Ritual Drawings on Palm Leaves: Yantra Mantra as Endangered Forms

Lankeswera SD Pieris, courtesy of http://www.artsrilanka.org/essays/ritualdrawings/index.html

Yantra Drawings

Yantra drawings on palm leaves, which have traditionally been in the custody of kattadiralas, have not been conserved by them with care, and our inheritance is fragmentary.   Kattadiralas are priests who practise rituals of healing and rituals of revenge, and being folk artists as well, prepare yantras according to prescribed rules and consecrate them with prayers and magic incantations.

The term ‘yantra’ is derived from the sanskrit ‘yantr’, ‘to bind’, from the root ‘yam’, and is the general term for idols, figure drawings, pictures, or geometrical designs used in rituals.  Models for yantras are in ancient palm leaf manuscripts which belong to the tantric tradition.  Some of these documents have been irretrieveably lost.  Some forms are undeciphered, some symbols are unrecognised and consequently some aesthetic and philosophic values remain uninterpreted.

The yantra drawing constitutes an unique artistic tradition.  It is a confession of the frailty of the human condition and at the same time proof of man’s readiness to defend himself; it is a testament of belief and like all ritual art, a manifestation of man’s craving for the transcendent.  There is a world view expressed in art, and yantra art is no exception.  The drawings are linked to myths and through them to ancient astronomy, astrology, numerology and other occult arts which formed the system of metaphysical thought of the ancient and medieval world.

Uses of the Yantra

Yantra drawings are charms used for protective and curative purposes and for soliciting boons.  They are also used in sorcery, for kattadiralas perform huniyam (kodivina) and claim to direct spirits to harm or destroy enemies.  The spells are usually intended to create disorders of the nervous system, paralysis, impotence, insanity or death.   This is the most secret category of the occult arts and even the identity of the officiating kattadirala is not disclosed.

Figure Drawings

Figure drawings on palm leaves include drawings of deities (devas) yaksas (devils), demons (raksas) and other spirits.  These belong to Veddah, Yaksa, Vedic, Brahmanic, Hindu or Buddhist traditions.  Some figures are portrayed with multiple heads and arms or animal features.  Other figures are grotesques with distorted bodies where the human eye seeks to close gaps.  Nagas are considered to be beings with supernatural powers.  They are usually depicted as cobras with one or multiple heads, and sometimes in human or partly human form.  These distorted features are characteristic of ancient Indian art and are suggestive of hidden mysterious forces governing the universe.

Figure drawings bear a distinctive stamp which mark them as belonging to the indigenous aesthetic tradition; they are more restrained than Dravidian icons (statues and drawings) and lack the sensuality of later North Indian ones.  Although we borrowed many cultural elements from India, they were changed in the process of adaptation and reinterpreted.  Some fragmented figures are suggestive of surrealism with its exploration of the irrational, the unconscious and the dream.  Distortion and other expressionist traits are prominent.  The drawings belonging to this category work at the subconscious level and have the power to surprise and disturb.  Some forms look like psychotic art, the products of fractured states of mental health.  The artist has created his own universe when he competed with reality in his depiction of man’s struggle against death.

The Resemblance to Figures in Paintings

Some palm leaf drawings of individuals and groups of figures have the appearance of murals executed on a diminutive scale.  Perhaps they were based on paintings on walls of temples and devales which are no longer extant.  In certain drawings, deities are depicted in an architectural framework like statues in temples and devales.  These could be representations of statues of a bygone age as is thought to be the case with certain manuscript illustrations in India (Miniatures of the Pala Dynasty in Bengal of 8th-11th Centuries ACE).

The Resemblance to Figures in Flags

Palm leaf drawings have influenced the shapes of figures and symbols on traditional flags, banners, standards, and other heraldic devices.  The sun, moon, elephant, lion, peacock and other insignia are, as in drawings on the palm leaf, distorted out of proportion in the style of caricatures; notwithstanding, they are vibrant symbols of power and authority.  These grotesques possessing symmetry and rhythm have been copied by craftsmen and are still being copied in jewellery, brassware, wall plaques and recently in batiks.  Small figures on palm leaves are highly distorted owing to their scaled down size and the difficult drawing surface.  Birds even resemble insects and are scarcely identifiable.

