The Economist, I March 2014, where the title is “Seeing both sides”
THE end of their bitter war, nearly five years ago, has done little to unite Sri Lanka’s divided communities. In their modest way, a photographer and an anthropologist are working together to try bridging the distance that separates the country’s two largest ethnic groups—by showing them how they worship the same goddess.
The majority, Sinhala-speaking Buddhists, call her Pattini while the minority Tamil Hindus name her Kannaki. For the most part, neither of the two communities knows that the other reveres her under a different name. But their beliefs are deeply syncretic, and point towards a shared history and traditions.
Sharni Jayawardena, the photographer, and Malathi de Alwis, the anthropologist, are using this shared background in an attempt to foster reconciliation. For more than two years they traversed the country photographing the worship of the goddess; her many temples, rituals and processions.
The result is a captivating collection of images that not only displays the similarities between the religious practices of the Sinhalese and the Tamils, but the many variations within their communities. Their work was shown over two days in the cosmopolitan capital, Colombo. The exhibition is still to be staged in Jaffna, where a majority of inhabitants are Tamil, and in Batticaloa, which is home to a large number of Tamils, and Muslims too.
One of the simplest objectives of the exhibition is to teach people about the existence of this mutual goddess. The creators hope it goes at least a small way towards breaking down the walls of estrangement that were built up over decades of strife. But their work goes further.
In a country like Sri Lanka, where insurgencies and a protracted conflict have left thousands dead, missing or injured, worship of any sort is also often laden with a mournful poignancy. In many variations of the story of Pattini or Kannaki, she was a virtuous wife in ancient times whose husband was executed for a crime he did not commit. Among those who flock to this goddess, their hands clasped in prayer, are relatives of the dead and missing from Sri Lanka’s civil war, both Sinhalese and Tamil.
This was a particularly fascinating area of study for Ms de Alwis, who has done lengthy research on the disappeared. Before and after the war ended in 2009, she interviewed families who had lost loved ones to the conflict—many are still waiting for their relatives to return. Not all of them are Tamils, nor even victims of the civil war. Many Sinhalese were killed or went missing during two Marxist insurrections in the 1970s and ’80s.
To this day, Pattini or Kannaki stands as a symbol of hope to the country’s many war widows and women-led households. The story of a woman seeking justice for the unfair execution of her husband strikes a resonant chord.
Men also find solace in the thought of her. Ms de Alwis met a father in Batticaloa whose only son had been shot dead by the Tamil Tigers for defying a press gang. Traumatised, he stopped speaking and took to lying on a mat. Then he contracted adult chickenpox, a disease that Pattini/Kannaki is believed to cause. So he was in hospital when the tsunami of 2004 struck, and took the lives of his mother and a daughter. The goddess appeared to him in a dream, he says, and told him it was time to pull up his socks. He is today a member of the committee for his village’s shrine to Kannaki.
During the civil war, the army bombed shrines that had been built to Kannaki in the eastern, Tamil areas. And when families gathered in large numbers for annual festivals held in her name, the Tamil Tigers forcibly enlisted their children. There were devotees who shunned her for having abandoned them in their time of need. But even then her shrines provided refuge to the displaced, the tortured, to those made mad with grief and “to those whose only recourse was to seek divine intervention when all else had failed”.
In some corners of Sri Lanka, where questions of ethnicity have not cleaved them apart, Sinhalese and Tamils live together, intermarry and share in their devotion to Pattini or Kannaki, by whichever name. Panama, on the eastern coast, is one such village. Its inhabitants thank the goddess for having shielded them from the tsunami, which devastated surrounding areas. Devotees of all faiths and communities visit an ancient shrine built in her honour.
Every year, the villagers of Panama carry out a unique, 15-day ritual called ankeliya in Sinhala or kombu vilaiyadu in Tamil. Men use the horns of sambhur or wooden hooks to perform a tug-of-war, a bawdy ceremony that ends with a symbolic “turning back of the wrong”. In this turning-back, the victorious side, which had hooted down and hurled obscenities at the losing side, sings songs seeking forgiveness to assuage the hurt and shame.
This is something the country could think of using in a national context, in the opinion of Ms de Alwis. The government need not look very far if it wants to find a way towards post-war reconciliation; the path was laid centuries ago.