- Buddhist Ceremonies and Rituals of Sri Lanka
- A.G.S. Kariyawasam
- The Wheel Publication No. 402/404
- Copyright © 1995 A.G.S. Kariyawasam
All PTS editions
A. ..... Anguttara Nikaya
D. ..... Digha Nikaya
DA. ..... Digha Nikaya Atthakatha
J. ..... Jatakas
KhpA. ..... Khuddakapatha Atthakatha
Mhv. ..... Mahavamsa
PvA. ..... Petavatthu Atthakatha
S. ..... Samyutta Nikaya
The theme of this study, Buddhist ceremonies and rituals, may not appeal to the
self-styled Buddhist purist who wishes to restrict the designation "Buddhism"
exclusively to the teachings of the Buddhist scriptures, which he usually interprets in a
narrowly intellectualist manner. The fact remains, however, that the practices and
observances to be described here justly claim an integral place within the stream of
living Buddhism as practised by its adherents. Because these practices form an intimate
part of the religious life for the vast majority of devout Buddhist followers, they cannot
be lightly dismissed as mere secondary appendages of a "pristine" canonical
It has been an inevitable phenomenon in the history of religion that whenever a
religion was newly introduced to a culture, its adherents assimilated it and adapted it in
ways that harmonized with their own social and cultural needs. In the case of Buddhism
this has happened in every country to which it spread, and Sri Lanka is no exception. The
core doctrines of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path,
dependent arising, etc., often proved too abstruse and elevated for the ordinary populace
to apply to their own religious lives. To satisfy their devotional and emotional needs,
they required a system of outward acts, communally shared, by which they could express
their devotion to the ideals represented by the Dhamma and absorb these ideals into the
texture of their daily experience. This was how the "great tradition" of
canonical Buddhism came to be complemented by the "small tradition" of popular
Buddhism consisting of the rituals and ceremonies discussed in this booklet.
The purpose of the present study is to highlight this often neglected face of popular
Buddhism. Though the study focuses on Buddhism as practised in Sri Lanka, the same basic
round of rituals and ceremonies, with minor variations, can be found in the other
countries following Theravada Buddhism, such as Burma and Thailand. I also hope that this
survey will demonstrate that the expression of Buddhist piety in devotional forms is a
necessity if Buddhism is to survive at the popular level as a vital and vibrant force in
the daily life of its adherents. Thus the votaries of a "pristine pure Buddhism"
posited on the basis of the canonical texts should not ignore or devalue this aspect of
Buddhism as an alien encroachment on the Buddha's original doctrine. Rather, they should
come to recognize the devotional manifestation of Buddhism as an essential feature of the
tradition, needed to mediate between its exalted ideals and the everyday concerns of the
vast majority of its followers.
Sri Lanka is generally regarded as the home of the pure Theravada form of Buddhism,
which is based on the Pali Canon. This school of Buddhism emphasizes the Four Noble Truths
as the framework of Buddhist doctrine and the Noble Eightfold Path as the direct route to
Nibbana, the final goal of the Teaching. However, side by side with this austere,
intellectually sophisticated Buddhism of the texts, we find in Sri Lanka a warm current of
devotional Buddhism practised by the general Buddhist populace, who may have only a hazy
idea of the Buddhist doctrine. Thus in practical life the gap between the "great
tradition" of canonical Buddhism and the average person's world of everyday
experience is bridged by a complex round of ceremonies, rituals, and devotional practices
that are hardly visible within the canonical texts themselves.
While the specific forms of ritual and ceremony in Sri Lankan popular Buddhism
doubtlessly evolved over the centuries, it seems likely that this devotional approach to
the Dhamma has its roots in lay Buddhist practice even during the time of the Buddha
himself. Devotion being the intimate inner side of religious worship, it must have had a
place in early Buddhism. For Buddhism, devotion does not mean submitting oneself to the
will of a God or taking refuge in an external Saviour, but an ardent feeling of love and
affection (pema) directed towards the Teacher who shows the way to freedom from
suffering. Such an attitude inspires the devotee to follow the Master's teaching
faithfully and earnestly through all the hurdles that lie along the way to Nibbana.
The Buddha often stressed the importance of saddha, faith or confidence in him
as the Perfect Teacher and in his Teaching as the vehicle to liberation from the cycle of
rebirth. Unshakeable confidence (aveccappasada) in the Triple Gem -- the Buddha,
the Dhamma, and the Sangha -- is a mark of the noble disciple, while the Buddha once
stated that those who have sufficient confidence in him, sufficient affection for him (saddhamatta,
pemamatta) are bound for heaven. Many verses of the Theragatha and Therigatha,
poems of the ancient monks and nuns, convey feelings of deep devotion and a high level of
Although the canonical texts do not indicate that this devotional sensibility had yet
come to expression in fully formed rituals, it seems plausible that simple ritualistic
observances giving vent to feelings of devotion had already begun to take shape even
during the Buddha's lifetime. Certainly they would have done so shortly after the
Parinibbana, as is amply demonstrated by the funeral rites themselves, according to the
testimony of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. The Buddha also encouraged a devotional attitude
when he recommended pilgrimages to the four places that can inspire a faithful devotee:
the places where he was born, attained Enlightenment, preached the first sermon, and
attained Parinibbana (D.ii,140).
The Buddha did discourage the wrong kind of emotional attachment to himself, as
evidenced by the case of Vakkali Thera, who was reprimanded for his obsession with the
beauty of the Buddha's physical presence: his was a case of misplaced devotion
(S.iii,119). Ritualistic observances also pose a danger that they might be misapprehended
as ends in themselves instead of being employed as means for channelling the devotional
emotions into the correct path. It is when they are wrongly practised that they become
impediments rather than aids to the spiritual life. It is to warn against this that the
Buddha has categorized them, under the term silabbata-paramasa, as one of the ten
fetters (samyojana) and one of the four types of clinging (upadana).
Correctly observed, as means and not as ends, ritualistic practices can serve to generate
wholesome states of mind, while certain other rituals collectively performed can serve as
a means of strengthening the social solidarity among those who share the same spiritual
Thus ceremonies and rituals, as external acts which complement inward contemplative
exercises, cannot be called alien to or incompatible with canonical Buddhism. To the
contrary, they are an integral part of the living tradition of all schools of Buddhism,
including the Theravada.
A ritual may be defined here as an outward act performed regularly and consistently in
a context that confers upon it a religious significance not immediately evident in the act
itself. A composite unity consisting of a number of subordinate ritualistic acts may be
called a ceremony. Such observances have become inseparable from all organized religions.
And owing to the fear, awe, and respect that characterize man's religious psychology, such
acts assume a solemnity and a sanctity of their own.
Ritual acts undertaken and performed by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka may be broadly
classified under three heads:
(i) Acts performed for the acquisition of merit (e.g. offerings made in the name of the
Buddha) calculated to provide a basis for achieving Nibbana, release from the cycle of
becoming (samsara); such acts of merit are, at the same time, expected to offer
semi-temporal rewards of comfort and happiness here and in the heavenly worlds in future
lives. These supplementary forms of religious activity have arisen out of a natural need
to augment the more austere way followed by the world-renouncing disciples.
(ii) Acts directed towards securing worldly prosperity and averting calamities through
disease and unseen forces of evil, e.g. pirit chanting, bodhi-puja, etc.
(iii) Those rituals that have been adopted from folk religion. Hence these are mainly
semi-religious in character like the tovil ceremonies. They derive their power and
authority primarily through the superhuman power of the Buddha and also through the hosts
of spirits, who are, as it were, commanded by invoking the power of the Buddha or of the
Three Refuges -- the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha -- as a whole.
Almost all the religious activities that have a ceremonial and a ritualistic
significance are regarded as acts for the acquisition of merit (Sinh.: pinkama,
from Pali: punnakamma, Sanskrit: punyakarma). In this sense, all the
religious activities of lay Buddhism can be explained as being oriented towards that end.
Accordingly, the first two types of rituals basically have a merit-generating character
and thereby receive religious sanction. For instance, the idea of acquisition of merit
through a religious act and its transference to the deities and soliciting their help has
the scriptural sanction of the Mahaparinibbana Sutta itself (D.ii,88-89). Here the Buddha
says that wise men, when residing in a particular area, first offer alms to religious
recluses and then transfer the merits to the deities of the area, who help them in return.
This seems to indicate the early beginning of adoring vatthu-devata or local
deities in Buddhism.
Merit (Pali: punna: Sinh.: pin) earned by the performance of a wholesome
act is regarded as a sure way of obtaining a better life in the future. The performance of
these is also a means of expiation in the sense that the meritorious deeds have the effect
of countering and hindering the operation of unwholesome kamma previously acquired
and inherited. Thus the range of merit is very wide.
