Origins of Local Deities; A historical study on devalas and peraheras of Sri Lanka
Devala perahera are among one of the most significant and colorful cultural pageants held in Sri Lanka. Their origins can be traced back to the pre-Buddhist times of the island. The fear humans had towards nature and its enormous powers compelled them to personalize various characteristics of nature and create deities for each elements of nature. This resulted in creating hundreds of gods. In no time a complex intangible heritage was woven around these beliefs and they played a significant role in ancient civilizations. Early Vedic gods and goddesses are personification of various elements of nature such as fire, water, wind, moon etc. Few examples are Agni, Maruti, Soma, Indra and Surya.
Sri Lanka, one of the oldest known civilizations of the world built by the ancient Sinhalese, is home for hundreds of deities and cults. After Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka, its culture was fine-tuned by the Buddhist philosophy. However, the pre-Buddhist beliefs never faded away, as they took a new form and was absorbed into the Buddhist culture. Some of these pre-Buddhist beliefs are still practiced in the island. Most of the devalas build in Sri Lanka are dedicated for pre-Buddhist gods. Perahara processions are held in honour of these gods.
Perahera is a part of the rich intangible heritage of Sri Lanka. Two main types of perahera that can be identified in Sri Lanka are the Buddhist perahera and Devala perahera.
What is a ‘Devala’?
A devala is considered as a place where gods reside, or in other words, as houses of gods. These places can be considered as symbols of them, places where devotees and gods meet each other. Since prehistoric times, people used to build houses for their favorite gods. Art works symbolizing them such as sculptures, carvings and paintings were kept inside these houses. Offerings, prayers and other rituals were performed inside these structures as well as in the courtyard. These houses act as links between the devotee and deity whilst the priests act as agents of the deity. The priests listen to the devotees’ wishes, prayers and present them in front of the idol of god along with offerings, and seek blessings on behalf of the devotee.
Devalas and veneration of gods came into spotlight from the medieval period onwards in Sri Lanka. There are remains of Siva, Kali and Vishnu devalas in Polonnaruwa, which was the medieval capital of Sri Lanka.
A devala plays a significant role in the local culture. People are of the habit of performing rituals and prayers with offerings at devalas. Offerings are done to devalas expecting success in agriculture, protection of crop and cattle, success in marriage, safety in childbirth, victory over war, and rainfall. Even black magic is associated with certain gods. These rituals and semi-cultures were interwoven with the Buddhist culture. There are certain devalas that are notable such as the Ruhunu Maha Kataragama devale, Ratnapura Maha Saman devale, Kelaniya Vibhishana devale, Nawagamuwa Pattini devale and Devi Nuwara Upulwan devale. These are dedicated to chief gods such as Kataragama, Saman, Vibhishana, Pattini and Upulwan. Apart from these main devalas, there are hundreds of devalas and shrines dedicated to these gods, all over the island.
The first known devala built in Sri Lanka
The first recorded devala in Sri Lanka was built during the time of king Pandukabhaya in the 4th century BC at Anuradhapura. King Pandukabhaya, who upgraded Anuradhapura as a well-established capital city with all facilities, built the first ever recorded shrines in Sri Lanka. These shrines were built for yakshas and yakshis. Kalawela yaksha, Chiththaraja yaksha and Pashchima rajini yakshi are to name a few. It is stated in the Mahavamsa (Chapter 39, verse 44) that these two devalas were there during the time of King Mahasen (277AD to 304 AD).
Literature evidence of the oldest known gods in Sri Lanka
According to Mahavamsa, King Pandukabhaya built a shrine to Vessawana. Vessawana’s abode was the Banyan tree. Mahavamsa records that he built a shrine to ‘Vedi deviya’. The Thal or Palm tree was considered as his heavenly abode.Though god Upulwan’s and Saman / Sumana’s names are mentioned in previous chapters of the Mahavamsa, it does not say that they were worshiped or do not mention of a shrine built for them. It was during the reign of King Pandukabhaya that these gods were worshiped. Vessawana was the king of the Yakshas and the ruler of the Northern direction. The Banyan tree was dedicated to him as his heavenly abode. This could be a shrine with a sacred Banyan tree as the center of worship. This was located at the western gate of the citadel. The second was a tree for Vedi deviya, which may be a god of hunting or the god of the ‘veddas’ (the jungle dwellers).
