Saturday Magazine

Buddhist practices in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
by Kamalika Pieris
Continued from last week

There was famine and disease during the reign of Upatissa I (365-406). The city was beautifully decorated and a large crowd of monks followed a chariot with a golden Buddha image reciting the ratana sutta and sprinkling water. Sena II (853-887) also had a similar ceremony when the island was affected by an epidemic. However, Walpola Rahula says that "chanting of pirith" appears in the records for the first time during Aggabodhi IV (667-683). This became a feature thereafter. He says that the full-fledged pirith ceremony we know today developed after the Polonnaruwa period.

Buddhist practices were borrowed from Mahayana Buddhism. The most notable borrowing was the worship of the Bodhisathva Avalokitesvara. He was known as Lokesvara and Lokanatha in the 11th century, and as Natha in the 14th century. He was worshipped at the Lokesvara-natha devale at Wegiriya. According to Sagama rock inscription, Senkadagala (Kandy) was well known for the worship of Avalokitesvara. Nandana Chutiwongse says that the present Natha devale was built before the 15th century.

Some practices of pre-Buddhist cults such as yakkas were added to Buddhist rituals. In appeasing yakkas, if all else failed, the Atanatiya sutta was to be recited. Buddhism also incorporated spirit worship. There are many references in early Buddhist texts to spirits and deities such as those who lived in trees. The public believed strongly in spirits and located them "almost everywhere". They believed in evil spirits, and tried to control them through incantation. Tree deities and other local gods were considered important in the Polonnaruva period.

In the medieval period, three local deities, namely Upulvan, Saman and Vibhisana came to be worshipped as protectors of the island. Upulvan seems to have been the most popular of these three gods. Upulvan is mentioned in the Mahavamsa as the guardian deity of Sri Lanka, but the first reference to the worship of Upulvan is dated to the 13th century. The main shrine to Upulvan was at Dewinuwara (Dondra). The Devundara devalaya sannasa speaks of land dedicated to Upulvan at Devinuvara, by the king. Devinuvara was one of the busiest ports in medieval Sri Lanka.

A second centre for Upulvan was set up by Parakramabahu IV (1302-1326) at Alutnuwara in Satara Korale, Kegalla district. Land and other endowments were made to this new devale by the Sinhala kings up to the beginning of the 17th century. This devale is at present situated on the Colombo-Kandy road, four kilometres from the Hingula junction. Until the end of the 15th century, Upulvan retained his original identity. Then Upulvan became identified with the Hindu god Vishnu. Images of Upulvan as Vishnu were set beside images of the Buddha in temples. Upulvan and Vishnu became one in the Kandyan period. The name Upulvan disappeared and Vishnu worship spread everywhere in Sri Lanka. Saman is the guardian deity of Sri Pada. He was originally known as Sumana. The Mahavamsa says that Sri Pada (Sumana kuta) was the abode of a devaraja named Sumana. An image of Saman was built and worshipped at the peak in the reign of Parakramabahu II (1236-1270). Parakramabahu II also built the Maha Saman Devale at Rat Ratnapura. This became the devale for Saman. Ratnapura is less than nine miles from Sri Pada. The king appointed officers and attendants to the devale and granted it the villages of Sabaragamuwa, Ratnapura and Veralupe. Other kings added to this and the devale ended up with gold, silver, precious stones, elephants, horses, oxen, buffaloes and slaves. Musicians for pancha turiya nada, and dancing girls were also appointed. Parakramabahu VI (1412-1467) gave extensive land grants and services to this devale. Vijayabahu VI (1513-152 1) dedicated his whisk and palanquin to this devale. The devale held an annual procession in honour of Saman.

The Maha Saman Devale had a Buddhist monastery attached to it. This was staffed by three pious monks. The leading monk had to be very holy and well versed in Buddhism. The second had to attend to the day-to-day services of the temple. The third monk was to recite pirith in front of the Saman image and preach bana to those who came to the devale seeking the help of the god. The monastery was granted several villages with fields, gardens, oxen, buffaloes and attendants of its own.