The Well-springs of Ritual Art

Those who are educated solely in the European art tradition will not find it easy to understand or appreciate these art forms that emanate from an entirely different tradition.  These forms co-relate several spiritual streams originating long ago.   They include primitive spirit cults, Veddah, Yaksha, Vedic, and Brahmanic beliefs and Hindu and Buddhism tantrism.  The drawings are proto-historic expressions.   This accounts for the grossness of the divine forms,  the deification of animals, the worship of trees, the abundance of serpents, and the depiction of man-eating demons.  The figure drawings are dehumanised, being extra-mundane, and are melodramatic, for the myths which at times they illustrate assumed concrete form in a bygone age ruled by cosmic terror.

However, faces of deities are expressionless.  This is appropriate as deities are ruthless in their detachment to human suffering for even they cannot extinguish it.   “The supreme indifference to weal and woe which is inherent in the forces of nature is mythologically personified in the impassive semblances of the gods”.   Their expressions befit their status of hostages to the ritual.  The ritual artist claims to use magic to control the forces of nature, to release human beings from the anguish of time and to maintain the equilibrium of the universe.

The demonic forces are man’s savage instincts.  They are emanations from man’s sub-conscious and represent the dark side of human nature.  Man uses art to exorcise these “evil spirits” and turn them into material forms.  In this way he frees himself from their control and gains his independence.

Sacred Geometry – the Magic of Space

The geometrical designs used in yantras are symbolic representations of the universe which contains the spirit world.  The purpose of the drawings is to give a tangible form to the spirit world in order to gain control over it through rituals.  The method of preparing geometrical yantras and of identifying the numerals or syllables which activate them are described in sanskrit solokas (metrical compositions).  When yantras are made to meet the specific needs of an individual, the horoscope is consulted and determines the framing of the mantra which may be expressed in numbers or syllables.   Calculations are made from formulae based on cosmic movements.


Symbols are a pictorial script and expressed the same truths as philosophy and myth.   Symbols play an important part in rituals, as suggestion is the dominant artistic and social function of art.  From very early times, the artist made extensive use of symbols, signs, and figurative representations: the sun was stylised into the swastika, and the serpent into the meander; the circle was the symbol of time, and the square the symbol of order.

The Design Elements

Yantras offer a variety of motifs and design elements.  Ananda Coomaraswamy was of the view that Sinhala art showed more of the characteristics of  early Indian art than did any Indian art surviving on the mainland of India at the beginning of the 19th century.  He claimed to have identified several archaic design elements in Sinhala art related to the Egyptian, Assyrian and Hellenistic elements of very early Indian art.   He also identified certain other elements which he thought might have been derived from the art of the pre-Sinhala inhabitants of the island.  Some of the design elements in the yantras may well be indigenous to Sri Lanka, but only future comparative research will be able to establish this.  The illustrated palm leaf manuscripts of ritual priests may contain useful information on this aspect, as some rituals originated in very early times.  The most likely areas for fruitful investigation will be representations of clay images, leaf altars and leaf screens which are lineal descendants of the earliest forms of iconography and ritual decoration used in the remote past.  These were used chiefly in the conciliation of arboreal deities in vegetative fertility rites.

The Mantra Sastra – the Magic of Words

Incantations used in order to activate yantras are in mantra language.  In Sri Lanka, mantra language is of three kinds.  Some mantras are incomprehensible to the noninitiated as the words have no known meaning.  Others are in known languages and are invocations to deities or other spirits.  Bija (seed) mantras which are incorporated in yantras are sacred syllables.  Each deity has a syllable which is instrumental in resurrecting partial aspects of the deity.  It is a component part of the total mantra.  Every mantra is a form of Brahman, the Godhead.

Numerology – the Magic of Number

The culture of ancient India was essentially oral, and gave the ‘Word’ an elevated status with metaphysical power.  However the occult arts assumed that there is a relationship between the word, number, colour and musical tone and used a system of numerology which converted sounds to numbers.  Each syllable in the Sinhala language is given a number which enables any word to be expressed in numbers.  Certain yantras use numerals instead of words.  The numerals form an unity or a part of a series embodying harmony.


