not in its great narrative strength but in the pure spectacle of the masks: the Lasquarine soldier who lost his nose in the great battle of Gampelle; the great Virgin of the Snakes with her radiant face surrounded by coiled cobras; the golden faced and seductive woman with five bodies (13); the greedy moneylender, Hettiya (14); the haggard old man (15) and old woman (16) dressed in rags looking for support from the young villagers; the innocent bullock attacked by a ferocious tiger and a pack of hungry jackals; cavorting monkeys with shaggy beards and gaping mouths (17); the awesome devil Nanda Gere with two devil faces on each side, with gnashing teeth and a body caught in his jaws (18), and Yamma Raksaya, the black-faced devil of death with his long tusks, demon faces flanking his own and coiled naga serpents crowning his head (19).
Kolam natina mask of Yamma Raksaya, 10 inches
Although a brisk trade in masks for tourists has developed in the Ambalangoda area of coastal Sri Lanka, the masks used in the various natima ceremonies were traditionally carved by the edura himself, infusing them with a particular power for the upcoming ceremony. While the edura in his normal walk of life might be a fisherman or farmer, rather than coming from an artisan class, the masks themselves often exhibit a great deal of skill and dexterity in their carving. This reflects the long apprenticeship period that has traditionally been required of all edura, studying under an established figure that may often be the father, uncle, or an elder family member.
Although some of the masks are quite large and complex in their structure, most of those traditionally used in the various natima ceremonies are considered threequarter masks. Strapped to the face, they extend from the middle of the forehead to just below the mouth. This type of lightweight construction makes it easier for the dancer to wear during the often spastic and exaggerated movements executed during a performance which could last up to twelve hours.
Three types of wood are listed as common to mask construction that could vaty depending upon the region and the immediate availability of materials; kaddra (strychnox mux vomica) was prized for its durability (20); eramadu (erythrina india and rukatiana (alsronia scholaris), the latter being considered inferior and known for breaking easily. Divided into blocks, the mask is gradually shaped from the wood. Once the final form is created, the wood is polished using leaves from the mota daliya boodadiya, or korosa trees. Prior to pain g, the polished wood is treated with a t(, clay sealant called allidyu that acts as a gesso and creates a better bonding surface for the pigments to follow.
Kolam Yamma Raksaya repainted with commercial paint, 10 inches
Although contemporary masks are often painted with commercial pigments, even some of the older masks when they have been repainted reflect this growing trend (21), traditional techniques involve the exclusive use of natural organic and mineral-based pigments. White was derived from makulu clay, green from the leaves of the kikirindiya plant, the ranavara tree, or the ma creeper, blue from the ripe fruit of thebovitiya (22), and yellow from hiriyal orpi ment), or yellow pepper. Black was obtained from charred cotton, and red from cinnabar or a red clay called gurru gal. To protect these pigments the edura would then coat the mask with a lacquer sealant called valicci which was derived from a combination of resins from the hal and dorano trees with beeswax. Hair and beards were simulated through the use of various dyed fibres, elephant hairs, and monkey skins applied directly to the mask.
Kolam natima mask painted blue with bovitiya fruit, 7 inches
Nineteenth century and earlier examples preserved in collections retain an amazing vibrancy of colour. An exceptional kolam natima mask of the demon Naga Raksaya was exhibited in the Universal Exposition of 1900 in Paris and is shown here (23). Collected during the middle of the nineteenth century, it is a marvellous example of the strength and durability of the natural pigments used, as well as illustrative of the extraordinary carving talents of the edura
Carved from a single piece of wood with only the small central naga and two ear pendants added, this mask reflects a master ful handling of materials. The painting itself is quite sophisticated with a banding pattern criss-crossing the nose, outlining the mouth and accentuating the eyes. The cinnabar red used for the face glistens through its lacquer sealant. The underbelly of the large central naga, as it executes a graceful arc over the face, is banded and appears very reptilian, as does the crown of three naga on his brow and the coiled naga pend-ants which serve as ears.
The masks of the yakun natima and other dance rituals of Sri Lanka represent a re-pository of a fast-fading culture. Sharing their heritage with a broad range of shaman- based mask cultures of Asia, these masks speak a language which is increasingly fall ing on deaf ears. As the role of the edura becomes increasingly marginalised in Sinhalese society, and education begins to transform traditional concepts of the interaction between the natural and the super-natural, the yakku and the various devils are gradually fading from popular con-sciousness. And while mask carving for tourists and dance performances for the outsider will persist, the fundamental spirit, potency, and vitality of both natima rituals and their masks will sadly be lost. It will therefore be primarily through the older examples, preserved in public and private collections, that future generations will able to recognise the force and the beauty of the devil dance masks of Sri Lanka.
Kolam natima mask of Naga Raksay, 18 inches
Calloway, John, Kolan Nattannawa, A Cingalese Poem, London, 1829
Jayewardene, E.D.W., Sinhala Masks, Colombo, 1970
Loviconi, Alain, Masques et Exorcismes Ceylon Paris, 1981
Obeyesekere, Gananath, "The Ritual Drama of the Sanni Demons: Collective Representations of Disease in Ceylon" in Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1969
Pertold, Otaker, Ceremonial Dances of the Sinhalese, Prague, 1930
Wirz, Paul, Exorcism and the Art of Healing in Ceylon, Leiden, 1954
Kolam, Sokari & Nadagam
Theater in Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the traditional and the modern, the old and the new in theatre can be seen in striking conjunction. Based in Colombo, the capital city, there is a burgeoning, cosmopolitan, modern theatre, which presents original works and translations (of Beckett, Gogol, Gorky, et.al.) in a wide range of forms and styles. In the rural areas, age-old ritualistic theatres are performed to promote the welfare of the community and to heal the sick. In between are various folk theatres – the entertainments springing from a predominantly agricultural way of life. And, as in all modernizing societies, many of the older forms are waning away while the new theatre is flowering.
The ritual theatres
The ritual theatres of Sri Lanka are among the oldest extant performances with an unbroken history. Legend traces their beginnings to pre-Buddhist times. However remote their origins, it is quite clear that the ritual theatres, like all living art forms, have been changing over the years, discarding some elements and absorbing others. As practiced today, ritual theatres, are generally nightlong performances addressed to the numerous deities and demons of the folk religion.
A vast pantheon of gods and demons inhabits the still vital world of Sinhala folk belief. Depending on time and circumstances, and their particular spheres of influence, these powerful beings can impinge in various ways on the affairs of men. For example, gods can assure a plentiful harvest and bring succor to people in times to people in times of distress. The demons, on the other hand, are evil in their effects: they possess people, making them ill.
The primary purpose of the ritual theatres is to propitiate the gods and the demons, so that they will confer their blessings or heal the afflicted. Where the demons are concerned, there is an exorcist aim also. A basic assumption in these theatres is that these beings have the right to expect certain oblations and offerings from humans. If these are not made, the gods will either cause harm to people or desist from helping them as for the demons. However, once an offering is made in the proper manner, the demons are obliged to remove their malefic influence and return the patient to good health.
The ritual theatres are more than modes of oblation: they are also re-enactments of the original ceremonials in which the covenant between the otherworldly forces and the human forces was first ratified or demonstrated. Typically, the good are invited to watch the proceedings; the demons are summoned in order that they may be persuaded to behave in the manner they did on a similar occasion in the distant past.
Although there is great dramatic potential in this view of the relationships between the human world and the spirit world, the ritual performances have not evolved into continuous, full-scale dramas. The general conception is theatrical (the space used is constantly referred to as the “Ranga Mandala” -arena of performance) but the form itself is highly segmented, mixing long sections of verse narrative, incantation, chant, and dance with dramatized episodes, which employ dialogue and mime as well. The episodes are culled mainly from stories dealing with the genesis and the background of each principal deity or demon. While almost every performance element is brought in, it is dance that predominates in most ritual theatres.
Furthermore, these theatres have an unmistakably composite character; in the course of time, a number of different but allied rites have come together. This suggested both by the strong reminiscences of archaic year rites and animistic cults found in them, and by the diversity of gods and demons coming within the ambit of each ceremonial.
While they all occupy one broad framework on account of the similarity of their essential attitudes and structures, the ritual theatres can be conveniently separated into several categories. In the large-scale performance, the collective aspect predominates – they are done for the welfare of a whole community, the village being the primary unit. These are generally addressed to gods and are given annually (customarily at harvest time) or when the community is threatened by epidemics of certain infectious diseases thought to have links with the spirit world. In the latter case, a vow is first made that performance would be given upon speedy release from the grip of the epidemic.
There is a second category of ritual where the beneficiary is an individual, rather than the community as a whole. Demonic possession is one obvious occasion, which calls for such theatre. Another is evil planetary influence. These theatres, smaller in scale than the communal types, are of course performed when indicated, or rather prescribed by the ritual specialist or astrologer.
Of the major communal theatres, the most famous and undoubtedly the most majestic is the Kohomba Kankariya. Nowadays confined to the environs of Kandy, the Kohomba Kankariya. Nowadays confined to the environs of Kahomba Kankariya traces its beginnings all the way back to the first Sinhala kings. The name means the rite of God Kohomba, an animistic deity, which is suggestive if the antiquity of the ritual. However, the original cult appears to have coalesced with several other, perhaps more recent, folk ceremonials. Today it clearly displays this mixed ancestry, a feature common to all Sinhala ritual theatres.
In keeping with the usual pattern, the Kohomba Kankariya is a somewhat disjointed performance separating into a number of named segments or episodes. A common set of ritual objectives and a single from of dance, rather than a coherent dramatic structure, link them together. In the Kohomba kankariya, far more than in other aspects comparable ritual theatres, the dance element takes precedence over all other aspects. In consequence, it becomes the finest and most complete presentation of Sinhala dance: in this instance, the Kandyan form. Which is counted the most beautiful of Sinhala dances.
The massed Kandyan dancers in stately head-gear (ves) going into elaborate ballistic formations to the accompaniment of deep, vibrant drum music makes a splendid spectacle. The sheer pervasiveness and beauty of the dance might lead the uninitiated to the conclusion that the Kohomba Kankariya is nothing but an extensive presentation of dance. Despite the elaboration of the dance the ritual purpose has never been forgotten. For example, the opening of the giant Mahaveli river diversion scheme in January 1976 was marked by the performance of a Kohomba Kankariya on the dam site.
The participants themselves treat it with the utmost seriousness and observe the ritual sanctions. A Kohomba Kankariya, moreover, figures as a significant event in the Kandyan dancer’s artistic life: it lffers him the mist challenging occasion for the display of this talents, for he dances in the company of his peers. And it was customary at one time to the time to perform a Khomba Kankariya on the “graduation” of a Kandyan dancer, that is, when he is first permitted to put on the ves head-gear at the end of his training.
The explicitly dramatic segments of the Kohomba Kankarya – nowadays sometimes omitted in performance – come towards the conclusion. Though only peripherally connected to the core ritual, these are of great interest, not only for their use of performance techniques, but also for the way they reflect the social reality that engendered them. Uru Yakkama (the rite of Hunting the Boar) is a case in point. The event is presented in verse narrative, dialogue (often humorous) and mimetic action.
Before setting forth to shoot the boar, the hunter (played by one of the dancers) consults and astrologer for an auspicious time and the proper procedure to be followed. The hunter encounters other animals, which he mistakes for a boar. Eventually, he comes across the real quarry. At this point, a boar-effigy (made of banana stem) is brought into the arena. Now a discussion ensues as to how the boar should be taken, and it is decided that the vest method would be to use a buffalo as decoy.
Now another dancer turns himself into a buffalo by arching his body and placing ins limbs in a particular manner. This animal, noosed after much effort, is then used to entice the boar, which is shot down with bow and arrow. Subsequently, it is dismembered, and the parts are given away to the villages. In this distribution, the actual social order of everyday life is reversed by means of a simple device: the least desirable portions of the carcass are given to he highest-ranking members of the community, and the best to the lowest. Done to the accompaniment of a sarcastic commentary, this achieves a high degree of social satire and criticism.
The Uru Yakkama is but one episode of a type that is found not only the kohomba Kankariya, but all ritual theatres. This makes it clear that ritual theatres have functions besides those pertaining strictly to the spirit world. They deal with matters of everyday reality; in fact, they frequently exhibit a strong tendency to move in the direction of “profane” entertainment having little to do with ritual purpose. This is not a characteristic unknown to other cult ; in Sri Lanka it has been quite pronounced because ritual was, from the beginning, the major kind of performance among the Sinhala people.
Less stately, less costly, hence more frequently given is a group of communal rituals (Gam Maduwa, Devol Maduva, Puna Maduva) deriving largely from the worship of the goddess Pattini (Sinhala variant of the peerless Kannaki celebrated in the Tamil classic Shilappadikaram). Pattini, whose cult is widely followed, is considered to be a powerful deity especially important with respect to contagious diseases. Her intercession is also sought in times of personal distress. Temples (Kovil/devale) dedicated to her are scattered throughout the country.
Ritual theatres linked with the Pattini cult are in the main annual occurrences. The principal objects of worship – representing the goddess herself – are a pair of ankle bracelets, the item of jewellery that played such a crucial role in her own life. Following the normal practice, the core ritual incorporates a number of subsidiary rites, chiefly through mime, dance, and verse narrative. Of special interest is a sequence called the MareIpaddema (death and resurrection), which intimates the great antiquity of the cults that have come to be affiliated with the Pattini theatres.
Since these theatres are performed in many parts of the country, some variations can be noticed in the styled they employ. Furthermore, two distinct forms of dance – “Kandyan” or “Uda Rata” in the up-country areas, and “Pahata Rata” in the low country – are used. At the present time, one is more likely to witness these theatres in the coastal areas (“Pahata Rata”). As with the Kohomba Kankariya, their performance depends on the support of the community.
The second category of ritual theatres those concerned with individual sickness or misfortune – are known collectively as bali-thovil. Bali means rites dedicated to the planetary deities, and are the least dramatic of the ritual theatres. Thovil, given to propitiate and exorcise demons, are as a class highly dramatic and excitingly theatrical.
