Many Sri Lankans still believe that sickness is caused by the evil eyes, demons and bad spirits. Even some of the most devout Buddhist and Hindus believe in witchcraft, sorcery and the power of the planets. Before important events or meetings are scheduled astrologers are often sought to find an auspicious date and time.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “It is believed that the exorcism rituals of Sri Lanka stem from a folk religion brought to the island from India at some time during the 5th or 6th century. The shaman priests communicate with the personified supernatural forces of the mainly non-Buddhist belief-system, such as various gods, planetary spirits and, particularly, demons. These exorcism rituals mainly belong to the “low-country” traditions of Sri Lanka’s coastal areas. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“Buddha is often venerated in the preliminary or final ceremonies, although these rituals, which include dances, acrobatics, pyrotechnics and short plays, mostly deal with the animistic strata of the island’s belief-system, which includes no less than 78,000 demons. These night-long events include animal sacrifices and other offerings. The stage, the temporary altar and the costumes are mainly made of natural materials, such as fibre and leaves. Colorful masks made of wood and other natural materials are often used. The theatrical features include various dances, and short, often comic slapstick scenes. However, in some of the traditions there can be a loose plot connecting these numbers with each other. In the most powerful ceremonies the performer or some of the audience may experience trances.

Demons have traditionally been driven from the bodies of the sick with the lime ceremony. After an auspicious time has been determined, an altar is adorned areca palm fronds and seven species of flower; sanctified with flesh from the sea (dried fish) and the land (leather); and purified with seven limes and some coins to appease the gods. During the ceremony a shaman invokes the names of the gods Tama and Lakshmi and squeezes the limes on the parts of sick person body that are ill, shouting, "Go, go you devils." The limes are then dropped in a bucket of water. If an odd number float back to the top the treatment was a success. [Source: "Ceylon" Donna K. and Gilbert Grosvenor, National Geographic, April 1966]



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..”

'Gam Maduwa' Folk Rituals

According to the Sunday Times: Just as much as villagers flock to the temple whenever a 'pirit' ceremony is held, people gather in large numbers when other folk rituals are performed. A 'gam maduwa', an elaborate ritual based on age-old customs and traditions would draw the entire village for an all-night outing. So will a 'bali' ceremony or a 'thovil' attract villagers in their numbers. These are community gatherings where people participate voluntarily. A 'gam maduwa' being an elaborate ceremony is not held very often. Being a rare event, it attracts village-folk from the surrounding villages as well. [Source: Sunday Times]

“As the name suggests, a 'gam maduwa' is a village affair. It is performed in a temporary shed erected for the occasion. It is of special interest to the farmers, for whom a 'gam maduwa' would bring in blessings of the gods for success in their agricultural activities. Others too believe that it would bring a lot of good to the village. It falls into the category of rituals known as 'shanti karma' and is a ritual with mass participation.

“The Sri Lankan village is very much connected with agriculture. Thus folk rituals center round customs, traditions, beliefs and other practices related to agriculture. The first portion of the harvest is offered to the gods and rice is used to offer alms thanking the gods and asking them for the protection of the next crop. Boiling of milk is also another way of hoping for a bountiful harvest. The shed or hall built as the 'maduwa' is generally around 60 feet in length and 20 feet in width. It is gaily decorated with 'gokkola'. A pandal adorns the entrance to the 'maduwa'. Hung on it are different kinds of fruit. The erection of the hall begins at an auspicious time when a vow is made to the gods promising to have the 'gam maduwa' on a specific date.

“The central figure in the 'gam maduwa' is goddess Pattini whose symbolic emblem is kept on a special dais in the center. In front is the 'mal asanaya' where flowers are offered with paintings of the goddess on either side. Other deities who are worshipped in the region are also featured. During the nightlong ceremony verses invoking the blessings mentioning these gods are sung and numerous forms of traditional dances are performed to the accompaniment of drums. The 'pandam paliya' or the torch dance is of significance where the torches keep burning throughout the night.

