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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2706

Under the shadow of Lakegala - Of Their Religion

Under the shadow of LakegalaUnder the shadow of LakegalaBy Sudath R. Gunasekara

All the people of this village are Buddhists. They know not of any other religion. They strongly believe in pin (merits) and pav (sins). No are they sophisticated and exposed to the outside world either. Other than a Muslim vendor or a high government official like a white Government Agent that visit the village very rarely, no person belonging to another denomination has ever trodden this village. Buddhism like in most other villages in Sri Lanka has come with their birth. It is shear faith, devotion and the fear of pin and pav rather than a deep understanding of the doctrine that has kept them bound to their religion.

The temple

The village temple is as old as the village itself. It is located at the southern gateway to the village. The buildings of the temple are not very elaborate and they are very simple. It comprises of an Avase (a Temple for the priest to live), a Viharage (an image House) a Bana Manduwa (a Preaching Hall) and a Bo Tree. The Viharaya is located above the other buildings. Pansala is built in between the viharaya and the Banamaduwa. It is a simple building with two rooms, a front hall, centre hall and a dange. The narrow compound in the front is supported by a retaining wall built of rubble. The Asala tree abutting the retaining wall with its long hanging yellow flowers enhances the beauty and the sanctity of the temple.

There is no Dagaba in this temple. Beside this temple there is another Bo Tree in the center of the village, which is said to be the site of an earlier temple. Villagers continue to pay their homage to this Bo tree even today. The chief monk is a person from the village and the villagers affectionately address him as ape hamuduruvo. The role of the monk in this village is manifold. It is not confined to religious pursuits only. His role pervades through their entire life virtually from the womb to the tomb that fall within both spiritual and worldly affairs. Besides religious rituals, things such as casting the auspicious times for all matters like agriculture, house building, Athpoth tebiima (Reading the first letters) of children, casting of horoscopes and naming the children are all done by him. I myself read the first letters from the hodipotha (Premier reader) at his feet in the year1945. Such are the material and spiritual ties that exist between the temple and the people. Thus the monk in this village is one with the people and the totality of their whole life.

The name of the present high priest (Loku Hamuduruvo) is Meemure Dhammananda. He is well versed in the sacred texts and he is also an erudite person in Astrology, Native medicine and other occult sciences. His knowledge in Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit and History is very high. His profundity in these subjects and his pleasant and elderly disposition is admired and respected by all alike and his bana preaching and pirith chanting is admired and respected by everybody. Even the village schoolmaster who is regarded as the most educated man in the village goes to this monk for advice and guidance. He is the de-facto spiritual and social leader of the village as it was the age-old tradition that prevailed in the Sinhala society.

The Banamaduwa located below the temple is not very elaborate. It is a square hall of about 30 feet by 30 with a straw thatched roof supported by round timber poles with half walls. People gather here on every poya day to observe sil. Bana preaching is done either by the Lokuhamuduruvo or an invited monk from outside. The Viharage is very small but it has an inner chamber with a sedent Buddha statue and the statues of Sariyuth and Mugalan on either side. The inner walls are painted with frescoers representing various Jataka stories. Right round the inner chamber there is a narrow passage protected by a half wall. There are no paintings on the outside walls.

The main Bo maluwa of the village is situated in the northern end of the gammedda about quarter mile away from the Temple. There is a very large Bo trees here with an elaborate Bo maluwa supported by a massive retaining wall. Behind this main Bo maluwa there is another on a slightly elevated place with an abandoned temple site. The village temple was supposed to have been here before it was shifted to the present place. The main footpath of this village leading to Lggala passes just below the main Bo maluwa. The nicely paved stone slabs on the lower side of the footpath under the Bo trees provide a wonderful resting place for the villagers. It can easily accommodate about ten to fifteen people at a time Its central location coupled with the seating facilities has made it more a meeting place rather than a place of worship. Village elders also meet here just to wild away the time. They draw a dice board with Gurugal and play a game of dice called nerenchi using small pieces of the Kepunkiiriya plant. As they rest here they also sometimes get in to controversy with those passing by, by trying to cast unnecessary remarks at them. They also call this Bo Maluwe Ambalama. (Ambalama means a resting place). Religious rituals are observed here only on Wesak days and Poson days.

Sishyanushsishya Paramparava connects Meemure temple with the Mailapitiya temple in the Pathahewaheta Korale. The chief monk of Mailapitiya temple is said to have ordained the present monk. At present there are two monks who have gone to Mailapitiya from this village. One is Meemure Seelaratana and the other is Pandith Meemure Chandanada. There is another temple at Velangahawatta in the Laggala Pallesiyapattuwa, which has close connections with this temple. So whenever there is a big occasion like Suvisi or Vesk pinkama additional monks are invited from these temples. I still remember once an asanadeke bana (A dual Bana preaching where two monks seated on two decorated elevated seats alternatively recite the sermons) ceremony being conducted here when I was a small boy. By and large I think those were the glorious days of this temple. It has very few sources of income. As such the daily sustenance of the temple depends on offerings brought by pious villagers. In addition to the daily seetudane it also gets special offerings on some days of the month. There are few paddy fields donated by benefactors among which there is also one donated by my father to confer merit on his parents.