Bail is a votive offering where chant and incantation receive far greater emphasis than dance and mime. This feature, together with its direct appeal to planetary deities, can be taken as evidence that Bali is later growth than the communal theatres. Another notable characteristic of Bali is the use of images. Large clay effigies, sometimes as tall as 3 meters, representing the planetary deities are constructed in bas-relief fashion, and mounted in upright position before the commencement of the ceremony. The ritual activities take place in front of these images. When they are over, these carefully molded images. Are destroyed. Mainly on account of the heavy expenditure it involves, Bali is seldom performed today.
From Bail to Thovil is a fair leap, though in common parlance the two are linked. The demon world forms the territory of Thovil. The demons are seen as adversaries ever ready to cause harm to men, not as beings capable of beneficence. Thus, apart from propitiation (which is common to al ritual theatres) exorcism also occurs in Thovil. In many instances, the demons are impersonated by masked dancers. (Hence the term “devil dancing” frequently used to describe Thovil.) It is not uncommon for patients to go into states of trance during the course of a performance: at such times, the patient is said to be possessed by the demon responsible for the ailment. These characteristics, implying direct and unmediated encounters with the demons, sometimes turn Thovil into an enormously exciting theatrical experience.
Thovil is an exceptionally interesting curative and therapeutic performance in which the patient’s syndrome is translated into the shape and from of other-worldly creatures who, though evil and frightening, cannot exercise total dominion over man. They can be brought under control. The performers confront them on behalf of the original ritual to reiterate the sanctions within which they mist operate. Accordingly, the demons are obliged to accept the offerings – tokens of what used to extract before the covenant was established – and depart.
The demons must appear before dawn, because they have to return to their abodes without being seen by the sun. Upon arrival in the arena, each demon executes a few steps to the drum, then opens a dialogue with another performer or drummer, asking why he has been summoned, etc. The reason is given: he must accept the offerings made ready for him and the interlocutor now follows – he wants more than is given. Finally, agreement is reached; the demon accepts offerings, blesses the patient and exits. The dialogue is quite humorous, and often heavily charged with obscenities and scatological references.
The in tensest moment in a Thovil performance is reached when the patient becomes violently possessed, and assumes the persona of the apposite demon. At such times, the “patient demon” is closely questioned, and forced to pledge that he will remove his evil influence and go away. Customarily, the patient joins in the dancing at such times. Recalcitrant, unyielding demons are subjected to various punishments, usually exhausting dance at highly increased tempo. Sometimes, they are made to beat themselves with coconut flowers or fronds.
There are several different kinds of Tovil (e.g. Suniyama, Rata Yakuma, Sanni Yakuma), each distinguished by a particular content and a concern with specific forms of demon affliction. Sanni Yakuma is probably the best known, for it brings in eighteen demons, representing eighteen separate diseases (sanni). The demon is identified by the mask he wears, the gestures and mannerisms that attach to him as well as by the verses that signal his entry. Great theatrical flair can be seen in the execution of the entry – each demon, appropriately masked and costumed, sometimes bearing lighted torches in his hands, rushes into the arena from behind an altar (vidiya) amid shrieks and frenzied drumming. These grotesque and fearsome-looking creatures do not however frighten the parent and the spectators. One reason for this is the ribald, comic gesture and tone that underlie their portrayal. Another is the assumption that demons, however malevolent, can ultimately be controlled.
“Arena” is perhaps too suggestive a word to be employed in the contest of these theatres. A raised platform and fixed seating are totally unknown. The audience sits or stands in a circle round the space. A roofed structure is built for certain performances such as the Kohonba Kankariya and Gam Maduva (maduva = shed or pavilion) but this is never thought of as a playhouse. Whatever the ritual prompting behind it, the offering trays, and also as a means of demarcating the performance space the audience is an accommodated outside it – in the open air. For Thovil, the Maduva is not a prescribed requirement. Quite often, the verandah and compound of the patient’s house are used as the acting space. The area thus obtained may be quire small ; moreover, it is a variable one, since the spectators move about constantly, changing the size of the circle.
The absence of a raised stage and a rigidly demarcated acting area means, among other things, that the relationship between the audience and the performers is an intimate one. It also means that lighting is for illumination only – not foe stage effects. Light and fire do play a very important part in ritual theatres. Fire, as is well known, is a ritual cleansing agent. So is the smoke – created with aromatic resin powders – which the performers inhale and envelope themselves in at certain times. Lighted torches, lamps are regular “props” featured in these theatres. Dancers execute intricate, acrobatic steps while holding or twirling several torches at once, then touch them on chest and arms and “eat” the flames. In major communal theatres, “fire-walking” is one of the mandatory concluding rites. The effect of the light and fire sequences is much reduced these days on account lights. In a dimly lit environment, the lights and the flames make for a beautiful, exciting spectacle.
Ritual theatre is generally speaking a formal and solemn event, Yet it is an air of informality that mostly prevails at performances, for they are important social gatherings and meeting places, for they are important social gatherings and meting places too. The spectators are free to move about as they please, and they usually do, especially at Thovils, where the serving of refreshments is a widely observed custom. There are other reasons for the atmosphere of casualness. Few members of the audience stay awake throughout a dusk to dawn “show”. An occasional snooze is not
Considered Improper. Furthermore, these theatres are not designed to elicit continuous and consistent audience attention. There are segments (especially those given over to chant and incantation), which turn into loungers, even for the performers. At such times, the performers who are free rest or sleep.
A word needs to be said here about the performers. They are true professionals after a fashion – not because their entire livelihood today depends on the art, but because they are trained specialists. The training they receive is chiefly in traditional dance and music, either Uda rata or Pahata rata depending on place of birth, family background and other determining factors. They begin quite early (normally before the age of ten) usually under the tutelage of an elder (father, uncle or other relative) since the teaching, learns both by doing and observing. He will learn drumming as well as dancing, but concentrate on one later in life.
To become a ritual specialist, he does not have to join a cult, be initiated, or have a shamanistic experience. He merely learns the lore of the rituals, the procedures and the “texts”. In fact, the student automatically turns into a ritual specialist too as he completes his training of Sinhala dance is traditionally inseparable from ritual. The dance, whatever the style, is developed as the core of the ritual event. In the Kandyan tradition, for example, the education of the dancer culminated in the performance of the Kohomba Kankariya. Dance was pursued as a discipline and practiced almost exclusively in the ritual context, and even today it forms the principal attraction of these theatres.
The “text” of the ritual theatres, which the performers must know by memory, is of course not pieces of dramatic writing, but chants, mantrams, narrative in verse and other balladic material. Most of this may be called “folk” literature; a small part of it, though, is known only to the specialists. Several segments of each performance have no textual basis and are entirely improvised following conventional techniques. For example, in the conversations with their interlocutors, the demons regularly play with words by mispronouncing and punning. Except for these passages of ad-libbing, which of course are in earthy, colloquial speech, there departs occasions when the language of ritual theatre departs from the metrical, stanzaic forms of folk poetry and from incantatory prose.
Their major characteristics – the propitiatory, exorcist intent, the paramountacy of dance, the highly episodic, segmented structure, the elastic form, the lack of a textual base – will probably raise the question whether the ritual theatre are theatres at all. Indeed, they are frequently seen as primitive performances with only the rudiments of drama – the rudiments being those sections where dramatic situations are presented and developed through mime and dialogue.
It is hardly necessary to point out that such a modernistic, literary perspective is inapplicable to these theatres, which were generated and nurtured by societies entirely different from those germane to modern urban theatre. The traditional theatres articulated the specific kinds of relations that the people had with each other, with the environment and with the “other world”. They mixed the sacral and the secular and overlaid religious ceremonial with profane entertainment. They served their several purposes admirably well and were wholly sufficient in their context. To deny that so patently audience-oriented performances are theater is to give a very limiting definition to the term.
To say all this is not to gloss over the fact that the ritual theatres have now reached a stage where all internal growth has ceased. The times have changed, but not the theatres. The cleavage between them and society is increasing, and the current revival interest in the traditional arts has served only to focus attention on their dance and musical aspects, not to transform or modify their subject matte. That they resist “modernization” is part of their essential nature.
That they are still performed is, however, sufficient evidence that these have not lost all meaning and vitality. Of the several very important theatrical qualities they exemplify, the most considerable and noteworthy perhaps is the communal, collective base that is a pre-condition of their being. They are the richly imaginative and functional artistic expressions of a simple but highly integrated society where all endeavour was collective endeavour. This characteristic is evident even in Bali and Thovil for there individual distress is brought into the public domain through the performance and the viewers vitality in the healing by sharing responsibility for the curative and therapeutic procedures.
The ritual theatres are also total theatres. They bring into play, besides the entire range of expressive modes – gesture, mime, song, chant, dace, etc. – certain traditional crafts as well. Bali, as noted earlier, requires the molding of images out of clay and the painting of figures of demons and deities. This is done in a style very similar, if not identical, to the work seen in the image houses of Buddhist temples. The mask carver’s art, a notable one in the Sinhal tradition, was sustained almost entirely by ritualistic theatre. (There is only one non-ritualistic sinhala theatre – Kolam – that uses wooden masks.)
All ritual theatres make profuse use of offering trays (Thatu, Pideni), altars (Veediya, Aile) and other properties especially constructed for each performance. None of these ritual objects are re-used, since they are destroyed or discarded at the end of the event, Moreover, they are made of impermanent materials: banana stem, coconut fronds (gok), and habarala leaf.
Considering the diverse ways in which they have reflected and articulated the culture, harnessed the performance arts and the decorative crafts, the ritual theatres may be said to constitute the mainstream of the sinhala theatrical tradition. Certainly few other theatrical forms are better known or have found wider acceptance among the people. The performances still vibrate with energies absent in the other theatres and they achieve an elemental power with no investment in dramatic writing and no expenditure of scenery and set.
The indigenous Sinhala theatres outlined thus far fall strictly within the matrix of folk religious belief and practice. There are some others that lie outside this matrix. Of these, Sokari, now an exclusively Kandyan performance, is a rare transitional form that has retained some ritual import despite a fully secular content Its connection, interestingly, is with the Pattini cult which, as mentioned earlier, has number of ritual theatres devoted to it.
Sokari is performed as a votive offering to Pattini. Their goddess herself does not appear in the action in an instrumental fashion, but is nevertheless an immanent figure. Sokari has one story (like the ritual theatres) and this concerns a man, Guru Hami, his wife, the eponymous heroine, and their rascally servant Paraya (or Pachamira) who travel to Sri Lanka from India, with the intention of setting down and raising a family. In the course of attempting these things, the trio goes through a series of (largely comical) adventures. At one point, young and seductive, elopes with, or is seduced by (the interpretation varies) the doctor summoned to treat her husband who has been bitten by a snake. Eventually she returns, and has a child by Guru Hami.
How, when and why the enactment of this story came to be linked with the worship of Pattini are matters for speculation? That it has the connotations of a fertility rite is however quite obvious. Its without child for sometime, and prays to Pattini for one. She conceives; the birth of the baby is depicted in the play. Afterward, Sokari picks up a child from the audience and rocks it to sleep. All this, together with the sexual symbolism and the obscenities that punctuate the Sokari is the dramatic elaboration of an archaic fertility rite.
Sokari is among the most theatrically accomplished of the folk performances. Its mimetic content is truly impressive in range and economy of use. The principal stages of the sea journey – the procuring of the timber, the building of the ship, the actual crossing of the ocean – and the other happening in Sri Lnaka are presented though highly inventive physical actions that often match and even outdo the sophisticated experiments of the modern stage.
As done in the village setting, Sikari is a non-stop all night “show” beginning shortly after the evening meal. Its ritual necessities are modest – just one simple altar to house that few offerings to Pattini. The place of performance is any open space: threshing floors are commonly utilized for this purpose, again suggesting the fertility implications. The narrative portions, all in verse, are recited by the players (all males) and are unobtrusive chorus to the accompaniment of a drum.
The characteristic movement of Sokari is a circular one – the players go round the arena in simple rhythmic step while narrating the story. They stop to enact a scene, and having finished it, continue the recitation and the circular motion. The scenes are set pieces, which provide room for improvisation and individual creativity. Of the major characters, only the clownich servant wears a mask. At the end of the performance, which comes as dawn breaks, the players take of their make up in front of the alter, supplicating themselves before Pattini, and begging her forgiveness for any deficiencies and mistakes in the presentation.
At one time it was feared that Sokari was no longer being performed and that the tradition itself was on the verge of extinction. Fortunately, this has proved to be a false alarm. At the present time, there are several active peasant Sokari groups, one of which is made up of young men. The teacher, though, is an ageing trouper.
It can be surmised that the survival of Sokari is due largely to the Pattini cult, which still has many adherents: the performers consider themselves to be devotees of the goddess; it is quite normal for the players to go into trance states during the performance. Sometimes, several members of the audience also follow suit unlike in Tovil and certain other ritual theatres, these by muscular rigidity. Again, unlike the ritual theatres, Sokari in not caste-bound. Nor does the training take as long, because the dancing is simpler.
The Sokari form is responding in a fashion to the changing tastes of the folk audience. The opening sequence in the performance of one group carries a strong flavor of the Nurti, an early modern form of Sinhala drama. Contemporary Sinhala “pop” tunes are being adopted by another group. These will be regarded by that the essential strengths of Sokari remain.
From Sokari it is an easy transition to Kolam, a folk theatre that at one time was very popular, but is infrequently performed nowadays. In comparison with Sokari, Kolam denotes a further stage in the secularization of indigenous theatre, for it has attained the status of a theatrical grnre, yet not without clear hints of an earlier ritualistic function. Being more of an open form than Sokari, Kolam has a repertoire of dramas (albeit a small one ) any of which may be selected for performance.
Kolam, now confined to a few locations in the Southern maritime area, is distinguished by the extensive use of masks. These masks, though akin to those employed in Tovil, tend to be more realistic because many of the characters they represent are of this world. A few masks, such as those of the King and the Queen (stock characters both), are quite intricately sculptured and heavy. Further, kolam masks are full masks, not designed to allow a strong, distinct projection of the voice. Going by these features, some scholars have argued that Kolam began as a masked dace ritual, which later become a sung and spoken drama, but did not discard or modify the masks.