For the ordinary householder, Nibbana is a goal to be achieved through a gradual
process of evolution extending over many lives, and therefore until he achieves that
sublime state at some future date he continues to perform these acts in order to lead a
happy life. All merit-generating rituals are performed mainly with this end in view.
1. Initiation and Worship
Buddhism lacks any ceremony or ritual of initiation or admission like the upanayana
in Hinduism or baptism in Christianity. The traditional method of becoming a Buddhist is
to repeat the formula of the Three Refuges (tisarana) and the Five Precepts (pańcasila),
when they are formally administered by a Buddhist monk. The formula of refuge is as
Buddham saranam gacchami
I go to the Buddha as my refuge.
Dhammam saranam gacchami
I go to the Dhamma as my refuge.
Sangham saranam gacchami
I go to the Sangha as my refuge.
This avowal of confidence in the Triple Gem (tiratana) is repeated for a second
time (e.g. dutiyampi Buddham saranam gacchami, etc.), and a third time (tatiyampi).
Next, the convert repeats in the following manner the Five Precepts which are meant to
regulate his moral life:
(1) Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the precept to
abstain from destroying life
(2) Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the precept to
abstain from taking things not given.
(3) Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the precept
to abstain from sexual misconduct.
(4) Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the precept to abstain
from false speech.
(5) Suramerayamajjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami. I undertake the
precept to abstain from taking distilled and fermented liquors that cause intoxication and
By this method a hitherto non-Buddhist lay person becomes a lay disciple (upasaka)
of the Buddha. It has to be noted here that what is meant by taking refuge in the Buddha,
the Dhamma, and the Sangha is the placing of confidence in the attainments of the Buddha
as a Teacher and in the efficacy of the Dhamma as a reliable means to liberation. The term
"Sangha" here refers to the Ariya Sangha, comprising the four pairs of
noble ones, i.e. the four practising for the fruits and the four established in the fruits
(cattari purisayugani attha purisa-puggala). In this ceremony of initiation there
is no recognition of salvation through the grace of a god or saviour as in theistic
religions. One goes for refuge as a way of expressing one's determination to follow the
Buddha's path to liberation, but one must also realize that the task of walking the path
is one's own responsibility.
While this is the method of formal admission of a new entrant into Buddhism, there are
also certain ritualistic practices observed when a child is born to Buddhist parents. The
baby's first outing would be to a temple. When the baby is fit to be taken out of doors
the parents would select an auspicious day or a full-moon day and take the child to the
nearest temple. They would first place the child on the
floor of the shrine room or in front of a statue of the Buddha for the purpose of
obtaining the blessings of the Triple Gem. This is a common sight at the Dalada Maligawa
-- the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic -- in Kandy. At the time of the daily religious
ceremony (puja) of the temple, one can observe how mothers hand over their babies
to an officiating layman (kapuva) inside the shrine room, who in turn keeps it for
a few seconds on the floor near the Relic Chamber and hands it back to the mother. The
mother accepts the child and gives a small fee to the kapuva for the service
rendered. This practice too could be described as a ritual of initiation.
2. Personal Worship
For the adherent of Buddhism, the ritual of worship is essentially a respectful
recognition of the greatness of the Buddha as a spiritual teacher. The ritual also implies
an expression of gratitude to the Buddha for having discovered and revealed to humankind
the path leading out of the mass of worldly suffering. Both these factors in combination
make this ritual an expression of devotion as well.
The most common daily ritual of the Buddhist is that of personal worship, which many
devout Buddhists perform daily in their homes. On the communal level the ritual is
observed on the poya days at a temple or a monastery.
A distinction may be made between simple respectful salutation (panama or panamana)
and the ritualistic worship (vandana) accompanied by offerings of increasing
complexity including food, drink, and clothing. The former type is only an expression of
respect and reverence as when a person clasps his hands in the gesture of worship in front
of a religious symbol (e.g. a Buddha-statue, a Bodhi-tree, a dagaba, etc.) and
recites a simple phrase like the well-known Namo tassa formula (see below);
nowadays the term sadhu has become quite popular with the Sinhala Buddhists for
In the ritualistic form of worship the articles of offering (mainly flowers) are first
respectfully placed on the altar in front of a statue of the Buddha or a dagaba or
any other place of religious significance where such worship is performed. Next, the
devotee clasps his hands in the gesture of worship (anjali-kamma) and solemnly
recites various stanzas and formulas, thereby making the offerings formally valid. Every
act of Buddhist worship begins with the well-known formula of homage to the Buddha, Namo
tassa bhagavato arahato sammasambuddhassa ("Let my obeisance be to the Blessed
One, the Honourable One, the Fully Enlightened One"), which is repeated thrice. This
is followed by the Refuge formula and the Five Precepts given earlier.
The next step is paying homage to the Three Gems in three separate formulas, which
recount nine virtues of the Buddha, six virtues of the Dhamma, and nine virtues of the
Sangha. These formulas are extracted from the Pali Nikayas and have become the standard
formulas with which the Three Gems are worshipped.
The physical posture adopted by the devotees when performing these acts of worship may
vary according to the solemnity of the occasion or the degree of the devotion of the
worshipper. In the most respectful form of worship, e.g. when worshipping a dagaba
in which the relics -- a bone, hair, bowl, etc., of the Buddha -- are enshrined, one
touches the ground with five parts of the body (Sinh.: pasanga pihituva, i.e.
knees, elbows, and forehead). The two postures of squatting (ukkutika) and kneeling
(with one or both knees) are also popular. The cross-legged posture (pallanka) and
the standing position are also sometimes adopted. Whatever be the posture taken, it should
be accompanied with hands clasped together in adoration (Sinh.: andilibanda, Pali: anjalim
Of the many articles of offering used at present in this kind of worship in Sri Lanka,
flowers have become the most important and popular. They constitute the minimum
requirement at any form of Buddhist worship. One can observe how the devotees arrange the
flowers in various patterns on the altar. The colour (vanna), smell (gandha),
and quality (guna) of the flowers are taken into account when selecting them for
offering. Before being offered, the flowers are "bathed" with filtered water (pan).
Sometimes they are arranged in a tray (vattiya) and offered. A flower's blooming
upon contact with light is regarded as symbolic of the attainment of Enlightenment, hence
flowers become quite a fitting article for offering to the Buddha, the Enlightened One.
As was mentioned earlier, an essential part of the ritual of offering flowers is the
recital of the following Pali stanza, whereby the offering is made valid:
Pujemi Buddham kusumena 'nena
punnena 'metena ca hotu mokkham
Puppham milayati yatha idam me
kayo tatha yati vinasabahavam.
"This mass of flowers endowed with colour, fragrance, and quality I offer at the
lotus-like feet of the King of Sages. I worship the Buddha with these flowers: by the
merit of this may I attain freedom. Even as these flowers do fade, so does my body come to
It is of interest to note that this stanza incorporates the Buddhist idea of the
impermanence (anicca) of all phenomena. Merit-acquisition is also regarded as
contributing towards the attainment of Nibbanic freedom.
Another popular offering of much importance is that of lighted lamps, usually of
coconut oil (dipa-puja or pahan-puja). As the Buddha is regarded as the
dispeller of the darkness of ignorance, when lighted lamps are offered in his name this
metaphorical contrast between the light of knowledge and the darkness of ignorance is
taken as the theoretical basis for the ritual. This kind of symbolism being too deep for
the vast majority of ordinary people, their motive for this ritual is usually the desire
to acquire merit or to avert the evil influence of a bad planetary conjunction. However,
it is the former idea that is implied in the traditional stanza used by the Buddhists of
Sri Lanka for this offering:
"With this lamp lit with camphor that dispels all darkness, I worship the
Perfectly Enlightened One who is a lamp unto the three worlds and is the dispeller of
The epithets tilokadipa ("lamp unto the three worlds") and tamonuda
("dispeller of darkness") as applied to the Buddha are significant in this
context. The stanza itself seems to testify to the popularity of the offering of camphor (ghanasara)
in early times. But nowadays, even when coconut oil has replaced camphor, the stanza has
survived without change.
The offering of lighted lamps had been a popular ritual even in ancient times. The
Bodhi-tree and the dagaba (also referred to as stupa, cetiya, or caitya)
are the two main objects or places where the ritual is usually performed. The offering of
lamps is one of the main aspects of the worship of the Bodhi-tree (bodhi-puja). As
it was under a Bodhi-tree that the Buddha attained Enlightenment, it is quite natural that
lamps be lit under that tree, not only in memory of the great event, but also as a ritual
whereby the devotee could expect to obtain a ray of that light of wisdom attained by the
Great Sage. Thus the entire ritual becomes a spiritual exercise, the merits of which are
transferred to all other beings, gods, humans, and spirits (bhuta).
