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Eastern Province Hindu festivals sans Vellala supremacy

At a time when much internal and international attention is focused on the Eastern province of Sri Lanka, I thought it might not be out of place to attempt to understand some of the differences that exist between the traditional systems in the Jaffna peninsula, which is the acknowledged centre of Tamil culture in Sri Lanka (of Hindu settlement and culture according to anthropologist, Bryan Pfaffenberger) and that of the Eastern province where a considerable number of Tamils have come to reside especially commencing from the days of colonial rule. This is not to exacerbate such differences but to take note of socio-cultural situations which had been overlooked in the attempt to present the order of things in the light of Vellalar supremacy. This is not to suggest, as Mr. Anandasagaree feared, that there was no Tamil presence in Sri Lanka before the 17th and 18th century Vellalar migration but that credit should be given, in my view, to Tamils and other southern Indians like Keralas, who seem to have engaged themselves in seafaring activities from time immemorial and marauding tribes who made a living out of offering their services for plunder and pillage; and not to the land-hogging Vellalars whose mass migration to the Jaffna peninsula cannot be established earlier than the time of Dutch rule during which they were induced to cross over for the purpose of tobacco cultivation which had become a lucrative industry. That was because of their expertise in lift irrigation which the Sinhalese ‘Goviyas’ living in the Jaffna peninsula under Ariyacakravarti hegemony who were accustomed to rain- fed cultivation were not adept at. The ‘Goviyas ’had to accept subordinate status with other indigenous people as servants or slaves of the new arrivals who were offered land by the Dutch at the expense of others who were marginalized to a landless people living in the periphery of talipot groves as toddy drawers. During my short Jaffna days, I remember being taken by the Village Headman of Delft near some of those talipot groves but where I was not allowed to cross the bars of the fence (caste observations) and the toddy drawers brought their ‘gottas’ filled with toddy!

I was one of the first in recent times to comment in my writing on the differences on the social situation between the two groups of people. Though these distinctions had been apparent to the people of the Eastern province they were not spoken of publicly and I myself hesitated first to offer any observations primarily because they were based on what one might call oral tradition. That meant one had to work against established concepts of historical interpretation of British empirical tradition of writing history based on hard facts, which is the school of thought, as historian turned anthropologist, Michael Roberts thinks, is headed by my former University colleague and batch-mate, and eminent historian, Prof. K.M.de Silva. After I saw, and surprisingly so, the attention paid by a few international scholars like Dr. Allan Strathern, Oxford scholar (now Cambrdge) and Michael Roberts in his work: "Sinhala Conscousness in the Kandyan kingdom" on a piece I had written to a learned journal outside this empirical tradition on what is now claimed subaltern studies, I received encouragement to share more of my interpretations outside the empirical tradition.

This paper is one of the results of my little familiarity with some aspects of the cultural, social and ritualistic situation in the Eastern province. It is based on what one may call oral tradition with which I became familiar as a result of over forty years of association with that province, notably, the Batticaloa and Ampara districts, since my marriage from a family which had made these two districts their home at the beginning of the last century. My sources include also a number of notable Sinhalese a few of whom wrote to me till recently whenever they read my name in newspapers in connection with matters in the Eastern province; a number of Muslim and Tamil friends of the Kalmunai-Akkaraipattu, family and several former public servants, the most important resource persons among whom were my friend and former colleague in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs ,the late Mr.T.B.M.Ekanayake whose first appointment was as the first Sinhalese D.R.O at Kalmunai, and my former diplomatic colleagues, Mr.G.S.Peiris, who was A.G.A. there and A.T.Moorthy, who welcomed me to the Batticaloa-fold claiming that I married one of "their" girls, albeit from a Sinhalese family with many connections with Batticaloa Tamils, to whom I owe much debt for sharing his extensive knowledge not only on diplomacy but on other matters including the social situation of what one may call Batticaloa Tamils vis-à-vis Jaffna Tamils.

Another person I cannot forget was Mr. K.W. Devanayagam, (Bill to my wife’s family members who was a senior Minister in J.R.Jayewardene government, who told the Indian government’s representatives who were pressing for the amalgamation of the Eastern Province with the Northern Province, that there were no Tamils in Batticaloa when he came to practice there. He may not have meant to insult those Tamils but I think he thought of his most important client, and his friend, the late Mr.Simon de Silva who was his "money-machine!" No wonder he had his office at Mr. de Silva’s residence when he appeared in Kalmunai courts and was appointed the Chairman of the Bus company!