Lending support to this argument is the fact that Kolam preserves certain affinities with the ritual theatres in the conceptualization and presentation of characters. Analogous to the demons of Thovil are the stock characters that are brought before the audience as audience as prelude to the dramas proper. There is wife (a randy old women), the policemen, the watermen, his wife and paramour, the village dignitary as well as certain celestial beings and some animals. According to told texts, there are over fifty such characters.
The large cast of the prelude has no direct bearing on the stories that are dramatized, but they are tenuously connected with the story of the genesis of Kolam. According to this, a certain Queen, being with child, suffered from a “pregnancy craving” for “dances and amusement” Which was ultimately satisfied with a performance of Kolam. As each character ends his piece, the question is asked, by a musician who his appearance. (In Thovil, it will be recalled, it is the demon who puts the question, “Why have I been summoned.”) The reply is: “I /We have come to announce that king and the Queen are on their way here.”
It is evident that gallery of characters has grown over the years, though the dramas themselves have remained in the region of five or six. As in Thovil each character’s entry is preceded by a set of introductory verses, which are chanted by the musicians. The character, masked, then enters and dances round the area singing verses descriptive of his or her special talents and conditon. Sometimes, tow or more players represent the same character type. For example, in one tradition, there are five policemen – four constables and a sergeant. This convention allows for the elaboration of the elaboration of the presentations into dramatic episodes. Thus the four policemen may be discovered by the officer. The most famous of these is the episode of Jasa and Lenchaina (the washerman and his wife) – a short play in itself.
The central situation here is a ménage a trios; Jasa has brought a mistress to live with him. The wife Lencina, herself amorous, laments her fate (for she has been married to Jasa against her will) and complains to the Mudal, the village functionary.The case is tried, but not before a good deal of farcical business has taken place. A wily doctor also figures is these events as happens in the Sikari story. But the comedy here is stronger and sharper in social content, perhaps because the Kolam is more secular is nature.
The large gallery of characters and the comic scenes that are woven around them well qualify the Kolalm to be called the Comedian dell’ Arte of Sri Lanka: the and techniques used are very similar.
In common with other native theatres, the Kolam dispenses with all stage paraphernalia. Any level piece of ground suffices; the audience forms a circle round it during the performance, which as usual starts after invocatory chants and daces, addressed to the deities. These brief rites are dined before the alteration (a small in, as in the Sokari). However, the gods are not instrumental or immanent presences as in the ritual theatres. At the end of the event, which is reached early in the morning, the super naturals are invoked again, so that the players may beg their pardon for errors and imperfections in the performance.
There are three main stories particularly associated with the Kolam : Sandakinduru Katawa (katava = story), Maname Katava and Gama Katava. The first tow are form Buddhist lore, the Sandakinduru being a version of the Manora story, which is a staple of all South East Asian theatres. In the enactment of these dramas masks are not used. It is not easy to say when the masks were discarded, if indeed they were functionally employed in the dramatizations. In any event, as performed today, the Katavas lack a distinctive flavour, and it is quite obvious that the true creativity and power of the Kolam reside in the introductory and presentations. With their exuberant theatricality and pungent satirical thrust, they constitute the soul of the kolam : the enactment of the stories appears a tame afterpiece. Whether this has been the case right through the form is not known.
A nearly extinct folk theatre called the Kavi Nadaygama throws some light on the problem. The kavi Nadagama had a large repertoire than the Kolam, but its most popular pieces were Sandakinduru and Maname. Although it made no use whatever of masks, its theatrical style was basically similar to that of the Kolam. These links and differences have been interpreted to mean that the kavi Nadagama was a matural outcome of the Kolam’s experience with the masks. Instead of dropping the masks, which were found and encumbrance, a new from – the Kavi Nadagama – was created, and the kolam itself took the cue from its offspring and discarded the masks from the dramas proper.
Whether this was the actual scenario or not, the connections between the two forms indicate an ongoing process among all folk theatres. Since they existed in the same culture, were performed for the same audience by nearly the same performers and were not bound by a rigid aesthetic, the folk theatres influenced each other continuously. Each did preserve its separate identify, but assimilated diverse elements form others. This process of interpenetration has continued to the present day – Sokari, as noted earlier, has picked up “ pop” tunes, and the Kolam has culled some material from the modern stage.
The next chapter in the story of the Sinhala theatre is the coming of the Nadamama. This happened not more than two hundred years ago, most scholars agree, though no exact date has been established. But there is little doubt as to its source – the Nadagama has no antecendents among the Sinhala theatres and is unquestionably Dravidan in origin.The first Sinhala Nadagama plays, it is said, were translated from the Tamil.
All available evidence points to Roman Catholicism as the agent of the Nadagama’s diffusion among the Sinhaless, if not its begetter as well. It has been suggested that the forerunner of Sinhala Nadagama was a dramatic form constructed out of several South-Indian folk theatres by Catholic missionaries. In any event, the earliest Sinhala practitioners of the Nadagama were Catholics who employed it to dramatise liturgical subject matter. Before long, however, folk theatre in the Western coastal belt, the area most directly theatrical craft – it brought no such appurtenances as scenery or playhouse – but in its music, story material, and in its conception of theatre as a performance divorced from ritual observance.
Musically, the roots of the Nadagama were in the South-Indian Carnatic tradition, whose idiom differs substantially from that of indigenous Sinhala music. In the ritual theatres, Kolam and Sokari, “song” was actually a sort of chant or recitative embedded in the regular metrical schemes of folk poetry, melodic compass. The Nadagama song had a grater melodic range and offered more scope for dramatic expression.
Furthermore, the Madagama gave a central role to music. It was, in fact, a completely sung drama, the traditional to a fully operatic form to develop within the traditional framework. All other theatres used prose dialogue in varying degrees; here it was reduced to an utterance between songs, intoned in a particular fashion. The Nadamama music thus brought a fresh dimension into Sinhala folk theatre.
So did its subject matter. The Sinhala folk theatre had been tied to specific myths or to a very small number of legends determined by convention and transmitted by tradition. The Nadagama introduced fictional material, and thereby opened up hitherto uncharted territory for the Sinhala theatre. In the beginning, it is true, it dealt with Christian themes, but was never thought of as ritual performance or religious drama * . The form was palpably secular, readily at home in the land of adventure and romance.
In its presentational aspects, the Madagama was not too foreign to the indigenous tradition, Its main innovation in this regard, was the use of a raised, covered stage – a temporary structure of piled earth, semi-circular in shape, sheltered by a thatch of coconut palm leaves. There was no front curtain, no sets, and of course no playhouse. The musicians occupied a part of the stage, so did the Narrator or Presenter, and perhaps one or tow singers to serve as a chorus.
The performance starting around nine and lasting till morning (and continuing nightly for a week in the old days) are commenced with the presentation of stock characters - jester, drummer, herald, and so forth. As with the earlier indigenous theatres, the stock characters had their identifying styles of dance and song. Two members of this prologue, called the Deshanvadi, briefly narrated the story to be enacted. Then, after certain other preliminaries, such as the arrival if the king, the drama would begin.
The dramas were long, rather involved tales peopled by eloquent kings, warriors, aristocratic beauties, all consumed by affairs of state and of love. They were written in a mixed tongue, profusely littered with Tamil and pseudo-leaned words. The authorship of the early cannot be established with any certainty; many are attributed to the legendary Philippu Singho, putative father of the Sinhala Nadagama. Little really is known about this man, but he is believed to have been a blacksmith. This gives a sufficient picture of the social level at which the Nadagama was practiced. It was essentially a folk drama, largely made by unschooled authors for a folk audience. But what the Nadagama lacked in literary sophistication, it made up in raw theatrical energy.
The Nadamagm became very popular in the Western and Southern coastal belt, but did not spread to the interior of the country. In this area it turned into a much sought after entertainment, even superseding the older theatres. Yet it never made it to the city as truly urban the folds of the folk tradition without evolving into an urban or literary art, though it had a potential in that direction, was not accidental.
The fate of the Nadagama was determined in significant measure by a cultural factor, which is of the utmost importance in understanding the nature and development of the theatre in Sri Lanka. From the earliest times, the dramatic form appears to have been eschewed – indeed despised - by the Sinhala literati: they devoted their abundant labors to prose and poetry. It is unlikely that Sinhala classical culture was unearthed to show that any Sinhala writer worked in the dramatic form. (The earliest extant Sinhala writings date from the 6th century.)
The neglect of drama as a literary form, whatever its causes, also decided the social base of the art. In Sri Lanka, this meant the confining of the theatre to the rural setting and to folk culture – or to the Little Tradition, as anthropologists would say. In consequence, the theatres were very tardy in developing secular characteristics; the propitiatory and exorcist elements persisted as the very core of their being. Most of them retained a fixed and inviolable content without widening into theatrical genres or forms. To be sure, they did acquire and enlarge upon “Profane”, non-ritualistic aspects, but the forms themselves remained unchanged. The opening out of the Kolam and the Kavi Nadagams was probably due to their contact with the Nadagama.
The age-old disdain of the literati towards the theatre lasted into the twentieth century, long after Sinhala literature itself had moved away from the religious bas. The Nadamama enriched the traditional patterns in several ways, but was unable to attract the interest of the literati. It was only in the mid-Fifties that the Nadagama was “discovered” by the modern practitioner as a promising theatrical resource.
A truly urban Sinhala theatre came into being only in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Around that time, there arrived in this country a Parsi theatrical company from Bombay, bringing with it a navel kind of drama quite unlike the performances familiar to local audiences. This Parsi theatre, which soon came to be known as Nurti (=this new drama) in Sinhal, was a singular blend of European and Indian dramatic modes and stagecraft.
In terms of presentation, the Nuri adhered to the Western concept of an organized, scenic proscenium stage employing painted backdrops and wings – and of course an enclosed playhouse. Against the scenic splendour thus achieved were placed gorgeously costumed personages (chiefly of royal or aristocratic lineage) who acted out exotic tales of romance and adventure to lilting Hindustani melodies. Audiences in Colombo found this unusual stage entertainment utterly captivating, as did their counterparts in the major cities of South and South-East Asia (The Parsi companies toured extensively.)
Practically overnight, the Nuti was domesticated. Singhala plays were written on similar material, and staged in the same manner to the very same music. Playhouse was built in Colombo to accommodate the Nuti and its rapidly growing audience. Thus was born the first urban, commercial theatre in Sri Lanka. It flourished in the first tow decades (both male and female) who made a living out of the theatre, a stage-struck audience that nightly crowded the several playhouses in Colombo, and a new profession – that of playwriting.
Like every thriving commercial theatre, the Nurti needed a regular supply of new plays. This demand was met by the new Sinhala playwrights who, thought in the craft, learnt rapidly from the models. Fortunately, they did not limit themselves to the Parsi creations – they also turned to Sanskrit classical drama and to Shakespeare. These were rendered in Sinhala, though not with scrupulous fidelity to the originals. And inevitably, they took up local history and Buddhist lore. Of these playwrights who fed the Nurti, John de Silva (1857-1922) won the greatest popularity and a lasting renown. (The first state built theatre in Colombo is named after him.)
Viewed from the perspective of dramatic craft, the Nurti plays hardly pass mister. They carry the deadweight and the crudities of the initial model that inspired the dramatists. The parsi theatrical was an inelegant hybrid created by grafting the already outmoded European techniques of staging onto a dramatic form which was itself an admixture of Indian classical and folk elements. The Sinhala playwrights retained the prototype’s accent on song, high gesture and spectacle, but did not address themselves to the task of eliminating its defects and improving the form.
It is important to remember, however, that the Nurti writers were true pioneers. Working in a language that possessed no dramatic literature, thy started practically from scratch. And though they wrote for a highly competitive commercial stage, many of them (most particularly John de Silva) did not forget to honor drama as a serious art with important social and political change by attacking the blind imitation of things Western, and expressing the rising national consciousness of the Sinhalese. (This again is a quality best seen in the works of John de Silva.)
In this manner, the Nurti playwrights contributed much to Sinhala drama. They helped to make it a popular medium: an art acceptable to a wide social spectrum their work was patronized by the decorous middle-class (then in the early phase of its growth) as well as the city populace. Moreover, the plays were published and sold at a modest price. Though they were read chiefly by the Nurti fans, their publication did foster the concept of playwriting as a literary art. The tremendous impact the Nurti had in its time may be gauged by the fact its heyday is still regarded by some as the golden age of Sinhala theatre.
Despite its great popularity, the Nurti could not survive into the Thirties. After the advent of the “bioscope” (the cinema) it became hard to sustain the stage financially. The decline was rapid. Ironically, the Indian-made films that proved a major challenge to the theatre were themselves fashioned on the very same Parsi theatre that begot the Nurti. Notwithstanding the language barrier, these films were able to seduce the audience away from drama. The Nurti stuck to its formula and did not change sufficiently to meet the new competition.(other Parsi inspired theatres in the region met with the same fate.)Symbolically, the leading playhouse – The Tower Hall – was converted into a movie house, signaling the end of the brief but lively epoch of the first but lively epoch of the first Sinhala urban theatre.
Some of the “classical” Nurti pieces are occasionally revived but if they hold audiences today, it is mainly because of their beautiful melodies. Yet the form itself is far from dead: the scores of amateur festivals (Vessak, Poson) are cast in the Nurti mould, though they do not generally go by that name. One always finds in them the amalgam of the melodramatic and the comic, the sung and the declaimed dialogue, and the loose, episodic structure so characteristic of the Nurti. The lavish spectacle of the Nurti cannot be reproduced on the high booth stages put up for these productions, but the same interest in costume prevails.
Incidentally, it is worth nothing that the presentation of plays in connection with the Vesak and Poson festivals has greatly increased during the past few years. Though by no means solemn in tone, these dramas are built around Buddhist themes and Jataka tales (birth stories of the Buddha.) They are done largely by inexperienced amateurs in wayside booths. They are enormously popular with the bulk of the sightseers who throng the streets during the festive nights. And like all folk theatre, they are “free shows”.