Dagabas constitute another place where this popular offering is made.
Consequently, along with the flower-altar, the lamp-stand too has become a necessary
adjunct of the dagabas. One can also see that the Bodhi-tree in most temples is
surrounded by a platform built of brick or stone in which niches are made to hold lighted
oil lamps. The niches are meant to shelter the lamps from wind and rain. In any Buddhist
temple there are many other places where lamps can be lit in that way. Sometimes special
lamp-stands are constructed for the purpose. Of special significance is the lamp called
the dolosmahe-pahana (twelve-month lamp), sometimes found in Buddhist temples and devalayas.
It is called thus because it is expected to keep burning all-year round.
Special light offerings are also made on auspicious occasions. On full-moon days when
devotees flock to the temples, lamps are lit in large numbers, for it is the custom among
the Sri Lankan Buddhists invariably to take flowers and coconut oil on their visits to the
temple as two indispensable articles of worship. There are also occasions when devotees
light and offer a particular large number of lamps for special purposes, such as redeeming
a vow (baraya) or on special occasions like Vesak Day. Many Buddhists perform the
ritual of light offering (pahan-puja) to counter evil planetary influences. In
order to obtain maximum results from the ritual, the devotees make it a point to purify
themselves completely before attending the ceremony by bathing and wearing fresh, clean
clothes. Coconut oil used as an illuminant is specially prepared for the purpose and taken
separately from the coconut oil used for household purposes. Wicks are prepared from a
clean, white, fresh cloth. Sometimes the inhabitants of an entire village co-operate in
holding a mass-scale lamp offering. For instance, they may offer 84,000 lighted lamps in
memory of the 84,000 elements of the Dhamma (dhammakkhandha) comprising the
This important Buddhist ritual was practised even in ancient Sri Lanka. King Dutugemunu
(2nd century B.C.) is recorded to have lit one thousand lamps with ghee as the illuminant
and with white wicks burning perpetually in twelve sacred places in Anuradhapura (Mhv.
xxxii,37). King Vasabha (1st century A.C.) is also said to have lit one thousand oil lamps
at Cetiyapabbata, Thuparama, Mahathupa (Ruvanweli-dagaba), and the Bodhi-tree (Mhv.
Today, this ritual has become so popular and elaborate that the annual Vesak festival
commemorating the birth, Enlightenment, and Parinibbana of the Buddha has become more or
less a festival of lights. Vesak lanterns of various kinds and shapes are lit in Buddhist
homes on this day. Pandals well illuminated with multi-coloured electric bulbs, depicting
various scenes from the Master's life and from the Jataka stories, also constitute a type
of light offering to the Buddha.
Yet another aspect of the ritual of light offering is the burning of camphor near the
object of worship like dagabas, Buddha statues, etc. Camphor gives out a fragrant
smell as it burns, and is also regarded as having a very pure flame, although its smoke
has a strong blackening effect. Camphor-burners have been found in ancient temples,
showing that this was an ancient practice.
The offering of food and drink is still another aspect of the ritual of worship. When
food is offered to the Buddha in a religious place it is usually done in front of a
Buddha-image. If it is the morning meal that is offered, it would be something suitable
for breakfast, usually milk-rice (kiribat). If it is lunch, it would be the usual
rice-and-curry meal and is invariably offered before noon. At the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy
and the Sri Mahabodhi in Anuradhapura, these rituals are performed regularly and with
meticulous care and also somewhat elaborately, accompanied by other subsidiary rituals
like the beating of drums. It is an important part of this ritual that whatever food is
offered in this manner should be separately prepared with special care and should not be
tasted before the offering. The stanza that is popularly used for the offering of food
runs as follows:
Adhivasetu no bhante
"O Lord, accept with favour this food which has been ritualistically prepared.
Receive it, O Noble One, out of compassion."
As regards the offering of drinks and beverages, it is customary to offer these
prepared from fruit-juices. Unlike the solid foods, these may be offered in the afternoon,
in keeping with the meal habits of the Buddhist monks. Offering of incense generally
consists of joss sticks, these being the most easily available. Otherwise this offering is
made by putting certain kinds of sweet-smelling powders or incense into glowing charcoal
so that it smokes well. A kind of resin, known locally as sambrani, is the variety
The chew of betel (dahat-vita) is yet another item of offering. This is mostly
for consumption after meals, and consists of betel leaves, arecanut, and certain other
items like cloves, nutmeg, cardamons, etc. which give a pleasant smell and a pungent taste
when chewed. For every kind of offering there are separate stanzas like the one quoted
earlier for food. These stanzas are composed in Pali, which is supposed to be the language
in which the Buddha preached his doctrine.
When visiting the temple the object of worship that ranks first is the dagaba
enshrining the bone-relics of the Buddha. There are three categories of worshipful
objects: (i) bodily relics, consisting of the bones collected after cremation (saririka);
(ii) those articles the Buddha used, e.g. the alms-bowl, Bodhi-tree, etc. (paribhogika);
and (iii) those memorials that have been erected on his account as a mark of remembrance (uddesika),
e.g. images, paintings, etc. The devotee is expected to worship these in due order,
reciting the appropriate stanzas and making at least an offering of a few flowers.
An important aspect of the worship of the dagaba and the Bodhi-tree is the
custom of circumambulation (padakkhina) as a mark of respect. Usually three rounds
are done, always keeping the object of worship to the right side and with the hands
clasped together in adoration. As regards dagaba worship in Sri Lanka, the local
Buddhists have a separate stanza for worshipping each of the sixteen sacred places
hallowed by the Lord Buddha on his three visits to the island. There is also a popular
stanza that covers in a general manner all the three categories of worshipful objects
Vandami cetiyam sabbam
buddharupam sakalam sada.
"Forever do I worship all the dagabas situated all over, all the bodily relics,
the Mahabodhi (tree), and Buddha-images."
The worship of the dagaba or stupa is an important merit-acquiring act of
devotional Buddhism in Sri Lanka as also in other Buddhist lands. The first such dagaba
to be constructed after the official introduction of Buddhism into the country by the
Arahant Mahinda was the Thuparama at Anuradhapura, which enshrines the collar-bone of the
Buddha. It was constructed by the first Buddhist ruler of Sri Lanka, King Devanampiya
Tissa, in the 3rd century B.C. Since then dagabas have become so popular among the
local Buddhists that almost every village temple has a dagaba as an indispensable
feature. A special ritual connected with the dagaba is the enshrining of relics,
which is done with much ceremony at a specially selected astrologically auspicious moment
called nakata (Skt. naksatra). A similar ritual is that of pinnacle-setting (kot-palandavima),
which is the concluding stage in the construction of a dagaba.
It should be mentioned here that scriptural sanction for dagaba worship is found
in the words of the Buddha himself in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (D.ii,142), where he has
enumerated four categories of individuals worthy of dagabas. These are the
Tathagata, a Paccekabuddha, a disciple of the Tathagata, and a universal monarch (raja
cakkavattin). The worship and offerings made to the Buddha's body after his passing
away may also be cited as an instance in this connection.
The most important item that comes within the uddesika kind of sacred object is
the Buddha-image, which is found in every temple in its image-house (viharage). In
addition to the central image or images, the inside walls of the temple -- and sometimes
the ceiling as well -- are covered with paintings depicting events from the Buddha's life,
as well as from his past lives as a Bodhisatta, recorded in the Jataka stories. An
important ceremony associated with the Buddha-image is the ritual of painting its eyes (netra-pinkama),
which is performed with much care on an auspicious occasion as the last item of its
construction. Until this is done the image is not considered an adequate representation of
3. Group Worship
Collective worship of the Buddha is generally performed in a public place of worship so
that anyone who wishes may participate: in a temple before the shrine room, at a dagaba,
a Bodhi-tree, or any other such place. The devotees stand in a row in front of the place
of worship and pass the items of offering from hand to hand towards the shrine room, dagaba,
or the Bodhi-tree. These offerings usually consist of bowls or vases of flowers, incense,
joss sticks, beverages, fruit drinks, medicinal items, oil-lamps, etc. Here no distinction
of age, position, or sex is observed. All participate in a common act of merit (pinkama).
A bhikkhu or a number of bhikkhus may sometimes head the line.
The commonest of the Buddha-pujas is the one performed in the evening, around 6
p.m., known as the gilampasa Buddha-puja or the Buddha-offering consisting of
medicaments and beverages. If the Buddha-puja is done in the morning it would be
one consisting of milk-rice (kiri-ahara) or any other item of food suitable for
breakfast. The mid-day food (dana) also may be offered in this manner. The mid-day
meal is offered to the Buddha when lay people bring food to the monastery to offer as alms
to the bhikkhus. First, under the guidance of a bhikkhu, they perform the offering to the
Buddha, who is represented symbolically by relics and an image; thereafter the food is
offered to the resident bhikkhus. It is the established tradition that in whatever
circumstances alms are offered to the bhikkhus, the first portions are offered to the
Buddha beforehand. The variations in the kinds of food offered are in keeping with the
meal habits of the Buddha and his monk-disciples, who refrain from taking solid food and
milk-foods after mid-day.