Vibhisana seems to have been an indigenous god who became popular in the medieval period or a little earlier. He is mentioned in the literature of the Gampola period (14th century). The Nikaya sangraha says that Vibhisana was one of the four guardian deities of Sri Lanka. Vibhisana was also associated with the granting of children to supplicants. The main shrine to Vibhisana was at Kelaniya, with another at Dedigama. Sandesa poems record that pirith was recited at Kelaniya.

The rituals in these devalas were conducted by brahmin priests. The Maha Saman devale was headed by a Brahmin named Nilaperumal, during the time of Parakramabahu II. Mala perumal, another, was at its head during the time of Parakramababu VI. The transformation of Upulvan to Vishnu could be attributed to Brahmin influence. Alutnuwara devale karaveema says that Brahmins versed in Vaisnava lore were invited from Ramesvaram to fashion an image of the Devinuvara god. Ibn Batuta (14th century) says that a thousand Brahmins served in the shrine at Devinuvara. Another striking feature of the worship of these gods is the dancing girls. The sandesa poems refer to dancing girls at Kelaniya, Devinuvara and Ratnapura. The Kelaniya shrine had dancing girls who chanted hymns composed to the god.

Skanda, the Hindu god of war was elevated to the list of guardian deities. There is very little historical information on Skanda. The Mahavamsa refers to him as Kumara, in its section on the Manavamma dynasty and there is a reference to an image of Kanta, (Skanda) in the section on Gajabahu II. Skanda seems to have received recognition in the 14th century. The Embekke devale built in the reign of Vilmanabahu 111 (1359-1374) is a shrine for Skanda. The vihara and devale were under the same roof. Skanda overshadowed the other gods, in the time of Parakramabahu VI. He became the chief god at Kotte. He rode on a peacock. Skanda was not linked to Kataragama in the medieval period.

The first inscription that refers to these four deities as guardians of Sri Lanka is the inscription of Bhuvanekabahu IV (1341-1351). Several reigns later, but within the same century, Nissanka Alagakkonara set up four shrines, for Upulvan, Saman, Vibhisana and Skanda when he was building the fortress at Kotte. He gave orders that the shrines be well looked after, with regular worship accompanied by dancing, beating of drums, and other forms of music.

The Buddhists worshipped several other Hindu gods as well. One was Siva. There were many devales dedicated to Siva. Siva appeared in various forms such as Bhaairava and Isvara. Siva took the form of Isvara at Munneswaram in Halavata (Chilaw). This devale was repaired by Parakramabahu VI. The reconstruction was carried out by a Brahmin named Baransi Nilakantha Nil on behalf of the king. The king gave the devale a sound administration, with Nilakantha at the head. There was a Buddhist temple attached to the Munneswaram shrine. In the Gampola period (14th century) an image of Siva was installed at the Lankatilaka temple. It was placed outside the main shrine room, between the inner and outer walls. This marks the first time that a Hindu god was placed inside a Buddhist temple.

The Hindu god Ganesa was also popular. Ganesa stands out in the references to Hindu temples found in the sandesa poems. Aiyyar, a south Indian village god appears to have entered the Sinhala pantheon in the medieval period as Aiyanayake. This god is today worshipped largely in the North Central Province. The cult of the goddess Pattini is based on the myth of Gajabahu I going to India and bringing back Pattini’s anklet together with captives of war. The first mention of Pattini in Sinhala literature occurs in the 15th century. Parakramabahu VI is said to have erected a statue to Pattini at Kotte. Pattini became one of the most important and popular deities in the Kandyan period. One of the four devalas near the Dalada Maligawa, Kandy today is consecrated to Pattini. The Kandy Esala Perahera includes the Pattini devala perahera.

A Sinhala Buddhist pantheon of gods developed out of all this. It consisted of Hindu gods, Mahayana gods, and several Sinhala ones. The list also included Sakra and Uppalavanna. I find that this pantheon does not have any order or coherence and the gods do not have specific places in the hierarchy. That I think, is because they come from diverse sources.

The writings of M. B. Ariyapala, N. Chutiwongse, R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, H. B. M. Illangasinha, W. A. Jayawardana, C. W. Nicholas, S. Paranavitana, Walpola Rahula and W. I. Siriweera were used for this essay.



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