Sinhala theatre as a commercial, urban medium ended its first phase with the arrival of the cinema and the consequent decline of the Nurti. It tried agin – during the period of World War II – with another kind of product: a drama with a more immediate social base and a tighter structure than the Nurti. Sometime described as the Jayamanne plays (after one of the principal writes and actors), these works treated contemporary concerns and problems such a s the evils of caste, and the dowry system of marriage. But they were really domestic melodramas peopled by characters rather over-endowed with endowed with emotion.
Though somewhat better constructed than the average Nurti work, these plays were no great contribution to Sinhala dramaturgy. They mixed the realistic and the far-fetched, the comic and the sentimental in indiscriminate fashion; they also used song, though not as extensively stage, however, the companies that performed this drama toured the country, doing one-night stands wherever basic stage facilities were available.
There plays filled a tangible gap in the entertainment field: there was as yet no Sinhala-language cinema, and they brought to the local audiences something that approximated to what the Tamil and Hindi films purveyed. Before long, they themselves migrated to the silver screen, and in its initial stages, the Sinhala cinema (the first film was made in 1947) subsisted almost entirely on them. The Jayamannes also became the first star names of the Sinhala screen.
The Nurti and the Jayamanne plays were merely the precursors, not the begetters of the modern Sinhala drama. They set the stage, so to speak , by establishing certain basic conventions, such as the proscenium stage, the theatre made its transition to the cit. Modern Sinhala drama was born under other, more literary-oriented auspices – namely, that of the western-educated intelligentsia. For example, at the Ceylon University College (as the nucleus of the present university system was known), Sinhala translations and adaptations of the modern classics were annually presented. These productions, though seen only by small, other things, they helped in the forging of a stage language free from the ornate rhetoric of the Nruti, and the bombast of the Jayamanne plays.
Meanwhile, several amateur theatrical groups outside t he university too were making sporadic attempts to produce works suitable for a modern Sinhala stage – that is, dramas not flowing directly from the Nurti and the Jayamanne traditions. Here also the inspirations were the Western drama **
Such were the modest and tentative beginnings of the rapidly enlarging stream of modern drama. At that time (not more than three decades ago) the literati who took part in such activities did not see much artistic value or aesthetic possibilities in the indigenous theatres. They believed that the future development of Sinhala drama depended on learning from and following appropriate international models, chiefly European ones. Since they were thinking in terms of a realistic dialogue drama, this was entirely logical – there were no Sinhala models to follow.
Throughout the Forties and the early Fifties, various experiment in dramatic writing and production were made along there lines. Some were very successful (e.g. the adaptation of Gogol’s The Inspector- General), but their wit and sparkle, and their theatrical polish were not sufficient to fire the imagination of writers and entice new audiences to the theatre. The significant breakthrough came in 1956 (in many ways a memorable year for Sri Lanka) With a play called Maname.
Ediriweera Sarchchandra, a professor at the University, had been studying the indigenous theatrical traditions for the creation of a non-realistic dramatic form for the modern stage. In 1956 he startled the local theatre world with Maname, a dramatization of a Buddhist Jatake tales (already familiar to Koalm audiences) are in the Nadagam style. As a theatrical achievement, the new play was as unexpected as it was brilliant, for both patrons and practitioners of the modern Sinhala drama had long consigned the Nadagama to the limbo of things irrelevant ti the contemporary stage.
Maname, it must be emphasized, was not solely an attempt at revivinig a folk genre, as it is sometimes misconstrued to be. In essence, what Sarachchadra did to was to extract certain formal and technical elements form the old Nadamama, and employ them in the fashioning of a modern non-realistic stage play The Nadagama, as noted earlier, used highly formalized methods of presentation and a distinctive music. Sarachchandra adopted the basic presentational methods (especially those relating to the introduction of the fermatas personae), gesture, modes of speech, and above all, the music. He also re-interpreted the old story – “modernized” it, in a manner of speaking. Traditionally Maname had been a quite anti-feminist moral fable. The story concerns a prince, Maname, highly adept in the martial arts, who gets lost in a forest on his Journey home with his beautiful young bride. They are desires the princess, and tells Maname to leave her behind or face death. The prince kills the entire band, finally overcomes the king and asks the princess for his sword to the forester. Having killed Maname, the forester asks the princess to take off all her Jewellery. He then chides the princess for her treacherous behaviour, and leaves with her belongings. Now utterly alone, the princes end her life by biting off her tongue.
Sarachandra changed this traditional version in several salient points. In his play, the forester-king dismisses his cohorts and fights single-handed with the prince. The princess pleads for his life, pointing out that he was valiant enough not to use his armed followers. Maname is taken aback by this argument, and momentarily relaxes his grip on the captive. The forester frees himself, snatches the sword from the princess and kills the prince. And he abandons her only when she confesses that she fell in love with him the instant she saw him, and indeed planned to give the sword not to he husband but to him. The princess does not kill herself but dies of a broken heart, as the choric narrator reports to the audience. The chorus leader also comments that he does not know who is to blame for the tragedy.
It would be evident from this brief description that Sarachchandra’s concerns were very different form these of the makers of traditional theatre. What he expressed was an emerging consciousness preoccupied with the problems of morality. The Nadagama form enabled him to reduce the central experience to its essence and project it with great power. And he made masterly use of the musical element. Sarachchandra combed the entire Nadagama repertoire, and chose the finest melodies available. The writing itself was and achievement of a high order, superior to anything heard of the Sinhala stage up to that time. Even at its best, the Nurti language lacked stylistic integrity, and Jarred the ear with its indiscriminate mixing of the ornate and the homely. Sarachchandra maintained a consistent literary idiom of dramatic force and much lyric beauty. With Maneame, Sinhala dramatic writing achieved dome measure of poetic richness.
On the boards, all of this added up ‑to superb theatre – and a moving dramatic experience. But, apart from pleasing its audience, Maname stimulated the Sinhalal theatre, fertilized it with fresh ideas, gave intimations of new possibilities, brought artistic respectability to drama composed in Sinhala, and helped to attract a new audience. Although Maname burst upon the theatre scene practically unannounced, it was not an isolated event in the large perspective. Politically, socially, culturally, the nation was going through a very important period of change and re-occupation. One pervasive feature of these years was the per-occupation with questions of nationhood and cultural identity. For a country that became independent only in 1947 after several centuries of colonial rule, these were issue of major significance. Their corollary, especially in a country with a high rate of literacy, was an increasing involvement with the national languages and with traditional culture. Increasingly, it was being felt that the people had to return to their traditional roots – their language, their religion, their arts – if they were to achieve nationhood.
Maname was absolutely in keeping with this tide of feeling more; it was positive proof that the ideal of a national art was no empty dream.
In these different ways, then Maname infused a fund of vitality, and brought a new direction into Sinhala drama. And most of them drew upon traditional forms – the Nadagama itself, Silari, Thovil – and folk dance and music. Not unexpectedly, the experimentation revealed both the potentialities and the limitations of the indigenous theatrical resources. It became apparent before long that the pursuit of one particular genre was not the most fertile approach to tradition.
The Ndagama proved to be an object lesson in this regard. The playwrights who essayed it faced the inescapable problem of music. Being an operatic from, the Nadagama places exceptional demands on music – and on a particular style of music at that. And these demands the composers were unable to satisfy in adequate measure. The existing body of Nadagama songs was neither large nor varied enough to meet the new situation. Sarachchandra picked out the best melodies for Maname, and for his second creation in the same style, Sinhabahu (1961), he had to depend to some extent on new compositions.
The totally sung drama – represented by the Nadagma – was gradually abandoned, though in the first flush of re-discovery, it was regarded by many as the most promising form. Sarachchndra himself worked in it only twice. There were other reasons besides the music for the disenchantment with the Nadagama, Because of its high degree of stylization; this form could admit only a limited range of subject matter. Its conventions seemed inhospitable to contemporary characters and situations.
While the Nadagama was given up as too limited and too demanding to a from, the engagement with the traditional theatres continued unabated, and the bulk of the new works presented on the Sinhala stage carried distinctive marks of the encounter. The poorest among them were no more variety “shows” naturally; this seemingly excessive dependence on the traditional drama generated a lot of criticism. It was argued that Sinhala drama was sacrificing content to the allurement of the recently found theatrical modes. The function of drama in a changing society, it was pointed out, was to deal with contemporary issues, and this could be done best in the realistic style.
The criticism was not unfounded, for a good many of the new makers of Sinhala theatre appeared to be less interested in what they said than how they said it. However, the debate did generate a lot of heat, and the Sinhala theatre seemed to divide itself into tow camps – “thaathvika” and “shaileegatha” meaning realistic and non-realistic respectively. These appeared to be tow distinctive directions, and the playwright, it was said, had to choose one or the other. By the mid-Sixties, however, the polarization became rather meaningless, for the two paths had actually begun to converge.
Sinhala playwrights and directors now move with facility thorough the entire territory, using any folk element that suits their purpose, without strictly adhering to one single form. A few among them, though, have refused to venture into realistic modes, maintaining that their particular approach to drama, which is poetic, precludes realism. Strict naturalism, however, is a rarity on the Sinhala stage.
Free experimentation with traditional forms has enabled the Sinhala theatre to build up a rich storehouse of theatrical tools. But the indigenous resources are far from exhausted; in fact, they have only been touched.As in the other arts, in theatre too, the idea of a specifically Sinhala from which is distinctive and identifiable as such, is proposed as a desirable and necessary goal. In this regard, it may be said that modern Sinhala theatre does have an undeniable flavour and character of its own, despite its obvious eclecticism. At its finest, the modern Sinhala theatre is a harmonious, creative blend of Western and native concepts and conventions, a far cry from the Parsi pastiche that brought the Nurti into being.
Did Sinhala drama originate in Christmas?
Christmas is a season of joy and festivity. During Christmas many nativity plays are enacted on the Birth of Christ in a stable and incidents connected with it. There have been nativity plays in Sri Lanka from the times of the Portuguese.
It is on record that in 1615 a nativity play was performed in Kammala on the incarnation of Christ. None of the nativity plays during the Portuguese times have come down to us.
There is no evidence as to the type of drama that prevailed in the ancient past. There are some references to dramatic performances in Mahawamsa, Pujavaliya and in some other literary works. It cannot be ruled out that there were no dramas in ancient Sri Lanka.
Kolam, Sokari, Gammadu and Thovil Madu coming down from ancient times are not considered as drama in the real sense of the term. There have also been age-long puppet displays made of Kaduru wood during festivals. However, they appear to be wayside performances.
The earliest form of Sinhala drama we could speak of today is Nadagam. There is evidence that nadagam have originated in Christmas.
There is a popular belief that Sinhala Nadagam was introduced by Philippu Singho. However, the late Dr. Edmund Pieris, former Bishop of Chilaw who had done much research on the origins and development of Sinhala Nadagam shows that the first Sinhala Nadagam was Raja Tunkattuwa presented by M. S. Gabriel Fernando of Chilaw. It was based on the Birth of Christ in a stable and the worship of the divine baby by the Three Kings of Magi.
Gabriel Fernando modelled his "Raja Tunkattuwa" on the Tamil natakam "Muvrasikai Natakam" on the Birth of Christ. In 1882 this "Raja Tunkattuwa" was revised and re-cast by Juan Pinto. In the "Viyarana Viriduwa" of the "Raja Tunkattuwa" enacted by Juan Pinto it is stated that the original author of it was Gabriel Fernando of Chilaw.
According to tradition, Philippu Singho was born about the year 1770. It is said that he presented "Ehelapola Nadagama" in 1824.
"Raja Tunkattuwa" of M. S. Gabriel Fernando was first enacted in 1761. As it is "Raja Tunkattuwa" of Gabriel Fernando could be considered as the first Sinhala Nadagam.
The text of "Raja Tunkattuwa" nadagama enacted at times by the people of Duwa during the Christmas season was a subsequent innovation. It was written by Marthelis Gurunnanse.
As "Raja Tunkattuwa" was a success Mihindukulasuriya Gabriel Fernando wrote another nadagama called "Marigida Nadagama" on the life of St. Margarita. This was followed by many other Sinhala nadagams on the lives of Saints and other Catholic themes. Before long nadagams on secular themes like "Ehelapola", "Sinhavalli", "Portia" and "Mathalan" were performed in various parts of the country and nadagam became a recognised form of drama in Sri Lanka.
Nadagam is a derivation of the Tamil term "Natakam". The Jesuit priests in Jaffna presented Catholic plays coming down from the Portuguese tradition in Terukuttu style that was popular in Jaffna and Batticaloa. Terukuttu was a form of street drama that spread to Sri Lanka from South India.
The early nadagams closely followed "Terukuttu" in presentation and in style. First came the "Pothe Gura" or the narrator who introduced the play. Before each actor came to the stage, the Pothe Gura introduced them too in a verse called "Innisai". He also appeared in between the play to narrate parts not performed in the stage. All the dialogue was in verse or rhythmic prose. Songs were influenced by Carnatic music.
In nadagam there were folk dramatic forms as well. The audience sat around the stage and the actors performed their parts dancing round the stage. The narrator used "Kavi Sindu" to introduce actors to the stage. There was chorus that repeated the singing of the narrator and the actors called "Athval Gayanaya." These were features found in Kolam, Sokari, Gammadu and Thovil Madu as well. As time went on folk dialogue, folk attire, dance forms and folk music too were absorbed to give nadagam a distinct local outlook.
It could be seen that early nadagams were presented by the Catholics on Christian themes. Philippu Singho who is said to have done much to popularise nadagam and accredited of having taken nadagam from religious themes to secular sphere was a Catholic. He was the author of many Catholic nadagams like "Santha Joseph," "Helena," "Santha Nicholas" and some secular nadagams like "Ehelapola." "Balasantha Nadagama" of Eugene Perera, "Eugene Nadagama" of V. Pieris and "Selesthina" of Charles de Abrew were other well-known nadagams.
In the 18th century there was another form of dramatic performance in Sri Lanka known as "Pasku" enacted on the Passion of Christ. Blessed Joseph Vaz seeing that people loved to see puppet plays initiated the performance of Passion Plays on the model of religious drama he had witnessed in Goa with images of sacred personages. They were enacted even before nadagam.