Once the offerings are placed in the appropriate place, lamps lit, and incense burnt,
stanzas are recited for each kind of offering made so that the offerings become valid.
This is done by a bhikkhu who first administers the Refuges and Precepts (explained
earlier) and then recites the relevant stanzas (in Pali) aloud, while the other
participants, with their hands clasped in adoration, repeat them in chorus after the
bhikkhu. Sometimes this kind of public Buddha-puja is accompanied by drumming and
horns, called hevisi-puja or offering of music, which usually accompanies many
Buddhist functions. As the final item of the programme, one of the participating bhikkhus
delivers a short sermon explaining the significance of the occasion.
It may also be mentioned here that this kind of public puja is performed as a
general act of merit-acquisition on religiously important days such as the full-moon days
or in remembrance of important dead personages. In the latter case the ritual is held on
the death anniversary of the person concerned. It is believed that the dead person can
partake of the merits transferred to him (pattidana) from his new existence and
thereby obtain relief from any unfortunate realm in which he might have been born. If the
ritual is performed for such a purpose, the participating monk would specially mention
this fact and transfer the merits earned.
Whatever be the purpose for which the ceremony is held, the concluding part is marked
by certain features which are of further interest. One is the usual practice of the
transference of merit to all beings, including gods and spirits, by reciting the
appropriate stanzas. Another is the general aspiration (patthana) that the
participants make to the effect that by the merits earned from the ritual they may not be
born into the company of foolish and unworthy friends but into the company of wise and
virtuous men until they attain Nibbana. They also do not fail to add the final attainment
of Nibbana to this list (idam me punnam asavakkhayavaham hotu: "May this merit
bring about the extinction of defilements in me").
Yet another popular aspiration which has a greater social significance is the
Devo vassatu kalena -- sassasampatti hotu ca
phito bhavatu loko ca -- raja bhavatu dhammiko.
"May the rains come in time
So that the harvests may be abundant:
May the world be prosperous,
May the rulers be righteous."
The ritual is concluded by asking for pardon for whatever lapses may have occurred
Kayena vaca cittena pamadena maya katam
accayam khama me bhante bhuripanna tathagata.
"O Lord, Tathagata of extensive wisdom, may you excuse me for whatever
transgressions might have been done by me through body, speech, or mind due to
Sometimes a similar request is made to the Dhamma and the Sangha as well. However, as
the idea of pardoning one's sins is foreign to Buddhism, this kind of request would be
meaningful only if the devotee does so with full understanding as an expiatory act, as a
means of self-reformation, for the Buddha, unlike the God of theistic religions, cannot
Another kind of Buddha-puja is the one regularly done in temples and Buddhist devalayas.
It is the daily offering of food and drink (murutan puja) made to the Buddha by the
temple authorities. At the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy and the Sri
Mahabodhi at Anuradhapura offerings of this kind are made on a solemn and grand scale.
These two places assume this significance because they are the two most deeply venerated
sacred places for the Buddhists of Sri Lanka. The breakfast, noon meal, and the evening
drinks are all offered regularly at fixed hours accompanied by drumming and horn playing (tevava).
Often, the public also make their own offerings.
Another important Buddhist ritual is the honouring of the Buddha with what appears to
be a relic of the musical performance held in order to revere and pay homage to the sacred
memory of the Master. The historical beginning of this form of worship can be traced as
far back as the time of the Buddha. A passage in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta (D.ii,159)
records that after his passing away, while the body of the Buddha was lying in state for
seven days at Kusinara in the capital of the Mallas, complete musical performances
inclusive of dance, song, and orchestration (nacca, gita, vadita) were held in his
honour. This undoubtedly was an unreserved expression by the lay patrons of their deep
veneration for the Master. Of this kind of offering, all that seems to have survived is
drumming and some light dancing engaged in by the drummers themselves to the drum-beat and
horns. In Sri Lanka the ritual is performed by the professionals belonging to the drummer (berava)
caste and as an offering it is popularly known as sabda-puja or the "offering
This orchestration is collectively called hevisi and usually consists of two
drums (called davul), a twin-drum with one face for each and turned upwards (surappattuwa
or tammattama), and a horn-like instrument called horanava referred to
earlier. Drumming of this type, with a bigger number of drummers, is an essential part of
Buddhist processions as well. This kind of drumming also takes place at other Buddhist
ceremonies, such as pirit chanting and alms-giving, to be described below.
At important temples where offerings of food are made to the Buddha and the deities at
meal times, drumming is performed to coincide with the offering and continues until the
ritual of offering is over. This kind of regular service is known as tevava. The
ritual may also be held on Poya days, especially the full-moon day, in temples as a
special offering to the Buddha. An important point to be noted in this pujava is
that while the other kinds of offering are made by the worshipper himself, in this case he
hires professionals to make the offering on his behalf. But in big temples like the Dalada
Maligawa at Kandy, payments in money are not usually made as the drummers have the
hereditary right to the tenure of the temple lands in return for which these services are
2. The Bodhi-Puja
The veneration of the Bodhi-tree (pipal tree: ficus religiosa) has been a
popular and a widespread ritual in Sri Lanka from the time a sapling of the original
Bodhi-tree at Buddhagaya (under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment) was brought from
India by the Theri Sanghamitta and planted at Anuradhapura during the reign of King
Devanampiya Tissa in the third century B.C. Since then a Bodhi-tree has become a necessary
feature of every Buddhist temple in the island.
The ritualistic worship of trees as abodes of tree deities (rukkha-devata) was
widely prevalent in ancient India even before the advent of Buddhism. This is exemplified
by the well-known case of Sujata's offering of milk-rice to the Bodhisatta, who was seated
under a banyan tree on the eve of his Enlightenment, in the belief that he was the deity
living in that tree. By making offerings to these deities inhabiting trees the devotees
expect various forms of help from them. The practice was prevalent in pre-Buddhist Sri
Lanka as well. According to the Mahavamsa, King Pandukabhaya (4th century B.C.)
fixed a banyan tree near the western gate of Anuradhapura as the abode of Vessavana, the
god of wealth and the regent of the North as well as the king of the yakkhas. The
same king set apart a palmyra palm as the abode of vyadha-deva, the god of the hunt
(Mhv. x,89, 90).
After the introduction of the Bodhi-tree, this cult took a new turn. While the old
practice was not totally abandoned, pride of place was accorded to the worship of the
pipal tree, which had become sacred to the Buddhists as the tree under which Gotama Buddha
attained Enlightenment. Thus there is a difference between the worship of the Bodhi-tree
and that of other trees. To the Buddhists, the Bodhi-tree became a sacred object belonging
to the paribhogika group of the threefold division of sacred monuments, while the ordinary veneration of trees, which also exists
side-by-side with the former in Sri Lanka, is based on the belief already mentioned, i.e.
that there are spirits inhabiting these trees and that they can help people in exchange
for offerings. The Buddhists also have come to believe that powerful Buddhist deities
inhabit even the Bodhi-trees that receive worship in the purely Buddhist sense. Hence it
becomes clear that the reverence shown to a tree is not addressed to the tree itself.
However, it also has to be noted that the Bodhi-tree received veneration in India even
before it assumed this Buddhist significance; this practice
must have been based on the general principle of tree worship mentioned above.
Once the tree assumed Buddhist significance its sanctity became particularized, while
the deities inhabiting it also became associated with Buddhism in some form. At the same
time, the tree became a symbol representing the Buddha as well. This symbolism was
confirmed by the Buddha himself when he recommended the planting of the Ananda Bodhi-tree
at Jetavana for worship and offerings during his absence (see J.iv,228f.). Further, the
place where the Buddha attained Enlightenment is mentioned by the Buddha as one of the
four places of pilgrimage that should cause serene joy in the minds of the faithful
(D.ii,140). As Ananda Coomaraswamy points out, every Buddhist temple and monastery in
India once had its Bodhi-tree and flower altar as is now the case in Sri Lanka.
King Devanampiya Tissa, the first Buddhist king of Sri Lanka, is said to have bestowed
the whole country upon the Bodhi-tree and held a magnificent festival after planting it
with great ceremony. The entire country was decorated for the occasion. The Mahavamsa
refers to similar ceremonies held by his successors as well. It is said that the rulers of
Sri Lanka performed ceremonies in the tree's honour in every twelfth year of their reign
King Dutugemunu (2nd century B.C.) performed such a ceremony at a cost of 100,000
pieces of money (Mhv. xxviii,1). King Bhatika Abhaya (1st century A.C.) held a ceremony of
watering the sacred tree, which seems to have been one of many such special pujas.