“'Bali' is a less elaborate form of ritual than 'gam maduwa' and is basically a sacrifice to the deities. It is closely related with astrology and often a 'bali' ceremony is held when someone is having a bad time or is suffering from a serious illness. 'The bali adura' officiates using a whole heap of paraphernalia including 'pol mal' (coconut flowers), 'puwak mal' (arecanut flowers), stems of plantain trees, flowers of at least five different colors, betel, coconuts and lime. Although a 'bali' ceremony is held for an individual or a family, sometimes it is also planned to bless a whole village. Lots of chants are recited while offering many types of food to deities, spirits and demons. These are all done with the hope of getting some favours. It may be an appeal to cure an illness or to improve a business, which had collapsed.

“The 'bali' ceremony begins in late evening in a specially decorated pavilion where images of deities and others are exhibited. If it is held to cure a sick person, he or she will sit or lie down in a corner. A cock is generally kept tied to an image. Dancing, chanting and drumming continue throughout the night and towards the end there is frantic dancing by the 'bali adura' or chief official who falls flat on the ground as the climax is reached. His assistant would quickly get near him with an ash pumpkin, which is kept on his chest and cut in two. The departure of the evil spirit is marked by the somewhat rash behaviour of the 'adura' who runs about pulling down the decorations and other stuff. The breaking up a branch signals the end of the whole episode. The 'aturaya' then leaves quite exhausted yet with the fervent hope that he would be cured.”

Tovil Ceremony

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “Tovil or "devil-dancing" is ritualistic healing ceremony that primarily belongs to folk religion. As in the case of the bali ceremony, here too many Buddhist elements have crept in and it has become a ceremony purporting to fulfill, at the popular level, the socio-religious needs of the simple rural Buddhists. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“Tovil is essentially a demonic ritual mainly exorcistic in character, and hence a healing ceremony. In its exorcist form it is meant to curb and drive away any one or several of the innumerable hosts of malevolent spirits, known as yakkhas, who are capable of bringing about pathological states of body and mind. Petas or departed spirits of the malevolent type, referred to as mala-yakku (mala = dead) or mala-peta, are also brought under the exorcist power of tovil. While some of these could be subdued by the chanting of pirit (described earlier), there are some for whom methods of a more drastic type have to be adopted. The most popular of such methods is the tovil ceremony.

“As was pointed out earlier in relation to rituals in general, tovil is also an important aspect of folk religion that has been adopted by the Sinhala Buddhists. In the case of tovil too, religious sanction is conferred on folk-religious elements that have crept into normative Buddhism, supplementing, as it were, whatever is lacking in it to satisfy the religious needs of the masses. The Buddha is the chief of living beings, who include the yakkhas and other related non-human beings that figure in tovil. Although they have the power to make their victims ill in various ways — such as by possession, gaze, etc. — they have to leave them once propitiatory offerings of food, drink, etc., are made to them. Even the mere mention of the Buddha's virtues is enough to frighten them. Moreover, the chief of the yakkhas, Vessavana (Vesamuni), is one of the four regents of the universe (maharaja) and as such a devoted follower of the Buddha. The ordinary yakkhas that trouble human beings have to obey his commands. Thus, in all rituals connected with tovil, it is in the name of the Buddha and Vessavana that the yakkhas are commanded to obey the orders of the exorcist. And in the rich folklore that deals with tovil, there are many anecdotes that connect every ritual or character with some Buddha of the past or with some Buddhist deity.

“Nowadays in Sri Lanka, tovil has become the most popular form of cure adopted for spirit possession as well as other pathological conditions consequent on this. When a person is ill and medical treatment does not respond, the suspicion arises that it is due to some influence of an evil spirit. The person to be consulted in such a case is the exorcist known as kattadiya or yakadura or yaddessa who would discover and identify the particular evil spirit causing the disease and perform the appropriate tovil. There are also certain forms of tovil performed as pregnancy rituals (e.g., rata-yakuma) and others as means of eradicating various forms of evil influences like the evil eye, evil mouth, etc. (e.g., gara-yakuma).