On depoya (full moon days) days many devotees come to the temple with flowers and perfumes etc to make their offerings to the Buddha. The majority of them are however women and children. My father of cause was a frequent visitor to the temple. It was nevertheless not to worship or observe sil, but to meet Lokuhamuduruvo and discuss matters of mutual interest. Whenever my father or mother goes to the temple I too used to accompany them and sit by their side on a mat while they indulge in matters often beyond my comprehension. I was very fond of doing so. There were many reasons for this. The lokuhamuduruvo was an uncle of mine (mama) but he calls me mahattaya. He does not call any other boy in the village like that. Although I did not know exactly what mahattaya meant, I knew that there was something special about it. So I was elated. I also admired the yellow robe and his disposition very much. Those days I remember very often he used to talk about my horoscope, which he himself has cast. He addresses my mother as nangi (sister). One day I recollect him telling my mother ‘Nangi podi eka hari vasanavanthai, kendare hetiyata anagathe bohoma prasidda minihek wenta one. Nangilage game iskolevath dala uganvanta one.’(Sister the little one is very fortunate. According to his horescope one day he should be a famous man. Why don’t you put him to the school in your village at least and allow him to pursue in higher education). Of cause I enjoyed the peace of jaggery offered to me by the lokuhamuduruwo more than any thing else. I had no understanding of what he said then. But after so many years passed I understood his wisdom and what he really meant by those prophetic words he said as early as late nineteen forties.

I would like to quote an interesting instance that demonstrates his character and greatness. Once I wrote a letter to him when I was in the University. Then he advised me not to write separate letters to him as it costs lot of money. Instead he suggested that I enclose a note to him whenever I write a letter to my father so that I could save that maney. At that time it costs six cents to send a letter.

The Sinhala New Year, Vesak and the Poson poya are the three major occasions when people gather in large numbers at the temple. Unlike in the other parts of the country no vesak lanterns are lit here.

The strong blowing during this season makes it impossible to light any such lanterns or lamps even inside the houses. But decorations with gokkola (young coconut fronds) are done very elaborately both at the temple and the Bo maluwa. Most houses put up a malpaela with young coconut fronds and they light a metipahana or a papol pahana (One part of a papow cut in to two halves) inside it although, that too is often blown off by the ravaging winds.

The Vesak Poya is the busiest time in the temple People of all walks of life visits the temple on this day. On such days Lokuhamuduruvo administers Pansil and recite the gathas at the viharage rituals.. The gathering repeats the stanzas in chorus with deep devotion and attention. Thereafter they retire to the Banamduwa where the main event of the day-the Bana preaching takes place. Usually a special monk from outside is invited for the bana on this day. At the end of the bana they offer pirikara (merit bringing presents as a gesture of thanks giving) and disperse after paying due respect to the monk. On such poya days, villagers also organize mal perahera from the Bo maluwa where a large number of women and children take part. They carry Buddhist flags and various decorations made out of flowers, which they call malgas. The malperahera passing through the gammedda shouting sadhu! sadhu! sa! under the full moon light is very interesting to watch.

The most common religious activities practiced at all homes are Bana and Pirith. Mataka Bana (the preaching on the 7th day after the death of a person) and Bana preached by the bedside when a person is seriously ill and he or she is almost at the last stage are the usual Bana preaching conducted at homes. There is another kind of Bana preaching called Jeevadana Bana. It is preached during the lifetime of a person when he or she is old but still up and about. This type of pinkama is rare and only the well to do people often engages in such pinkam. It is either organized by the children or the elders themselves and such pinkama is often regarded as a ‘cover against possible non-holding a pinkama after death by those surviving. Bana preaching is accompanied by offering of atapirikara. Pirith is chanted more often than Bana preaching. Pirith is of three types namely overnight pirith Tispaeye pirith) three sessions pirith (Tunwaru pirith) and sethpirith (Pirith chanted to invoke blessings) on special occasions.

For all night pirith chanting one needs more preparation. A pirith kotuwa is usually made and the chanting is done inside the pirith mandapaya. Arrangements have to be made for the monk to stay the night over and the ceremony ends with the morning meals called heelidane. Waru Pirith is different from Mahapirith in that it is conducted in three sessions. Seth Pirith on the other hand is chanted only on one occasion. It is chanted on special occasions like before child birth, ear piercing, hair cutting, indul katagema, akuru kiyaviima ceremony of a child or the first day of going to school, leaving the home for a job etc or when some one falls ill.

