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Horn Play

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The An Keliya ritual extends for 15 days in the picturesque, coastal village of Panama. During this period, the entire village becomes vegetarian and a variety of taboos are followed. Fishermen don’t go out to sea and grocers are not even allowed to stock dried fish in their shops. Any family that has experienced a recent death or women who are menstruating or have given birth recently (i.e., all who are considered polluted) are expected to leave the village.

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The two guardian gods of the devale premises: Parakasa Deviyo who guards Pattini’s shrine and Parakasa Deviyo who guards Palanga’s shrine (he is called Aluth Deviyo or New God, at Panama) have their own little shrines within this sacred space and punish those who violate these taboos or misbehave during these 15 days. Interestingly, while the consumption of alcohol is permitted, and thus greatly indulged, the ingestion of kudu [narcotics] is strictly prohibited.

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The first week is set aside for young men and boys to try their hand at horn pulling (kolu an), under the watchful eyes of their elders. The next five days are the most important when only the older, more experienced men participate (maha an keliya). About 4-5 horns may be pulled per night; the comparison of horns to ensure equality in size as well as the aligning and locking of hooks tends to be quite long-drawn-out and can lead to heated verbal exchanges as well as fisticuffs between the two teams. During these 12 days, no women are allowed to participate or even watch this all-male ritual that continues throughout the night. So, we couldn’t take any photos!

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On the 13th day, the temple is opened to women again and the men perform the ritual of ‘lowering the ropes’ or vali banava which women are permitted to watch. Though pulling of horns is involved, the men make sure that they don’t break, as the main aim of this ritual is to dissipate feelings of competitiveness and rivalry that animated the previous 12 days, and to restore equality of status between the two teams. Since there are no winners or losers, the revelry and ribaldry – singing of songs rife with sexual double entendres and the winning side displaying their genitalia to the losing side – that took place during the previous 12 days does not occur, hence women are permitted to watch this more restrained performance.

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Specialists among the Aluth Deviyo’s team, the udu pila (upper team), and Pattini’s team, the yati pila (lower team), each prepares a horn, usually the root of the Andara shrub (Acacia catechu) that has been dug up the previous week.

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Each specialist retires to a rock outcrop to avoid the prying eyes of the competing team. First, the 5′-6′ long crosspole or rikilla polla (from the halmilla tree –Berrya cordifolia) is tied between the hook (anga) and its longer arm (toduva), with rope extracted from the maila tree (Bauhinia racemosa). This pole enhances the manoeuvrability of the hook and helps to reduce the tension of the hook when the tug ropes are pulled.

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If the anga is a bit thin, it is reinforced with four additional splices of wood that are also tightly wound with rope. This is called kotta kavanava (feeding the pillows).

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The end result is quite magnificent and very phallic!

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Each pila has a vattandi (ritual attendant) on whose frail shoulders rests the outcome of each ‘horn pull.’ They have to follow strict rules of purity which involves sexual abstinence, ritual cleansing, not eating after 5 p.m., not consuming alcohol etc. It is also they who have to bear the brunt of the hooting and ribaldry if their side loses. If a particular vattandi’s team keeps losing it is believed that this is due to him being impure, and he is replaced.

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The vattandi of the losing side takes refuge under each team’s respective dummalage (incense house) when the jeering and bawdiness gets too aggressive. The shaming and ridiculing of the losers is subsequently rectified through the varadaravanava (turning back the wrong) ritual where three members of the winning team approach the vattandi in the dummalage and sing verses such as:
For the first and last time let us forget all the wrongs
Never again take any wrongs to heart

(Obeyesekere 1984: 419).

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Once the horns are ready, they are taken in procession to the an handiya (horn junction) located between the Pattini and Aluth Deviyo shrines. The udu pila’s horn processes first, circumambulating the devale premises (encompassing both shrines) thrice in an anti-clockwise direction to mark Palanga’s lower status vis a vis Pattini (however, because he is a male he gets to lead off the processions!).

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No statues are paraded. Instead, a wooden box containing a two-dimensional face of the deity carved in silver and attached to an old horn that had been pulled many decades ago, is carried.

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The Aluth Deviyo devale kapurala (priest) carries the deity while an egali (person of the washer caste – an important dispeller of pollution because of his profession) walks beside him holding a white cloth. A member of the udu pila team follows with the horn to be pulled. He is known as the anga vadavanna (carrier of the horn). Behind him walk the rest of the udu pila team and the Basnayake Nilame (lay custodian) of the Aluth Devale.

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Then, the yati pila’s horn circumambulates the devale premises (encompassing both shrines) thrice in a clockwise direction. This procession follows a similar sequencing as the udu pila. All the key participants cover their mouths so that they will not pollute the deity and the horn with their saliva or breath.

