Marvellous world of healing rituals - thovil - in Sri Lanka


by Siri Ipalawatte - Australia

I made my way through narrow, twisting alleys, stepping carefully over open sewer drains as I tried to keep up with the young man who was leading me to the house where a thovil or devil dancing was being performed. Neither GPS nor Google could guide me! I was in a little village called Kananka, in the Matara District.

I could hear the drums. My mind drifted back to those early days when I had heard about villagers in southern Sri Lanka who took precautions against invisible forces such as spirits and demons against harmful powers arising from planets and constellations and against the evil eye and black magic practised by wicked people. Thovil is still a solution to several problems in some villages. If a family is having a run of bad luck or if someone is ill and all attempts to cure the patient absolutely fail, a thovil is arranged.

I finally entered a low cadjan-roofed house. Women were busy cooking over an open fire outside. Some were washing cooking utensils and water sloshed across the midula – the middle terrace of the house -- under my feet as I ascended a mud wall separating the main house from the front veranda. There sat a man, who I was told, was the master yakkadura – Gunapala gurunnanse – lord of his domain. Lean and tall, with a commanding presence despite his outfit of off-white sarong and a mended collarless T-shirt, he was a man on a mission who, with help of the other eduras, was determined to save the possessed patient.

Thovil, as a healing ritual in southern Sri Lanka, has gradually receded to remote villages and in the cities it survives secretly due to fear that the person believing its benefits might be considered superstitious.

I haven’t studied anthropology and know little about exorcism in other cultures, but I was fascinated to read the following in a book ‘Demonic possession in early modern France’ by Sarah Ferber published in 2004. It says: "In 1993, in the state of Victoria, Australia, four people went on trial for the manslaughter of a woman, Joan Vollmer. The four accused said she had died during an attempt to control and expel violent devils, which they claimed had taken over her body. To defend their use of force against demonic resistance, the council for the accused referred the court to seventeenth century exorcism in France, and indeed across Western Europe."

In Christian theology, the devil’s main task is to tempt man to reject the good way of life and accept the way of destruction and death. In Islam theology, Iblis , the personal name of the devil, is empowered to tempt the unfaithful. The devil, as the great power of evil, has also been much depicted in other religious and secular societies. At various intervals of history in Sri Lanka, particularly in the southern province, thovil and exorcism became a popular and effective tool of curing diseases caused by some demons or yakku.

The chief occupant of the house took me to Gunapala gurunnanse.

"I’m a traditional yakkadura and I also do a bit of Ayurveda practice", Guanapala said, as he introduced himself. His teeth were betel stained. "The system of Ayurveda medical treatment and the thovil have strong links. It’s all I have ever known; I was born into a family of certain caste and I have no other skills."

Gunapala was just as passionate about preserving the traditional devil dancing as he was about saving his caste from turning away from their closely-knit community by assimilation into other professions. "Our ancestors believed their knowledge had been passed down to them from Prince Oddisa, a great yogi who came from Kerala. He was the one repeatedly involved in exorcism as the chief inventor of the thovil. We would like to see that our traditional skills preserved and taught at frequent thovil performances. A lot of children today don’t even know what a thovil is. So, we need to educate people.

"Thovil is a performance bordering on the mystical for not just the performer but for the audience who are instrumental in seeing the act to its successful completion."

As we talked, I noticed the world of thovil was already around us, with a beautiful structure called ‘sanniya-vidiya’ – a square construction of banana stems and coconut leaves – being decorated by a group of enthusiastic young people. This had a simple roof of leaves and a small door and was divided into different parts inside. I was told that the devil dancers entered the dancing terrace from their sanniya-vidiya and then retire in the end.

Gunapala told me that yakku caused certain diseases. For instance, Riri yakka is believed to cause diseases related to the blood circulation of humans; the Kalu yakka makes troubles to females and babies: the Mahason yakka haunts graveyards, frightens people and make them suffer from fever; and Abimana yakka is used to frighten people and causes mental ailments. According to him yakku haunt empty buildings, lonely stretches of road and junctions, wells, jungles, open plains and streams. Virtually, the only refuge is in a Buddhist temple or at home – and the latter is not always safe due to kili – impurities.

