DEVAS (GODS) IN SRI LANKA
A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “The word deva, meaning "god" or "deity" in this context, signifies various classes of superhuman beings who in some respects are superior to ordinary human beings through their birth in a higher plane. As such, they are capable of helping human beings in times of difficulty. There is also another class of such superior beings who were originally extraordinary human beings. After their death, they have been raised to the level of gods and are worshipped and supplicated as capable of helping in times of need. These are the gods by convention (sammuti-deva) or glorified human heroes like the Minneriya Deviyo, who was glorified in this manner in recognition of his construction of the great Minneriya Tank at Polonnaruwa, or God Vibhishana, one of the four guardian deities of Sri Lanka. Both these categories of deities are, however, subject to the samsaric laws pertaining to birth and death. Thus it is seen that deva-worship is based on the theory that a superior being can help an inferior being when the latter needs such help. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, 1995,Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
“In addition to their role as helpers in need, an additional duty ascribed to the devas is the safeguarding of the Buddha-sasana, i.e., the Buddhist religion. This also has its origin in the story of the Buddha himself when the four divine regents of the universe mounted guard over him and helped on various occasions of the Bodhisatta's life from his conception onwards. The benevolence of the deities is also extended to the protection of the faithful followers of the Buddha's teachings as exemplified by Sakka, the good Samaritan in many Buddhist stories.
“In Sri Lanka there are four deities regarded as the guardians of the Buddha-sasana in the island: Vishnu, Saman, Kataragama, and Vibhishana. Although Vishnu is originally a Hindu god, the Buddhists have taken him over as a Buddhist deity, referring to him also by the localized designation Uppalavanna. And so are Shiva, specially under the name Isvara, and Ganesha under the name Ganapati or the more popular appellation Gana-deviyo.
Devalayas dedicated to the different deities are scattered all over the island. Another popular aspect of his worship in some parts of Sri Lanka can be observed along the main roads, especially in the North-Central Province, where his statue is placed near trees and propitiated by travelers so that they may have a safe journey. The propitiation usually consists of breaking a coconut in his name, offering a coin (pandura), etc.
“Besides these deities so far enumerated there are many other minor figures who are too numerous to be mentioned here. What is important is that in the case of all these deities, the method of propitiation and worship is the same as explained earlier and every such deity is in charge of a particular aspect of life. And all of them are faithful Buddhists, extending their respective powers not only to the Buddha-sasana but also to those who follow it faithfully.
Important Gods in Sri Lanka
Kataragama (Skanda) is by far the most popular god in southern Sri Lanka. A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “ he is considered to be the most powerful deity capable of granting the requests of the worshipper. It is for this reason that he has acquired territorial rights throughout the island. Devalayas dedicated to him are found in many places in the island, some of which are maintained by the Hindus. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]
Skanda is the Hindu God of War and the son of Shiva and Pravati. He wears a tiara or has hair divided into three locks and knotted at the top of his head. . He is often shown holding a double thunderbolt, a sword, a spear and/or a trident, symbols of his prowess as a fighter. He was created to defeat the powers of evil as represented by the demon Takara. His mount is a peacock. Skanda is a complex god with many different, often conflicting, stories about his origins. He is also known as Kartikehha, the Boy God, Kataragama, Kumara and Subrahmanian.
Huniyan Deviyo is the patron deity of the sorcerers in Sri Lanka. Huniyan or Suniyan was been promoted from the status of a demon to that of a deity. He is also regarded as the deity presiding over a village area bounded by its boundaries (gam-kotuwa), in which role he is designated as gambhara-deviyo (deity in charge of the village). In many of the composite devalayas he too has his shrine, the one at Lunava, about seven miles from Colombo close to the Galle Road, near the Lunava railway station, being his chief devalaya.
Dadimunda came into prominence during the Kandyan period (17th and 18th centuries). Also known as (Devata Bandara) who, according to the prevalent tradition, landed at Dondra (Devinuvara) in South Sri Lanka from South India. He proceeded to Alutnuvara in the Kegalla District, taking up permanent residence there in a temple, which he himself got constructed. This is the chief shrine of this deity and here too an annual festival is held. He is regarded as a general of Vishnu and accordingly, at the main Vishnu shrines in the island, he also has his shrine on a side (e.g., Dondra, Kandy, etc.). Another interesting tradition says that he was the only deity who did not run away in fear at the time of Bodhisatta Siddhattha's struggle with Mara. While all the other deities took flight in fright, he alone remained fearless as the Bodhisatta's only guardian. He is portrayed in the attire of a Kandyan chief with his special attribute, a walking stick (soluva). His Kandyan dress symbolizes his suzerainty over the Kandyan area.
