Pattini and Kannaki as Solace to Tamils & Sinhalese … and maybe a Pathway to Reconciliation

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.

PUJA AND PROPITITIATION Pics by Sharni Jayawardena

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.

kannaki_290To 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.

kannaki_a_595Picture credit: Sharni Jayawardena

1 Comment

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One response to “Pattini and Kannaki as Solace to Tamils & Sinhalese … and maybe a Pathway to Reconciliation

  1. chandre

    I believe that most Sinhalese Buddhists, even in the villages, know that many aspects of their practice contain Hindu elements — not just Pattini, but much more.

    While some Buddhist intellectuals looking for “pure Budhism” may not like it, the ordinary Buddhists have no problem with it, as the Buddhist Sutras are full of accounts of Gods, Brahmans, Prethas and Yaskahs etc. The story of king Gajaba bringing in the Pattni cult is well known, although the cult must have existed here even before.

    So, every Buddhist temple has shrines to Hindu Gods, built a bit separately from the main Shrine room containing statues of the Buddha. Ordinary Buddhists s visit and worship in Hindu Devalas and Ashrams. (On the other hand, most Sinhalese readers do not know much about works like the Manimekalai or Thruukkural etc. as they have not been translated to Sinhala, as far as I know.)

    But I have sometimes been utterly amazed on coming across many educated Tamil Hindus (and some rigid Christians, of either ethnicity) who have never visited the temple of the Tooth, or any other “Buddhist shrine”, or even the Kelaniya Temple, even out of curiosity. Surely, one doesn’t need to be a Buddhist to go to these places. And yet, these are very cultured people who have roamed Europe and visited every icon of western culture.

    Now that western tourists have began to visit these places, a different attitude is coming into being, penetrating the “Leonard Wolf mind set “, or the “Colombo Marxist mindset”, or the “Christian-Index-Expurgatorius mindset”, or what ever is affecting to dampen the curiosity that such people should have normally had . Leonard Wolf was the classic case, where he went from Colombo, through the North central province to Jaffna, with nary a comment on what he must surely have heard, from the other civil servants like Tenant, Denham, Lewis , Horsburg and others.

    There is also the attempt, in some quarters, to deny the co-existence of animistic, Buddhist, or early fusion forms of Buddhism and Hinduism (e.g., Pasupathi cult ), and subsequent saivite Hindu layers of history in places like Keeramalai (Vakulakanda), and Nallur (Nak-uur or Nagpur, a shrine of the Naga people), Munneswaram, Gokanna (Trino) etc. These rich tapestries of history are not to the liking of nationalistic politicians who want to have exclusive rights for one tradition, and completely deny the other.

    But these denials are not limited to ethnic tribalism. It is also found in religious tribalism. The church fathers would never admit that many of the big churches in Sri Lanka of today were built on the ruins of Hindu Kovils or Buddhist temples that were sacked by the Portuguese or the Dutch.
    An excellent example is the History of the Madu Shrine, whose ancestry is found in a Pattini/Kannaki shrine. Would the church father write out the true history of the shrine in hand-outs given to pilgrims? I doubt it. In fact. many years ago when I visited the Madhu shrine (at a time when political tensions had not commenced), I talked with the very amiable resident (French) priest who showed me around, and told me its history as he had heard of it. When I attempted to discuss a different version, he preferred to change the subject and discuss how he has being training his cook to make excellent “pigeon roti ” as well as follow his own “Recette du lapin à la moutarde”, that he would like us to try out.

    The same blind-eye policy is true of the attempt to extend the Kuragala Muslim shrine of recent origin to the epoch of stone epigraphical writings.

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