Devil Dancers and the Theatrical Aspects of the Tovil Ceremony

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Tovil refers to a group of different rituals aiming to communicate with demons or departed beings. It comprises many dances, which are named after the specific demon with which contact is made. The departed persons often appear in the forms of various animals, wearing animal masks. The demon characters in some forms of tovil are also masked. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“There are several reasons for staging a tovil ritual. It may be aimed to protect an individual or community against negative forces. It may also have a direct curative function. It is believed that putting on a performance with elaborate offering ceremonies for demons or deceased persons has a pacifying effect on these frightening and destructive forces. A tovil ritual requires at least three performers, a shaman priest, a dancer and a drummer. The shaman, a specialist exorcist, leads the ceremony, while the dancer impersonates the negative force. The demon characters sometimes wear masks but their faces are often covered with ghastly make-up. The exorcist also relies on humour, and his improvised lines directed at the demon often include wit and even bawdy humour. It is common that the patient, the person for whom the ritual is arranged, goes into a cataleptic trance. It is not uncommon that he even bites the neck of the cock that is offered to the demon, until he is covered with its blood.

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “The devil-dancers start their ceremony by first worshipping the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, as in the case of the bali ceremony. The yakkhas — who constitute one of the main classes of malevolent spirits placated in devil-dancing — are believed to become satisfied with the offerings made by people through tovil and cease harassing them. The yakkhas like Riri, Sanni, Kalukumaraya, Suniyan, Mahasohon, Maru, etc. are some of the main spirits placated. There are eighteen main yakkhas in this category, each representing a particular kind of illness, and in tovil these demons are represented by the devil-dancers themselves, who wear their specific masks and other apparel in keeping with the traditional forms ascribed to these spirits. It is believed that by dancing, chanting, and acting the part of the demons after assuming their likenesses through masks and other paraphernalia, the demons possessing the patient would leave him. The sound waves created by the drum-beat and the chanting of stanzas accompanied by rhythmic dancing in keeping with these sounds are all performed to a set pattern traditionally laid down. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“The collective effect of the ceremony is believed to cure the patient's illness. Thus this dancing in tovil is a therapeutic ritual. The impersonation of the demon by the dancer is regarded as tantamount to the actual presence of the demon who becomes placated through offerings, recitations, chanting, miming, etc. When the spirits are threatened and asked to leave the patient, they are asked to do so under the command and in the name of the Buddha.

“The ceremony known as rata-yakuma is performed to make barren women conceive, or for the pre-natal care of pregnant women, and to ensure the safe delivery of children. One of the episodes mimetically performed by the exorcist in this ceremony shows how barren women, according to a Buddhist legend preserved among the Sinhala people, offer cloths to the past Buddha Dipankara, the fourth in the line of twenty-eight Buddhas accepted by Theravada Buddhists; they obtain children through the merits of the act.6] Among the rituals specially connected with women may be mentioned those devil-dancing ceremonies that invoke the yakkha called Kalukumaraya in Sinhala. He is very often associated with another group of yakkhas called rata-yakku, whose leader is a female named Riddi-bisava. Another pregnancy ritual that deserves mention here is the one known as kalas-tabima (lit. setting apart a pot). When the first signs of pregnancy appear in a woman, a new clay pot is filled with certain ingredients and kept apart with the solemn promise that once the child is safely delivered a tovil will be performed. The ritual known as hat-adiya (seven steps) in the tovil ceremony called suniyam-kapima, signifies the seven steps the Bodhisatta Siddhattha is said to have taken just after he was born. Two important facts that emerge from this brief description of tovil is the theatrical value present in these rituals and the way in which religious sanction has been obtained for their adoption by the Buddhists.

Sanni, A Therapeutic Healing Ritual

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Sanni (disease) rituals aim to heal a sick person. Dance, music, pantomime, dialogue, and pyrotechnics are employed in these all-night performances accompanied by energetic drum music. The diseases are embodied by dancers wearing masks according to the conventions of the traditional classification of illnesses. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“The sanni ritual takes place in an open arena-like space, which symbolises the forest of the demons. It is divided into different compartments by tree trunks, which are connected with each other by crossbeams. The structure as a whole is decorated with ritual strips of banana stems, leaves, flowers and strips of cloth.