A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “Gara-demons (gara-yakku (plural); -yaka (singular)) are a group of demons twelve in number whose female aspects are called the Giri goddesses. Their chief is called Dala-raja who is represented as having three hooded cobras over his head, ear-ornaments, two protruding tusks, and a torch in each hand. When referred to in the singular as gara-yaka it is he that is intended and when performing the ritual it is the mask pertaining to him that is generally used as representing the group. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]
“These demons are not inimical to humans but are regarded as removing various kinds of uncleanliness and evil influences. Accordingly it is customary among the Sinhala Buddhists to perform the ritual called gara-yak-natuma (dance of the gara-yakku) at the end of religious ceremonies like annual peraheras, tovil ceremonies, etc. This is to ward off what is called vas-dos in the terminology of the folk religion, the effects of evil-eye, evil mouth, evil thoughts, etc.
The malicious influences of these evil forces have to be eliminated before the participants return to their normal activities. And for this it is these demons that have to be propitiated. Accordingly, they are invited to come and take away their prey, promising not to harm the participants thereafter. A dancer impersonates the gara-yaka by wearing the appropriate mask just referred to and in the dialogue that takes place between him and another dancer, he promises to comply with the request if certain things are given to him. These include drinks, food, sweets, and money. These items are given and he departs in peace. The ceremony is held annually at the Vishnu Devalaya in Kandy after the annual Esala Perahera. It goes on for one week from the last day of the Perahera and is referred to as vali-yak-natuma..”
Buddhist Gods in Sri Lanka
Natha is purely a Buddhist god, apparently the local counterpart of the all-compassionate Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “He is referred to in Sri Lanka by the abbreviated form Natha. His cult, as that of Natha, had become quite popular during the Kotte period (14th and 15th centuries), while references to him are found as early as the 9th and 10th centuries as shown by archaelogical evidence. The center of the cult was Totagamuwa near Hikkaduwa in the Galle District. Two of the more ancient devalayas dedicated to this deity are found at Kandy and at Vagiriya. The premises of the Kandy devalaya, opposite the Temple of the Tooth, are considered especially lucky and sacred, for the important royal rites like choosing a name for the king, putting on the royal sword, etc., were held there. It was Natha's all-pervading compassion that seems to have been appealed to by the local devotees. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]
Sakka is the king of the gods. He has been an important figure in the Buddhist affairs of Sri Lanka. Tradition connects him with the Buddha himself in connection with the landing of Vijaya and his followers in the island in the 6th century B.C. On this occasion, at the Buddha's request, Sakka is said to have entrusted Vishnu with the guardianship of Buddhism in the island. It was Sakka too who sought arahant Mahinda and requested him to come over to the island when the time became opportune for its conversion (Mhv. xiii,15,16,17).
Saman is another important deity, also known as is Mahasumana or Sumana. He is the guardian or the presiding deity of Sri Pada mountain or Sumanakuta (Adam's Peak), which the Buddhists treat as sacred on account of its bearing the impression of the Buddha's left foot, which he left on his third visit to the island. (Mhv.i,77ff.). God Saman is recorded as having met the Buddha on the latter's first visit to the island when he visited Mahiyangana to drive away the yakkhas. Saman became a stream-entrant (sotapanna) after listening to the Buddha, who gave him a handful of hairs with which he erected the dagoba at Mahiyangana (Mhv.i,33). He is regarded as the chief deity of the area surrounding the sacred mountain as well as of the hill-country in general. Accordingly his main shrine is at Ratnapura, where an annual festival is held in his honor.
Vibhishana is another deity, somewhat similar to Saman. Vibhishana is regarded as the brother of the pre-historic King Ravana of Sri Lanka. His main shrine is at Kelaniya, as a part of the famous Buddhist temple there.
Deva Worship in Sri Lanka
A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “Besides the ceremonies and rituals like pirit, sanghika-dana, kathina, etc., that can be traced in their origin to the time of the Buddha himself, there is another popular practice resorted to by the average Sri Lankan Buddhist which cannot be traced to early Buddhism so easily. This is deva-worship, the worship of deities, in what are popularly called devalayas or abodes dedicated to these deities. This practice cannot be described as totally un-Buddhistic, yet at the same time it does not fall into the category of folk religious practices like bali and tovil adopted by popular Buddhism. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]
“In the devala-worship the devotees make offerings to these deities and solicit their help for special purposes, especially in their day-to-day problems. A noteworthy feature in this practice is the presence of a mediator between the deity and the devotee, a priest called kapurala, or kapu-mahattaya or simply kapuva, the equivalent of the Hindu pusari. This figure has been copied from South Indian Hindu practices, for even in North India the devotees appeal directly to these higher powers without the help of such an intermediary.
