RURAL LIFE IN SRI LANKA
Both Sinhalese and Tamils — the two main ethnic groups of Sri Lanka — are largely a rural people. They live in hamlets, villages, and isolated farmsteads located around the island. A typical agricultural village is made up of a group of houses on slightly raised land surrounded by rice paddies. In the dry zone, tanks have been constructed over the centuries to store water for irrigation. Each village usually has a well and a temple. Larger ones have a school and small informal clinic. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures”, The Gale Group,Inc., 1999]
Rural population of Sri Lanka: 81.3 percent compared to 21 percent in Great Britain and 79 percent in Ethiopia, CIA World Factbook, 2020). Many people in Sri Lanka live in farming villages. Unlike many other developing countries: the rural-urban ratio has not changed all that much in the past century. The Sinhalese have traditionally been more of a rural people than the Tamils.
By one count there are 14,000 villages in Sri Lanka, not so different than in the past. Manik Sandrasagra wrote in Govia.com: Even today most of it is rural. Although various doctrines have found their way to the island over the centuries, Lanka's living traditions overpowered them all. As in the beginning, even today we still worship trees, hills, rocks, springs and elephants. Traditional villagers zealously protect these ancient forms. Once upon a time in Lanka, the mountains in the center were our natural reservoirs. Primeval forests covered this central mountain region in a panorama of green, wrapped in the eternal rhythm of rainfall, leaf-fall and regeneration. This is Skanda — the newborn. [Source: Manik Sandrasagra, Govia.com]
“The forests helped to condense the vapour-laden clouds and intercept the rain’s action like an umbrella. The force of the monsoon thus broken, the forest soils absorbed the moisture and slowly released a perennial flow. The life force water, having anointed Lanka’s sacred hills, journeyed down to the plains below through streams, waterfalls and rivers. This was a time when natural and man-made lakes, or wewas [tanks], dotted the sun-scorched plains to provide food for our people, who made the cultivation of rice their religion.
“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. 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' [village] would appear with common facilities being built up. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
See Separate Article AGRICULTURE IN SRI LANKA
Rural Areas and Agricultural Rhythms in Sri Lanka
On a a visit to a village called Kalinapawela, near off Haldummulla, about 100 kilometers east of Colombo, Florence Wickramage wrote: 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. 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", one villager said. [Source: Florence Wickramage]
Manik Sandrasagra wrote in Govia.com: “There is also the tradition of mutual help, or kaiya, within each village; we can rely upon each other to help with pressing, day-to-day chores and, more important still, with the onerous agricultural tasks. Rajakariya, or the King's Duty, was the tie that bound us. All of us gave 40 days each year to this principle. During this period we worked for the benefit of the whole community. It was this spirit that we call Mahasammata, or the common consensus. Yuthukarna, or duty, was also considered rajakariya. All of us were born to perform a particular function or duty. Call it karma or destiny. In puranagamas [traditional Sri Lankan villages], each function became the duty of a given clan. In such a manner, quality was maintained in everything we did. [Source: Manik Sandrasagra, Govia.com]
“Those who worked with clay and created pots lived in one village. Those who made the drums speak lived in another. Blacksmiths made our plough-shares, axes and knives. All the washing and ritual purification connected with our homes and farms were carried out by hena mama, the water farmer, and ridi nanda, the laundry woman.
“Sri Lanka's secret is her village culture. Nobody can cross this labyrinth without initiation. This is hard to attain, since Lanka clothes her secrets in hidden symbolic meaning. We call it ingiya or theravili. The threshing floor was our school, with wisdom passing from one worker to another, one generation to another. The tractor has broken up this institution. The watch hut was another learning ground. Listening to stories near the hearth as infants, we learned survival. The ancient cities Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are no more. They lie in ruins, largely of interest to tourists and students of monuments. However, puranagamas, composed of a cluster of womblike earthen dwellings, existed long ago and continue today as a living tradition.
Rural Infrastructure in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka remains a largely rural country but one thing that sets it apart from other developing countries is that it has relatively good rural infrastructure, especially in terms of roads, schools and health care. Relatively good schools and health care facilities are offered in even the most remote areas. This combined with the fact that is relatively little industrialization and jobs in the cities has meant there is little incentive to move to the cities.
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. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
Goods are still transported by bullock cart. Women carry stuff on their heads. On a a visit to a village called Kalinapawela, near off Haldummulla, about 100 kilometers east of Colombo, Florence Wickramage wrote: 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. [Source: Florence Wickramage]
Living with Wild Animals in Sri Lanka
Villagers who live near the forest often spend all night in treehouses above their fields, singing special songs and yelling at regular intervals to scar off elephants, wild boars, monkeys and other animals that might feed on their crops. In some places women spend long hours looking through each other’s hair for nits.
