By Ashan Nanayakkara –
In re ‘Thowil’ ceremonies, Sinhalese folks believe that ’18-Sanniya’ (Daha Ata-Sanniya / ‘Sanni Yakuma’) is as grandeur as the 9th Symphony of Beethoven. This particular ‘thowil’ ceremony is organized only in very exceptional occasions such as someone is fatally ill, the country faces to a pandemic or unfound disease, procuring very low harvest due to insecticide attacks, fear engulfed due to evil spirits and so on. This exorcism method goes far back as Lord Buddha’s days where it is believed that during reign of King Lichchavis in India, there was a threat of a demon called ‘Maha Kola’ who was begot from the womb of a martyred queen who was executed under a fake charge of adultery. Aforesaid ‘Maha Kola’, the child of the queen, turned into a devil and generated 18-poisons which brought numerous diseases to people. History says, after Lord Buddha’s intervention the said demon stopped his fury. The number 18 in this ’18-Sanniya’ ritual connotes the 18-dances and those epitomize different types of evils which could bring the diseases to human. Bruce Kepferer the Professor of Social Anthropology at University of London, in his book, “Celebration of Demons: Exorcism and Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka – 1991” has determined that, “…the Sinhalese exorcism rituals are perhaps the most complex and the most magnificent in performance still extant…. the techniques of healing in Sri Lanka the aesthetic of this healing cannot be reduced to Western psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic terms and develops new original approaches to ritual and the aesthetic in general…” Undoubtedly, he must have referred to ‘Daha Ata-sanniya’.
‘Daha Ata-sanniya’ lasts dusk to dawn. This normally takes place at outside the house of the aggrieved person or the ‘Kamatha’ (arena like place which is made by the farmers on the paddy filed after they reaped the harvest). Starting from Ata Paliya, after mid-night, Daha Ata Paliya is followed by. Back to back dances come wearing dreadful masks, anthropomorphizing different demons with splashing-coloured jackets. The dancers swiftly spin their body whilst some demon forms make acrobatic moves on the arena which would liven the audience. Some demons (dancers) talk obscene language (in addition to the sheer fear it brings, this may be another reason why do the parents ban their small children be present at these ‘thowil’ ceremonies) with the drummers and, in turn, drummers mock them too. At times, dancers do summersaults and climb into trees as if they are tranced into a supernatural spirit. Throughout the ritual, the patient(s) is before the dances, and must listen and watch. There are times where the patient spontaneously dances like he is possessed by a spirit. In such event, the evil starts to have a dialogue with the ‘yakadura’ (the chieftain who does these rituals). The ‘yakadura’ wittily rejoinders to the said evil spirit and orders the latter to leave the patient’s body or stop the calamity. Mostly, the evil spirit departures. Moment that happens the patient faints unconscious. If one carefully listens to what the ‘yakadura(s)’ and drummers chant are the good virtues of Lord Buddha.
Organizing ‘Daha Ata-sanniya’ performance is not as easy as we think. This will cost so much of fortune. The organizers should invite best exorcists in the region to perform at the gala night. They do not come for pittance. The drummers must also be invited. They bring ‘yakeberaya’ (a cylinder type wooden musical instrument covered by treated cattle hide from both sides fastens to waist) or ‘udekkiya’ (which is covered by cattle hide, same as ‘yakberaya’ from both sides but gets thinner at the mid of the cylinder. This is a light percussion instrument that one could play holding on one hand) and ‘horanewa’ (brass instrument). The band must be well attended by giving all sorts of good food and supreme drinks available. More the performers are happier more the results you get, poor event planners think. Entire village will be at your doorstep by sun setting on the big day and from that day evening to next day morning the organizers will have to provide the guests, the dinner, tea, and various types of Sinhalese customary oily sweets, beetle leaves and what not. This is an event, when the mid-night falls, even in most un-holy hours, village Romeos tend to flirt with village lasses whose old parents are almost at deep slumber dreaming that their girls are protected by sanctified sprits around. Apart from the love stories, some youth steal and drink the water of tender counts owned by the neighbours around amidst the ‘thowil’ rituals are taken place at the ‘thowil gedara’ (‘thowil’ house) whilst the owners of those coconut trees are busy with helping this conjuring event. Time to time, elder men vanished from the audience, to their wives’ un-notice, to taste fresh toddy which is freely given to them by the chief organizer without the knowledge of the ‘yakadura’ who has strictly banned any booze. At the dawn of the next day, once the ‘yakadura’ finishes his work the patient(s) who is exhausted after burning the midnight oil is covered by a white cloth and carefully taken into the house and let him rest. This will end the rituals and entire village go their home and sleep believing that their bad times are over.