“By devala offering is meant the offering of food and drink as well as gifts of cloth, coins, gold, and silver often accompanied by eulogies addressed to the particular resident deity and recited by the kapurala. In many Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka there are devalayas dedicated to various deities. Devala-worship of this type is a ritual that has gained popularity among the local Buddhists since the Polonnaruwa period (12th century). In the present day it has acquired a vital place in the religious life of the Buddhist masses. This is one of the aspects by which the "great tradition" of Nikaya Buddhism has been supplemented by popular elements. This shows that if Buddhism is to prevail as a living force among all classes of its adherents, it has to make provision for the popular demands related to the day-to-day life of the common populace.
“It is customary for many Sri Lankan Buddhists to visit a devalaya of one of the deities and make a vow that if the problem at hand (i.e., illness, enemies, etc.) is solved, they will make an offering to the deity concerned. Offerings are made even without such a special request. Whatever the case may be, this practice has become a ritual of propitiation through the kapuralas.
“The main duties of the kapuralas are to look after the devalayas in their charge, to perform the prescribed rituals, and to offer in the inner shrine the offerings brought by devotees. The kapurala is given a fee for his services. Once the ritual is over, a part of the offerings is given back to the devotee for him to take home and partake of as having a sacramental value. The offerings normally consist of milk-rice, coconuts, betel, camphor, joss-sticks, fruits, along with flowers, garlands, flags, etc. All these are arranged in an orderly manner in a basket or tray and handed over respectfully to the kapurala, who takes it inside and offers it at the statue of the main deity inside the inner room. The devotees wait outside with clasped hands while the kapurala makes his pleadings on their behalf.
“The statement he recites, called yatikava in Sinhala, is a panegyric of the deity concerned and it constitutes a humble and respectful request to bring succour to the devotee in his particular predicament. After this the kapurala emerges from the inner shrine room and blesses the devotees by using his thumb to place on their forehead a mark of a paste made from saffron, sandalwood, and other ingredients. This mark, the symbol of sanctification, is known as the tilaka. This form of ritualistic propitiation of deities is a clear adaptation of the Hindu system where the very same method is followed, though more elaborately.
Pattini is the most popular female Buddhist divinity. She has her devalayas scattered throughout the country. Her cult goes back at least to the second century . The then ruler, King Gajabahu, is said to have introduced the worship of this divinity into the island from South India.1] The legend about her life is told in the Tamil poem Silappadikaram. According to the myths current in the island about her, she had seven incarnations, being born seven times from water, the tusk of an elephant, a flower, a rock, a fire (or peak), cloth, and a mango. Hence she is designated as sat-pattini, sat meaning seven.
“There are colorful stories woven around these births. The story about her unswerving fidelity to her fickle husband Kovalan (or Palanga) in her birth as Kannagi, is quite popular among the local Buddhists as attested by the existence of many Sinhala literary works dealing with the story (e.g., Vayantimalaya, Pattinihalla, Palanga-halla, etc.).
“Her favors are sought especially at times of pestilences like chicken pox, measles, etc. and also by women who desire children. It is customary for the Sri Lankan Buddhists to visit her devalaya and worship her with offerings after recovery from infectious diseases. The banishment of evil influences and the attainment of prosperity in general and good harvests are other purposes behind the ceremonies performed in her honor. She also plays an important part in the ceremonies connected with the offering of first fruits.
“Devalayas dedicated to her are found in many parts of the island, the one at Navagamuwa, about fifteen miles from Colombo on the old Avissavella Road, being the most important. The sanctity of this place seems to go back to the time of King Gajabahu.
Rituals for Goddess Pattini
A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “The large number of rituals and ceremonies connected with the goddess Pattini also come under Buddhist practices. This goddess, believed to be of South Indian origin, has become the most popular female deity of the Sinhala Buddhists. While Hindu goddesses like Lakshmi, Sarasvati, and Kali are also worshipped by the Buddhists, only Pattini has separate abodes among the Buddhists. The most important of the rituals connected with Pattini is the gam-maduwa, which is an all-purpose ceremony. As this ceremony is usually held after the harvest by offering the first portion of paddy harvested, this is also a ceremony of first-fruit offerings. A gam-maduwa has many interludes dramatized mainly from rich legendary lore about the goddess Pattini. Kohomba-kankariya, or the ritual of the god Kohomba, is a ceremony similar to the gam-maduwa but performed more as an expiatory ritual. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]
“Two other ceremonies of this type are pan-madu and puna-madu. All these are different forms of the same type of ritual with slight differences. They are generally referred to as devol-madu or occasions for the propitiation of the gods.9] The general purpose of such devol-madu is the attainment of immunity from disease and evil influences and the achievement of success, especially agricultural, for the entire village. A point that is sociologically important is that as they are big communal gatherings they also fulfill the social needs of the village folk. As they are performed in public places to bless the community as a whole and turn out to be social get-togethers, they bear a corporate character. When it is decided that such a ceremony should be held, all the village folk would forget their differences and work together to make it a success. Further, while it mainly serves as a ritual to propitiate the deities, it is a form of entertainment as well. Serving as it does the socio-religious needs of the masses, it becomes a big social event for the entire village.