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The an handiya has two important components. The first is the an gaha (horn tree), a siyambala tree (Tamarindus indica) that is fortified with peras – ropes made of jungle vines. The ritual of tying the an gaha with ropes is called peras vakkireema (pouring of the ropes). When this takes place, the kapurala of the Aluth Deviyo devale commences the Aluth deviyan nateema (dance) by hitting the vendayama (pole with miniature anklets) and chanting sacred verses. He then becomes possessed (devaruda venava) by Aluth Deviyo and makes prophecies.

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The second component is the hena kanda (thunderbolt tree), a 13′ palu tree trunk (Manilkara hexandra) that is also ritually encircled with peras along with the performance of Aluth deviyan nateema. It is also anointed with turmeric water and a white cloth is tied over its crown. The hena kanda is slotted into a deep trench that is fortified with logs and stakes. It moves back and forth within this trench when the two tug ropes (varan) that are attached to it are pulled. The hena kanda is only used during the maha an keliya.

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The horn of the udu pila is linked with a rope to the an gaha while the horn of the yati pila is linked with a rope to the hena kanda. The locking of the horns by the an vattandis (horn attendants) takes place amidst good humoured jostling and mild ribaldry, unlike during the previous 12 days.

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Onlookers crane their necks to see what’s going on amidst the mass of male bodies.

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When the horns are locked to the satisfaction of both teams…

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…the order is given for those belonging to the udu pila and yati pila (the entire village is divided into either one or the other side, affiliation being patrilineal) to grab their respective tug ropes and… pull.

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The an vattandis of both pilas struggle to prevent the horns breaking as the tug ropes are pulled. There are about nine an vattandis per pila and they all have specific tasks to perform: one to hold the anga in place, three to hold onto the tonduva, three to manoeuvre the rikilla polla and one as the helper (ini puduvata).

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The unbroken, victorious horn of the yati pila!

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The unbroken, equally victorious horn of the udu pila!

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Then it is time for the li keli or stick dancers, who are also known as the polu gahana attho, to begin their performance. They, along with the drummer and chanter of li keli virindu kavi (stick dance folk verses), get permission (avasara) from all the deities in the devale premises to commence their dance at the an handiya.

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And a twirling they go!

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The dancers then head out of the devale to inform those in the village that the deva perahara – procession conveying Pattini’s image – to village homes, is on its way. Obeyesekere (1984) notes that they sing verses from the mara ippadima (killing and resurrection of Palanga) though some villagers we spoke with preferred to describe it as “Pattini lamenting Palanga’s death.” The long gokkola (coconut frond) streamers the dancers wear, they noted, seek to replicate the dishevelled tresses of the grief stricken Pattini. The dancers get increasingly inebriated and raucous as the evening progresses.

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Only Goddess Pattini is taken in the deva perahara now though both deities used to make this journey in previous decades. The reason for this shift, according to Gunasoma (1996), is that though Aluth Deviyo is very powerful, he is also quick to anger, so if a villager accidentally provoked him the consequences could be dire. Pattini on the other hand is very tolerant and treats all with compassion so it is safer to take her around the village.

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All processions, within the devale premises and on the street, are accompanied by a throng of young boys exuberantly chanting the exhaltation: ‘diyayyo!’ which villagers said was equivalent to the Tamil exhaltation, ‘aro hara!’ (Oh God Almighty!) Interestingly, Obeyesekere (1984) notes that they chanted ‘hai hai ho!’ in the 1960s while Gunasoma (1996) says the phrase used is ‘kiyiya kiya kiyayyo!’).

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The deva perahara follows a carefully worked out route that encompasses all four divisions of the village – north, east, south and west – while also acknowledging the importance of key institutions and persons in the village. It stops at both the ancient and new Pillaiyar or Ganesh kovils, the Buddhist temple, the homes of all the main functionaries of the devale, important government officials such as the Chief Medical Officer and even the military camp at the edge of the village which was in existence in 2011 but had been abandoned when we re-visited in 2013.

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In preparation for the arrival of the goddess, the families that plan to receive her clean and purify their homes and construct beautifully decorated little altars called deviyange pandale. The perahera will only stop at the homes that have constructed an altar, but given the expansion of the village, even such self-selection makes it near impossible for them all to be visited before dawn the next day – in 2011, the perahera returned to the temple around 10.30 a.m!

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Each home welcomes the perahera by lighting firecrackers and pouring a stream of water from the gate to the altar as a substitute for the pavada (foot cloth) that is usually laid for processions conveying sacred objects. The kapurala of the Pattini devale places the Pattini image on the altar and performs various obeisances – lighting camphor, sprinkling turmeric water, swirling incense sticks and laying betel leaves and flowers (provided by the family) before the deity.

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Songs of praise to Pattini (mal vada) are sung to the accompaniment of the vendayama (pole with miniature anklets) that is rhythmically struck on the ground.