Other than ‘thowil’ ceremonies to heal folks of this island, Sinhalese resort to some other forms of occults when they confront with the problems in their day to day life. One such menace is cattle theft. I recall how a ‘kanappuwa’ (3-legged wooden stool – Teapoy) was set off to find a cattle thief at Wadduwa (a town locates 40Km down the Galle road from Colombo) when I was spending a vacation at my grandparents’ house. I do not rank this incident as supernatural per se as I saw nothing unnatural in the whole exercise. It is just science and law of gravity. I saw, 2-men from both sides of ‘kanappuwa’, give a gentle push to the chanted teapoy thereby which moves forward. The said duo stand on both sides to make sure the tripod keeps on course. It is obvious that when someone is pushing the edge of a tripod that will incline to move forward due to the imbalance it creates. There you get a walking-tripod! There is no magic in it. Yet again, in this instant that I saw, this particular ‘kanappuwa’ went up to a house of a known petty thief in the village and stopped its movement. That is a confirmation that who is the robber. I remember, the villagers who came in a mob with that ‘kanappuwa’ stretched their arms and assaulted the man who alleged to have committed this felony, as they pleased. Before this extra-judicial sentence was passed, the mob hardly found any other evidence to substantiate whether this man was the real cattle thief.
In the book of “The History of Ceylon (subjoined to Robert Knox’s Historical Relation of the Island, with an account of his captivity during a period of near twenty years)” too has a similar old Ceylonese story where when a theft is reported. As per Knox a voodoo master enchants a spell on a cocoa nut and holds it on a stalker at the gate from where the burglar came to the house. It is believed that this cocoa nut would track down to the culprit, same as it did by ‘Kanappuwa’, as a modern day Slough dog apprehending a serial killer. Once the thief is confirmed by the cocoa nut, the rules of natural justice, presumption of innocence and / or nuances such as beyond reasonable doubt are little concerns to the angry villagers.
Sinhalese, in some occasions, when they do not have children, long after their wedding ceremony, apt to go behind deities seeking a child. One such main goddess who said to have the power to bless women to conceive a child is Paththini Deviyo (Goddess Paththini). But the story that I relate now is not about goddess ‘Paththini’, but ‘Kalu Kambili Deviyo’ (God ‘Kalu Kambili’) (or Demon ‘Kalu Kambili’) who also grants favours to mankind. The main protagonist in this story is one ‘Piyadasa’. Mr. Piyadasa died couple of years ago. I must strictly say that I have not personally perceived what Piyadasa had witnessed; I became cognizance of his story from himself and the villagers. Young Piyadasa, a person hailed from Bandaragama, Weediyagoda village (a village in Horana, district of Kalutara), was as ordinary as normal child till he turned 10. His mother and father both were healthy and wealthy individuals in the area but had no children until Piydasa was born. The parents of Piyadasa had gone for all kinds of divinities finding a solace for their problem of giving birth to a child and at last they found that Kalukambili Deviyo grants whatever you ask. Thus, they went to the ancient ‘Kalukambili Devalaya’ at Bukkahwela, Harispattuwa, Kandy for their salvation. Piyadasa says (as his parents told him) that his parents had given a promise to fulfil a ‘Bare’ (an undertaking given in return to secure a wish from god) to Demon Kalukambili only if a child is born to their parents and when that child turned 10. Base on that, some voodoo was done. The Black magic worked and Piyadasa was born. As times went on Piydasa used to be a normal child or rather shining boy whereas with the other kids in his age. Piyadasa was a very talkative boy too. Tragedy of events took place when Piyadasa’s parents ignored the undertaking given by them to the demon Kalukambili even after Piyadasa turned 10. The promise was to take Piyadasa to the Kalukambili Devalaya and sacrifice a cock alive to the demon Kalukambili along with ‘hathmaluwa’ (one curry prepared by adding 7-vegitables), curd and traditional Sinhalese sweets. None of them were honoured and according to the villagers, even before Piyadasa turned age-12, his parents were died and he who had no speech problem started to stammer. Above all, Piyadasa became a halfwit which I too have personally figured from the encounters that I had with him. It is reported that Demon or God Kalukambili who said to be one child of ‘Chethiya’ Yakshaniya (succubus) is not compassionate demonic form. I do not know what made sudden deaths of the parents of Piyadasa and how he turned into an idiot; but I do know the pact with the Devil and the parents of Piyadasa went wrong. Eventually, poor Piyadasa was the victim of that blasphemous contract. Further, this reminds me the German folklore – the fate of Dr. Faust who entered into an accord with blood-curdling demon Mephistopheles, and how Faust ultimately paid its price.
It is the common belief that these types of occults are (or should) practiced by the laymen. Nevertheless, in yesteryears, I recollect 2 religious leaders who were au fait with sorcery a lot. One is a Buddhist Priest called Kondadeniya Seelarathna Thero and the other one is Rev. Father – Camilus Jayamanne. Both of them were said to be equally good in exorcism.
