Seenigama Devale and animistic rituals

Seenigama Devale at dusk. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

My father claims that he planted one of the coconut trees at this temple you can see on the old coast road to Galle, in a tiny hamlet called Seenigama. The little temple – a half a mile or so into the sea with a clump of coconut trees is a veritable treasure trove of stories. It wasn’t built on the sea. The temple was originally on the beach on a mound of sand built by villagers to venerate God Devol, who apparently was able to use his powers to change sand into sugar – local name  for sugar is “seeni,” and “gama” is village in Sinhala.

The sea ate the “seeni” beach and the temple is where it is now. The severe sea erosion was due to coral mining extensively carried out in this area. Kilns burning coral spewing pungent smoke was a common sight in this region when we used to pass this area. Kilns were present till the 1970s, I think. The damage to the marine environment was so grave that even the Devol Deiyo the patron god of the fisher folk in this area couldn’t prevent the wrath of the sea in the tsunami of 2004.

Coast road to Hikkaduwa, still showing the erosion of the beach 30 Dec. 2008.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Briefly Devol was a Prince from India who was put on a boat by his father and sent off to Lanka or maybe he was thrown out of the palace. … Looks like this was a punishment route that many princes from the subcontinent were forced to take by their fathers. One legend has it that Devol’s father – a King had seven sons by seven queens in his harem, all born on the same day. Unable to decide on who the Crown Prince will be he put all seven into boats and pushed them out to sea – an outbound exercise to select a survivor to inherit the crown? This I suppose was one of the first lot of boat -borne asylum seekers. Then the coast guards were a pantheon of island guarding gods and the all powerful Goddess Pattini, put Devol’s skills to the test before allowing him to land.

Devol is worshiped as a dual purpose God. He can bless a person or as the Lord of vengeance from his seat of judgement decide on punishment to evil doers. Cursing with Devol is referred to as “grinding chillies at Seenigama Devale". The curse is moulded on the anvil – stone chilli grinder provided by the chief of the temple the “Kapurala”. Chillies the hot burning ingredient that causes burns, irritation and pain when a paste of which is applied on the skin becomes the vehicle for the curse.

From left: Vishnu, Kataragama and Devol Deiyo/Gods at the shrine at the Welle Devale, Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

Devol’s entry into Lanka was granted by Goddess Pattini, after she was given a boon to cure diseases by Devol. “On the strength of this he got himself a visa", says Srilal Perera responding to my blog Shrine on the beach “Welle Devale, Unawatune” written after a visit to Unawatuna. Srilal also pointed out that in the annual all night “Gam madu” rituals in the villages of Sri Lanka this episode is enacted.

Gammadu means literally a village shed and the Sinhala Drama evolved from these rituals “The drama is only a bi-product of activities seriously directed towards the sustenance of the entire life of the community, namely the propitiation of gods and demons, and the performance of magical rites which are calculated to prevent diseases, ward of evil, bring plentiful crops and confer in general prosperity in the village.”which included music, song or recited verses, costumes, drama and masks", says Prof Ediriweera Sarachchandra in his scholarly work “The Folk Drama of Ceylon".

This book (purchased for a princely sum of LKR 18/–, circa late 1970s) meticulously traces from the roots the rituals of folk religion and the fusion of village cults of exorcism with the culture emanating from Buddhism.

“Gam Madu", “Pam madu” or “Puna Madu” are species of the same type of ritual with slight differences in each, says Sarachchandra adding that they are generally referred to as “Devol Madu". All rituals are performed for general good luck and the expelling of evil.

Demons or Yakshas are portrayed as frightening creatures. A faded fresco of Siva-Vatuka with an elephant in his mouth at Welle Devale, Unawatuna. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

So where did this evil enter the life of the Sinhalese villagers. Mostly from the belief that mysterious evil influences or evil powers of people and demons caused ill health, brought bad luck and caused hysteria and temporary insanity.

The prevailing concept Sarachchandra says is “vas, Vas or vas-dos,” which affects people adversely preventing them from being healthy, successful in their undertakings etc. The malicious influence can come from people who have the ‘evil eye” (asvaha), evil mouth (katavaha); uttering envious words and lamenting over one’s good fortune (ando andiya) or from the entertaining of evil thoughts (hovaha). Evil influences can come from many demons — very colourful and too many to list here  but they can cause swoons, fits of insanity (murtu) and various types of hysteria.

Sarachchandra gives an interesting alliterative phrase used by “Demon priests” as “asvaha, katavaha, hovaha, ando andiya turtu murtu pinum peralum avalum vevlum. I can remember this phrase among the many recited by our Dhobi — the laundry man — who would come at my mother’s bidding to get rid of of the Asvaha (or evil eye) from us.

The ritual called the “Dehi kapanawa” (cutting the limes) was performed in the mornings and is a lesser routine, out of all the animistic rituals. It is mainly performed if you had been falling sick often and is supposed to have got the “evil eye”. For me usually this was performed on the back verandah of Siriniwasa. The Dhobi would be dressed in white with a white turban and he had a big basin of limes. He would take a lime and hold it  in the grip of an areconut cutter called a giraya.

Antique Giraya at my alter. Giraya is the metal instrument on the far right shaped with a woman’s head and legs. 24 Feb. Sri Lanka. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Many many moons ago, when I had my last ritual, the Dhobi would hold the lime over my head, chant various phrases, cut the lime into two equal parts with a swift click and drop the cut lime into a basin. In this role he had a much higher status as a magician who can bestow good health. How much “Asvaha” you had was measured by the way the limes floated or ended in the bottom of the pail of water.

Did my life get better or did I feel good after that? I must get another ritual done to check if lady luck will return!!! This time I will be armed with my camera and follow the ritual closely. As for the demons, they are a fascinating lot and needs a separate blog to write about them. The demons are supposed to loiter at twilight or early morning in grave yards, cross roads, lonely roads etc. We were not supposed to eat fried food and run around at twilight as the “yakka’s” (demons) would get hold of us or enter our bodies. This theory, we did challenge and I have survived to tell the tale. Maybe I should attend a Gam Maduwa and experience it first hand before writing more about it but first to read more about the different Yakkas and then to visit a temple of the all powerful Goddess Pattini and follow up on her cult.