I cannot exclude from this list of my sources, the late Dr. M.H.Peter Silva, Tamil / Sinhala scholar whom many Tamils who studied Tamil under him at the University of Ceylon will remember. He was appointed a lecturer while he was still a student at the University. Like Mr. D.M.Z. Wickremasinghe, the Editor of Epigraphia Zeylanica, he was a self-made scholar before he joined the University, having been one of the first Oriental Pundits from my village who advanced his Tamil studies at Arsadi Teacher Training College. He lived across the long stretch of paddy fields which separated my paternal grandfather’s house.

Those were times when there was no difference between Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese living in that province and people were mixing up socially at upper as well as lower levels. Mixed marriages were quite common. The memory is still not lost. Two years back, on a visit to Akkaraipattu an elderly Muslim scholar took me home and introduced me to his wife as a scion of Mr. de Silva and showed me where his old residence once stood. (one of several while his 19th century southern style house at Rest House Road Kalmunai with its sprawling 50 acre garden stretching from the town to the sea dominated the scene).

I must add to this list more recent studies by S. Theyvanayagam and K.Tangeswary on the two Eastern province Hindu temples and by Dr.S.Pathmanathan on other Hindu temples as well as the observations of Anthropologist, Bryan Pfaffenberger on the Vellalar dominance of ritual practices in the Jaffna peninsula.

Jaffna Religious Ritual Tradition

To come to the traditional ritual system, it has been well known that Vellalars dominated the ritualistic scene in the Jaffna peninsula. Pfaffenberger who made a deep study of ritual in Jaffna peninsula for his paper on Kataragama pilgrimage (1979) observed that the "traditional ritual system of the Jaffna Peninsula, with its sharp distinction between the cults of invited and self-born gods, plays a crucial role in maintaining the hegemony of the Vellalar caste. Households and temple rituals employing the worship of self-born deities are used to create a state of mystical order and purity in Vellalar homes and fields, providing them, it is thought, with protection against disordering forces that could destroy good luck and the fertility of the gardens. These rites cleanse the Vellalar landlord, making him eligible for infusions of the invited deities’ fertility-bestowing grace. The rituals of the invited Akama deities in Jaffna are focused almost entirely on maintaining a salubrious supernatural state among Vellalars, who own nearly all of the Akama shrines". [in the Jaffna situation, gods are separated into two groups, the invited deities who are invoked only in ‘Agama koyilkal’ (scripture temples) which are sedulously protected from impurities according to instructions how their grace can be sought as laid down in Sanskrit texts during the middle epoch in India; the self-born deities of the village are, in contrast, much less concerned with impurities… and are willing to intercede in the lives of people who are afflicted with impurities and disease…. Unlike the former, the latter needs offerings from the people for their sustenance. They were thought to have had a corporeal existence and like spirits, they possess a person and make him ill, then appear later demanding offerings. There are also limitations on areas of effective operation of invited deities and self-born deities. One kilometer in the first and village boundaries in the second.]

Pfaffenberger goes on to state that :according to Vellalars, the unequal distribution of prestige, resources, and purity in the traditional system is legitimate, since one group must remain pure and lucky enough to grow crops, other subordinate castes must take on the demeaning ritual task of carrying away the impurities of respectable landowners…. Armed with this powerful tool of ideological legitimation, Vellalars –the sole traditional custodian of fertility – have sought to retain control over those resources which can reproduce themselves (seed, cattle, goats, slaves, and capital) and over the land, while giving other castes only non-reproducible, consumable products of these resources’.

Although social change and the emancipation of the service castes has reduced Vellalar predominance in the peninsular social system the landholding caste still tries to ensure its prerogatives by opposing any attempt to narrow the gulf between the self-born and invited deities’ rites in the villages. In their view, the only tolerable blending of the two aspects of ritual is the cult of Murukan at Kataragama……The landholding caste thus seeks to maintain the cult of the self-borne gods as an institution which demeans the rank of its priests, and to maintain the Akama deities in strictly transcendental manifestations." (Pfaffenberger, The Kataragama Pilgrimage, journal of Asian Studies, Feb.1979).