The deities mentioned here (except to Vessawana) shows local roots, rather than a foreign origin. Vessawana is the king of Yakshas and one of the guardian gods of the world. Vedi devi may be a god of hunting or the god of the ‘veddas’ or the jungle dwellers. The other gods mentioned here are yakshas and yakshis, suggesting that they were among the earliest worshiped deities in Sri Lanka.
One of the earliest mentions of a god in Sri Lankan Pali scripts is the mentioning of god Saman or Maha Sumana. He was there when Lord Buddha visited Sri Lanka for the first time, which was to Mahiyangana, and there he embraced Buddhism. Sumana-kuta or Mount.Suman is his abode. He is a god always associated with goodness and peace, and he is depicted in white color with a white elephant and lotus.
God Upulwan is mentioned in Mahavamsa as the god who was given the responsibility to protect the Vanga prince Vijaya who landed on Sri Lanka during the 6th century BC. He has always been considered as a guardian god and one of the chief gods worshiped by the Sinhala Buddhists.
Lord Kataragama is another chief god of Sri Lanka, worshiped by the warrior king Dutta Gamini Abhaya in the 2nd century BC. This king is believed to be the author of the Kataragama perahera, which is one of the major cultural events taking place in Sri Lanka today. The devale at Kataragama was first built by this king.
Vibhishana, another guardian god, is of Yaksha origin. He is believed to be the younger brother of the mythological king Ravana. During the Rama-Ravana war, Vibhishana showed his support to Rama and helped him to defeat the local king Ravana. His devale is at Kelaniya, an ancient Naga kingdom.
Taking into account of the earliest known deities such as Vedi devi, Kaala-wela yaksha, Chiththa raaja yaksha, Walabhamukhi yakshi, Pashchima rajini yakshini, Upulwan devi and Saman devi it is clear that the earliest beliefs of the island was purely of Sri Lankan origin, suggesting that the intangible heritage such as prayers and wows woven around them should also be of local origin. The yaksha and yakshi deities mentioned here are not popular today, but the earliest gods such as Upulwan, Saman, Kataragama and Vibhishana are still popular among the Sinhalese. These four oldest gods are among the chief guardian gods of the country and Buddha sasana.
Veneration of gods was not popular among the Sinhalese during the Anuradhapura kingdom. As foreign influences became prominence from the 11th century AD and then later during the medieval capital Polonnaruwa, various cults and venerations of gods were spread among Sinhalese. Among the ruins at Polonnaruwa are devalas and kovils built for Kali, Shiva and Vishnu. Many idols of gods such as Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu and Skandh belonging to the medieval period of Sri Lanka have been discovered. These evidences clearly show the foreign influence on the Sinhalese culture from the 11th century and onwards. Prior to this, Upulwan, Saman, Mahasen of Kataragama, Pattini, various yakshas and yakshinis, Surya etc were worshiped occasionally among the Sinhalese. They were known as gods or celestial beings with supernatural power, and honored, but not venerated as cults as it happened during the medieval times and onwards as the Sinhalese Buddhists did not depend or passed the responsibility over to gods, but to their own karma. 11th century marks a downfall of the Buddhist culture as foreign invasion was occurring which resulted in heavy political turbulences. As the Sinhalese kingdom was usurped by the Chola Empire, cultural and religious influence of the Cholas was forced upon the Sinhalese. Later, during the medieval times, Polonnaruwa being the capital, foreign cultural influences continued. During the 13th century Kalinga Magha invaded Sri Lanka, seized Polonnaruwa, marking the demise of the Rajarata civilization. During the time of Gampola, Kotte and Kandy, veneration of Hindu gods were highly popular in Sri Lanka resulting in mixing up some popular Sinhalese gods with Hindu gods of similar characteristics. To name a few as examples are Upulvan being mixed up as Vishnu and Maha Ghosha (Mahasen) of Kataragama as Skandha.
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