Access to many village on footpaths and cart tracks. Often these are through jungle where the wild animals roam in search of food. According to the Sunday Times, “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. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
On the area around Kalinapawela, about 100 kilometers east of Colombo, Florence Wickramage wrote: 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. [Source: Florence Wickramage]
Manik Sandrasagra wrote: The elephant takes precedence in our culture since it shaped the first paths. The animal embodies wisdom and, as a spiritual authority, was elevated to a god. The lion, meanwhile, is a solar symbol and denotes kingship, virility, action and temporal power. The polarity of the two animals — wisdom and method — is evident everywhere in the traditions that sustain our culture. Their union — the Gaja-Singha — is a part of our artistic heritage, and it is the spirit of this union which pervades the puranagamas, or villages. [Source: Manik Sandrasagra, Govia.com]
When our first ancestors, nomadic hunter-gatherers known as the Veddhas, settled down to practice agriculture, a village was born. Our village was our chief social unit and the focal point of our lives. Surrounded by lush tropical forests and connected to other villages by footpaths, each village played its part in maintaining the balance and harmony of Mother Lanka, also known as Dhammadeepa. We are told that our first ancestor came down to Earth at Adam's Peak. Our poetry tells us how we followed the elephant herds down the Walawe Ganga River to settle at Gajaragama — Elephants' Village. Kataragama, as we now call it, is our first village.
Food Sources in Rural Sri Lanka
Manik Sandrasagra wrote: “Puranagamas island-wide are linked by common cultural patterns based on food habits. Rice comes first.”In the 1950s, ri Lanka had more than 280 varieties of rice. For example, heenati rice was grown for lactating mothers. Kanni murunga, another variety, was grown for men going out to work in the fields. Suvandel was cultivated for its extraordinary fragrance. Monks who did not eat after noon were given a special variety grown over six to eight months called mawee, which possesses a high-protein content. Today, there are 10 to 15 varieties commonly cultivated. [Source: Manik Sandrasagra, Govia.com]
The forests surrounding our villages were a great source of food and medicine. Foods such as bulu weera, jak, himbutu, wood apple and wild pear were some of the mouthwatering delicacies. As for medicines, every plant had its use. In the gardens around our homes we cultivate papaya, mango, banana, jackfruit, pepper and vegetables such as bean sprouts and green gram. In the hills behind our village lies the jungle, which is unsuited for paddy cultivation. Here, kurakkan millet and other dry grains are grown in what are called chena lands. A chena is generally about one acre in size. Slash-and-burn methods clear the land, after which cultivation takes place. We abandon these chenas for 10 to 15 years after cultivation, permitting the forest to regenerate.
A wide variety of fish provided yet another blessing. Fish are trapped in streams, wewas and in paddy fields when flooded. Fish such as the lula (snakehe), kawaiya (climbing perch), handaya (panchax) and ara have learned to live even in dried ponds. The lula is thought to help in the formation of blood, so is fed to pregnant mothers. Other wewa fish include the petiya, the hirikanaya, the walaya, the aanda and the ankutta. The wewa is also the source of vegetable food. For instance, the white olu has seeds that are eaten as lotus rice. The green stem of the olu is also eaten. The red lotus yam is eaten in the drought, and a flour is made from the roots of the keketi.
Rural Homes in Sri Lanka
A traditional house in Sri Lanka has one or two rooms and its own garden and is separated from other houses. Traditional houses have mud and plaster walls and a thatched roof made of woven palm fronds. Nice homes have glass windows, stucco and/or brick walls and ceramic tile roof. A traditional cadjian (coconut fond) dwelling has a timber frame, walls made of woven coconut fond mats and a coconut fond thatch roof. These structures are easy and cheap to build, breath and are relatively cool in hot weather and need to be rebuilt every three years or so.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: Traditional building materials of mud and thatch are being replaced by cement and tiles. Each house stands in a garden in the midst of coconut, mango, papaya, and other trees. In front of the house is a veranda, where men sit during the day and sleep at night. A single door provides access to the house, where women and children sleep. There are typically two rooms and a kitchen, although sometimes the hearth is a lean-to attached to the back of the house. Most villagers sleep on mats, and only the more affluent have beds and simple wooden tables and chairs. Some households have their own well. Many houses have pit-latrines dug in the garden. [Source: D. O. Lodric,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]
Tamil houses have traditionally been hidden behind natural fences of trees and bushes which also provides natural fertilizer (mainly leaves) for their gardens. The house have traditionally been built of the same materials used to make Sinhalese horses. The gardens often contain mango and coconut trees.