Other kings too, according to the Mahavamsa, expressed their devotion to the
Bodhi-tree in various ways (see e.g. Mhv. xxxv,30; xxxvi, 25, 52, 126).
It is recorded that forty Bodhi-saplings that grew from the seeds of the original
Bodhi-tree at Anuradhapura were planted at various places in the island during the time of
Devanampiya Tissa himself. The local Buddhists saw to it that every monastery in the
island had its own Bodhi-tree, and today the tree has become a familiar sight, all
derived, most probably, from the original tree at Anuradhapura through seeds. However, it
may be added here that the notion that all the Bodhi-trees in the island are derived from
the original tree is only an assumption. The existence of the tree prior to its
introduction by the Theri Sanghamitta cannot be proved or disproved.
The ceremony of worshipping this sacred tree, first begun by King Devanampiya Tissa and
followed by his successors with unflagging interest, has continued up to the present day.
The ceremony is still as popular and meaningful as at the beginning. It is natural that
this should be so, for the veneration of the tree fulfils the emotional and devotional
needs of the pious heart in the same way as does the veneration of the Buddha-image and,
to a lesser extent, of the dagaba. Moreover, its association with deities dedicated
to the cause of Buddhism, who can also aid pious worshippers in their mundane affairs,
contributes to the popularity and vitality of Bodhi-worship.
The main centre of devotion in Sri Lanka today is, of course, the ancient tree at
Anuradhapura, which, in addition to its religious significance, has an historical
importance as well. As the oldest historical tree in the world, it has survived for over
2,200 years, even when the city of Anuradhapura was devastated by foreign enemies. Today
it is one of the most sacred and popular places of pilgrimage in the island. The tree
itself is very well guarded, the most recent protection being a gold-plated railing around
the base (ranvata). Ordinarily, pilgrims are not allowed to go near the foot of the
tree in the upper terrace. They have to worship and make their offerings on altars
provided on the lower terrace so that no damage is done to the tree by the multitude that
throng there. The place is closely guarded by those entrusted with its upkeep and
protection, while the daily rituals of cleaning the place, watering the tree, making
offerings, etc., are performed by bhikkhus and laymen entrusted with the work. The
performance of these rituals is regarded as of great merit and they are performed on a
lesser scale at other important Bodhi-trees in the island as well.
Thus this tree today receives worship and respect as a symbol of the Buddha himself, a
tradition which, as stated earlier, could be traced back to the Ananda Bodhi-tree at
Jetavana of the Buddha's own time. The Vibhanga Commentary (p.349) says that the
bhikkhu who enters the courtyard of the Bodhi-tree should venerate the tree, behaving with
all humility as if he were in the presence of the Buddha. Thus one of the main items of
the daily ritual at the Anuradhapura Bodhi-tree (and at many other places) is the offering
of alms as if unto the Buddha himself. A special ritual held annually at the shrine of the
Anuradhapura tree is the hanging of gold ornaments on the tree. Pious devotees offer
valuables, money, and various other articles during the performance of this ritual.
Another popular ritual connected with the Bodhi-tree is the lighting of coconut-oil
lamps as an offering (pahan-puja), especially to avert the evil influence of
inauspicious planetary conjunctions. When a person passes through a troublesome period in
life he may get his horoscope read by an astrologer in order to discover whether he is
under bad planetary influences. If so, one of the recommendations would invariably be a bodhi-puja,
one important item of which would be the lighting of a specific number of coconut-oil
lamps around a Bodhi-tree in a temple. The other aspects of this ritual consist of the
offering of flowers, milk-rice, fruits, betel, medicinal oils, camphor, and coins. These
coins (designated panduru) are washed in saffron water and separated for offering
in this manner. The offering of coins as an act of merit-acquisition has assumed
ritualistic significance with the Buddhists of the island. Every temple has a charity box (pin-pettiya)
into which the devotees drop a few coins as a contribution for the maintenance of the
monks and the monastery. Offerings at devalayas should inevitably be accompanied by
such a gift. At many wayside shrines there is provision for the offering of panduru
and travellers en route, in the hope of a safe and successful journey, rarely fail
to make their contribution. While the coins are put into the charity box, all the other
offerings would be arranged methodically on an altar near the tree and the appropriate
stanzas that make the offering valid are recited. Another part of the ritual is the
hanging of flags on the branches of the tree in the expectation of getting one's wishes
Bathing the tree with scented water is also a necessary part of the ritual. So is the
burning of incense, camphor, etc. Once all these offerings have been completed, the
performers would circumambulate the tree once or thrice reciting an appropriate stanza.
The commonest of such stanzas is as follows:
Yassa mule nisinno va
sabbari vijayam aka
patto sabbannutam Sattha
Vande tam bodhipadapam.
Ime ete mahabodhi
ahampi te namassami
bodhi raja namatthu te.
"I worship this Bodhi-tree seated under which the Teacher attained omniscience by
overcoming all enemical forces (both subjective and objective). I too worship this great
Bodhi-tree which was honoured by the Leader of the World. My homage to thee, O King
The ritual is concluded by the usual transference of merit to the deities that protect
the Buddha's Dispensation.
3. Poya Days
In their religious observances the Sri Lankan Buddhists have adopted from Indian
tradition the use of the lunar calendar. The four phases of the moon are the pre-new-moon
day, when the moon is totally invisible, the half-moon of the waxing fortnight, the full
moon, and the half-moon of the waning fortnight. Owing to the moon's fullness of size as
well as its effulgence, the full-moon day is treated as the most auspicious of the four
phases. Hence the most important religious observances are held on full-moon days and the
lesser ones in conjunction with the other phases. In the Buddhist calendar, the full moon,
as the acme of the waxing process, is regarded as the culmination of the month and
accordingly the period between two full moons is one lunar month.
The religious observance days are called poya days. The Sinhala term poya
is derived from the Pali and Sanskrit form uposatha (from upa + vas:
to fast) primarily signifying "fast day." Fasting on this day was a pre-Buddhist
practice among the religious sects of ancient India. While the monks use the monthly
moonless day (called amavaka in Sinhala) and the full-moon day for their
confessional ritual and communal recitation of the code of discipline (Patimokkha),
the lay devotees observe the day by visiting temples for worship and also by taking upon
themselves the observance of the Eight Precepts.
A practising Buddhist observes the poya day by visiting a temple for the rituals
of worship and, often, by undertaking the Eight Precepts. The Eight Precepts include the
Five Precepts (see above, pp.5-6), with the third changed to abstinence from unchastity,
and the following three additional rules:
(6) to abstain from solid food after mid-day;
(7) to abstain from dancing, singing, music, and improper shows, and from ornamenting
the body with garlands, scents, unguents, etc.;
(8) to abstain from the use of high and luxurious beds and seats.
If one decides to observe the Eight Precepts, one would wake up early, bathe and clad
oneself in clean white garments, and go to the nearest temple. The incumbent monk
administers the precepts to the entire group assembled for the purpose. Thereafter they
would spend the day according to a set timetable which would include sermons, pujas,
periods of meditation, and Dhamma discussions. At meditation centres there will be more
periods of meditation and fewer sermons and pujas.
The observance of the Eight Precepts is a ritualistic practice of moral discipline
quite popular among the Sinhala Buddhists. While the Five Precepts serve as the moral base
for ordinary people, the Eight Precepts point to a higher level of training aimed at
advancement along the path of liberation. The popular practice is to observe them on
full-moon days, and, among a few devout lay Buddhists, on the other phases of the moon as
The poya observance, which is as old as Buddhism itself, has been followed by
the Sinhala Buddhists up to the present day, even after the Christian calendar came to be
used for secular matters. Owing to its significance in the religious life of the local
Buddhists, all the full-moon days have been declared public holidays by the government.
Another noteworthy fact about this day is that every full-moon poya has assumed
some ritualistic significance in one way or other.
The first and the foremost of the poya holy days is the full-moon day of Vesak
(May), commemorating the birth, Enlightenment, and passing away of the Buddha. The
significance of Vesak is further heightened for the Sinhala Buddhists, as Sri Lankan
tradition holds that it was on the Vesak Poya Day, in the eighth year after his
Enlightenment, that the Buddha paid his third visit to Sri Lanka, journeying to Kelaniya
on the invitation of the Naga King Maniakkhika (Mhv. i,72ff.). Consequently, Kelaniya has
become a very popular place of worship and pilgrimage, the centre of worship there being
the celebrated dagaba, enshrining the gem-set throne offered to the Buddha by the
Nagas (dragons). An annual procession is held there to commemorate the event.
