Seenigama Devale and animistic rituals

Seenigama Devale at dusk. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

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

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

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 at Welle Devale, Unawatuna, supposed to be of Agora. Photograph© Chulie de Silva

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

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.

The shrine on the beach “Welle Dewale,” Unawatuna


On the beach at Unawatuna. Photographs©Chulie de Silva

The National Geographic placed Sri Lanka at #2 position on its list of the World’s best Islands. Yes, we do have plenty of white exotic beaches and even more exotic legends attached to these beaches. Unawatuna beach, the abode of the “Devol Deiyo” – an interesting dual purpose god is such a one. Here you can turn to him to both bless you and help you or to curse your enemies and correct what you perceive to be wrong.

Temple scenes. Photographs©Chulie de Silva

Buddhists have no shortage when it comes to gods. Apparently there are Three hundres and thirty million (330 million – Tis tun koatiyak Devi Devathavo”) invisible gods and demi gods that Buddhists can turn to in adversity. For the 20 million or so Sri Lankans this is not a bad ratio but then I suppose we need to share them with all the other Buddhists in the world. It’s another matter that Buddha’s teaching was always to take responsibility for all your actions and that debt or interest collector karma works out. But this belief hasn’t stopped many of us from turning to Gods for a bit of propping up during difficult times.

Devol Deiyo is not indigenous to Sri Lanka, says the Chief Priest ( Pradhana Kapu mahattaya) Chandradasa. According to him Devol came here from India , some say Kerala. He is one of the seven sons born to seven queens of a little known Indian king Sri Raman Swarnasingh. As legends show us one path open to Kings of India, was to put any sons that caused trouble, or the ones that got into mischief into a well equipped boat and push them out to sea.  Now they would be termed illegal emigrants sent back to where they came from.  Here Chandrasena’s story diverges a bit from what I had heard before that Devol first landed in Seenigama, close to Hikkaduwa. According to Chandrasena Devol and his brothers were not allowed to land in Devundara by God Vishnu or in Kataragama territory by God Kataragama. They tried to land at Ahangama but failing that ended up in Unawatuna.

Godwin Witana writing in the Lanka Library Forum on the “Worship of Lanka Goddess Pattini”, an earlier established deity in these parts of the country obstructed Prince Devol and his companions from landing by creating a conflagration consisting of waves and circles of fire which the brave Prince Devol fought to extinguish displaying super power and set foot on this country to establish himself in the same manner Vijaya won over Kuveni.”

“It is said that Pattini resorted to challenge Devol and his companions in order to test Devol’s ability to be in the superior position of a powerful deity and bring him on the same plane as herself and admit him to the Pantheon of twelve – Dolos Deviyo,. When all other deities witnessed the brave feat of Devol they unanimously admitted him into their fold.”

Getting back to Chandrasena’s story he says Devol meditated on a large rock, turned the water in the well to oil, the sand on the beach to rice. No food shortage there with these skills. After sometime Devol went roamimg, stopped at Seenigama. Here Devol’s powers turned the sand into sugar (seeni) and thus he left his mark there. Next his wandering took him to Panadura and from there to the Saman Devale in Ratnapura teritory. Somewhere along this way, Chandrasena says he was lured by a beautiful damsel ( sounds familiar?) and had a child — a son. Did they live happily ever after – sadly no. Edged on by the mother, the son spyed on the father to find out how he brought food home. He saw the father turn sand into rice  etc.. That’s when tragedy stuck. Devol lost his skills, got mad at the wife and son and killed them both. Thus Devol became the Lord of vengeance. The seat of judgment – became his Temple on the beach where he decided on punishment to evil doers.

The day I went, Chandrasena, the priest was blessing a little girl of about eight years and was in the process of tying a talisman around her neck. The fact that he was at times interrupted by calls on his mobile phone. bothered nobody. The young mother told me that the daughter has nightmares and they were looking for the protection from the God. The priest chanted stanzas, blessed her and brought out a long bunch of peacock feathers . With these he brushed the head of the girl and said emphatically, now you will sleep peacefully. That’s all good stuff, no doctors but a visit to the temple on the beach for healing and comfort.

Cursing on the other hand is a different story.   Cursing is a form of violence says J.P Fedeema but because it stops at one incident, without triggering endless cycles, Fedeema says it can traditionally be seen as a religious channel for violence, that helps to keep it in control.