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The family worships Pattini and places coins (panduru) in the clay pot containing turmeric water. The kapurala of the Pattini devale in turn blesses them with turmeric water and marks their foreheads with sandalwood paste.

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The kapurala then takes the wick from the oil lamp that has been placed at the altar and pours some turmeric water on it. As the wick is extinguished, he chants the following lines to bless the home:

Evane deviyo heme mahima
evane mal vasi vassu vema
mavitha gange watura avema
madurave gini nivve mehema
Thus the gods in all their might
Showered flowery rain from the skies
Spouted water miraculously from the river
That’s how the fires of Madurai were quenched
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This is one of the most joyous times for the young boys in the village who accompany the perahera throughout the night and quaff gallons of sweet beverages provided by each home along with ripe bananas and various sweetmeats such as modaham in the shape of pomegranate fruits, kavun, mung kavun and athiraha.

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When the goddess is brought back to the devale premises the next morning, her image is not taken inside the devale as it has now acquired a great deal of pollution after circulating through the village. Therefore, it is placed beside the hena kanda until it is time to head out to sea for the water cutting (diya kapeema) ceremony.

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A tripod is made out of used rikilla polu upon which is placed a clay pot filled with turmeric water. This is called an mukkaliya. Under the an mukkaliya is displayed all the victorious horns from the maha an keliya. This year, August 2013, the yati pila (Pattini’s team) had more victories than the udu pila, which augurs well for the village.

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The kapurala of the Aluth Deviyo devale brings out the Aluth Deviyo deity and proceeds to perform the aluth deviyan nateema. Once he is possessed by the deity, he is handed a machete (manna) and after thrice circumambulating the an gaha, he cuts its peras. He then rushes up to the hena kanda and cuts its peras as well. He then falls down in a faint and is divested of the deity by having turmeric water sprayed on his face.

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Now, the hena kanda can be lowered and taken out of its trench.

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It is covered with a white cloth (piruvata) and takes on the look of a corpse.

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While this is happening, many women devotees, both Buddhist and Hindu, are having their mouths pierced (adayalam gaseema) with the vel, the lance of God Murugan or Skanda whose shrines near Panama, at Kebilitta and Kataragama, are greatly revered. The piercing of the mouth symbolizes the renunciation of speech, thus ensuring greater focus of one’s thoughts upon the deity.

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Male devotees have their backs pierced with hooks that are attached to strings that are kept taught.

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Lots of men and women who get pierced dance with kavadi, a heavy, arched, wooden frame decorated with peacock feathers. The Tamil word, kavadi, transposed to this wooden frame, means ‘suffering at every step.’ Each pierced dancer is accompanied by his ‘keeper’ who takes care to maintain the tension of the hooks on his back and sees to his general well being.

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Young boys and girls who do not get pierced also dance with kavadi.

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The deities of both devales, as well as their ornaments and other accoutrements such as spears and axes, follow the kavadi dancers and musicians along the street while villagers douse the perahera with cooling turmeric water and proffer offerings (panduru), and cool drinks.

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The perahera then crosses the sand dunes and heads to the seashore with the entire village following on their heels

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A mada (corruption of the Tamil term, madai –ritual offerings) is offered to both deities and all their ornaments and accoutrements before ceremonially ‘bathing’ them in the ocean and ‘water cutting’ (diya kapeema).

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The diya kapeema ritual, as noted in our History section, recalls the Rajavaliya narrative of King Gajabahu striking the ocean with his mace and parting it. The water that is displaced when the wooden mace or mugura strikes the ocean is collected into two clay receptacles, by the two vattandis, who will take them back to their respective devales and store them inside the devales until next year’s an keliya. Many devotees also bring various receptacles to collect some of this water.

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As soon as the ritual objects are bathed and the water is cut and collected, the devale officials, along with those who have pierced themselves as well as their relatives, race back to the devale while…

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… the rest of the young men in the village fling themselves into the ocean. This diya keliya (water sports), or rather, an outpouring of testosterone (!), commemorates either the incident when Pattini was discovered by merchant princes as they were disporting in the Kaveri river or the completion of the Kaveri project by Karikala (Obeyesekere 1984: 393).

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The Diya Kapeema and Diya Keliya mark the end of the 15 days of an keliya for most villagers though the more serious devotees return to the devale to partake of the final meal – sweetened milk rice – that is cooked by the two devales, the moving of the hena kanda to the irrigation channel beside the devale (where it will lie until next year’s maha an keliya) and the closing of the doors of the two devales (they will only be re-opened a week later).




  • nelumvila

    Here too, affiliation is patrilineal despite property ownership and
    caste affiliations in the Eastern Province being matrilineal (Sukumar
    2009). — can you please elaborate on that as to the issue of matrilineality.

    • http://invokingthegoddess.lk Invokingthegoddess

      Matrilineality refers to social systems in which descent is traced through the mother or maternal line. Property, titles and/or affiliations are passed from the mother to her offspring.