Lord of the Vanni forests

D. T. Devendra, archaeologist, historian, writer ,teacher and Buddhist scholar was born one hundred years ago in 1901. Two publications will be launched this year to mark this centenary. The first will be his autobiography. The other will be a commemorative volume of the D. T. Devendra Memorial Lectures delivered from 1990 to 2000 by eminent scholars in the fields he was interested in.

The following article is an extract from his book "This Other Lanka" (1941)

Among the gods or godlings worshipped locally is one whose unseen and mighty divinity every dweller of the jungles of the North Central and North Western Provinces recognizes without question, without seeking whose protection he does not venture out into the open. He is Aiyanar, or Aiyanayaka, god of the Vanni. To him there is no temple or other sanctum. A green twig suspended on a thread tied between two posts, or on the fork of some tree, is all the modest offering made by the sylvan folk who solicit his benevolence.

Aiyanayaka — to use the name in vogue amongst the Sinhalese — is essentially a god of kindness, albeit of great power. He , like the rest of his exalted position, is regarded by the kapurala as a Bodhisatva. Prayer is offered to him for protection from evil, sudden danger, wild-beast, or pestilence. The lethal weapon blessed by him is changed into a harmless missile though it speeds towards its goal.

Aiyanayaka is peculiarly the god of the Vanni. The low-country Sinhalese, according to information supplied to Parker by a kapurala, also worship him as Boksal, lord of the north in the divine quartette of our pantheon. Regarding the identity of the god who is given this name, however, there is much divergence of opinion.

Hindu mythology, too, gives a place to the god. But, as John Still supposes. One inclines to the view that he is one of those wood-gods who were being worshipped in Ceylon at the time Buddhism came, and continues to be venerated, to this day, by the adherents of the later faith which, with its unmilitant nature, has absorbed the primitive cults into it.

It is not the Buddhist and Hindu alone who find efficacy in a prayer to Aiyanayaka. The Muslim driver of our car reverently confessed to me his allegiance to the god, as he placed his leafy offering between the posts of a little booth by the wayside. Having repeated his credo, why may he not go one better than Malcolm Campbell in the derelict four-wheeler he drove?

By the bund of Tabbova Tank I witnessed an open-air service in honour of the Lord of the Vanni.

It was a Saturday, the day set apart for this rite. At sundown a little group of colonists, augmented by a few local inhabitants, were assembled at a clearing in the shade of three giant trees.

The "temple" here was more elaborate than the general fane of the god. It consisted of a tiered platform of mud with brick facing. On the top were some crude images. The largest of them was the likeness of a grotesque bull. By it was one small figure of an elephant.

The structure was enclosed within four posts tied together with ropes on which were suspended tender coconut-leaf decorations. By the images, and against the platform, were placed old rusty iron weapons dedicated to the god’. Amongst these could be noticed tridents, spears, bill- hooks, javelins, maces, and curved clubs. There was a long chank on the topmost platform, a little away from the effigies.

Three chatties of rice and gruel which had been cooked on improvised hearthstones were taken out and placed in a row by the altar. One of the men, who officiated as kapurala, and who had his mouth covered with a clean scarf, came forward and with a ladle took "thrice three" spoonfuls of the food, and served them into cones of leaf, which had previously been laved in saffron water. Handing them over to an attendant, he approached the altar, bowed to the effigies, sprinkled water on a plantain leaf spread before them, and arranged some betel leaves together with dried arecanuts on them.

Next he served out portions of the rice offerings and smoked the oblations with incense which glowed on a rude censer. Last of all, he took a dried coconut, washed it, and splitting it into two before the shrine, placed the two halves on the altar.

Another mark of obeisance concluded his ministrations. Then he placed his palms together and made supplication. In his preamble he traced the genealogy of the god and described his power and benevolence.

"Not for the salvaging of sunken ships, not from disaster from wild buffaloa bear, cheetah or wild elephant, not for the obtaining of treasure hidden, but that thy all-pervading benevolence may protect us from plague and pestilence, we who dwell by Tabbova’s Tank, come to thee, O Lord, who hast in keeping the open regions and the forested, in this, our land!"

The man now made his way a little aside into another shrine, that of the god Kadavara, the fierce, minister to Aiyanayaka.

The offerings to this deity, which were the same as those made to his master, were placed within three crooks made of forked sticks. These were the sole receptacles. The god had no altar. To him the kapurala prayed that he might "show our pin-vattoruva (tally of meritorious actions) to the Lord Aiyanayaka and, of his mercy, intercede with him on our behalf."

Short, quick, dance-movements of the hand with the ends of the scarf whirling in whiteness terminated the ceremonial. Finally, the ministrant went again to the shrine of the greater god and repeated the movements, somewhat more elaborately before the entire ritual was considered over.

Dusk had come apace bringing with it an uncanny stillness. Would the god manifest himself we asked, to partake of these, the offerings of his devotees?

A mighty crash from the dark recesses of the forest startled us, inexperienced townsmen. Then another, and another, followed by a booming and a squawking. Simians homing in hot haste.

The kapurala, who had motioned to us to stay when we would have retired earlier came up to us with his hands full of some of the offerings plantain leaf package of rice, half a coconut, betel and arecanut.

"Eat of this food, and transfer the merit thereof to the great Vanni Bandara. He will be good to you and watch over you as you drive through the forest this night."

We did not eat of the god’s rice. We gave it, instead, to the first beggar we met in town. I hope it brings us no harm!