Kataragama Shrine

The Murukan (Skanda to Buddhists) temple at Kataragama and in the Jaffna peninsula, are the only temples which were available to any devoted person but Untouchables in Jaffna peninsula cannot afford to undertake the expensive trip to Kataragama to fulfill their vows. But in the Jaffna peninsula, this deity is propitiated in the form of Skanda (Kandacami) in the Akama temples and the Vellalars have "opposed Untouchable temple entry and any non-Akama aspects of temple worship at the Jaffna district Skanda shrines." …. ‘The ecstatic cult of the celestial deity Murukan at Kataragama is tolerated because it is too far away to cause any trouble.

Its revolutionary implications are compartmentalized, as the cult is cordoned off from daily life. Indeed, it actually functions to maintain the village and regional ritual systems –and thus Vellalar predominance – because the faith generated by the site seeps back home to attract credibility to the Akama gods".

Pfaffenberger says that at Kataragama Skanda’s Murukan identity reaches its full expression without controversy. ....Indeed, for all Hindus – including Vellalas – the shrine is a place of greater holiness and mystery. This reverence arises from the fact that it pleases everyone while threatening none. For the Vellalars Kataragama offers the protection and faith-inspiring immances of a self-borne deity whose cult does not pose a threat to their status.for the Untouchables, Kataragama offers a chance to worship a god with clear connections to the upper reaches of the pantheon without risk of incurring Vellalar wrath". For all Hindus, the site is the supreme venue of religious devotion. (bhakti).

Other Temples

There are several Hindu temples besides Kataragama, outside the Jaffna peninsula, where the Vellala dominance is not present. One of these is at Munnesarama, which is a Rama temple, another is Kanakkei-amman kovil near Mullaitivu. Another is the Konesaram temple at Trincomalee built in the mid 1950s and since enlarged where up to that time certain rituals were conducted under a [Bodhi] tree. Both Munnesaram and Kannakai-amman temples were patronized by Buddhists as well as Hindus. The former still attracts many Buddhists while Mullaitivu is now not accessible but in the 19th century, it was a popular destination of worship for the Sinhalese of the Wanni, especially from Padawiya area who were conducted in a group by the Rate Mahattaya of the area, usually towards the end of the festive season. Situated as it was outside the strict Vellalar hegemony area of Jaffna peninsula, it was one of the self-borne goddesses in the strictly Jaffna Vellalar sense, the openness to Sinhalese pilgrims points to it being relegated to the periphery in this not-fully Vellalar district. That despite the fact that the population there migrated from the Jaffna peninsula in Dutch and British times and the headmen were from the Jaffna Vellalar caste. The sitting magistrate of Mullaitivu ruled that the Thesawallamai law would apply to Mullaitivu district (a Vanni district) on the advice given by the headmen but Sweetnahm, later acting Colonial secretary observed that the tradition there was different.

The temple in Trincomalee was a Buddhist shrine subject to the jurisdiction of Mahathera of Arakan and supervised by a Terunnanse and "Ganzes" on behalf of the patriarch of Arakan. That was the situation when Francis Xavier visited the place and converted the Terunnanse and some of the Ganzes. Constantine de Saa built a fortalice on the spot using building material from the temple which was originally destroyed by Azavedo. Alongside Buddhist worship, Queyroz alludes to a shamanite practice conducted by a ‘Jadecas’ (Yakdessa), who was evidently a Kapurala if not a sorcerer (‘intiravati’ to Tamils) who was a mediating priest in temples outside the peninsula where the Vellala dominance was not present. The reference to Yakdessa (Jadecas) by Queyroz is of special relevance in identifying the nature of ritual which was conducted there besides the pore Buddhist ritual.

Two other Hindu shrines outside Jaffna Vellalar dominance I wish to discuss are the Tantonrisvaram in Kokkatticholai which area was under LTTE control till recently and now open to pilgrims and Mamankesvaram temple north of Batticaloa. I visited both these temples with my wife during my visits to Batticaloa and Kalmunai. Both these are Saiva temples and are hence distinct from many other temples with local flavor outside the pale of strict orthodox Hinduism like Murukan, Mari-amman and Kannakai- amman temples, as well as many Pattini temples the last of which is explained by K.Tangesvary, as evidence of the absorption of communities of Buddhists into the fold of Hindu social organization. (Hindu Temples of Sri Lanka, ed.by S.Pathmanathan, 2006).