Hindu Gods in Sri Lanka
Many Hindu gods are worshiped — or at least respected — by both Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. There are numerous gods and goddesses worshipped by Hindus. Among these, the most fundamental to Hinduism, is the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - creator, preserver and destroyer respectively. Brahma has four heads corresponding to the four directions of the compass. He is the creator of life and the entire universe. Vishnu is the preserver who guides the cycle of birth and rebirth. He is also supposed to have taken many incarnations to save the world from evil forces. Both Rama and Krishna are believed to have been incarnations of Vishnu. Shiva, usually seen with a coiled cobra around his neck, destroys all evil and also has many incarnations, not all of which are terrifying.
A select group of Hindu gods and goddesses predominate in the myths, legends, and styles of worship in Sri Lanka. Female deities are very important among the Hindu Tamils. At temples for Shiva or Vishnu there are separate shrines for the god and for his consort, and in many cases the shrine for the goddess (amman) receives much more attention from worshipers. Hindu philosophy interprets the goddess as the Shakti, or cosmic energy, of the god in the world and therefore the most immediate creative or destructive force, to be thanked or placated. Many of the manifestations of the goddess are capricious or violent, and she is often seen as a warrior who destroys demons on her own or whom Shiva himself has to defeat in combat. As Mariamman, she used to bring smallpox, and she is still held responsible for diseases of the hot season. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]
In addition to the main gods, there are a number of subordinate divine beings, who are often the most popular deities. Ganesha, or Pillaiyar (or Ganapati), the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati, is the patron of good fortune and is worshiped at the beginning of a religious service or a new venture, such as a business deal or even a short trip. Murugan, his brother, is a handsome young warrior who carries a spear and rides a peacock. He is worshiped near hills or mountains, and his devotees are known for fierce vows and austerity that may include self-mutilation. Every village has its own protective deities, often symbolized as warriors, who may have their own local stories and saints. *
“Heroes of epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are immortalized and are still alive in the day-to-day existence of the common people. The gods of Hinduism are at once super-human and human and there is distinct feeling of warmth and familiarity towards them. Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, represents qualities such as honor, courage and valor and is held up as a model of manliness. His wife Sita is the prototypal Indian wife who is carried off by Ravana, the king of Lanka, while Rama and Sita are on exile. Sita's eventual rescue by Rama, his brother Lakshmana, and Rama's faithful monkey-general Hanuman are all woven into this engrossing tale. Stories from this epic have been passed down orally from one generation to the next. Religious fairs, festivals and rituals have kept these legends alive, and there is never an occasion that does not offer an opportunity to retell the old stories. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
“The stirring verses of the Mahabharata tell the story of the dynastic struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who were close cousins. Lord Krishna plays a very important role in this Great Epic. He is a friend, philosopher and guide to Arjuna, one of the Pandavas, and he helps Arjuna overcome his hesitation to kill his close relatives in the battlefield. The wise philosophy of Krishna and his teachings have been embodied in the Bhagwad Gita. Although the popular image of Krishna is that of a god who steals butter as a child, and who, as a youth, plays the flute and entices cows and cowherd girls alike; in his mature years he is depicted as the wise philosopher with a more serious side to his nature.