The story of Kondadeniya Seelarathna Thero, or as he was commonly titled as Maho Priest is as scary as it should be. No one wanted to take on this sorcerer during his era. Once, this Priest on his way back to his temple he wanted to come by Train. When he went to Maho Railway Station to catch the next train, it was told that only the express train will come next, and which would not stop at ‘Yapahuwa’ railway station at where the priest wanted to get down. When Kondadeniya priest quarried from the Maho Station Master (who did not know about this priest much) is there any mean that he (the priest) could go to ‘Yapahuwa’ in this train, showing no respect towards the monk, the Station Master relegated that the priest can go by his foot or jump from the moving train if he wants to. The train came on time and Kondeniya Priest got in, and when she was passing by the ‘Yapahuwa’ railway station the train stopped due to an engine trouble. Once the train stopped, Kondadeniya Thero, calmly got down and went to his temple which was resided nearby. A passenger who saw the confrontation of the occult priest and the Station Master knew exactly what happened and requested the Guard to stop calling breakdown services from Colombo which is 145Km(s) away from ‘Yapahuwa’ and instead of that suggested to go to the temple and apologize the Priest. The Train Engineer and the Guard went and apologized for the humiliation made to Kondadeniya Thero, on behalf of the Station Master. The Venerable Thero conceded it and gave some spelled hand full of sand to apply on the railway lines and start the engine again. No surprise, this magic worked and the train went to its destination sans any engine fall. This story said to be very famous during its days in Sri Lanka. Those who live in Maho area, even to today, reminisce this lore with lot of pride.
Another instance where the dark arts were publicly displayed by Maho priest was in a Court house. Story goes as in a New Year festival which was organized by youth around the temple of Kondeniya Thero, ended up with a scuffle, and thereby Kondadeniya priest had to go to courts. At the courts, the priest was embarrassed by the Judge so that the priest retaliated. How it happened was, when the honourable judge came to the bench, as it is the world-wide norm everyone should stand, but on this date our priest sat where he was. Having seen this, the Judge ordered the Court Crier to inform the priest to stand up when he comes to courts. Once this was told, this Thero replied that he being a disciple of Lord Buddha (To my knowledge, Lord Buddha has never preached to practice exorcisms in this nature and harass the masses for whatever the reason may be) shall stand or bow down to none except Lord Buddha or a senior priest. The angry judge (who did not know about the conjuring powers of Kondadeniya priest) immediately ordered the police to kick this Thero out from the Court house. At this moment, it is alleged that, the priest stood up, casting a spell, knocked 3-times by his pointe end of the umbrella to the floor of the court house, and left the court premises forthwith. Those who were fully aware of Kondadeniya Priest were petrified what transpired and they knew some powerful black magic must have been cast by the priest against the judge. Court session commenced but the presiding judge did not show any movement, in fact he is stock-still. Everybody understood where it went wrong and courts’ staff rushed to the temple to bring their possessed-judge to his normalcy. Having duly implored their pardon, the courts’ staff pleaded to remove the mumbo jumbo cast on their Judge by Kondadeniya Priest. Finally, Kondadeniya priest eased his sorcery and the judge got his movements back. By all accounts, there is no reason to doubt this story because the story had been carried even on the newspapers during that time.
The stories of ‘Kondadeniya’ priest were not just 2 or 3; there were abundance. Those range from the power of muting witnesses on the dock, turning a Malayalam sorcerer who came to murder ‘Kondadeniya’ priest into a snake, sending ‘Pilli’ (sending a demonic form via an animal or a person who has weak mental condition) to harm enemies, dominating the devils, blither with non-human forms were some of the stories which were known by the public.
These stories showcase how the Sinhalese culture revolves around such black magic and therefore, it is not wrong to say that this beautiful island nation is the valley of demons and conjuring masters.
More than Kondadeniya priest, Rev. Fr. Camilus Jayamanne of Catholic Church was famed to be as a benevolent exorcists in 60s’ and 70s’. Due to Rev. Father’s yeoman service to hundreds of aggrieved persons who pilgrimaged to Kudagama, Rambukkana, Kudagama shrine became the center for healing and salvation. It is believed that unlike ‘Kondadeniya’ priest, Fr. Jayamanne sacrificed his life for public good. During his heydays, it was a church opened to all kinds of folks in the society notwithstanding their religion, caste or creed. Those who participated to these prayer sessions have witnessed some miraculous phenomena which are beyond our intellects. This short write-up may not enough to acclaim his service and thus I would end this article by inviting the reader to watch the Sinhalese movie, “Garasarapa” produced by Jayantha Chandrasiri to get a hint of an idea on Fr. Camilus Jayamanne.
I am a Rationalist to this date. But, I have no arrogant to discount that everything happens not seen before my eyes is unreal. My sole intention to report certain incidents to the reader to which I had the luxury of being a part of, or being a 3rd party to. Whether the tales I re-produced are true or false, those will carry the rich culture and the customs we once had. Around those accounts which we were nurtured. Hence, we must value them. Albeit, one should not be a slave of such superstitions but his courage.