He said he had selected the day on which the ceremony was to be held after reading the patient’s horoscope. The thovil always takes place at night. It begins in the evening when darkness falls and continues till daybreak.

The patient, a young woman of about twenty clad in a clean white cloth, sat on a mat on the front porch of the house. Although, as is common with diseases caused by the yakku, only one yakka is responsible for the illness of this young girl, yet all of the yakku must be appeased with an offering. There were three chairs at her side. On the first one is the offering for the Sunniya-yakka , and on the other the offering for the Kalu-yakka . On the third chair are some flowers, a few betel leaves, a small pot with kaha-diyara – turmeric scented water – and an arecanut flower as a sprinkler.

The dancing began with the ‘henda-samayama, (evening appearance) a dance performed by three persons. They wore short skirts, a red one and several white ones on top of each other, and a smart jacket decorated with pearls. Their waists are tightly bound with a white cloth. On their head they wore a kind of a crown decorated with pearls. They first requested the assistance of gods in order to summon the yakku. Every yakka has a superior deity whom he has to obey.

The dancing grew wilder and more furious accompanied by betel-chewing drummers beating frantic rhythms on their yak bere and by the dancers throwing up and catching again of the oil soaked pandam. The drumming patterns corresponded to specific movements of the body, limbs and gestures of hands. Then twelve mask dancers known as palis arrived on the terrace one after the other, as forerunners of the eighteen Sanni yakku. These Sanni yakku, dressed in costumes of black and a skirt of leaves, wore masks depicting features of the disease they represented. Then, a dancer wearing a massive mask came out of the sanniya-vidiya. He began to turn, shake and roll his head, his arms and his whole body very fast so that the spectators were barely able to follow his movement. The dancer gradually worked himself up into state of extreme ecstasy by inhaling dummala smoke, from the resin of sal tree. His eyes became glazed and his limbs began to shake, his feet stomping the floor incessantly with violent gyrations. It was evident that he had reached a state not very far from a complete trance, this condition enabling him to continue the devil dance – a feat he could hardly have performed in his normal state. As the dancing progressed he became the incarnate, the worldly manifestation of the yakka.

At this stage the young girl fell into trance, screamed, ran and spoke gibberish, howled back at the yakkadura . It was the yakka answering him back but good defied evil so that evil writhed upon the floor and screamed back. The yakka frothed at the yakkadura, who mocked his pitiful display with exaggerated outrage.

He then squatted down on the floor in front of the drummer. A long dialogue took place between the two of them, ending in the yakka receiving his offering. The talk, as I understood it, was to identify, then cajole, command, trick and bribe the yakka to leave the body of the possessed. Was the play for the watchers or the participants? It seemed to develop into a mutual pact between the two, a working out of conflicts, and a purging of emotion. It clearly showed that the illness couldn’t be separated from the larger village community of the patient and the household.

At about five o’clock in the morning, beaten down by the superior power called forth by the yakkadura, and pressured by the hour – yakku are allowed by the Buddha to work only the graveyard shift, disintegrating in the light of day – relented, agreed to vacate, and accepted a compromise – a cock as a substitute. The exorcism was terminated and the girl was healed. The yakkadura went around the house and purifying it by sprinkling kaha-diyara. Finally, he came to the girl, chanted a magical verse and tied a protective yellow thread around her wrist. I was introduced to the young girl, and she smiled as if nothing had happened. I could make little sense of what I had witnessed other than the transformation of a sick girl into a normal one.

Thovil is part of a holistic understanding that the physical condition of the body is inseparable from the mental condition. Modern ‘common sense’ might suggest that the practice I saw should by now have been relegated to oblivion; yet it is still alive and well and being defended even in its extreme forms, as in the case of that manslaughter in Australia. The presence of a demonic spirit is believed to override the physical body of the possessed and to control their every move. A sense that the yakka is truly present implicates all parties not only the yakkadura and the patient, but also spectators were complicit in expelling the yakka from its human host.

Before assuming that the rise of science is antipathetic to certain types of belief systems, it is worth bearing in mind that science can now be used in modern ways to support such beliefs and rituals if that helps people and their communities.

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