Vishnu and His Place Among Buddhists
One of the main Hindu gods is Vishnu, often represented as a divine king accompanied by his beautiful wife, Lakshmi, the bestower of wealth and good fortune. Besides presiding as a divine monarch, Vishnu periodically descends to earth, assuming a physical form to help beings attain salvation. Vishnu has ten main incarnations, two of which — Rama and Krishna- -are particularly popular. Rama was a great hero, whose exploits in rescuing his wife from the demon king of Lanka are recounted in the epic Ramayana. Vishnu's most popular incarnation is Krishna, who combines in a single divine figure the mythic episodes of a warrior prince and a rustic cowherd god. As warrior, Krishna figures prominently in what is perhaps the single most important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, where he stresses the importance of doing one's duty and devotion to god. As divine cowherd, Krishna served as an inspiration for a vast body of religious poetry in Sanskrit and the regional South Asian languages. From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, Tamil devotees of Vishnu (alvars) composed poetry in praise of the god. These Tamil poems, collected in anthologies, are still recited during worship and festivals for Vishnu. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]
Vishnu is a Hindu god Vishnu that has also assumed a special Buddhist significance in the island. He is identified with the god Uppalavanna of the Mahavamsa, to whom Sakka, the king of the gods, is said to have entrusted the guardianship of Sri Lanka at the request of the Buddha before his passing away. This god is said to have arrived in the island to fulfill this mission. The name Uppalavanna means "the color of the blue water-lily." As Vishnu is of the same color, Uppalavanna became identified with Vishnu, and in the wake of the Mahavamsa tradition, he became, as Vishnu, the protector of the Buddha-sasana in Sri Lanka. The calculated omission of the name Vishnu in the Mahavamsa in this connection may be viewed as an attempt at total localization of the divinity with a view to harmonize him with the cultural fabric of the island. His main shrine is at Devinuwara (Dondra), at the southern tip of the island, where an annual Esala (July-August) festival is held in his honor. If the identification is correct his cult can be traced to the earliest phase of the history of the island and has been popular up to the present day.
The second major Hindu deity, and by far the most important god among the Tamils in Sri Lanka, is Shiva. He differs considerably from Vishnu. In many stories he reigns as a king, but often he appears as a religious ascetic, smeared with ashes, sitting on a tiger skin in the jungle, with a snake around his neck. He is the lord of animals. Although he is an ascetic, he is also a sexual figure, married to the beautiful Parvati (the daughter of the mountain), and his image is often a single rock shaped like a phallus (lingam). He is often a distant figure whose power is destructive, but paradoxically he is a henpecked husband who has to deal with family squabbles involving his sons. His devotees enjoy retelling his myths, but worshipers visualize him as a cosmic creator who will save his creatures when they have abandoned themselves totally to his love. One of the most powerful expressions of his creative role is the image of Nataraja, "Lord of the Dance," who gracefully manifests the rhythm of the universe. Great Tamil devotees (nayanmar) of the early middle ages created a large collection of poems dedicated to Shiva and his holiest shrines. These collections are still revered among the Tamils as sacred scriptures on the same plane as the Vedas. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988]
Shiva (Siva) is regarded as the destroyer, preserver, and creator because he completes the Hindu cosmological cycle and ushers in the return of creation. He wears a chignon with curls and has a vertical third eye in the middle of his forehead. He often is depicted with four arms, carrying a string of beads, a symbol of his teaching, and a trident. The beads are called Rudraksha beads, a reference to his early name. Hindus who worship Shiva as their primary god are members of the Shaivism sect.
Saivism is the worship of the Hindu god Shiva. There is reason to believe that Saivism existed in pre-Buddhist India. The Mahavamsa (A.D. 5th century) records that Pandukabhaya (474 – 367 B.C.), the first monarch of the Anuradhapura Kingdom and ruler of all Sri Lanka,.built a sivika-sala where Shivalinga (Shiva phallic symbol) was established. Shiva-worshipping ascetics (samanas) were also present in the Island in fair numbers. Pandukabhaya built a monastery and temples for them The Pancha Ishwarams (five abodes of Shiva) are five coastal ancient kovils (temples) dedicated to Shiva located along the coasts of Sri Lanka. They are most sacred pilgrimage complexes for Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu devotees who adhere to the ancient Saiva Siddhanta philosophy, with central shrines for Shiva in each temple. Initial construction was by royal architects of the ancient Naga kingdom (Nayanar). [Source: Wikipedia, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
Ganesh in Sri Lanka
Ganesha is the elephant-headed god of wisdom and the remover of obstacles. He is s known by various names in different parts of India and Sri Lanka and on different occasions. Popular among the Buddhists under the names Ganapati, Pillaiyar or Gana-deviyo. ) as the Remover of Obstacles, the god of domestic harmony and of success. He is the most beloved and revered of all the Hindu gods, and is always invoked first in any Hindu ceremony or festival. He is the son of Parvati (the wife of Shiva, the Destroyer, the most powerful of the Hindu trinity of principal gods). There are many stories about how Ganesha got his elephant head, and about his exploits and antics. He was created as an ordinary boy, but was decapitated in battle. Shiva's emissaries were sent into the forest and told to get the head of the first animal they found and to fit that head onto the boy's neck. They found a little elephant, and it worked!