Pirithis also chanted to treat water as a protection against pest attack on crops. Such chanted water is then sprinkled on paddy fields when pests attack them. It is customary to give away offerings at the end of all these events. Protection from evil, praying for good health, invoking blessings of the Triple Gem and the presiding gods and spirits, recovery from illness, easy passing away and good life for the dying and conferring merit for the dead are the common objects expected from pirith chanting.

In this village laymen also chant pirith. It is called Gihi Pirith. The pirith kotuwa for gihipirith is prepared by tying a canopy with a white clothe over the place where pirith is recited. Several items like coconut fronds, Aricanut flowers and Siviya atu and Na twigs are hung from the roof of the ceiling. Then the men sit on either side and do the reciting from the pirith potha. Instead of the fan held by the monk these men hold a thattu (a tray made out of read) in their hands as they recite. Gihipirith is often conducted when it is difficult to fetch a monk, at a lesser occasion or just for the joy of it when a group gets together.

Pilgrimages (Vandanagaman)

Annual pilgrimages form another important aspect of their religious life. The object of pilgrimages is two fold namely, merit earning and merry making. There are two important pilgrimages practically they make every year. The more frequent one is going to Mahiyangana in the month of August just before they start work on their hen.

This trip is done wholly on foot. They go through Galamuduna, Pallegaladebokka, Udattawa. Hassalaka and finally, Weragantota to Mahiyangana. The distance they have to cover on this trip is about 22 miles. Since it is done on foot it needs very little money. The second pilgrimage is to Anuradhapura. In the early days they used to walk the whole distance to Anuradhapura through Laggala, Rattota and Dambulla. I still remember one such occasion taking place when I was about five years old. It takes about seven days on foot to complete the trip and it was indeed a risky journey. Because they had to walk through the jungle where wild elephant and bears were roaming about freely. On the return of such trips it was customary to ferment the feet and hands of first timers (kodukarayo) with hot oil cakes (kevum) as a mark of acceptance of their achievement and bravery. This encouraged and motivated the other younger folk to follow suit next time. As time went on later they opted to do this trip by bus. Even on this trip they have to walk twelve miles to Loolwatta on the lower road or Tangappuwa on the upper road and take the bus from there onwards.

These trips are organizes by an experienced elderly person. He is called nadegura (Team Leader). The present Nadegura is fondly called Opisaramama by the younger folk. Few years ago he has held the post of Peace Officer in the village and that is why he is called Opisara, the Sinhalized word for officer. Elders just call him Opisara karaya or Opisara lokka. Once the day is fixed for the great occasion the women folk get ready for the trip with sweet meats like Aggala, Aluwa and Pusnambu that could be kept for few days. On the appointed day all those who go on the trip assemble at the village temple with their relatives at dawn. Usually on such occasions the whole villages keep up and most of them come to the temple to see their relatives off. After being admitted to pansil,

Lokuhamuduruwo makes a short anusasana (admonition) as to how they should behave through out their journey to avoid vas dos (evil spells) and to ensure their safe return. After going down on their knees before the hamuduruwo they leave the village amidst Sadu! Sadu! in chorus.

They take a bathgediya (a parcel of rice) for their lunch.A bathgediya usually consist of rice, fried polsambol and one or two curries like ash plantains, brinjals and kiriala. It is wrapped in a Kalankolaya. The Kalankolaya is a wonderful wrapper that keeps the food airtight and fresh. Then they take provisions for the next few days with them. They also take panduru (coins) to be offered to the Buddha and Saman Deviyo. On the Mahiyangana trip they reach Mahiyangana the same evening. At Weragantota they ferry Mahaweli and reach Mahiyangana Maluwa. (There was no bridge across Mahaweli at that time at Weragantota). After a dip in Mahaweli they take part in religious ceremonies at the temple and there after retire to view the Perahera. Early morning next day they set off for home and by evening reach the village. As they come back the whole village wait at the temple premises to receive their relatives who come home after completing a successful pilgrimage.

Before they embark on the Anuradhapura pilgrimage there was a custom to perform what is called “pinpav aravima”. This was a simple but an age-old custom practiced by the people of this village where the elders forgive their children for all their past misdeeds by touching the heads with their right hands when the children kneel down before them to wish them good luck and safe return. They even wrote their lands in their children’s names, as their return was not guaranteed.

People in this village regard all their gains and losses as the direct outcome of merit or sins done in the past birth. Meritorious deeds they see as the fountain of all wealth and prosperity both in this world and the next. The final goal of all their merit making of cause is the attainment of ‘Ajaramara Amamaha Nivan Sampathya’ (Eternal Bliss or Nibbana) although no one knows what exactly it really means.

- Asian Tribune -

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