Tucked into a corner of a narrow residential street, the Devalaya Road – Purana Pattini Devalaya is a little oasis of calm in Battaramula – except on festival nights. Then the small property becomes the busy heart of the community – the rapid pulse and throb of drums fill the air, everywhere there are laughing children, and what amounts to a whole village is up well past their usual bedtime. No one, it seems, is willing to miss a moment of the gam-maduva.
Jeevana Prasantha is the young man on the committee organising the event, and credited with being one of the main instigators of the movement that turned the Devalaya around five years ago. As soon as reconstruction was completed the Pattini festival was once again revived and has been held annually since 2005. As always the date chosen is a Saturday in August.
Professional dancers and drummers are hired en masse – and they come splendidly dressed for the event. But changing times mean that the artists do not hail from a specific caste, nor are fathers most likely to teach only their sons, says Kokamba Tantrige Siripala Perera, one of the Kattadi Mahathayas present. His own son, does not wish to follow in his father’s footsteps, and instead works at a printing press.
Mr. Perera has an apprentice, and along with the 25 other dancers at the event, he will be paid about Rs.3, 500 a day. And his are far from being the only bills – everything adds up and even a humble festival like this requires everyone to contribute. But the gam-maduva is considered essential, calling as it does upon the Pattini Devi to bring blessings, peace and protection to the community – she will not only guard their health, but their young ones, land, crops and cattle as well.
All night long, the performers will use poetry, dance and mime to invoke the blessings and protection of various gods. Everywhere on gorgeous altars made of coconut fronds, offerings of fruit, flower and incense are placed for Pattini Devi. Specific ceremonies intended to placate the night demons, who cause misfortune and disease are also carried out. “We want release from the ailments for the whole of the village,” says Mr. Perera. The many sokari (ritual dance-drama and mime) that we will see this night are part of this process as are the fire–eaters. The latter are perhaps the most mesmerising – they throw their flames high and wide, stopping every now and again to nonchalantly lick the burning torch.
In the early hours of the morning, two dances of special significance are carried out. The Vahala Natima features the dancer going off into a trance, the dance meant to bring peace to the village. The second, is specifically for Pattini and features a man dressed as the goddess. This year this honour falls on Kalu Kapuge Piyal Perera – the prime sponsor of the festival and owner of the land upon which the Devalaya stands.
There are several statues of the Buddha erected under a spreading Bo tree, only a few feet from Pattini’s shrine. It is apparent that the villagers’ belief in Pattini has its roots in a form of folk Buddhism – an amalgamation of magico-religious rites, the worship of some of the Gods of the Hindu pantheon and the adoption of deities and demons of Sri Lankan conception. But Pattini –the goddess born of a mango seed – is particularly venerated for her purity. In this traditional society where motherhood is sacred, people venerate Pattini as Pattini Amma.
It is ironic then, that women are considered too impure to participate in most of the preparations for the festival, and the cooking is done by the men. One of the chefs, young Gihan Hashantha Gunatillaka has barely slept in the last few days busy preparing for the festival.
He and his friends have also been taking turns to watch over the cooking of the 10,000 kevuns being served – with only five stoves available, the boys have been frying batches, night and day, without a break. Why go to all this effort? Gihan says simply that the joy of contributing to his community outweighs all the discomfort.
Times are difficult, but this is a tradition that has survived many generations, and has proved beneficial for the community, he explains. Sitting next to him, M.Tudor Perera, a retired government employee, says that the harvesting will begin in two weeks, and that as always the first thing they will do is set aside the rice for next year’s daane. All the cooperation and hard work of the last two weeks serves another purpose to his mind – it gives neighbours a chance to patch up any small quarrels that may have arisen in the course of the year. Looking around Mr. Perera says, “dancing, music, rituals, this coming together, this is what makes our culture…this is what defines us.”
Published in The Sunday Times on August 17, 2008, Sri Lanka. Words by Smriti Daniel.