A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: He is worshipped as the chief of obstacles (Vighnesvara) because it is believed that he is responsible for creating and removing obstracles. He does this through troops of inferior deities or demi-gods considered as attendants of Shiva, present almost everywhere, who are under his command. It is in this sense that he is called Gana-pati (chief of hosts), which is the epithet popular among the Buddhists. The devalayas dedicated to him are mostly run by the Hindus. The Buddhists worship him either through his statues, found in many Buddhists temples, or by visiting the Hindu kovils dedicated to him. As the god of wisdom and of learning, he is propitiated at the time a child first reads the alphabet. As the chief of obstacles, as their creator as well as remover, the Hindus begin their devala-ritual by making the first offering to him. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]
“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. In Jaffna, Pillaiyar was regarded as the "guardian of the crops" and many shrines were erected by the agriculturists in the neighborhood of their fields. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
Ganesh Temples in Sri Lanka
According to a local tradition, a temple dedicated to Ganesa was erected at Inuvil, in Jaffna, by Karunakara Tondaiman, the commander of Kulottunga Chola I (1070-1118) , and it has come to be known as Karunakara Pilliayar Temple. in the Nuwera Eliya mountainous area, one finds such Ganesh small shrines, located at road crossings, often under trees. The statues display the typical South Indian style (black colored by cult smoke, dressed by a piece of tissue). Some scattered Ganesh colorful folk statues are also located near road crossings in jungle regions between Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
“Other Ganesh representations in south of lanka are much older ones. They can be seen in some Buddhist temples, where they are warily displayed. Some are mural paintings, with other Hindu deities (Vishnu, Indra, Kartikkeya), paying respects to the Buddha. One in Dambulla temple Cave No. 2, and another one in a cave of the Alu Vihara temple. Other statues: one small white standing Ganesh can be found in a Buddhist shrine at Embekke Devala but the best and biggest is hidden in an ancient part of the Lankatilaka temple, both near Kandy. Of course, other such ancient Ganesh representations exist in other places too.
“The only temple which openly displays Ganesh is the well-known Kelanya temple in a near suburb of Colombo. There, on the southern wall, a large sculpture of the benevolent God is displayed. He is seated on His huge rat.
“Near Mihintale, the stupa Kantaka Cetinga is surrounded by a decorative frieze which inscriptions say to date from the 1st or 2nd century. On this frieze, the elephant-headed god is undoubtebly carved. Indeed, one can see a twofold Gana procession moving towards an elephant-headed personage with a left-turned trunk. We can be sure that this is a Ganapati representation, despite the antiquity of the frieze.
“In Museums, one can remember some good old stone Ganesh statues in the National Museum (Colombo); however, we regret that no information is given about their age and the place where they have been found. On the other hand, two best pieces, one stone-made, one bronze-made (both from the 12th century), are presented in the excellent Polonnaruwa Museum. In the catalogue of the exposition in Paris "Bronzes Bouddhiques de l’antique Ceylan" (1992), Von Sroeder (1992) describes a large splendid sitting bronze Ganesh from the 11th century (Pollonaruwa period, which has been found in the Shiva Devale (temple) in 1960. The author writes that this unique specimen would be on display in the Anuradhapura museum. According to the picture, no doubt that this piece is the Ganesh now displayed in Polonnaruwa.
“There are several ancient Sinhala texts written for beginners during the time of Pirivena education prior to the establishment of schools by the British. One such early book is ‘Ganadevi Hella’. As the name indicates, ‘Ganadevi Hella’ was a collection of verses referring to Hindu god Gnesh, popularly known as ganadevi in Sinhala. There are 49 verses in the book. A typical verse in the book popular even today reads: Ganadeviyan nuwana denna/ Sarasawathi pahala venna/ Siyalu roga durukaranna/ Nitara vandimi thunuruvanna
“Pillaiyar Temples in Sir Lanka: 1) Northern area, Jaffna
Chulipuram : Kannaikothikakkai Pillaiyar temple
Inuvil : Karunakara Pillaiyar temple
Manipay : Maruthady Vinayagar temple
Murukandi : Murukandi Pillaiyar temple
Nallur : Kailasa Pillaiyar temple
Neervely : Arasakesari Pillaiyar temple
2) Northern area, outside Jaffna
Alaveddy : Kumbalavalai Pillaiyar temple
Batticaloa : Mamanga Pillaiyar temple
3) Other places
Colombo : Shri Muthu Vinayaga temple, Chettay Street
Bambalapitiya : New Kathiresan temple
Kandy : Selva Vinayaka temple
Katarigama : Manikka Vinayaka temple
Legend of Ganesh’s Creation
Lord Ganesh is the son of Lord Shiva and goddess Parvathi. When Lord Shiva, was away fighting for the gods, the lady of the house, goddess Parvathi was alone at home. On one occasion, she needed someone to guard the house when she was going for a bath. Unable to think of an alternative, she used her powers to create a son, Ganesh. She instructed Ganesh to keep strict vigil on the entrance to the house and not to allow anyone into the house. Ganesh agreed and stayed on the strictest of strict vigils. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
In the meantime Lord Shiva returned happy after a glorious victory for the gods, only to be stopped at the entrance by Ganesh. Ganesh, acting on Parvathi's orders verbatim, did not allow Shiva to enter the house. Lord Shiva became enraged beyond control and in a fit of rage slashed the head of Ganesh. Paravti came out from her bath and was aghast at the scene. She was very very angry at her lordship for what had happened and explained him the situation.