According to“Countries and Their Cultures”: “Residential buildings vary widely according to the socioeconomic status of their inhabitants. Rural peasants live in small temporary wattle and daub (stick and mud), thatched houses whose style has remained unchanged since ancient times. All over the island, there is a preference for whitewashed cement houses with polished cement floors and windows designed to keep out the heat and light but let in the air through built-in vents. The front of the house with its sitting room, bedrooms, dining area, and veranda is typically separated from the back of the house in which the kitchen and washing areas are located, a division that reflects notions of the danger of pollution by outsiders. Buddhist, Hindu, or even Christian shrines are often located within the house or the garden areas that surround it. [Source: Bambi L. Chapin and Kalinga Tudor Silva, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
According to the Sunday Times: “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. 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. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
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.
Children in Rural Areas of Sri Lanka
Provincial Schools in rural areas comprises of the vast majority of schools in Sri Lanka. With the establishment of the provincial council system in the 1980s the central government handed control of most schools to local governments. Funded and controlled by the local governments many suffer from poor facilities and a shortage of teachers.
Dr. Tissa K. Dissanayake wrote in the Sunday Leader, a Sri Lankan newspaper: “ I found that the rural children are in the fields with their parents at young ages, usually before they begin attending school at age five. The children help parents with plugging out the harvest, weeding the grass, fertilizing, and watering the farm using buckets added to which sometimes is metal crushing, fishing in nearby streams all of which help transfer skills to children at young ages. Though parents like to see their children pursue education to the highest level, they also believe that agriculture should be sustained, such being their source of sole income. Parents are accustomed to this pattern, as it has continued through generations. [Source: Dr. Tissa K. Dissanayake, Sunday Leader, August 28, 2016]
“A teacher who serves in a rural community school in the North Central Province explained that all most all the students in her class do not attend school during the tobacco harvesting season. People select tobacco harvesting over rice cultivation due to the high income earning potential despite the hazardous health conditions that the former brings about. A considerable population working in tobacco fields experience heart diseases such as breathing difficulty, fluctuations in blood pressure or heart rate, and increased perspiration and salivation. Despite such, parents encourage children to work in tobacco fields over attending school.
“A youngster who followed this pattern (who worked in the fields with her parents after school like any other kid in the neighborhood) is now a university graduate teacher. She was the only student who passed the G.C.E Ordinary Level Examination after seven years in that rural school and was able to balance her farm work and education at immense sacrifice, to accomplish her goal of working for the government sector. However, most school aged children do not have success stories. Financial difficulties in households force children to be employed in fields, full time. This is a significant factor resulting in high percentages of under educated youth from rural communities.
“A household thus makes a sacrifice to send a child to school continuously at the loss of a supplementary income to the family. It is a hard choice between investing in education for the future, versus surviving each day from hunger. The rulers have not implemented policies to support the school aged children in ultra-poor rural communities. Short term decision making, of keeping children at home for supplemental income through unskilled labor (later these employments will be the main stream income) do not contribute towards up lifting the standards of life which also results in adverse macro-economic development of the nation.”
Teachers in a Rural School in Sri Lanka
Dr. Tissa K. Dissanayake wrote in the Sunday Leader: On the other hand, paucity in infrastructure development is another significant factor contributing towards under developed rural communities. A school principal whom I interviewed stated, “The teachers under my administration (Only three in the school) live from 15 Kilometers to 40 Kilometers far from the school. They selected the school, because its location was close to their home town” (Ranasignhe, personal Interview, February 02, 2015). However the selection is not without difficulty, due to lessened infrastructure facilities. [Source: Dr. Tissa K. Dissanayake, Sunday Leader, August 28, 2016]
“One of the teachers walks 2-3 Kilometers (1.25-1.87 miles) from his home to board a bus. After the bus ride of 4 Kilometers (2.5 miles), he walks another 3 Kilometers (1.87 miles) to the school. The teacher spends an hour to one and a half hours each way, a total of around 3 hours, for a productive teaching time of six hours (school hours being 7.30am -1.30 pm.). The final 3 Kilometers (1.87 miles) to school was walked by all his staff members, students and parents due to the lack of a motorable road. He intentionally walks the first 2-3 Kilometers (1.25-1.87 miles) to school, because he could save SLR 500 ($3.50) a month. School teachers who serve in such deprived areas are entitled to an extra monthly allowance of SLR 1500 (US$ 10.60). This extra allowance becomes insignificant for teachers who live far from the school. The government subsidized monthly season ticket to ride on the state owned bus service becomes irrelevant as they do not operate in a timely fashion. Instead, extra money is spent on traveling in private buses.
“Reward structures for teachers between rural and city schools are not comparable due to such poor infrastructure facilities. The specialized teachers, college graduates, and skilled teachers turn away from rural schools due to lack of amenities. Rural school teachers are not provided with housing facilities and have to be satisfied with whatever provided by the villagers. These have no running water, inadequate bathroom/toilet facilities, and are temporary structures. Access to nutritious food or desired meals is a luxury.