It is on record in the "Oratorian Mission" that there were Passion shows in Kandy and in Vanni during the season of Lent in 1706 and later in Trincomalee and several other places.
These Passion shows were performed inside a large shed which was covered at the bottom with cadjan walls about six feet in height. The statues were moved by people covered by the cadjan walls so that to the spectators it appeared as if the statues were moving on the stage. A leader called Annavi Rala who had an appealing voice explained various scenes in the chanting style.
However, these Passion shows were meditative narrations on the sufferings of Christ. It was very much later, specially after the famous Passion Play at Pesalai, the Passion shows developed into fully fledged drama. Nadagam had a complete dramatic convention in contrast to those earlier Passion shows. Nadagam is regarded as the earliest form of recognised drama in Sri Lanka.
In the latter half of the 19th century there came Pharase nurthi from North India. Nadagams were performed all over the night for days whereas nurthi was limited to about three and a half hours. There were new themes, well parted scenes, better lighted stages, make-up and well developed orchestra in nurthi. As a result nurthi had a better appeal to the people and nadagams were overshadowed.
Most of the Nadagam artistes now turned to puppet drama. The well-known puppet plays like "Ehelapola" and "Wessanthara" were based on nadagam stories and well-known characters in nadagam like "Sellan Lama" and "Konangi" were found in puppet plays as well. In Catholic areas in the Western sea-board nadagam continued to be performed as a religious exercise.
It was Prof. E. R. Sarachchandra who brought back nadagam to limelight. He chisseled and polished nadagam forms and made use of them to produce outstanding plays like "Maname" and "Sinhabahu". These magnificent stylised drama appealed to both the elite and the commoner.
A major criticism levelled against nadagam was that modern themes could not be presented in stylised drama. However Prof. E. R. Sarachchandra presented "Maname", "Sinhabahu" and other stylised plays at a time when Sinhala drama was at an experimental stage. They set the background for stylised drama in Sri Lanka, which has come to stay as the chief expression of Sinhala theatre. Today stylised drama is being adopted to present themes relevant to modern age and to suit modern times and conditions.
Nadagam which is a synthesis of Terukuttu and folk dramatic forms had superior motivation, local setting and some scintillating music. It is a classic contribution made by Catholics for arts and culture in Sri Lanka. As nadagam the earliest form of Sinhala drama with fully fledged theoretical performances has first come to the stage as a nativity play it could be said that Sinhala drama had its origin in Christmas. (@ Sunday Observer)
Sri Lankan Weddings: Customs & Traditions
Traditional Sinhalese Marriage Laws and Customs
During ancient times, pre-Buddhistic Sinhalese marriage laws and customs would have been similar to those prescribed in the laws of Manu (Manava - Dharma - Sastra) written in North India sometime between the 3rd century B.C."1st century A.C.
The work, which is a compilation of the traditions of the ancient Indo-Aryan Hindus reflects a rigid patriarchal society with extended family households.
The laws are particularly odious due to its repressive attitude towards the fairer sex.
The marriage of a maiden for example comprised of a gift (Kanya - danam) by her father to a suitable suitor, although it was agreed that if a girl was not given in marriage by her guardian (father or brother) within three years of her attaining puberty, she would be free from his control and may validly enter into a marriage of her own accord.
Marriage was however an indissoluble sacrament and not a secular contract, so that divorce was impossible.
With the advent of Buddhism to the island during the 3rd century B.C., we may presume that the legal position of women underwent a significant improvement.
The Mahavansa (5th century A.C.), the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty and its sequel, the Chulavansa, do not give us any idea as to the position of women with regard to marriage during the ancient and early medieval periods.
However, a late medieval work, the Saddharma - lankaraya (13th century), a collection of stories intended for the edification of Buddhists, refers to a lady of Anuradhapura named Sumana who gave herself in marriage to a man from Ruhuna, so that we may suppose that both men and women were free to contract their marriages sans any third party sanction.
This however is in sharp contrast to later Kandyan times, when both men and women were required to obtain the consent of their parents when contracting a marriage.
According to an early English compilation of Kandyan law, namely John Armour"s "Grammar of Kandyan Law" (early 19th century), the consent of both parents is necessary for a valid marriage.
There were of course a number of other conditions that had to be fulfilled, before a marriage could be contracted.
Besides parental consent the parties to the marriage had to (1) belong to the same caste, (2) they were not to be related within the prohibited degrees of relationship and (3) they had to have the intention of forming a definite alliance.
As in India marriages within the caste were the accepted norm.
Robert Knox, an English exile who spent nearly 20 years in the Kandyan Kingdom (1660 - 1679) states in his work "Historical Relation of Ceylon" (1681):
"It is not accounted any shame or fault for a man of the highest sort to lay with a woman far inferior to himself, nay of the very lowest degree, provided he neither eats nor drinks with her, nor takes her home to his house as his wife."
Knox"s statement shows that marriage, unlike mere cohabitation, had a ritual value.
Indeed other statements of his show that Kandyan society was an extremely licentious one where both men and women had full freedom to cohabit with whomsoever they pleased save that in the case of women, they could not do so with one inferior in caste to themselves, such an act entailing severe punishment. Says Knox, "If any of the females should be so deluded, as to commit folly with one beneath herself, if ever she should appear to the sight of her friends, they would certainly kill her, there being no other way to wipe off the dishonour she hath done the family but by her own blood."
Kandyan law also prohibited marriages between close relatives. This included a man"s daughter (duva), sister (sahodari; this included the daughter of one"s father"s brother or one"s mother"s sister) and nenda (paternal aunt), though he could marry his niece (leli) and maternal aunts (loku-amma, kudamma).
For a marriage to be valid, the parties also had to have the intention of forming a marital union.
This was due to the fact that in Kandyan society, sexual morality hardly ever mattered and polygyny (a man taking more than one wife), polyandry (a woman taking more than one husband) and concubinage were all recognised as legal.
Group marriages and trial marriages were also commonplace.
Furthermore, Buddhism saw to it that marriage in Sinhalese society became a secular contract and not a rigid sacrament as in Hindu law, so that marriage itself had "little force or validity" as noted by Knox.
Says Knox, "In this country, even the greatest hath but one wife, but a woman often has two husbands."
The polyandry practiced in Kandyan times was usually of the fraternal type and was known by the euphemism eka-ge-kama (lit. eating in one house).
Joao Riberio (1685) says of the Sinhalese during the time of Portugues rule (17th century):
"A girl makes a contract to marry a man of her own caste (for she cannot marry outside it), and if the relatives are agreeable they give a banquet and unite the betrothed couple. The next day a brother of the husband takes his place, and if there are seven brothers she is the wife of all of them, distributing the nights by turns, without the husband having a greater right than any of his brothers. If during the day, any of them finds the chamber unoccupied, he can retire with the woman if he thinks fit... she can refuse herself to none of them; whichever brother it may be that contracts the marriage, the woman is the wife of all."
He adds: "the woman who is married to a husband with a large number of brothers is considered very fortunate, for all toil and cultivate for her and bring whatever they earn to the house, and she lives much honoured and well supported and for this reason the children call all the brothers their fathers."
Phillip Baldaeus, a Dutch cleric notes in his book "Ceylon" (1672) that in his time the Kandyans recommended, "the conjugal duty to be performed by their own brothers" - and cites the instance of a woman resident of Galle who "had confidence enough to complain of the want of duty in her husband"s brother on that account."
There also existed group marriages, where the brothers of one family jointly entered into matrimony with the sisters of another.
Polygyny and polyandry however did not find favour with the British who saw to its abolition by means of the Kandyan marriage ordinance of 1859.
Trial marriages were also common among the Kandyans.
Davy (Account of the interior of Ceylon 1821) says that the first fortnight of the bride"s cohabitation with her husband was a period of trial at the end of which the marriage was either annulled or confirmed.
As for concubinage, although it was permitted, in later times, it appears to have been frowned upon, especially amongst the nobility.
John D"oyly (Sketch of the constitution of the Kandyan Kingdom 1835) has stated that the last Kandyan king reprimanded Migastenne Adigar for keeping a concubine of the "Berava" (drummer) caste. The woman was flogged and sent across the river, and thus banished from Kandy.
Divorce, as might be expected of such a promiscuous society, was very easy. Kandyan law recognised that either men or women may dissolve the marriage tie at their will and pleasure.
Says Knox, "Both women and men do commonly wed four or five times before they can settle themselves to their contentation."
Widow remarriage was also very commonplace and did not carry any stigma as was the case in India.
Says Knox, "These women are of a very strong courageous spirit, taking nothing very much to heart... when their husbands are dead, all their care is where to get others, which they cannot long be without".
Kandyan law recognised two forms of marriage, namely, diga marriage and binna marriage.
In diga marriage, the woman went to live in her husband"s house and gave up her claims to the parental estate. This was the usual mode of marriage among the Kandyans.
Binna marriage was a marriage where the husband contracted to go and live in the wife"s house.
Such a marriage necessarily entailed the husband being subject to a "petticoat government", for the wife was the head of the house, a virtual matriarch.
It is said to have been a marriage "contracted with a wink and ended by a kick".
According to Knox, there existed certain lands in Kandy known as bini " pangu that were hereditary through the female line.
He says "Younger sons of other families, when grown up, the elder brothers having all the land, they marry these women that have lands. A man in this case only differs from a servant in laying with his mistress for she will bear rule and he no longer then willing to obey can continue but she will turn him away at her pleasure."
John D"oyly (1835) has narrated a saying of the Kandyans that "the binna husband should take care to have constantly ready at the door of his wife"s room, a walking stick, a talpot (a palm leaf used as an umbrella) and a torch, so that he may be prepared at any hour of the day or night, and whatever may be the state of the weather or of his own health, to quit her house on being ordered."
Binna marriage would have been a convenient arrangement by which means readily available male labour could be obtained for running a girl"s parents" estate in case they had no male offspring.
Such an arrangement would have also served to help a woman look after her aged parents in the comfort of their home.
Binna marriages are still recognised in the Kandyan districts.
Wedding rituals in the 16th CenturySharp at the auspicious time his uncle brought the blade towards his cheek. He was going to have his first shave. He wore a grave look on his face, covered with the bristles of the first dawn of hair. He gulped once or twice and tried to stay still as his manhood was shaven off. He was seventeen. Tomorrow he would be getting married.
She stood on the pooruwa clad in the traditional Osari. Deep black eyes, young and innocent like the eyes of a doe, peered through the jewellery, worn to match those of the goddess Paththini. The black irises shone as brightly as the "thalla" on her forehead. As her uncle began to pour the water over their entwined fingers, she felt his arm brush against her. She glanced at him through the corner of her eye. She had not seen his face clearly yet. She only had a vague feeling that he was thin, had fair skin and curly black hair.
Lunch, called the "adara batha" (the meal of love), lasted for over three hours. The bride and the groom seated at the head of the table ate from the same plate. When he thought no one was looking, he pushed pieces of fish towards her. She took them timidly, but picked at her food. She found it an effort to mix the curries on her side of the plate and raise her hand towards her lips. The eyes of the entire table were on her, she thought.
The sound of the gunshots fired into the sky when she had first stepped onto the compound of her husband's house, still lingered in her ears as she was shown their bedroom. She sat at the edge of the bed and waited quietly for him. The black teak furniture gleamed in the light of the big kerosene lamp beside her. Outside, everything was quiet except for the never-ending chorus of a group of Citerns. He came in quietly and closed the door.
She turned towards him and saw his face for the first time. He had curly hair, a thin face and dark black eyes. He smiled down at her. She began to stand up. But he moved towards her, placed his hands on her shoulders and gently pushed her back on to the bed. Seating himself beside her, he raised her chin towards him. She looked into his eyes and saw the gentle sparkle in them. Her heart began to beat rapidly. Strange emotions began to engulf her. She buried her head on his shoulder. His hand moved towards her hair. Slowly he began to loosen the knot tied to the nape of her neck. She could feel his fingers tremble as they encountered the thick black stresses.
The chatter of two squirrels in the garden announced to the world a new day had dawned. The door opened and her mother-in-law came in. The girl lay on the bed, her thin, lithe body wrapped in a white sheet. She looked as radiant as the flowers in the sal tree outside. He stood at the window with his back turned towards the two women. She recollected the night she had spent with him, when he had known her as only a man could know a woman. Now she got up and began to get dressed as her mother-in-law held her clothes and the white sheets to the sunlight, and examined them thoroughly.
From the curve of his cheeks, she could see her husband was smiling to himself. And she knew the same smile would be on her mother-in-law's face as she took a coin from her bosom and tied it to the edge of the bed sheet. The coin meant the girl had proven her virginity. She would be accepted into the family as the wife of their youngest son.
Kandyan Marriage Laws
In Sri Lanka, several legal systems govern the law of family relations. The General law (a combination of Roman Dutch and English law) is the main system applicable to every one except if they are governed by the personal laws. There are three other parallel systems of personal laws in Sri Lanka, i.e., Kandyan Law, The Thesavalamai and the Muslim Law. These laws are grounded in ancient customary practices and/or religion.
When young Bandara Menike Lewke Bandara found a suitor in Kandy and left her parental home in Kurunegala on a blissful "deega" (marriage in which the bride shifts to her bridegroom's house), little she realised what it meant to her inheritance.Soon after, her father died leaving no last will to ensure her share of the paternal property. The process, applying Kandyan law, which followed to divide the estate among his children, deprived Bandara Menike of any right to her "paraveni" (property inherited from her father). Her three brothers and two sisters - one, unmarried and the other, settled in a "binna" (marriage in which the bridegroom shifts to the bride's house) - received equal shares of the "paraveni".
Had she been a low country Sinhala or registered her marriage under the general law of the country, she would have received a share equivalent to that of her siblings. Nevertheless, women born to Kandyan families have another disadvantage.
If it is proven in courts with carefully-preserved documents that her family is of Kandyan origin, dating back to 1815 when the Kandyan Kingdom fell, Kandyan law supersedes the common law in relation to property and inheritance rights.
The Kandyan Law stipulates that a "deega" daughter coming from a family originating from the Kandyan Region (which could encompass Kandy, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Ampara and certain areas of Batticaloa District) is not entitled to inherit property from her father.