Lord Shiva wanted to make it up to Parvathi and agreed to put life back into Ganesha by putting the head of the first sleeping living creature that came in sight which was sleeping with its head to the north. He sent his soldiers to go in search of the creature. The first creature which came in sight was an elephant. So Lord Shiva re-created his son with the head of the elephant. Hence the trunk of Lord Ganesha. Parvathi was still not totally happy so Shiva granted Ganesha a boon that before beginning of any undertaking or task people would worship Lord Ganesh. Thus the reason for worship of Ganesha before start of any work.
Worship (Puja) of Hindu Gods in Sri Lanka
“The invisible deities are represented by a complexity of images and idols symbolizing divine powers. Many of these idols are housed within ornate temples of unparalleled beauty and grandeur. The Hindu gods are very much alive and live in temples, snow-capped peaks, in rivers and oceans and in the very hearts and minds of the Hindus. In predominantly Tamil areas as well as in upcountry estates, a black stone or a black stone-statue of God Pillaiyar is placed at the foot of trees at certain places and venerated the same way. The God is also known as Gana Deviyo.
Worship of gods by Hindus is known as puja. Worship can occur mentally or in front of the most rudimentary representations, such as stones or trees. Most people assemble pictures or small statues of their favorite deities and create small shrines in their homes for daily services, and they make trips to local shrines to worship before larger and more ornate statues. Public temples (kovil) consist of a central shrine containing images of the gods, with a surrounding courtyard and an enclosing wall entered through ornately carved towers (gopuram).
During worship, the images become the gods after special rituals are performed. Worshipers then offer them presents of food, clothing, and flowers as they would honored guests. The gifts are sanctified through contact with the gods, and worshipers may eat the sacred food or smear themselves with sacred ash in order to absorb the god's grace.
In public temples, only consecrated priests (pujari) are allowed into the sanctum housing the god's image, and worshipers hand offerings to the priests for presentation to the god. Most of the time, worship of the gods is not congregational, but involves offerings by individuals or small family groups at home or through temple priests. During major festivals, however, hundreds or thousands of people may come together in noisy, packed crowds to worship at temples or to witness processions of the gods through public streets.
Buddhist Temples in Rural Sri Lanka
According to the Sunday Times: Just as much as the paddy field and the tank were of vital importance to the peasants, so was the temple. All the villagers being Buddhists, every village had a temple. It was a familiar sight to see the ‘dagoba’ and the temple surrounded by paddy fields. Within the precincts of the temple were several places of worship. The ‘budu ge’, as the name suggests, had images of the Buddha in seated and reclining positions. The ‘Buddha pooja’ was offered in the image house. The ‘vehera’ or ‘dagoba’ was built to an accepted size and shape and had relics enshrined. [Source: LLRH, Sunday Times, 2008]
“The ‘bodhi’ symbolised the tree under which Prince Siddartha attained Enlightenment. Apart from these places of worship, a temple consisted of the ‘avasaya’, where the monks stayed, a ‘bana maduva’, the preaching hall where the villagers gathered on a Poya day to observe ‘sil’ and listen to ‘bana’ sermons, and a ‘gantara’, a bell fixed on to a tall tower.
“The bell was rung as a signal for the villagers to meet at the temple. It was generally a call from the monk to discuss urgent or important issue affecting him or the village. If there are signs that the alms were getting delayed, the ‘kepakaru’ would ring the bell and indicate that time is up to bring the alms. The ‘bana maduva’ was a simple half-wall structure with short gates on all four side. The temple was considered a sacred place and the villagers treated it with respect and dignity. They would see to it that the youngsters behaved themselves in the temple premises and made sure that they took part in religious activities with decorum.