“Besides such, the fear of wild animal attacks is another major concern. A teacher from the North Central Province mentioned that, “both students and teachers do not attend school when wild elephants are around” (Dulanjali, personal interview, March 03, 2015). No actions have been taken to tackle down these issues.
“Consequently, the lack of infrastructure led to teacher shortage in deprived communities. For instance, one school has only a single appointed teacher. He is the principal as well as the teacher of all four grades. The second school has four teachers including the principal for five grades. A parent mentioned, “My daughter is good at dancing, there is no teacher to improve her skill” (Ranjini, personal interview, February 15, 2015). Though much importance is attached to English as a second language, parents complain that there is a severe dearth of teachers in rural areas. The government’s monthly incentive of SLR 1500 (US $ 10.60), has in no way induced teachers to take appointments and stay for long, under rural conditions.”
Important People in a Sri Lankan Villages
Manik Sandrasagra wrote: Our houses are built close to each other. In this way, a minimum amount of land is wasted. This arrangement also favours the essential cooperation amongst us. Since each village community consists of relatives, one woman looks after all the children when the other adults are busy working in the fields or maintaining the wewas. Significantly it is the goviya, or the village priest, who initiates the most important agricultural activities. When the time is auspicious, he steps into the field, singing to the buffaloes as he ploughs: Ohoooo, amma. . .ohooo appo ohooo.' Ohooo" is the sound of the ocean amma is mother, and appo the father. The chant is taken up by every goviya. The season has arrived and rural Lanka reverberates with the sound of her children making giant offerings. [Source: Manik Sandrasagra, Govia.com]
According to the Sunday Times: 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. [Source: Sunday Times, Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]
“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.
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.”
Rituals in a Tamil 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 wewa bund and an adequate supply of water for cultivation. The most noteworthy ceremony associated with the wewa 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 wewa 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 wewa 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 wewa bund takes place the next day followed by the wewa 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.
Community Activities in a Sri Lankan Village
According to the Sunday Times: The monk’s function was not restricted to religious activities. He took the lead in the social activities in the village. The ‘bana maduva’ was the meeting place to discuss community activities. The needs of the villagers were discussed there. Activities beneficial to the village were planned. The monk always presided over the discussions and gave advice. In case a road was to be cut, everyone would first gather at the temple and start work after paying obeisance to the monk. Thus the temple was the focal point in the village. Rarely did the villagers act against the wishes of the monk. [Source: LLRH, Sunday Times, 2008]
Being the most learned person in the village, the monk had to read the first letters to the kids. Having looked at ‘nekath’ according to the child’s horoscope, on an auspicious day, at an auspicious time, the child would be brought to the temple for the ‘akuru kiyaveema’. The monk read the first letters getting the child to repeat after him and also helped in writing the first letters either on the sand in the temple premises or on the ‘gal lella’ — the slate.
It was customary for parents to get the monk to chant ‘pirith’ to bless their daughter expecting a baby. They would bring the daughter to the temple, offer a sheaf of betel to the monk and invite him to chant ‘pirith’. In the same manner, if the monk hears that one of his ‘dayakas’ was not well, he would visit his home, chant ‘seth pirith’ and bless him. If someone was opening a shop or starting a new business, the monk would grace the occasion. In this way there was lot of interaction and cordiality between the village and the temple.
Ritual Life in a Sri Lankan Village
Manik Sandrasagra wrote: There were several other needs which were provided by different groups living within a cluster of villages: astrology and the casting of horoscopes; traditional medicine and its application; providing salt, jewelery, treacle, honey, coconut toddy, reed mats and cotton cloth — are just some of those functions. [Source: Manik Sandrasagra, Govia.com]
Our life in the village is an eternal puja, or offering, in which we act as the mediator in keeping nature's balance. All life is art. It was a perspective that was handed down to us from our ancestors. This wisdom we project in everything we do and through timeless motifs and ideograms that adorn our life. Our life revolves around the seasons following the majestic descent of our father the Sun from his cold Himalayan mansion in the north to the hot southern plains of our motherland.
Every puranagama has its own god or goddess who inhabits a tree, a cave, a hillock or a sacred grove. The Hill God is naturally the most popular, since life comes down as water from the hills. Nature is named, given a role and turned into a divinity. Cultivation is a sacred ritual and every peasant a priest of nature.
In the center of our village under a tree is our Devale, or temple, in which we enshrine our wisdom — a spear, a trident, a sickle, an axe. These weapons and tools symbolize a dual function. While they take life, they also give life. They are instruments of continuity, thus fertility, hence Skanda the Hill God. Life and death become twins.
'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.”
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