Both in importance and in temporal sequence, the next significant poya is the
full-moon of Poson (June), which is specially noteworthy to the Sri Lankan
Buddhists as the day on which Emperor Asoka's son, the Arahant Mahinda, officially
introduced Buddhism to the island in the 3rd century B.C. Accordingly, in addition to the
normal ritualistic observances undertaken on a poya day, on Poson day devotees
flock to Anuradhapura, the ancient capital city of the country, for it was there that
Arahant Mahinda converted the then ruler, King Devanampiya Tissa, and his court to
Buddhism, thereby setting in motion a series of events that finally made Sri Lanka the
home of Theravada Buddhism. Even today, on Poson Poya, Anuradhapura becomes the centre of
Buddhist activity. Mihintale, the spot where the momentous encounter between the Elder and
the King took place, accordingly receives the reverential attention of the devotees. The
two rituals of pilgrimage and the observance of the Eight Precepts are combined here.
Processions commemorative of the event, referred to as Mihundu Peraheras, are held in
various parts of the country.
The next poya is Esala (July), which commemorates several significant
events in the history of Buddhism. The most prominent of these is the Buddha's preaching
of his First Sermon, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, to the five ascetics at the Deer
Park, near Benares, thereby inaugurating his public ministry. The other noteworthy events
connected with this day include the conception of the Bodhisatta in the womb of Queen
Maya, his Great Renunciation, the performance of the Twin Miracle (yamaka-patihariya),
and his preaching the Abhidhamma for the first time in the Tavatimsa heaven. An additional
factor that enhances the value of this poya to Sri Lanka is the first local
ordination of a Sri Lankan, when Prince Arittha, the nephew of the king, entered the Order
at Anuradhapura, under Arahant Mahinda, following the introduction of Buddhism. On this
day there also took place the laying of the foundation for the celebrated dagaba,
the Mahathupa or the Ruwanvelisaya and also its enshrinement of relics by King Dutugemunu.
It is owing to the combination of all these events that the Sinhala Buddhists fittingly
observe the day ceremonially by holding Esala festivals throughout the island, giving
pride of place to the internationally famous Kandy Esala Perahera.
* * *
The term perahera, primarily meaning "procession," signifies a popular
Buddhist ceremony replete with many rituals, commencing and culminating respectively with
the kap-planting and the water-cutting ceremonies. These two ceremonies are
respectively the introductory and the concluding rites of the annual Esala festivals, held
in July and August in various parts of the island. They are essentially connected with the
Buddhist deities, either to invite their blessings or to give thanks to them for favours
received. During this period every year, such religious festivals are held in almost all
the religious centres of Sri Lanka where there are abodes dedicated to various Buddhist
deities. However, the festival par excellence of this category is the Kandy Esala
Perahera, which is connected with the Temple of the Tooth and the abodes (devalayas)
of the four Buddhist deities, Vishnu, Kataragama, Natha, and the Goddess Pattini. The main
feature of all these festivals held during this period is the elaborate procession held on
the lines of the Kandy Esala Perahera.
Both the kap-planting and water-cutting ceremonies are performed by the lay
officiating priests (kapuralas) of the devalaya concerned, who are
traditionally the experts regarding the details of their performance. These details are
generally regarded as secret and are not divulged to the profane public.
The preliminary rite of kap-planting consists of planting a shaft, usually
fashioned from a felled young jak tree, which must have borne no fruit. When cut, this
tree exudes a white sap which is regarded as a symbol of prosperity. Even felling the tree
is done with several attendant rituals at an auspicious time: the trunk is divided into
four, one for each of the devalayas, where it is carried with drums and attendance.
On the day of the new moon, at an auspicious hour (nakata), the "kaps"
thus prepared are set up in the ground in a special place decorated with leaves, flowers,
and fruits. For five nights small processions are conducted within the devalaya
precincts around the consecrated kaps. Sometimes benedictory stanzas are chanted by
This rite of kap is a kind of vow that the Esala festival, consisting mainly of
the perahera, will be held; it is also an invitation to the deities to be present
during the festival, providing the necessary protection for its successful performance. In
this sense it is this ritual that inaugurates the festival.
The water-cutting ceremony (diya-kapum-mangalyaya), which is the concluding
ritual of the Esala festival, is performed in the early hours of the day following the
final perahera. The officiating lay-priest (kapurala) proceeds on a
caparisoned elephant to a selected place along a river bank. He would either go to a
selected spot in the river by boat or wade through the water to a particular spot and
after drawing a magic circle on the water with the sword he carries, he "cuts"
the water and fills the vessel he carried there with water from that spot. Before doing so
he empties the water that he took in this same manner the previous year. He then returns
to the devalaya, and the vessel of water is kept there until the following year.
The ritual is repeated annually in an identical manner. This is believed to be a
rain-making ceremony of sympathetic magic, which type of ritual is quite common in
agrarian societies the world over. The Buddhists seem to have adopted this to suit their
* * *
The annual Esala Perahera in Kandy, held in honour of the Sacred Tooth Relic of the
Buddha, is the most colourful traditional procession in the country. It is the prototype
of the other peraheras held elsewhere in the island in such places as Kataragama, Aluthnuwara, Lankatilaka, Bellanwila, Devinuwara, etc. The
Kandy Perahera is itself the latest expression of the annual festival in honour of the
Tooth Relic that has been held with state patronage from the time the relic was brought to
Sri Lanka from India in the 4th century A.C. Although periodically there have been
intermittent breaks due to unsettled political conditions, the festival was never
neglected intentionally. This had been so even during colonial times. Respected as the
palladium of Sinhala royalty, the Relic had been accommodated in different parts of the
country, depending on the change of the capital city. Ultimately it came to stay in Kandy,
which was the last royal seat of the Sinhala people.
Esala Poya assumes prominence for yet another ritual of the Sri Lankan Buddhists. This
is the annual rains retreat of the monks, Vassa, which commences on the day
following the Esala full moon (discussed in Chap. 8). On the next poya day, Nikini
(August), those monks who failed to commence the normal Vassa on the day following
Esala Poya, are allowed to enter the "late Vassa."
The poya that follows Nikini is Binara (September), which assumes
solemnity as marking the inauguration of the Order of Bhikkhunis (nuns) with the
ordination of Queen Mahapajapati and her retinue. Next follows the Vap Poya
(October), which concludes the final month of the three-month rains retreat. During the
following month kathina robes are offered to the monks who have duly completed the Vassa.
The high esteem in which this ritual is held by the Sinhala Buddhists may be gauged from
the fact that the month is popularly referred to as the "month of robes" (see
Chap. 8). The November full moon, called Il, signifies the terminal point for the kathina
ritual. It is also the day for commemorating such events as the despatch of the first
sixty disciples by the Buddha on missionary work, the prospective Buddha Metteyya being
declared a sure Buddha-to-be by Gotama Buddha, and the passing away of the Arahant
Sariputta, the Buddha's foremost disciple.
The Unduwap Poya that follows in December is of great moment to Sri Lanka as
commemorating two memorable events connected with the visit of Theri Sanghamitta, sister
of Arahant Mahinda, from India in the third century B.C. (Mhv.iv,18-19). The first of
these events was the arrival at Anuradhapura of a sapling of the sacred Bodhi-tree at
Buddhagaya, brought to Sri Lanka by Sanghamitta. The planting of this tree is the origin
of the Bodhi-puja in the country (see Chap. 4).
The other memorable event commemorated by this poya is the establishment of the
Order of Nuns (bhikkhuni-sasana) in Sri Lanka by the Theri Sanghamitta when she
ordained Queen Anula and her entourage of 500 women at Anuradhapura. Records indicate that
the Bhikkhuni Sangha thus established flourished during the Anuradhapura period (third
century B.C. to eleventh century A.C.), but disappeared after the decline of that kingdom.
Historical records are silent as to the reasons for its extinction, but they do report how
the Sinhala Bhikkhuni Sangha helped in the establishment of the Order of Nuns in China. In the 5th century a group of Sinhala nuns headed by the
Bhikkhuni Devasara went to China to confer higher ordination there and the Bhikkhuni
Sangha thus established survives there to this day. The Sinhala Buddhists commemorate this
poya day with peraheras, observance of the Eight Precepts, and meetings. The
day is designated Sanghamitta Day. Nowadays the dasasil matas (ten-precept nuns)
take an active part in initiating these commemorative functions.
Next follows the Durutu Poya (January) when the Sinhala Buddhists commemorate
the first visit of the Buddha to the island. According to the Mahavamsa, nine
months after his Enlightenment, the Buddha visited present Mahiyangana in the Badulla
District, where stands the dagaba by that name enshrining the Buddha's hair relics
and the collar bone (Mhv.i,197). The Buddhists remember the event by holding an annual perahera.