“Inside the round arena there are smaller platforms and thrones for various gods and demons. In front of the arena is a rectangular area and in the middle of it is the seat of the chief of the sanni demons. The seat of the actual patient is in the center of the arena.

Structure of a Sanni Ritual

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: “Before the actual healing ritual, the patient’s illness must be diagnosed. This is done by the main shaman, or the leader of the performance (yakadura), who determines which demon is causing the patient’s disease. He also schedules the healing ritual for an auspicious day. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“The actual sanni ritual begins with various preliminary rituals, which include ritual offerings, the chanting of mantras, and a specific dance to indicate the acceptance of the gift from the patient. The various demon figures introduce themselves by dialogue and dance. In the second part various demons wearing a certain type of mask (pali) perform eight dances in order to invite the actual sanni disease demons to participate in the ritual.

“In the next stage of the ritual the sanni disease demons make their appearance one after another. Each of the illnesses is characterised by its specific dances, masks, and drum beats. Finally the disease demon that is believed to be the cause of the patient’s illness approaches the patient. The strategy of healing is based on the humiliation of the disease demon. This is done by the exorcist, whose dialogue with the demon aims to ridicule the disease demon. Some demons appear with burning torches in their hands on which powdered resin is thrown, which creates dramatic pyrotechnic effects.

“The climax of the ritual is the dramatic appearance of Kola Sanniya, the chief of all the disease demons. His large mask is decorated with miniature masks depicting all the disease demons of the sanni system. He also employs pyrotechnics in his dynamic episode. Finally he approaches the patient to give his blessings. With its shock effects, humour, dramatic tricks, and various forms of performing techniques sanni aims to create a cathartic effect, which is assumed to have a therapeutic effect on the patient.

Mask System of Sanni

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: ““It is generally agreed that the sanni mask system covers eighteen different diseases. However, the classification of the illnesses is not exactly the same in all of sanni’s regional variants. The illnesses are manifested by the performer’s drumbeat and dance and particularly by his wooden masks. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

“The system includes, among other things, vomiting diseases (green masks with a protruding tongue), worm diseases (pale masks), psychic illnesses (insane masks), deafness (masks with a snake growing from the mouth to cover one side of the face), blindness (masks with one or two eyes missing), fever (flames painted on the mask), skin diseases (masks with skin lesions), and so forth.

“All the diseases of the system are depicted in miniature forms in the huge mask, which is usually over a meter tall, of Kola Sanniya, the chief of all the disease demons. It consists of the actual mask covering the dancer’s face and a huge, complex headdress with wing-like extensions on which the other eighteen small disease masks are carved.

“However, if all the different regional variations of sanni are observed, there seems to be altogether some 30 different diseases included in the categorisation. The fact that the masks clearly illustrate syndromes of various diseases has, in recent decades, led to the study of the mask system from the medical point of view too.

Bali Ceremony

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “Bali is the ceremony wherein the presiding deities of the planets (graha) are invoked and placated in order to ward off their evil influences. The belief in the good and evil influence of the planets according to the time and place of one's birth is quite widespread in Sri Lanka. The first thing done at the birth of a child is to cast the horoscope, which has to be consulted subsequently at all the important events of his or her life. When a calamity like a serious illness comes upon such a person, the horoscope would inevitably be consulted, and if the person is under a bad planetary influence, the astrologer would recommend some kind of propitiatory ritual. This could be a minor one like the lime-cutting ritual (dehi-kapima)0] or a major one like a bali ceremony, depending on the seriousness of the case. If it is a bali ceremony, he might also recommend the specific kind of bali suitable for the occasion. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“The term bali signifies both the ritual in general and also the clay representations of the planetary deities which are made in relief on frameworks of bamboo and painted in appropriate colors. The ritual consists of dancing and drumming in front of the bali figures by the bali artist (bali-adura), who continuously recites propitiatory stanzas calling for protection and redress. The patient (aturaya) sits by the side of the bali figures.