The reasoning is that the family property, which sustains the family from generation to generation, should not be passed onto an outsider.
EMACE Sri Lanka, a Colombo-based NGO with field offices in Kandy and Anuradhapura, has tried since it came into being last June, to create this awareness among women, by its "Neethi Sannivedana Sewaya" (legal communications service).
"We have a common criminal law for the whole island but property laws are governed by four different legal systems," said Shirani Narayana, Project Manager, from the EMACE lawyer-team. The four systems are the general (or, the common law), Kandyan, Muslim and Thesavalamai laws. The first three are practised respectively among the low country Sinhala, Kandyan Sinhala and people of Islam religion.
Thesavalamai pertains to land-owners in Jaffna no matter what race they belong to, and Jaffna Tamils of Malabar origins."Lack of awareness prevents women from acting to overcome discrimination," Ms. Narayana, said. "If they only knew how, they could avoid the overwhelming cost, hassle and time wasted on long-drawn court cases. The general law, a mixture of English and Roman-Dutch law, is the most lenient to women while Kandyan law appears to be more discriminative."
The mediation of EMACE has helped quite a few women to solve their property issues without resorting to court action.The instances she cited arise when there is no last will to deal with the deceased's property.
The general law gives a widow one half of her late husband's property whereas the Kandyan Law deprives her of the "paraveni" (inherited from his parents) portion of the property and gives her the life estate of the "acquired" (bought during marriage) portion. If the deceased did not leave acquired property or what existed was inadequate for her sustenance, she could obtain maintenance from "paraveni".
"There are no special provisions for a divorced woman in any law," said Ms. Narayana. "It all depends on how well she proves in Courts that she has no other sufficient income. In Canada, a divorcee gets 50% of her husband's property."
Kandyan law which deprives a "deega" married daughter of her "paraveni" further states that should she marry after her father's death, she stands bound to give over her "paraveni" portion to her brothers and single or "binna" married sisters, if they demand for it at a fair market value.
"In contrast, the "binna" married wife commands great power in marriage," said Senaka Illangantilake, EMACE Legal Adviser at Rambukkana. "The bridegroom is asked to come with a Tal Atta (palm leaf) and a Hulu Atta (torch) as she could at any time throw him out of the house in rain or night."
"A Kandyan woman may have a low country husband, but for her father's property, Kandyan laws apply," Ms. Narayana explained. "The form on which a couple apply for marriage, distinguishes it as Kandyan, low country, deega, binna, etc. Often, women sign the form without a murmur. They are not aware of how it will affect their property rights."
"One married woman asked me, 'In front of all my wedding guests, how can I ask the Registrar of Marriage under which law I am getting married ?'", Ms. Narayana smiled. But that crucial question could have later saved her much heartache over lost property.
E.M. Abeyratne, Executive Director, EMACE, spoke of the tradition where the parental house passes onto the youngest son which reflects a cultural pattern of the days gone by. "The youngest son will be the one who stays the longest period in the house so that the parents can continue to stay there and be looked after by him. Till his marriage and after, he will be there."
Today, one sees a son sell his property, go abroad or move to another area while a daughter works and looks after the parents and unemployed siblings. Even if a daughter lives in a distant location, modern communication facilities viz. telephone and e-mail, makes her able to manage her property. "In a situation where social and economical needs are different, what is the logic in depriving a daughter from inheriting property and doing with it what she likes ?", Abeyratne questioned.
Another relatively-unknown feature of the Kandyan law allows a divorce, on a few grounds, by application to the Registrar of Marriage. The discrimination lies in that a man can divorce his wife proving her adultery but to divorce him, she has to couple his adultery either with incest or gross cruelty.
Women under Thesavalamai Law cannot sell, transfer or gift their property (even when purchased from one's own money during marriage) without the written consent of their husbands. A husband might manage his wife's car and property and finally, leave it to another woman in his last will. "A separated wife may find her estranged husband purposely holding back his consent to prevent her from making use of her property," Ms. Narayana said. "But, many Tamil women do not realise that they can go to courts and get its consent."
When a Muslim household-head dies with no last will, women members of the family inherit only a half of what the male members inherit. "They reason this out saying that a woman gets the "mahar" dowry at her marriage from her husband," Ms. Narayana said.
The "mahar", which is a nominal token dowry, could be as low as Rs. 3,000. EMACE is now in the midst of a property and inheritance rights survey on a cross-section of Colombo and Kandyan women. Based on the insight the survey could provide, EMACE proposes lobbying the government for policy changes in local property and inheritance laws while booklets for all local communities are being prepared for greater awareness.
"Legal reforms need to be done very carefully, to avoid adverse side-effects," Abeyratne emphasised. "We can impose that every wife should inherit a certain percentage of her husband's property and then people will begin marrying just for property."
"The British documented local customs as laws only where the early society depended on them, for example, inheritance of paddy fields. All the rest, they decreed to be under the general law," Abeyratne said. "We are still being governed by archaic ordinances and regulations going back as far as 1806. They should be reformed to develop a social system where a woman can have economical protection of property throughout her life."
Kandyan Customs & Traditions
The social etiquette of the KandyansWhen a woman is confined, the females in the neighbourhood should visit the child and its mother. If the new-born baby is not handed over to the female visitors to take in their arms, it is a breach of etiquette. They would certainly be offended were the custom omitted. When the relatives living at a distance come to know of the birth of the child, they come one by one with a presentation box or basket, full of sweetmeats, plantains, &c. To them also the baby should be handed. On such occasions too it is, usual to give presents to the child by those who love it.
The expenses at childbirth, puberty ceremony, wedding celebrations, and funeral rites, are limited. At every one of these occasions the dhoby (washerman) is benefited most; but even he is prohibited from asking anything more than the fixed amount. A request for more than the amount is never granted. Though it is not usual to give wedding presents to relatives, every one invited, whether male or female, is bound to give presents to a girl at the ceremony of her coming of age. If one cannot afford to give a present, it is customary not to attend the festival.
When a kinsman is seen approaching the house, some one should go forward a step or two to welcome him, and having conducted him to the house, should offer him a seat.
If he is not closely related, it is against etiquette for the visitor to take a seat without being asked to do so. When a low-caste man comes into a house he should remain standing until he is given a mat or a kolomba (the lowest kind of stool, roughly made out of a piece of log) to sit upon. And it is also against the rules of etiquette to delay in giving him a kolomba or a mat.
When relatives meet together and sit at meals at a festival it is wrong to begin to eat, although food is served in full, without permission from the company. One should not ask for rice, or for certain curries, whilst feasting. It is the work of those who wait to watch carefully and to supply the wants, whether rice or other things.
Whilst feasting only the respected members of the company may speak, and it is unbecoming to say anything disagreeable. Water should be served round before calling for the repast. Without doing this, it is very wrong to invite the guests, saying in a homely style. " Api itin bat kamu" "Now let us eat rice," as is usual in the household on other days.
Dignified language, (like '' Adukku sappayam vemu," "Let us partake of there past.'' must be used respectfully to the assembly. It is wrong to use such colloquial terms as waren ("come"), diyan ("give"), palayan ("go"), either to a superior or to an equal in an assembly. Such terms as ayubowan ("good sir "), yahapat venta (" please draw nigh "), lebemda (" please give it"), awasara ("may I ")* are suitable. While partaking of food the individuals composing the assembly should be spoken to as respectfully as possible. Whilst in company it is uncivil to get up and walk away after meals before others. One should wait without washing, his hand, even if he has finished before others, till they also finish eating. On all important occasions the ladies should be fled first. It is also becoming to feed the pingo-bearers who have accompanied the guest beforehand in an outhouse. When they are served with water, the chief among them should be served first. Even if one should attempt to serve the wrong person, whether among gentle or common folk, by mistake, it should not be allowed by others, but the proper person should be pointed out.
Should a kinsman call at a house even on a day of no special importance, he must be welcomed by going forward as aforesaid, questioned about his "pleasures and sorrows," and meals prepared as soon as possible. It is against etiquette to ask such questions as "Are you hungry ?" "Should any thing be prepared '' " &c. After serving him with food, &c., he should be questioned concerning his visit, and when he gets ready to go away, one or every one of the inmates should follow him some distance. It is customary to go as far as the stile, if not further, in following the visitor.
Strangers should also be treated respectfully, though not to the same degree. When a worthy man comes into the house he is saluted. This is done by bringing the palms in contact in front of the face and making a bow. This is the national greeting among the Kandyans. It is the usual way of greeting, as hand-shaking is among the English. If one is saluted by another at a gathering or when alone, whether with or without the offer of betel, the salutation must be returned. If it is not so returned, it is against etiquette. When one offers forty betel leaves (two sets) to a headman or a nilame, the giver must first cut the stalks of the leaves, and then approaching, place them with f slight bow in the receiver's stretched out hand, with the stalk end towards him. Saluting should follow this. It is against custom to break these rules and hand over betel in an assembly If a present is to be given for a favour" it must also be placed on betel so given.
Soon after meals every one must be offered a quid of betel. This is done by placing the betel leaves, chopped arecanuts, chunam, catechu, niyadandu, tobacco, and spices (cloves, &c.), neatly on a kind of tray (of metal or wood. sometimes highly ornamented), which is passed round so that even one may select according to his taste. Three different trays must be got ready: the one for the ladies' chamber should either be handed to, or placed near, the chief lady of the company; the other should be placed near the chief man of the gentlemen s' party; and the third handed over to the head servant for distribution among them.
If a wedding party is coming to a house, a messenger should be sent in advance. When the party has come within a calls distance of the house, it should stop and fire a gun once or twice. This will, be answered by the inmates of the house when they are ready to receive the party. After this the party should be welcomed by those of the house coming forward, led into the house, and well attended to. The routine of entertainment has already been described.
When a death occurs in a village, the other villagers on hearing the news should go to the house and condole with that household. If one has an aversion to go to a house where there is a dead body, he should go at any rate as far as the stile, speak to the head of the house, and condole with him.
Assistance should be rendered towards the cremation, or the interment, of the corpse. If one has anything necessary for the funeral, it is customary to give it free of charge. As soon as the ceremony is over, all wash their heads (applying limes, &c., either green or boiled), bathe well, and go to their several houses; after which each neighbour brings a covered basket of rice to the mourning house and returns home.
Thus there is no need of kindling a fire in the house of mourning for a day or two. Some postpone bringing the rice until the second day, and some even to the third. After this the relatives at a distance begin to visit the mourning family day after day with baskets of rice. It is an inviolable custom to pay a visit to such a bereaved household, even if there be slight enmity. In the case of serious disease also the neighbours come and lend assistance in various ways. They go in search of physicians, fetch drugs, and so forth. Such assistance is not rendered only when there exists downright hatred.
When a low-caste man meets one of 'a high caste or approaches his house, he should make a bow and salutation in the manner already described. He who is saluted in this way should acknowledge it simultaneously, with a very slight salutation of the same kind.
When a householder has collected a number of men from the village for some work or other, he should treat them with due respect. If it is field work, the plan of the work and the method of executing it should be explained to the most respectable one of the company. Then he, addressing the others, will say: "Kinsmen, it is fitting for us to do this gentleman's work to the best of our ability. Therefore please do (such and such work)'' Sometimes he uses such expressions as this: "Do not Rave anything "undone, lest there be aught to our shame after we have finished the work and gone." In entertaining these people, by serving them with rice and betel, none of the rules of etiquette that are observed at a wedding feast should be violated. When they are about to begin to work, no one should start it, who is not fit to do so. On such occasions the juniors must watch the procedure of the elders, and follow them accordingly. It is a custom at an assembly to follow the elders in every act done. If there is an arrangement for a dance or anything of that sort to be performed before an assembly, permission to begin must first be obtained from the head person in the company. If the teacher of the performer happens to be present, the pupil should hand over his udekkiya (a small hand drum shaped like an hour glass), or any other instrument of music on which he plays, to his tutor, salute him, and get permission from him also. The dance then begins. It is wrong to attempt either to dance or play a tune without this preliminary ceremony.
Soon after the harvest is over, alms should first be consecrated to Buddhist priests with the rice prepared from the new paddy. Next, new rice should be prepared, with special curries, for feeding parents, either by inviting them to one's own house or by taking the food to them. The day on which the new rice is cooked is also observed as an occasion of festivity on a smaller scale.
Nearly all visit their relatives with " pingo loads" when the Sinhalese New Year is drawing nigh. In this way when a kinsman pays a visit to a house with one or two pingo loads, he should be welcomed with affection in the aforesaid manner, and entertained with food and drink according to the means of the person visited. It is against custom to return the baskets empty in which confectionery was brought.
When they are returned, either rice and curry, or other sweetmeats and kiri-bat (rice boiled with milk of the coconut) must be put into them. Sometimes, if there is no way of getting them so replenished, the baskets are not returned when asked for, but are kept back with the words " We will send them later." This means " A return visit will be paid in a few days with baskets felled with confectionery." If this is not done it is below the standard of due etiquette. If a son, or a daughter, or a son-in-law, or a younger brother, or some such one. visits his elders with a child and with a pingo load, it is customary to give presents to the child. These presents sometimes consist of money and sometimes of clothing and ornaments
A Kandyan wedding in highlife in the 19th centuryPalanquins, caprisoned-elephants and horse-carriages in the "magul-perahera" are now part of history with high-powered automobile industry, replacing man and animal — powered modes of transport during ceremonial events.
A report which appeared in the prestigious English newspaper "The Ceylon Sunday Telegraph" of January 15, 1890 published by the British in Ceylon at the time however, opens a window into the past and unfolds a scenario of a marriage-celebration laced with traditions and practices that existed at the turn of the last century. The magul-perahera which conducted the groom’s retinue to the bride’s residence and resumed with the bride’s retinue had resembled a segment of the Kandy perahera with the two nuptial troupes arriving at the respective destinations in palanquins, on elephantback and in horse carriages, escorted by chieftains, flag-carriers of the respective provinces and gun carriers walking in an orderly fashion in the winding procession.