This much-venerated dagaba is also of consequence as the first edifice of this type
to be constructed here, originating the ritual of dagaba worship in Sri Lanka.
The poya that follows, Navam Poya (February), celebrates the Buddha's
appointment of the two Arahants, Sariputta and Moggallana, as his two chief disciples. It
also marks the Buddha's decision to attain Parinibbana in three months' time. The Medin
Poya in March is hallowed by the Buddha's first visit to his parental home after his
Enlightenment, during which he ordained the princes Rahula, Nanda, and many others as
monks. The month that follows is called Bak (pronounced like "buck"),
which corresponds to April. In this month it is not the full-moon day but the new-moon day
that invites attention as signalizing the Buddha's second visit to Sri Lanka, when he
visited Nagadipa on the day preceding the new-moon day (amavaka:
Mhv.i,47) in the fifth year after his Enlightenment.
The above brief account of the twelve poya days demonstrates how the poya
day has become intimately connected with the life of the Buddha and consequently with the
principal events of early Buddhist history. The Sri Lankan Buddhists, quite accustomed as
they are to commemorate such events with rituals and ceremonies in full measure, have
maintained these traditions up to the present.
4. The Pirit Ceremony
Pirit (or paritta) is a collective term designating a set of protective
chants or runes sanctioned by the Buddha for the use of both laymen and bhikkhus. Pirit-chanting
is a very popular ceremony among the Buddhists of Sri Lanka. As the term itself implies it
means a safety rune (paritta = protection), the ceremonial recital of which is
regarded as capable of warding off all forms of evil and danger (vipatti),
including disease, the evil influence of the planets, evil spirits, etc. These may be real
dangers to the safety of persons and property as well as superstitiously believed-in
calamities. In addition to this curative and positive aspect, pirit is also chanted
for the attainment of general success (sampatti, siddhi). In the domestic
and social life of the Sri Lankan Buddhist no important function can be considered
complete without this ceremony. However, the ceremony may vary from the simple to the
highly elaborate, depending on the occasion and the status of the sponsor.
The essence of the pirit ceremony consists in the ritualistic chanting of
certain Pali texts selected from the canonical scriptures. These extracts are found
collected and arranged in a particular order in the Book of Parittas, or Pirit-Pota, known in Pali as Catubhanavara. It contains 27
extracts, including such suttas as the Ratana, Mangala, Metta, Atanatiya, etc.
The use of protective spells -- variously known as paritta, rakkha, mantra,
dharani, kavaca, etc. -- against various
dangers has been a common practice among the Indians from very early times. The Buddha
himself is said to have adopted the practice on several occasions. The public recitation
of the Ratana Sutta at Vesali is the best known instance. The Khandha Paritta, Atanatiya
Sutta, and the Metta Sutta are some parittas that have received the sanction of the
Buddha himself. As the parittas generally embody statements of truth as taught in
Buddhism their recitation is regarded as an "asseveration of truth" (saccakiriya)
whereby evil can be averted. The Ratana Sutta is a good example of this kind of paritta.
It draws its power by wishing the listeners safety after affirming the excellent qualities
of the Three Gems of Buddhism -- the Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha. The power of virtue (sila)
contained in the Mangala Sutta and the power of loving kindness (metta) contained
in the Metta Sutta are two other aspects that make pirit effective. The power of
the sound waves resulting from the sonorous and rhythmic recitation and also from
particular combinations of certain letters and syllables also play a part in exercising
this beneficial influence. The vibrating sound waves produced by the sonorous and
mellifluous chanting adds to the effect of the truths enunciated. The ceremonial
recitation with various ritualistic observances (discussed below) and with the presence of
the Triple Gem in the form of the relic casket representing the Buddha, the Pirit-Pota
representing the Dhamma, and the reciting bhikkhus representing the Sangha, are additional
factors that are regarded as increasing the efficacy of pirit chanting.
Among the laity of Burma and of Sri Lanka the book of parittas is more widely
known than any other Pali book. Any Buddhist, educated or not, knows what it is and holds
it in honour and respect. Even in ancient times the blessings of the pirit ceremony
were sought in times of national calamities just as in Vesali at the time of the Buddha.
King Upatissa (4th century: Mhv. xxxvii,189), Sena II and Kassapa V (ibid, li,80; 1ii,80)
are three such Sinhala monarchs who had the ceremony performed under such circumstances.
The incorporation of the item called dorakada-asna, as shall be seen, shows that it
is a ritual that has gradually been elaborated in course of time.
The simplest form of the pirit ceremony is held when what is called the mahapirita
(great or major pirit) -- the Mangala, Ratana, and Metta Suttas and a few
benedictory stanzas -- is chanted by a few monks, usually three or four, three times with
a break in between. The three times may consist of the morning and evening of one day and
the morning of the following day, or the evening of one day and the following morning and
evening. The monks are conducted to the particular household and the chanting takes place
in any room of the house according to choice.
The monks sit around a table on which a clean white cloth is spread and flowers and
puffed rice are strewn. A pot of filtered water is also placed in the centre of the table
and one end of a ball of three-stranded thread is twisted around it. The thread then
passes through the hands of the reciting monks and is next held by the person or the
persons on whose behalf the chanting is being done. These would be seated on a mat on the
ground in front of the reciting monks. The water in the pot, designated pirit-water
(pirit-pan), and the sacred thread (pirit-nula), become sanctified through
the chanting and are used thereafter as a protection against evil. The thread is used by
tying a piece around the arm or the wrist, and the water by drinking it or sprinkling it,
according to requirements. In the simplest form, the ceremony is called varu-pirita
or vel-pirita (varu or vel in Sinhala meaning half-day session) as
the ceremony is confined only to a portion of the day and only the mahapirita is
But the full-fledged pirit ceremony is a much more elaborate ritual. This also
has two main forms -- one lasting for one whole night and the other for one week or even
longer. The former is the more usual form as a domestic ceremony while the latter is held
on special occasions, especially for public purposes. Whatever the form may be, when this
kind of chanting is undertaken, a special pavilion called the pirit mandapaya is
constructed for the purpose. If the ceremony is to be performed in a private home, this
pavilion is put up in a central room of the house. Generally it would measure about twelve
by twelve feet and is gaily decorated with tissue paper, tinsel, etc. Its roof is covered
with a white canopy from which are hung small cuttings of arecanut flowers, betel twigs,
tender twigs of the iron-wood (na) tree, etc. Two water pots on which opened
coconut racemes are kept are placed on either side of the entrance. Two lighted
coconut-oil lamps are also placed upon the coconut racemes.
In the centre of the pavilion is a table (usually a round one) on which a clean white
cloth is spread. Upon it are strewn puffed rice (vilanda), broken rice (sun-sal),
white mustard (sudu-aba), jasmine buds (saman kakulu), and panic grass (itana).
These five varieties, known as lada-pas-mal, are regarded as having a sanctifying
and purifying power in combination and are hence used for ritualistic purposes at Buddhist
ceremonies. In the centre of the table is the filtered water pot around which the
three-stranded sacred thread is twisted. This thread is drawn round the interior of the
pavilion and when the chanting commences it is held by the chanting monks and given over
to be held by the person or persons for whose benefit the ceremony is held. A palm-leaf
copy of the Pirit-Pota, regarded as more sanctified than the printed one, occupies
a significant place on the table, representing the Dhamma, the second member of the
Buddhist Trinity. Consequently, while the printed copy is used for the legibility of its
script, the palm-leaf copy is regarded as indispensable on the table. The other important
item that is brought inside the pavilion is the casket containing the bone-relics of the
Buddha (dhatu-karanduwa), representing the Buddha. This is placed on a separate
decorated table on a side within the pavilion.
In the seating arrangement for the monks, two chairs, centrally placed near the table,
are referred to as yuga-asana or "seats for the duel." During a greater
part of the all-night recital, two monks occupying these two seats continue the chanting,
taking it in relays, instead of the full assembly. A post called indra-khila or raja-gaha
is planted securely and fastened between these twin chairs. This post, resembling a mace
in more ways than one, is attractively decorated and serves as a symbol of authority and
protection for the officiating monks. This is generally erected only when the ceremony
lasts for a week (sati pirita) or longer.
Even when the ceremony is held in a private home, the temple is inevitably connected
with every stage of the ritual. The temple authorities are responsible for assigning the
required number of monks. On the evening of the day on which the chanting takes place, a
few members from the particular household go to the temple in order to conduct the monks.
The monks would come in a procession in single file in order of seniority, attended by
drumming. At the head of the procession is carried the relic casket, borne on the head of
a layman, under an umbrella or a canopy. The beating of drums continues throughout. As the
monks enter the home, a layman washes their feet while another wipes them. They walk to
the pavilion on a carpet of white cloth (pavada) and take their seats around the
table. The relic casket, Pirit-Pota, and the bhikkhus thus come together,
representing the Triple Gem, the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, respectively.