“The bali artist is helped by a number of assistants working under him. The knowledge and art of performing the ritual are handed down in traditional families. The retentive power of these artists is remarkable, for they can continue to recite the appropriate formulas and verses from memory for days.

“The bali ceremony is a mixture of Buddhism and folk religion. This cult of the planets and the allied deities has become an important element in the popular living Buddhism of the island. The origins of this type of bali ritual have to be traced to the Kotte Period of the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was introduced into the island from South India by some Hindu brahmans from that region. However, mainly owing to the efforts of the celebrated Buddhist monk of the period, Ven. Vidagama Maitreya Thera, this ritual was recast with a Buddhist significance, both in form and content, in that all the verses and formulas used in the ritual are those extolling the virtues of the Triple Gem — the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha — and of the Buddhist deities. It is these spiritual qualities that are invoked to bring redress. The entire ritual is thus made subservient to Buddhism.

“The ceremony begins after paying homage to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Even during the course of the ceremony this homage is paid at important junctures. The majority of the stanzas recited as benedictory verses by the artist extol the virtues of the Triple Gem or refer to the Buddha's previous existences as a Bodhisatta. The verbal part of the entire ritual consists mainly of the recitation of these verses and the pronouncement of the blessing: "By the power of those virtues let the evil influence of the planets disappear." It is believed that this kind of pronouncement of blessings becomes effective only if they are made at such an elaborate ceremony like bali. As in the case of the pirit ceremony described earlier, the spiritual qualities of the Buddha are regarded as superior to any worldly powers like those of the planets and stars as in the present instance, and consequently the ceremonial and ritualistic pronouncement of those qualities is believed to counteract those evil forces. Those propitiatory recitations also include the panegyrics (stotras) praising those planetary deities.

“The preparation for the bali ceremony takes a day or two. Plantain stems, tender coconut leaves, coconut and arecanut racemes, powdered resin, limes, betel, torches made by wrapping clean rags around dry reeds (vilakku and pandam), coconut oil, flowers of different colors, and burnt offerings are among the main items needed. Plastic clay and reeds will be needed in large quantities to cast the bali figures. Life-size images of the planetary deities are moulded from these and painted beautifully in bright colors. Each planetary deity has its own dress, colors, diagram (mandala), support (vahana), weapon, etc. It is the nine planets (navagraha) that are generally propitiated: the sun (ravi), moon (candra), Mars (kuja), Mercury (budha), Jupiter (guru), Venus (sukra), Saturn (sani), and Rahu and Ketu, the ascending and the descending nodes of the moon respectively.

Bali Ceremony Performance

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “When everything is ready, with the bali figures propped up leaning against a wall and the patient seated by a side facing the figures, the chief bali artist starts the proceedings by taking the Five Precepts and reciting a few benedictory stanzas while the drummers start drumming. This takes place in the evening. After these preliminaries it is more or less customary for the chief artist to retire to the side, while one or two of his assistants would appear on the scene to perform the more vigorous part of the ritual, consisting mainly of dancing and reciting. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”, Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, 1995]

“The dancing artist wears an attractive and colorful dress consisting of white tights, a red jacket adorned with white beads, anklets, pads of jingling bells around his calves, and an elaborate headdress. In one hand he takes a pandama or lighted torch adequately fed with coconut oil. While reciting formulas and dancing to the beat of the drum, he throws handfuls of powdered resin into the burning pandama, setting up flares of flames which are regarded as very powerful in driving away the invisible evil spirits (bhuta). In addition to the virtues of the Triple Gem, his recitation would also include legends and anecdotes taken from the Buddha's and Bodhisatta's lives. Sometimes references to previous Buddhas are also made. Planetary deities are eulogized and requested to stop troubling the patient.