We are peering into a past when the British Raj ruled olde Ceylon but a feudal system continued to exist in spite of the fact that in 1832, "Rajakariya" (compulsory services) had been abolished by the British. And also of significance is that events such as weddings had been found worthwhile reporting and displayed prominently in English newspapers which may have catered mainly to the English population that lived here.
The very descriptive, on-the-spot report which appeared in January, 1890 titled "A Kandyan wedding in highlife at Matale" while reflecting the journalistic styles of the time, unfolds the opulence of wedding celebrations of Kandyan aristrocracy who lived in style at the turn of the nineteenth century together with the traditions, customs and practices that were alive at the time.
The account describes the marriage of Mr. Wilfred Ratwatte of far-off Matale up in the hills and of Miss Dullewa that had taken place on January 10th, 1890. The report however commences from January 9th with customs that were followed in the groom’s household with the arrival of the handpicked invitees (whose names are mentioned in the report) to hold a ceremony - the purpose of which was to congratulate the groom and make a collective presentation of a "handsome" purse.
The groom thereafter had retired to dress in the "mul aduma" (the Kandyan ceremonial costume) and with the groom’s party ready, the account unfolds the commencement of the groom’s ceremonial procession, winding its way from Nagolla Walawwa at 2 pm. to that of the bride’s at Dullewa.
The reporter obviously fascinated by the colourful traditions and practices enacted before him had proceeded to describe the procession in detail of the flag-carriers carrying 20-30 flags, headed by the "Matale white flag", about 60 "tom-tom beaters", Kandyan dancers and 75 people carrying guns...etc.
The perahera had besides included 6 caprisoned elephants, walking two in a row, followed by dancers of the 4 korales. About 40 headmen in costume had walked next, on foot.
The groom’s stepmother, come in a palanquin was escorted by over 30 female attendants, followed by Ratwatte Ratemahattaya - the groom’s uncle who had travelled in a horse-carriage. They were attended by troupes of dancers in varied costumes.
The highpoint in the perahera - the bridegroom - Ratwatte Bandara, had been carried in the procession in a palanquin, followed by horse-carriages, chieftains and dancers.
As the perahera with dancing to sounds of various musical instruments - the drum, the trumpet," the pantheru" (tambourines) drew closer to the bride’s residence, the bride’s party had walked forward to receive them from which point, all had alighted from the horse-carriages. The groom and the ladies carried in palanquines and those aloft the elepahnts had not alighted until the perahera reached the Maha Walawwa at Dullewa around 6 pm.
Receiving the groom’s party at the bride’s residence were Amunugama Basnayaka Nilame, the Adigar in Kandyan chieftain’s attire along with his kumarihamy. The feet of the visitors were washed on alighting from the palanquins with the breaking of coconuts taking place as the party entered the bride’s house.
The hosts had made provision for the feeding of about 500 guests who had walked in the perahera. The attendants, the report mentions were scattered all over, around the building, feasting on the goodies.
Partying and merry-making had continued until 11 pm. with dancing to music in the form of a moorish stick-dance, a dance no more heard of, at which point, the marriage ceremony had been performed according to traditional Kandyan customs. Music and dancing had continued with vigour till morning.
At day-break the following day, the visitors were fed and at 1 pm. after the marriage was registered at the auspicious hour, the bridal-party, numbering over 1000 and accompanied by Dullewa Adigar and his attendants, had left the bride’s residence.
And the number of flags, the elephants, gun-carriers, dancers had increased with the flag of Thammankaduwa at the centre, flanked by 2 white flags of the Matale Dissawa.
Those borne in palanquins from Ehelepola and Dullewa were seen substituting carriages for palanquins at Aluwihare.
The account also mentions another custom that had been practiced. While the procession wound its
way, well-wishers lining the road had sprinkled rose water and flowers on the newly-weds. The party had reached Matale at 4 pm. when the entire party was treated to cake (probably kevun, referred to as oil-cake at the time) and plantains at Nagolla walawwa after which the party accompanied the couple to Kandy, the residence of the Basnayake Nilame of the Vishnu Devale, the bridegroom’s father.
The celebrations had evidently concluded on January 16th as the account lastly mentions that the couple was expected to return to Matale on January 16th and pandals were being erected for further celebrations for their reception.
KANDYAN BRIDAL JEWELLERY
If there is anyone who strongly attracts attention and admiration towards oneself, then it is certainly a Sri Lankan bride. The Kandyan bride in her traditional costume of the Osariya (sari) and the complementing regalia looks like a queen and, she is certainly the cynosure of all during the wedding ceremony.
Unlike a western bride who would choose the simplest of dresses and the most moderate jewellery, the Kandyan bride opts to be lavish in everything she wears. A grand sari often worked profusely in gold or silver thread, with pearls, stones, beads, and sequins adding an extra sparkle to the already eye catching design. A Kandyan bride will certainly be incomplete if she chooses to drop even the smallest piece of jewellery from the traditional ensemble.
Unlike a western bride who would choose the simplest of dresses and the most moderate jewellery, the Kandyan bride opts to be lavish in everything she wears. A grand sari often worked profusely in gold or silver thread, with pearls, stones, beads, and sequins adding an extra sparkle to the already eye catching design. A Kandyan bride will certainly be incomplete if she chooses to drop even the smallest piece of jewellery from the traditional ensemble.
Historians say that a greater part of the Kandyan jewellery exhibits a strong Tamil influence, mainly from South India. This argument can be supported by the fact that the Kandyan Kings of yore married into the ‘Natakkar’ family of South India. (There are two distinctive types of jewellery in Sri Lanka mainly up-country, better known as Kandyan jewellery and low-country). This new bondage brought in many new aspects into the Kandyan Kingdom. Hinduism was practised by those who arrived with the royal entourage. Much of the jewellery worn by the Kandyan bride resembles the ornaments once worn by the Deva Dasees (servants of God) of India. And these women were dancers in the temples of India. They were dressed in the brightest of clothes, with heavy jewellery covering their bodies and their faces made up. Apart from the visible Indian influence, Kandyan bridal jewellery also boasts of distinctive local character.
Both men and women in the Kandyan Kingdom wore jewellery. The men wore gold chains, pendants, girdles and finger rings. Women too wore chains, pendants, girdles and rings in addition to ear-rings and bracelets.
Of the bridal headgear the Nalalpata or the headband is attractive and significant. It is a gold gem-studded forehead plate, traditionally worn by the king and those in his court. The Nalalpata was tied to the forehead of a young prince during the ceremony naming and assuming the royal sword. His name, decided by the astrologer was inscribed on the headband. A Sinhala wedding thus is a grand ceremony, just like a royal event marking the ‘rights of passage’. The Kandyan bride is distinctive from the rest and only she has the privilege of wearing a Nalalpata on her wedding day.
The Nalalpata is placed on the middle of the forehead, with one stem extending down the middle parting of the hair, and another two branches extending across the forehead upto the ear. Traditionally the Nalalpata was a rich piece of jewellery embedded in red stones. But, today, it has many forms and is often left to the imagination of the craftsman.
The bride's neck is one whole mass of chains. Padakkam or the pendants are the important part of the chains. Starting from the Nalalpata pendant, each successive chain shows off beautiful pendants, with typical Sinhala designs. A touch of ‘local flavour’ is visible in these chains. The Peti Malaya is the last and longest chain encircling the rest. Peti Malaya means a garland of flowers or petals. In India, it stood for real flowers which played an important role in Indian festal dress.
The design of the pendants may vary. Some may choose a flower, others animals. The swan or the Hansa is a famous bird design used. The Hansa Puttuva (two, three or more swans with entwined necks) is featured in many works of art in Sri Lanka. In India, the swan is regarded as a "Sacred Goose". The use of the swan design for pendants is significant and symbolic. The swan stands for purity, beauty and is auspicious. In Sinhala poetry the swan is likened to a woman’s breasts.
Agasthi Malaya is a chain made of agate. Some chains have seeds placed at intervals along the chain. Gedi Valalu or the bangle of fruits is made up of various local seeds strung on a wire. It is in these pieces of jewellery that the goldsmith has utilized local material. Seri Valatu is a broad bangle with three smaller bangles joined together.
The ear-rings of course clearly indicate their Indian origin. These ear-rings are known as Dimithi with the shape of an over-turned cup. The ear-rings are enhanced with tiny pearls dangling from the Dimithi. The two ear-studs from which the Dimithi flow, are studded with "odd" numbers of stones. Sri Lankans are extremely superstitious when it comes to numbers. Hence, any piece of bridal jewellery or for that matter any jewellery is not made with even numbered stones. Odd numbers are always considered lucky. The number seven is considered a magical number in our tradition; from food to jewellery, number seven crops up in every Sinhala event. Thus, the Kandyan bridal jewellery also consists of seven pendants.
Some brides wear armlets as well. Armlets are worn to ward off ill luck. However, the armlet can be more eye- catching when it is made of gold or silver and is studded with gems. Belonging to the headgear are symbols of the sun and the moon placed elegantly on either side of the head, divided by the Nalalpata. They are symbols of eternity and thus, when a bride wears them, they stand for an everlasting and fulfilling relationship of the couple. The figure of the sun and moon are among the one hundred and eight Magul Lakunu or auspicious symbols (Himaliyan forest, filled water pots, flowers, cobra hoods, Swasthika, ear-rings, umbrellas etc.) The sun and the moon are often invoked as guardian and protector especially by those who cultivate the soil.
Ancient Lankan Customs & Rituals
Rituals and customs enriched ancient Lanka
paying obeisance to the tree symbolising the sylvan deity
A group of us journalists with some officials of the Upper Watershed Management Project visited a little village called Kalinapawela off Haldummulla last weekend. The village-folk live simple lives and in certain places we found wattle and daub huts dotted here and there with new dwelling places of concrete and brick. Some of the roads were tarred while some still had gravel tracks as roadways. Villagers used the Thawalama to carry home their provisions. These Thawalamas were cattle with home provisions strapped on to their backs slowly wending their way homewards accompanied by their owners, men as well as women.
In the same area stretching over thousands of hectares is a savannah forest, out of which an extent of about 60 hectares are the habitat of a herd of wild elephants. In the months of May, June and July these elephants use this corridor to go to Handapanagala where they mix up with other herds. The elephant corridor is bordered by several other villages - Kaltota, Diyabeduma, Welanvita, Kotabakma, Gampaha and Icepeella. We were informed that while some herds prefer to go to Handapanagala a particular herd consisting of 8 elephants make a regular visit through the corridor to the Rosebury estate. All these herds return to their home territory by September via the same route.
By the side of the road was a tiny cleared patch where two low small rock-stones were placed. By the side of the rocks was a tree with small slips of branches hanging on a low fork from the two branches of the tree. There were empty packets of joss-sticks, pieces of broken coconuts and signs of candle wax on the rock stones. I inquired from an elderly villager R.M.Gunapala (74) who joined us, what happens at this spot. He informed me that a ritual is performed by villagers to the sylvan deity when crossing this corridor entreating his protection on their journey.
He said that this area is called the Mangara adaviya, said to be guarded by Mangara Deviyo. A slip of branch is broken from a nearby tree and hung on the fork of the tree at the foot of the rock-stones. A vow is made lighting a candle or a clay lamp and the place incensed with joss-sticks. They pay obeisance to the tree symbolising the sylvan deity and proceed on their way. He vowed that this deity's protection of the villagers has been proved over and over again and no villager had ever been attacked by a wild elephant. I have observed on a visit to Wanathavillu in the Puttalam District the same ritual performed by villagers when they cross jungle land. But in this area the deity is called Aiyanayaka Deviyo and the area Aiyanayaka deviyange adaviya.
In predominantly Tamil areas as well as in up-country estates, a black stone or a black stone-statue of God Pullaiyar is placed at the foot of trees at certain places and venerated the same way. The God is also known as Gana Deviyo.
According to Hindu believers, Gana Deviyo had been commanded by god Shiva to stand by a roadside and it is this command that the Gana Deviyo is faithfully adhering to. Vows made to Gana Deviyo seeking his protection are followed by boiling of milk and offering it to the god seeking protection and grace from him.
There is a popular belief among villagers that the peaceful days of yore and a disciplined and religious society which existed in Lanka decades and generations ago was the result of adhering to these traditional customs, beliefs and rituals. This was confirmed by the elderly villagers we met during our tour to several villages in the Uva Sabaragamuwa province. " Our country was the granary of the east, there were bountiful harvests and we enjoyed a peaceful lifestyle in our villages. This was so because we observed traditional customs and rituals in whatever task we engaged in - be it tilling of our land, harvesting paddy, digging a well or even going through jungle land. This is not so today", a whimsical Gunapala told me when parting... with a sigh and a far away look in his eyes.
'Eka-ge-kema' : Fraternal polyandry
among the olden-day Sinhalese
The Sinhalese custom of fraternal polyandry where a wife would be shared in common by several brothers has long fascinated those interested in local society and culture. The practice euphemistically referred to as 'eka-ge-kema' or 'eating in one house' is no longer legal, though it is possible that it may still be surviving in some remote areas.
The practice is also known to have existed among other Asian peoples such as the folk of Tibet and Sikkim, the Jats of the Punjab, the Tiyyans of Kerala and the Todas of the Nilgiri hills until fairly recent times, though it is a moot point whether its existence among the Sinhalese was due to a common origin, culture contact or independent development on parallel lines.
OriginsPolyandry was unknown among the Vedic Aryans nor contemplated in the smrtis. The earliest reference to the practice is perhaps that of the Mahabharata where we find that Draupadi was the common wife of the five Pandava brothers. Draupadi's polyandrous marriage may have well been an historical event, for if it were not so, the author of the epic who is at his wit's end to justify it, would have quietly kept silent over it, as pointed out by Dr.A.S.Altekar in his 'Position of women in Hindu civilisation' (1938).
The polyandrous proposal was justified by Yudhishthira on the ground of family tradition. Altekar who observes that polyandry was not prevalent amongst the Aryans of the Vedic age has advanced an interesting theory to explain its occurrence among the Pandavas. Observing that polyandry was still current to some extent among a few non-Aryan tribes of Kashmir and Tibet, he says that it is probable that the Pandavas were following a custom which may have been borrowed from either of these provinces.