Activities at a Rural Buddhist Temple in Sri Lanka
According to the Sunday Times: At least one monk was resident in the village temple. The villagers looked after him. The monk would go on ‘pindapatha’ at least once a day, usually in the morning, for his meals. Taking his ‘pattaraya’, the alms bowl, he would start at the crack of dawn for the ‘heel dane’ or morning alms. He would take a different route every day visiting a few houses each morning thereby giving a chance for everyone in the village to offer alms. [Source: LLRH, Sunday Times, 2008]
“Having collected the alms, he would get back to the temple and partake of the food or share with the other monks, if there are others. The ‘kepakaru’ or the layman who attends to the needs of the monk, was also given his share. Invariably there would be at least one dog, if not more, in the temple. The ‘daval dane’ or the mid-day alms would generally be brought to the temple and after offering a portion of the food to the Buddha in the form of ‘Buddha pooja’, the monks would be served the alms. The ‘dayakas’ who bring the alms would observe ‘pan sil’ — the five precepts- and the monk would deliver a short sermon reminding the devotees of how they would acquire merit by giving alms. The devotees would reverently worship him and then serve the alms to the bowl. Usually the monk would accept only a single serving, so the devotees would make sure that sufficient food is served.
“The Buddhist monk gave leadership in the village. The peasant turned to him for advice. The monk performed several vital functions in the daily life of the villagers. Chanting of ‘pirith’ offering protection to the individuals, participation in activities in the village and offering his blessings, partaking of the ‘dana’, alms offered by the ‘dayakas’ were all part of the monk’s routine.”
Hindu-Influenced Rituals in a Village in Sri Lanka
D. B. Kappagoda wrote: Apart from the rituals associated with Buddhism many people also believe in a variety of Gods such as Minneriya deiyo, Aiyanayaka deiyo, Kalu devata (Black God) and Bahirawa whose blessings are invoked for a variety of reasons. Blessings are invoked in the form of "yatika" to ensure their health, the protection of the weva bund and an adequate supply of water for cultivation. The most noteworthy ceremony associated with the weva is "Mutti mangallaya" in which Aiyanayaka deiyo's blessings are sought. [Source: D. B. Kappagoda, CDN, Mid Week Mirror]
This ceremony is performed by the gamarala after the rains when the weva is full. The Mutti mungallaya is performed after the harvest. Once a day has been selected for the Mutti mangallaya each household will contribute their share of rice, kawum, plantains, betel and areca nuts for the ceremony. After the feasting is over, villagers go in a procession with two new clay pots filled with saffron and incense to the abode of the deity who is believed to reside in a tree on the weva bund. A special dais is erected with coconut fronds known as "yahana" under the tree over which a white canopy is hung to give a sanctified look. On this specially erected pedestal, betel offering is made and the two clay pots are also placed as a form of offering.
The evening begins with a "yatika" by the anumatirala (mouth-piece) of the deity). This is a form of an address to the deity. He then begins to dance to the accompaniment of drums. This goes on throughout the night. At dawn, the pots are taken from the "yahana" and carried to the tree and hung on two branches. In the course of the ritual it is made known to the people by the anumatirala who acts as the medium to the God that he has accepted their offerings. After returning to the village the anumatirala once again begins to dance to the accompaniment of chanting and drumming. After the mid day meal the people then disperse to their respective homes with the belief of having been blessed and confident of a period of prosperity.
Aiyanar in Tamil means Kaiyanar who sprang from the hand of Vishnu with his 50 names and with as many different types of power. In the North Central Province the Mutti mangallaya is performed by the kapurala who has taken the role of "anumatirala" and he is paid in cash for his services. After the successful conclusion of the yala harvest, the kapurala invites the villagers to a house in which he performs the 'yatika' throughout the night. A ceremony at the shrine dedicated to Aiyanayake at the weva bund takes place the next day followed by the weva Rajakiriya in which the "Kiri Ithirilla" -boiling milk — forms the main ceremony.
The blessings of deities such as Aiyanayaka, Kambili Pudurussa, Ilandari, Kadugath Bandara is invoked by the kapurala (native priest) while "Kiri Ithirilla" is in progress. An all night pirith ceremony followed by an alms giving the following day concludes the ceremonies. The ceremonies connected with these rituals are known as "Game Rajakariya" which means the rites of the village. There is also "Vele Raja Kariya" performed on a lesser note. These deities are of local origin but the rituals are influenced by Hinduism. This happy blending of Buddhism and Hinduism evolved from ancient times and appeals to the minds of the unsophisticated agricultural communities living in the Wanni.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022