“Coconut-oil lamps, an incense burner, water pots with full-blown coconut racemes (pun-kalas) are among the items inevitably found on the scene. Offerings done on altars made of plantain trunks and tender coconut leaves will also be found. A number of such altars called pideni-tatu may be set up; these are for the departed kinsmen of the family (nati-peta) who are expected to stop harassing the living after receiving these offerings, which generally consist of rice, seven selected curries cooked together (hat-maluwa), burnt offerings (pulutu), colored flowers, betel leaves, five kinds of seeds, etc. A live cock, with its legs tied together so that it cannot run about, is placed in a corner as an offering to the evil spirits. This is a kind of scapegoat, for all the evil influences of the patient are supposed to be transferred to this bird, which is released on the following morning.

“The ceremonies actually end early in the morning when the artists carry the clay images (bali figures) and the altars of offerings or pideni-tatu and leave them at the cross-roads that the evil spirits who give trouble are believed to frequent.

Atanatiya Ritual

A.G.S. Kariyawasam wrote in “Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka”: “It is of interest to find a purely Buddhist form of an exorcist ritual that has been practiced by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka from very early times. This is the recital of the Atanatiya Sutta (of the Digha Nikaya) in order to exorcise an evil spirit that has taken possession of a person. The commentary to the sutta (DA.iii, 969), dating at least as far back as the time of Buddhaghosa (c. 6th century ) or even earlier, gives a detailed description of how and when to recite it. According to this description, first the Metta, Dhajagga, and Ratana Suttas should be recited. If the spirit does not leave by such recital, the Atanatiya Sutta is to be recited. The bhikkhu who performs the recital should not eat meat or preparations of flour. He should not live in a cemetery, lest the evil spirits get an opportunity to harass him. From the monastery to the patient's house, he should be conducted under an armed guard.3] The recitation of the paritta should not be done in the open. Thoughts of love for the patient should be foremost in the reciter's mind. During the recital too he should be under armed guard. If the spirit still refuses to leave, the patient should be taken to the monastery and the recital performed in the courtyard of the dagoba. [Source: A.G.S. Kariyawasam, “Buddhist Ceremonies andLanka”, 1995]

“Many preliminary rites are recommended before such a recital. These include getting the patient to offer a seat to the bhikkhu who is to recite the paritta, the offering of flowers and lamps to the dagoba, and the recitation by the bhikkhu of a set of benedictory stanzas, called (Maha)-mangala-gatha. A full assembly of the deities should also be summoned. The person possessed should be questioned as to his name, by which is implied the identity of the spirit who has taken possession of him. Once the name is given, the spirit, but visibly the patient, should be addressed by that name. It should be told that the merits of offering incense, flowers, alms, etc. are all transferred to him and that the mangala-gatha just referred to have been recited in order to appease him (pannaharatthaya: as a gift) and that he should therefore leave the patient in deference to the Sangha (bhikkhusangha-garavena). If the spirit still refuses to leave, the deities should be informed of his obstinacy and the Atanatiya Paritta should be recited after declaring that as the spirit does not obey them, they are carrying out the order of the Buddha.

“It is significant that this is a purely Buddhist ritual of considerable antiquity performed on lines similar to those in tovil. But the difference between the two should also be noted. When tovil is performed to cure a person possessed by a spirit, the spirit is ordered to leave the patient after accepting the offering of food and drink (dola-pideni). But in the case of the Atanatiya ritual, it is the merits earned by making offerings to the Buddha that are transferred to the spirit. Another significant difference is that the Atanatiya recital, in keeping with its purely Buddhist spirit, is much milder and more restrained than its tovil counterpart. The latter, however, is much more colorful and theatrical owing to its complex and essentially secular character. From the purely curative aspect, too, there is another attractive feature in tovil: when the spirit leaves the patient it does so leaving a sign of its departure, like breaking a branch of a tree, making a sound like a hoot, etc. It is perhaps because of these attractive features that tovil has become more popular in the island, replacing the truly Buddhist ceremony of the Atanatiya recital.

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

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