Yantra drawings incorporate myths containing important information about the past.   Myths are sometimes shorthand accounts of revolutionary transformations consequent on invasions and religious, social and dynastic changes – the raw material of history.   Myths however alter with time and attempt to justify existing social systems.   They account for traditions, rites and customs.  A study of myths will help us to understand the meaning of life as conceived by our ancestors and bequeathed to us.   The yantra drawings, being based on myths, speak to us from the past and must be preserved for future generations, as the past is patrimomy and not cultural refuse, while the drawings constitute a record of our cultural and psychological matrix.  They address the unconscious, the collective identity and ethos of the nation.   Furthermore, the yantra still survives both in village and in town as a living tradition, for it continues to satisfy deep psychological needs for security and for revenge; by so doing, it perpetuates the living power of myth, ritual and rite.

Yantra Kavi books on palm leaves containing the techniques of fashioning yantras, also describe pictorial yantras used for the purpose of securing protection.  These yantras illustrating myths differ when there are different versions of the same myth.   Pictorial yantras are too elaborate to be inscribed on palm leaves and had to be inscribed on metal plates.  Hugh Nevill, who researched ola manuscripts in the 19th century, makes the following observation; “If the villagers who keep such yantra kavi a strict secret, could be induced to part with them, much most ancient lore would be recovered, as the drawing or design preserves the myth unaltered.  They are however quite averse to even to own to knowing such protecting verses and drawings.”

The Tantra Sastra

The Yantra Sastra came to Sri Lanka from India where it formed part of the Hindu and Buddhist tantric traditions.  The yantra drawings cannot be dated with any accuracy and are copies of older drawings which have themselves been copied.  These forms on palm leaves are varying recensions of archetypal formulae whose dates of fixation are in a remote antiquity.

The Buddhist form of tantrism known as Tantrayana established itself in India about the 8th century ACE and came to Sri Lanka from Nalanda about this time.  Two tantric schools, the Nilapatadarsana and the Vajravada were introduced to Sri Lanka in the 9th century ACE.  We are unaware as to when Hindu tantrism reached this country.  In Sri Lanka, as in India, tantrism gave way to orthodox religious practices and what remains of tantrism are practices related to magic and witchcraft.

The five essentials used in orthodox tantric rituals were wine, meat, fish, parched grain, and women.  The use of these aids were considered necessary to overcome the impediment called rebirth or sansara.  Tantrism originated in India as aboriginal folk cults and its rites were considered by the orthodox as primitive, dangerous, and irrational.  They were modified in Sri Lanka under the influence of the Theravada but left its mark on culture.  Although its effects would have been felt from very early times, tantric rites were reintroduced during a series of immigrations from South India between the 13th and the end of the 18th century to the south west of the island.  Tantric influence reasserted itself in the Kandyan kingdom, when the Vadiga kings of Kandy introduced magic ceremonies from the Telegu country.  Today the centres of magic and witchcraft are coastal towns such as Matara, Tangalla, Gandara and Bentota, and novices are drawn to these centres of the black arts to graduate under professional sorcerers.

In Sri Lanka the influence of Buddhist and Hindu tantrism is in evidence in the mantra sastra, the yantra sastra, purification ceremonies, other ritual arts, at Hindu temple festivals, and in Hindu phallic worship.  Sanskrit text books from India on architecture, arts, and crafts, which have influenced the arts in Sri Lanka, reflect this bias.  The hold of tantrism is therefore evident in ceremonies connected with the building and consecration of temples, statues, houses and other buildings.

These artifacts, as it were, form a time capsule speaking to us across the ages.   They are fragments of a past civilisation, in some ways very different from ours, but in other ways having affinities with our life and thought.  These fragments have to be rescued before they disappear into the night of time for they are rare survivals and their study is likely to afford fresh insights into our pre-history and psychological make-up.   If they are not rescued from anonymity and decay, we shall lose a living link with the past.  They are a means of our coming face to face with our roots, the primordial sources which acted upon our way of life and thought and art.

The palm leaf manuscripts on the yantra sastra are an unclaimed legacy which await the attention of the art historian, the archeologist, and the social scientist.

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