He notes that this would suggest that they belonged to a stock of Aryans different from that of the Kauravas, and that they entered India via the Gilgit Pass in Kashmir or through Nepal.
Altekar's theory has much that could be said in support of it, especially in view of the findings of the renowned Indologist Asko Parpola who contends that the Pandavas were a new wave of Aryans as distinct from the Vedic Aryans who hailed from Central Asia before establishing themselves in Northern India. Says Parpola in his Coming of the Aryans (1988): "The white skin colour of the Pandavas, reflected in the names Pandu and Arjuna and the associated myths, together with their polyandry which is new in India but has parallels among the Saka tribes, suggests that they belonged to a new wave of Aryans, which had recently arrived in India".
If this indeed be the case, it is not impossible that the early Sinhalese inherited the custom of polyandry from the Pandyans of Madhura whose women the Vijayan settlers espoused after they had colonised the country. The Pandyans were evidently of Aryan stock and related to the Pandavas of the north as suggested by the Tamil work Purananuru which refers to the Pandyans as Pancavar, implying descent from the 'five (Pandu brothers)'.
Another Sangam age work, the Cilappatikaram refers to them as Kavuriyar, suggesting that they were connected to the Kuru line to which the Pandus belonged. That the practice was a well established tradition among the Pandavas and their offspring is suggested by its existence among the Aryan Khasas of the Cis-Himalayan region such as the Dehra Dun district who trace their descent to the Pandavas (Some aspects of the Cultural life of the Khasas. D.N.Majumdar. 1940). It is also possible however that fraternal polyandry amongst Aryan folk arose from an extended form of niyoga which permitted relations between a wife and her husband's younger brothers. Such a custom is said to have prevailed amongst the Jats of the Punjab during the 19th century (Recht und Sitte.Julius Jolly. 1896).
Be that as it may, it is unlikely that a custom prevailing in the Punjab would have found its way to Sri Lanka as there is no evidence of any invasions from or relations with the Punjab area in historic or pre-historic times.
It is more likely that the custom would have been inherited from the Pandyans whose relations with the country go back as far as the 6th or 5th century B.C. It is also possible however that the custom may have been borrowed from South India where it is known to have prevailed among certain Dravidian-speaking peoples such as the Nayars and Tiyyars of Kerala or may have even been an independent development that arose as a result of certain socio-cultural factors such as poverty, a desire to control population and to prevent the fragmentation of family properties.
Early recordsThe earliest record we have of polyandry among the Sinhalese is perhaps the Magul Maha Vihara inscription of Vihara-maha-devi belonging to about the 14th century where we find the queen calling herself the chief consort of the two brother kings named Perakumba (Perakumba de-be-raja-daruvan de-denata aga mehesun vu vihara-maha-devi). The brother kings referred to in the epigraph are evidently two petty kings who wielded independent authority in the Ruhuna country at the time.
The practice did not escape the notice of the European writers of the colonial period who have left us vivid descriptions of the custom as it existed then. The Portuguese historian Joao Ribeiro says in his Fatalidado Historica da Ilha de Ceilao (1685) that once the marriage ceremony is concluded, the first night of consummation is allotted to the husband, the second to his brother, the third to the next brother, and so on as far as the seventh night, when if there be more brothers, the remainder are not entitled to the privilege of the eldest six. "These first days being past, the husband has no greater claim on his wife than his brothers have; if he finds her alone, he takes her to himself, but if one of his brothers be with her, he cannot disturb them. Thus one wife is sufficient for a whole family and all their property is in common among them. They bring their earnings into one common stock, and the children call all the brothers indifferently their fathers".
The Dutch missionary Philip Baldaeus in his Description of Ceylon (1672) says that the Sinhalese recommend that the conjugal duty be performed by their own brothers and cites the case of a woman resident of Galle who "had confidence enough to complain of the want of duty in her husband's brother on that account". The English writer Robert Knox says in his Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681):"In this country each man, even the greatest, hath but one wife; but a woman often has two husbands. For it is lawful and common with them for two brothers to keep house together with one wife, and the children do acknowledge and call both fathers".
The last substantial account of the practice is perhaps that of Sir James Emerson Tennent in his monumental work Ceylon (1859) where he says that polyandry prevails throughout the interior of Ceylon, chiefly amongst the wealthier classes; of whom, one woman has frequently three or four husbands, and sometimes as many as seven. He notes that as a general rule, the husbands are members of the same family, and most frequently brothers. The custom was however not to remain legal for long for the British outlawed it the same year, though it is known to have survived for a considerable period thereafter.
Ponnambalam Arunachalam observed in Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907) that "Polyandry, though illegal, continues to exist among the Kandyan peasantry, especially in the case of brothers. The law against polyandry is evaded by not registering the union at all or by registering it as with one brother only".
Major factorsAs to how this peculiar custom could have survived for so long is not a difficult question to answer, given the nature of the Kandyan and the other societies where it is known to have prevailed. Poverty, a desire to limit family size and to keep property undivided in families appear to have been the major factors that have contributed to the survival and possibly even the emergence of polyandry in these societies. One major factor that seems to have contributed to its popularity in the days of the Kandyan Kings was evidently the practice of Rajakariya or compulsory service to the state exacted from the land-holding male populace.
Tennent records that an aged chief of the Four Corales, Aranpulle Ratemahatmeya informed him in reply to an inquiry addressed to him, that the prevalence of polyandry was attributable to the fact that when the people gave their attendance at the royal palace, and at the residences of the great headmen, besides contributing labour on the lands of their lords and accompanying them in their distant journeys. "During such intervals of prolonged absence their own fields would have remained uncultivated and their crops uncut, had they not resorted to the expedient of identifying their representatives with their interests, by adopting their brothers and nearest relatives as the partners of their wives and fortunes".
This is supported by the studies of Prince Peter of Greece (Polyandry and the kinship group. 1955) who took into account the polyandry of the Kandyan Sinhalese, the Kerala Tiyyans and the Tibetans and concluded that there existed a greater unity and solidarity of sibling groups among those practicing fraternal polyandry. He also emphasised the economic function of polyandry which intensified this unity and solidarity.
In conclusion, it should be stated that despite the marginal benefits if at all polyandry offers, its potential harm certainly outweighs these. Uncertainty over paternity and the resultant social disorder may be cited as some of the strongest arguments that could be brought against it in modern society. The Kandyans of yore however do not seem to have been the least concerned about it.
They simply did not bother themselves with these complex matters. Perhaps they could not afford to
Buddhist Ceremonies & Rituals
The Significance of Poya
1 Vesak (full moon Poya in May)The Buddhist calendar begins with the month of Vesak. On Vesak Day, Buddhists world over commemorate the triple anniversary of Sakyamuni Siddhartha Gautama The Buddha. Triple anniversary because The Buddha was born, attained Supreme Enlightenment at the age of thirty five, and after a successful ministry of forty five years attained Parinirvana or passed away on a Vesak (May) full moon Poya Day. It was also on a Vesak full moon Poya Day, in the eighth year of his enlightenment, that The Buddha made his third and final visit to Sri Lanka. On this full moon Poya begins the 2541 year of the Buddha.
2 Poson (full moon Poya in June)It commemorates the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka by Arahat Maha Mahinda (son of King Asoka of India) at Mihintale in the third century B.C. Ven Mahinda established the Dispensation of The Buddha (Buddhasasana) in Sri Lanka.
3 Esala (full moon Poya in July)Commemorates the deliverance of the first sermon to the five ascetics and setting in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma (Dhammacakka) at Sarnath Benares, India. The essence of this sermon is the explanation of the Four Noble Truths: The Noble Truth of Suffering or dissatisfaction or conflicts (Dukkha), the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path leading to the cessation of suffering. And The Noble Eight-fold Path: 1. Right understanding (Samma Ditthi)
2. Right thoughts (Samma Samkappa)
3. Right speech (Samma Vaca)
4. Right action (Samma Kammanta)
5. Right livelihood (Samma Ajiva)
6. Right effort (Samma Vayama)
7. Right mindfulness (Samma Sati)
8. Right concentration (Samma Samadhi)
From July Poya also commences the three month retreat (vassana) of the Buddhist monks.
4 Nikini (full moon Poya in August)During the month of August the conducting of the first Dhamma Sangayana (Convocation) is commemorated. This was held three months after the passing away of The Buddha. Five hundred Arahat Theros participated in the convocation which was held over seven months in the cave at the foot of the Rajagahanuvara Vebhara Rock.
5 Binara (full moon Poya in September)Commemorates The Buddha's visit to heaven to preach to his mother and celestial multitude. Also the commencing of the Bhikkhuni (nun's) Order. Pajapati Gotami approached The Buddha and implored him to establish the Bhikkhuni Order.
6 Vap (full moon Poya in October)The significant events commemorated during this month are: the conclusion of The BuddhaÕs preaching of the Abhidhamma for three months to his mother in the Heavenly realm (devaloka), King Devanampiyatissa of Sri Lanka sending envoys to King Asoka requesting him to send his daughter Arahat Sanghamitta Theri to Sri Lanka to establish the Bhikkhuni Sasana (Order of Nuns).
7 Il (full moon Poya in November)Celebrates the obtaining of Vivarana (the assurance of becoming a Buddha) by the Bodhisatta Maitriya and the commissioning of 60 disciples by The Buddha to disperse his teachings. Also the conclusion of the three month retreat (vassana).
8 Unduvap (full moon Poya in December)Arrival of the Bo-tree sapling. This was brought to Sri Lanka from India by Buddhist Theri Sanghamitta, and it is this very tree that is venerated by Buddhists in Anura-dhapura. It is also the oldest documented tree in the world. Sanghamitta Theri established the Bhikkhuni Sasana (the Order of Nuns). 9 Duruthu (full moon Poya in January)
In honour of Lord Buddha's first visit to Sri Lanka. This visit too took place in the first year of The Buddha's Supreme Enlightenment.
10 Navam (full moon Poya in February)Celebrates the following events in Buddhist history: Entrance into the order of two leading disciples of The Buddha (Sariputta and Maha Moggalana), The Buddha proclaims for the first time a code of fundamental ethical precepts for the monks. The Buddha announces that within three months His Parinibbana (death) will take place. 11 Medin (full moon Poya in March) Commemorates the visit of The Buddha to his home to preach to his father King Suddhodana and other relatives and show them the path to enlightenment and final deliverance.
12 Bak (full moon Poya in April)
Village life: Ceremonies & Rituals
Village Life: Living in harmony with few wants
Just as folk tales taught simple lessons, the rural folk were simple people leading an uncomplicated life. They had few wants. Theirs was not a complicated life. Most of them were paddy cultivators. They needed water for the paddy fields when the plants start growing. Normally a village would have a small tank from which they got water. Otherwise they had to depend on rainwater. When the rains failed, the crops failed. If there was a tank in the village, rainwater got collected and the villagers could use it for cultivation.
Where it was difficult to find water, people would do chena cultivation. This happened particularly in the arid zone. The villager would clear a patch of jungle land by cutting down the trees and burning the branches. Grain would then be sowed and a variety of food crops grown. When the soil loses its fertility, they would move to another location and begin to clear the jungle land and begin all over again. The land is thus rotated as opposed to the rotation of crops.
Where it was difficult to find water, people would do chena cultivation. This happened particularly in the arid zone. The villager would clear a patch of jungle land by cutting down the trees and burning the branches. Grain would then be sowed and a variety of food crops grown. When the soil loses its fertility, they would move to another location and begin to clear the jungle land and begin all over again. The land is thus rotated as opposed to the rotation of crops.
A hut is built at a central spot and the head of the family spends the night in the hut scaring the wild animals away, particularly when the plants begin to bear.
Water is the most essential thing in the village. Each household has a well dug in the garden. Sometimes there would be a common well used for both bathing and taking water for drinking purpose. Usually the womenfolk bathe in the well while men prefer to take a dip in a nearby stream. The well became the meeting place for women where village gossip is discussed.
Access to the village is either by footpaths or cart tracks. Often these are through jungle where the wild animals roam in search of food. The villager is not scared of them. He considers them as part of their life and follows a policy of live and let live. Sometimes he would hunt a deer or a hare for flesh but on the whole, he leaves the animals alone. He would sense if a wild animal is blocking his path or is in the vicinity. Then he would avoid the animal by taking a different route or wait a while till the animal moved away.
The houses were built in the natural setting. They were simple homes. Following traditional practice, they were wattle and daub (warichchi saha mati) wall houses thatched with cadjan or illuk grass. Clay is used for the floor. Cow dung is generally applied as a top layer.
There would be a front door to enter the house. In front is an open verandah where there would be a bed. Visitors usually sit on the bed, which is used by the male to sleep at night. The wife and children sleep on mats inside the house.
The kitchen with an open hearth (lipa) is built separately behind the house. A reed platform (atuva) is hung over the hearth at a height of four to five feet. In addition to pots and pans, paddy and other grains and dry fish are kept on it. The well-to-do villager would build a paddy barn ('bissa') outside the house where paddy is stored after the harvesting.
As the family grew and the older children got married, each would be given a block of land to build a house. Usually it's the sons who lived close to the parents having got married and brought the wives either from the same village itself or a nearby village. The sons would continue to help the parents in tilling the land or preparing the paddy fields. Married daughters would shift to the husband's home.
In a village, one's kith and kin live in close proximity within a 'hoo handa' (the distance when someone hooting can be heard). Thus a 'gammana' would appear with common facilities being built up.
The 'vedarala' (physician) is an important personality with the villagers depending on him to cure their illnesses. It's only if he is unable to cure that the patient would be taken first to a government dispensary a few miles away or to the hospital which may be quite far away.
The 'kattadiya' (exorcist) also has a role to play just as the 'sastrakaraya' (astrologer) whose main job would be to prepare horoscopes for the newborns according to the astrological readings. He will also indicate the auspicious times for numerous activities ranging from the first meal being given to an infant to starting to build a house or preparing the land to cultivate.Then there are the 'kammalkaraya' (blacksmith) and the 'vadurala' (carpenter). They both come in handy to get things turned out for their agricultural work and also household use. They all form an integral part of the village society.