According to S.Theyvanayagam, at Tantonsrisvaram, which is claimed to be a temple of the Virasaivam tradition introduced from Kalinga by Makon (Kalinga Magha), the rituals are conducted by Cankamar called kurukkal. For hundred years, this writer says, the temple, like other temples in the Batticaloa region, was administered by Vanniyars, two groups of them, Pupala Kottiram and Kukan Iracha Vannimai taking over these functions alternately. That was before the administration was placed in the hands of a Board of Trustees appointed by Court orders. The management of the temple has been the responsibility of functionaries called Vanakkar who were drawn from three principal kutis, one of which was named Kalinka-kuti, pointing to the tradition of the association of this region with Kalinga Magha (11th century) and the older tradition of the princess who brought the Buddha’s Tooth Relic. The idea of her bringing a Siva-lingam along with the Tooth relic is introduced! The Vanniyars were admittedly Mukkuvars who were of Malayalam extraction brought from Kalikkattam, (see S.Theyvanayagam) but confusion is caused by the claim that Vanniyar of the Pupala Kottiram are also referred to as belonging to the Vellalar caste. In the Eastern province, the term Vellalar seems to have been loosely used so much so that Veddas and Peshakars settled there by the Dutch had gained the status of Vellarlar. Hence the saying that there are Vellalars and Vellalars in the Eastern province!

Apart from Vanniyars and the three Vannakkars, members of the seven kutis also perform duties in the conduct of the annual festival. It is claimed that the services to be performed were defined in successive stages by Ulakanayaki, Kulakottan (11th century),Makon (Magha) and Vimalataruman (Vimaladharma I of Kandy). The last had intervened in a dispute over the services at the temple. The Eastern province Hindus never hid the fact that the Kings of Kandy were their patrons.

The chariot festival which is of special importance at this temple as it is clamed that the two chariots are the oldest in the island and remnant of three chariots built by Indian craftsmen. The seven days previous to the Ther festival is allocated to the seven kutis of Mukkuvars. The taking over of the last day before the festival by Cetti-Vellalars (Chetties) must be a new development. The Valluvar clean the chariot, the Uliyakkars (servants) decorate the chariot, but the tying of the ropes for pulling the chariot is assigned to those of Kurukulam of Araiyampati. These people are taken to the temple in procession. The ropes are handed over to them by the Acari. Once the ropes are tied the Vanniyars hand it over to the multitude to pull.

It may be noted that people of Kurukulm of Kottamunai and Amritkali which are villages adjacent to the temple Mamankesvaram near Batticaloa share with the Vellalars, the responsibility of conducting of conducting the ceremony at that temple. Who are these Kurukulam people? They are certainly a non-Vellalar people but enjoying the privilege of being taken in procession. Are they people familiar with tying ropes for sails in sea-going crafts? The evidence at both temples near Batticaloa show that they held an honoured position in the religious ritual and in the society. At Mamankesvaram they shared the temple ritual alternatively with the local Vellalar village.

From these descriptions of the festival at Tantonriswaram temple that the Vellalar dominance found in Jaffna temples is not present in the Eastern province. Even at Mamankesvaram the Vellalar participation in the ceremonies is because they are the predominant inhabitants of the village of Kottamunai but they have no sole monopoly and have to share the responsibility with the Kurukulam people of the other village, Amritkal.

The studies by S. Theyvanayagam and K.Tangeswary on the two Eastern province Hindu temples discussed above show other instances, though to a different degree, of what Pfaffenberger called, ‘acquiescence in the egalitarian social relationship conceptualized by the pilgrimage to Kataragama by Vellalars of mixing with persons of other castes or ethnic groups which is a deliberate debasement of the self that is done to please the deity. The management of these ritual practices also that the East of Sri Lanka presents a different a different picture in social and religious ritual from that in the Jaffna peninsula. One singular common factor is the use of the Tamil language but even there the Jaffna high caste Tamils claim that they speak a higher Tamil than even those in Tamilnadu, not to speak of the Tamil spoken by Tamils of recent Indian origin in Sri Lanka.


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