The Ambalama: Blending Serenity and Beauty … amidst Poson Activities

Danya Udukumbure, in The Island, 23 June 2017, where the title runs 

It was the Poson weekend, actually a long one if one skipped work on Friday. Just perfect for an impromptu adventure! A quick call to my friends in Wariyapola and I was behind the wheel. It was still dark outside, but the road was dotted with white clad folk hurrying to the temples to observe sil. I revelled in the peaceful Poson spirit in the air. It seemed that the spirituality was weighing heavy as we were dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophic monsoon floods which left death and destruction in its wake in several districts. ‘Anichchai, Dukkai, Anaththai’. The whole country was in a lacklustre mood, or so I thought.

By the time I reached Wariyapola the sun was out and I was beginning to understand that there was more than one way to deal with a problem. The solemn spiritual mood had stayed back in Colombo and a festive spirit was taking shape. These folks had been braving the drought for months now. But none of that was going to dampen the Poson festivities. Little sheds or kiosks were being installed cheek by jowl and decorated with leaves, flowers, balloons etc. for dansal. Others were getting ready for the mass cooking. Crowds were gathering near temples for the events taking place there.

Our plan for the day was to visit a couple of historical ‘Ambalamas’ in the area and picnic. Several families joined our trip. Aunty Kumari had prepared kiribath for us which I happily helped myself to. “Better eat and go. Can’t be sure of dansal today. The Governor has instructed not to have any in view of natural disasters in other areas” she said. But luckily, Sri Lankans always understand “do not” in the opposite sense.

Even though I have been in and out of the place quite often, this was my first time here during the Poson season. In my experience in Kandy and Colombo, it was always Vesak which was the bigger deal. For us Poson is a much muted version of Vesak. But in this part of the country, Poson seems to take an entirely different meaning. While we emphasize on the spirituality of it, here it was celebrated in a true sense of a ‘sanekeliya’- though I am told this year it was held on a much lower key. Streets get decorated with pandols and lanterns. Carnivals and musical shows were being held. Large groups go on either pilgrimages or trips, mostly to Anuradhapura. Some in busses, trucks or lorries while the biker gangs added a colourful spectacle. No matter how, everyone was in high spirits. Crowds thronging the roads were mostly dancing and banging on musical instruments and young boys were all dressed up and even wearing all sorts of masks. The spirit of giving and taking was fully exhibited as no one either passed a dansela without enjoying the delicious offerings or was allowed to pass one without accepting it.

At first I failed to understand the relevance of that practice, at all. On a day like the Poson Poya you would expect the people to reflect on the Buddhist teachings to see the futility of the materialistic joys. But, on the contrary here is a fully blown fiesta which didn’t look quite appropriate for the occasion. A little research into our history revealed something fascinating. Turns out, this isn’t a festival merely to celebrate a religious event. In fact, “Poson Sanekeliya’ had been a state sponsored national festival long before Arhath Mahinda’s arrival. It was known as the “Giragga Samajja Sanekeliya” and there is evidence that it was taking place even during the Buddha’s time. It roughly translates to Giri + aga + samaaja ekamuthuwa – social event near the rock. According to Thripitaka the Buddha’s chief disciples Sariyuth and Mugalan Theras, previously known as Upatissa and Kolitha renounced the worldly joys after seeing the madness at the Giragga Samajja festival. I’m thinking it might have been a different version of a wild Mardi Gras.

It is assumed that during the Anuradhapura kingdom, the Mihinthala rock area was the location selected for this festival. Among other games, the king was taking part in the ‘dhada keli’ or hunting games when Arhath Mahinda arrived. After Buddhism swept across the kingdom the nature of the festival changed somewhat into a more spiritual one but still the festivities continued and it was then called the ‘Giribhanda Pooja’. There are numerous descriptions about the grandeur of this festival in texts such as Mahavansa, Deepavansa, Poojavaliya, Saddharmalankaaraya etc. After thousands of years of continued celebrations in this part of the country during the Poson season, we can affirm that old habits die hard.

It is hard to avoid the joyous spirit in the air. Before we reached our first destination- the Karagahagedara ambalama which wasn’t very far off, we stopped for ‘Kadala’ –served in a large leafy cone and then ‘beli mal’ with ‘hakuru’ and a little chit chat with strangers at the dansela. The rusticity of the surroundings and the people was like a balm on your soul.

The Karagahagedara ambalama was picturesquely standing on a flat rock surface at the edge of a lush green paddy field. A recently carpeted small road was running by it. Not a soul was around to disturb the serenity and I quickly captured a few photographs before our troop arrived with picnic baskets. The trees around it seemed perfectly placed to frame the view. I stood there in awe for a moment just like I did many years ago as a second year Architecture student when Archt. Anjalendran first brought us here. How can something be so humble yet majestic at the same time? This little piece of work encompasses the total essence of what Sri Lankan architecture is all about. We seem to be the masters of creating the indoors to enhance the experience of the outdoors. At a glance, this pillared timber structure apparenty balancing on four boulders seem like a stroke of simplicity. But the technology, construction and detailing are so precise; it is anything but simple. By the time Mies Van Der Rohe figured that “less is more”, I’m sure someone in his grave here said “Oh please!” The fact that this structure is standing on four boulders is unusual yet fascinating, it almost looks like a wagon on cart wheels. It is however the main secret of its durability, because a timber structure directing touching the ground would perish easily. It also keeps away insects, white ants and serpents I suppose.

While we were all sitting there munching on the tit bits and enjoying the cool breeze sweeping across the paddy field, I tried to imagine all the pilgrims, travelers and traders who had walked this path and sat here just like us, taking a break. This is believed to have been built in 1837. Except for the road being carpeted, I couldn’t imagine anything else to be very different.

Our next stop was the Panavitiya ambalama in Narammala which was only a hop, skip and a jump away. We couldn’t get there without succumbing to an offering of biscuits and tea with fresh milk. The best tea I had had for a very long time!

We found the Panavitiya ambalama adjoining a temple ground. It had a fence built around it and therefore it felt like an archeological monument and lacked the free spirited ambiance of the previous one. The structure and design was very similar to that of the Karagahagedara ambalama but this one had extensive wood carvings decorating it. The proportions too were slightly different and probably that was the reason in a quick poll among the group, the Karagahagedara looked the better of the two. Built in the 18th Century it is believed to be situated on the side of a path that goes from Dambadeniya to Kurunegala and Yapahuwa. The nine inner wooden columns are heavily decorated with carving patterns and beautiful lotus flower ‘peykada’ or column capitols that can be found in many Kandyan style timber structures while the outer columns remained much simple. The carvings include Gajasinghe Katayama (the mythical hybrid of elephant and lion), ever famous Hansa Puttuwa, flower designs, dancers and carvings about day-to-day life. It made the interior live with animation. Many carvings resemble the ones found at the famous Embekka Devalaya. The one that captivated me the most was the devil faced character adorning the post supporting the roof. Many timber pieces and carvings that had perished have been replaced by new ones and the roof tiling was also newly done. This little jewel deserves expert tender loving care as careless restorations can do more damage than good.

Even though it was now lunch time, before heading out we didn’t forget to go to the temple next door. How could you miss that very hygienically conscious kavili dansela? Boys with hand gloves carefully picked many sweetmeats from under a polythene cover and handed it to us. From there we headed straight to a bath dansela. Mannokka curry, anguna kola malluma, tangy amba maaluwa was served with a bit of dried salted red chillies. How anything could taste so good, I can never understand! We walked out of there promising we would not stop anywhere else till we reach home but the sago, ice cream and pineapple juice just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

The writer is a charted architect.


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