Before the commencement of the ceremony proper, the usual time of which is around 9
p.m., the monks are welcomed and requested to perform the ceremony by being offered a tray
in which betel leaves, arecanut, cardamons, nutmeg, etc., are nicely arranged, the
ingredients being those taken for the chew of betel. This invitation is usually extended
by the chief householder if it is in a private home. Otherwise some leading lay devotee
would do it. One of the senior monks present would accept the invitation on behalf of the
entire Sangha and, in order to make the invitation formally valid, he would get the lay
devotee to repeat after him the following Pali stanza requesting the monks to begin the
Vipattipatibahaya -- sabbasampattisiddhiya
sabbadukkhavinasaya -- parittam brutha uttamam
"Please recite the noble pirit for the avoidance of all misfortune, for the
attainment of all success, and for the destruction of all suffering."
Next he would explain the significance of the occasion in a short address. This is
followed by ceremonial drumming (magulbera vadana), as a ritualistic preamble to
the ceremony, serving both as an invitation to the gods and an offering of sound (sadda-puja).
The monks too commence the chanting by reciting a stanza that invites all the divine
beings of the universe to the ceremony:
Samanta cakkavalesu Atragacchantu devata Saddhammam Munirajassa Sunantu saggamokkhadam
"May the divine beings of the entire universe come here to hear the good doctrine
of the King of Sages that confers both heavenly happiness and the freedom of
From the commencement of the chanting until its conclusion the following morning, the
pavilion is not vacated. The mahapirita (explained earlier), with which the
chanting begins, is chanted in a rhythmic manner by all the monks, numbering about ten or
twelve, seated in order of seniority. The rest of the discourses are chanted by two or
four monks. The ceremony is concluded the following morning with the recital, once again,
of the mahapirita at which ceremonial drumming takes place once more. This drumming
is also performed at the recital of important discourses like the Dhammacakkappavattana
Sutta and the Atanatiya Sutta. Once the chanting is concluded, convenient lengths of the
thread, sanctified by the chanting, are snapped off and tied around the wrists or the arms
of those assembled. A little of the sanctified water is given to everyone for drinking.
When the ceremony continues for several days (e.g. one week: sati-pirita), the
chanting must continue night and day without a break. When the set of suttas constituting pirit
is completed, chanting is recommenced from the beginning and in this manner they are
recited over and over again until the session is concluded. Both to begin and to end the
session, the mahapirita is recited in chorus by all the monks on each day at
sunrise and sunset.
An important ceremony connected with the seven-day (and longer) pirit ceremony
is known as dorakada-asna, which seems to have entered the pirit ceremony
during the Kandyan period (18th century). The theme of
this ritual is to invite all the deities residing in the vicinity and request them to
partake of the merits derived from the pirit ceremony and to help dispel all evil
and bring about prosperity to everybody.
This ritual involves several stages commencing from the morning of the last day of the pirit
ceremony, i.e. the seventh day if it is a seven-day ceremony. The first stage is the
preparation of the message to be taken to the neighbouring temple where the abodes of the
gods (devalayas) are also found. For this purpose several palm leaves (talipot), on
which the message is to be written, are brought to the chanting pavilion in a ceremonial
procession and handed over to a monk who has been previously selected to write the
message. Next, this particular monk writes down the auspicious time for the messenger of
the gods (deva-dutaya) to set out to the devalaya and reads it aloud, to be
sanctioned by the assembled monks. Once this is done another monk, also previously
selected, reads aloud a text written in a highly ornate stilted style, enumerating the
temples and devalayas at which the deities are requested to be present at the pirit
chanting that evening. This text is called the vihara-asna. Until these
preliminaries are gone through, the other monks keep holding the sacred thread. After
this, the monk who was appointed to write the message begins to write it while the other
The message contains the invitation -- which is a command from the Sangha (sanghanatti)
and hence not to be turned down -- addressed to all the deities residing at the religious
places enumerated in the vihara-asna to come and partake of the merits of the
week's pirit chanting. The message is prepared in quadruplicate. These are then
hung on a pole and handed over to a young boy, specially selected for the task and richly
attired as befits a messenger of the gods. Mounted on a caparisoned elephant and escorted
by men with swords, he carries the message in a procession to the devalaya. This
procession is called the devaduta-perahera, "the procession of the gods'
messenger," and has many features like dancers, drummers, mask-dancers,
At the devalaya, the bhikkhus and the deva-dutaya first go near a
Buddha-statue and pay homage, after which they proceed to the building where the statues
of the gods are and chant the Metta Sutta. The gods concerned are usually Vishnu and
Kataragama (Skanda). This is followed by ceremonial drumming (magul bera) as an
invitation to the gods, and next a monk reads out the message aloud. The four messages are
given to the lay officiating priest of the devalaya (known as kapurala) to
be hung in the four cardinal directions inside the devalaya. These are meant for
the Regents of the Four Quarters -- Datarattha (east), Viruda (south), Virupakkha (west),
and Vessavana (north) -- who are requested to come to the ceremony with their assemblies.
The procession now returns.
Until the monks arrive for the pirit chanting, the devadutaya is kept
confined and guarded. Once the monks arrive and take their seats inside the pavilion, a
dialogue takes place between the devadutaya and a monk, the purpose of which is to
reveal to the assembled gathering that the task of the messenger, which was to invite the
gods to partake of the merits, has been done and that all the gods have arrived. The devadutaya
makes this statement standing and guarded by the swordsmen, at the entrance (dorakada)
to the chanting pavilion within which the monks have taken their seats. It is this
statement of the devadutaya which thus comes to be called the dorakada-asna,
meaning "the message read at the threshold." The gist of this statement, written
in the same kind of stilted language as the vihara-asna referred to earlier, is
that all the gods invited have arrived for the pirit ceremony so that they may
dispel all misfortune and bring about prosperity to all.
After the dorakada-asna, another monk, standing within the pavilion, reads out a
similar text called the anusasana-asna, wherein all the gods assembled are
requested to rejoice in the merits of the entire ceremony. This monk holds in his hand a
round-handled fan made of the talipot leaf, elaborately decorated, a symbol of authority
and high ecclesiastical position. These three ritualistic texts mentioned in the foregoing
account (i.e. vihara-asna, dorakada-asna, and the anusasana-asna)
were all composed during the Kandyan period (18th century) when ceremonies and rituals,
especially those connected with the gods, became more popular than during the earlier
It is also worth noting, that this ceremony of dorakada-asna has, in addition to
its religious and ritualistic significance, considerable dramatic and theatrical value as
well, for the whole event, from the preliminaries of the morning to the grand finale of
the anusasana in the evening, contains much impersonation, mime, and dialogue. In
this connection we may note that as early as the time of Buddhaghosa (5th century A.C.)
there were Buddhist rituals with such theatrical features as is shown by the exorcist
ritual of reading the Atanatiya Sutta described in the Digha Nikaya Commentary (iii,
The recital of the Jayamangala Gatha, a set of eight benedictory stanzas
extolling the virtues of the Buddha, may also be cited as a popular custom partly related
to the chanting of pirit. This is usually done on important occasions like a
marriage ceremony, when setting out on an important journey, or when inaugurating any
venture of significance. This custom is inevitably observed at what is called the Poruva
ceremony when, after a couple to be married ascends a small decorated platform (poruva),
they are blessed for future prosperity. The recital is usually done by an elderly person
who, for the occasion, assumes the position of an officiating priest. At public functions
a bevy of young girls clad in white uniforms also do the recital. The contents of the
stanzas recited clearly show that the ritual is intended to bring happiness and prosperity
to the persons concerned or the successful completion of the project. Accordingly these
verses have come to be called "the stanzas of success and prosperity," Jayamangala
Gatha, and have become quite popular among all sections of the Buddhists. While the
origin of these stanzas is shrouded in mystery, it can be stated with certainty that they
were composed in Sri Lanka by a devoted Buddhist poet. The earliest available reference to
them is during the Kandyan period when they are given in a list of subjects that a monk
should study. This shows that they had become well established during the 16th and 17th
centuries; hence they must have been composed at least a century earlier. These stanzas
are regarded as efficacious because they relate eight occasions, each based on a beautiful
story, when the Buddha triumphed over his powerful opponents.
The chanting of what is called set-pirit by a few bhikkhus at the inauguration
of new ventures or at receptions and farewells to important public personages has also
become quite common. The chanting usually consists of a sutta like the Mangala, Ratana, or
Metta Sutta, and a few benedictory stanzas. Set-pirit is broadcast by the Sri Lanka
Broadcasting Corporation every morning as the first item of its programme.
5. Almsgiving and Funerals
1. The Almsgiving
The ceremony of pirit-chanting is very often accompanied by another important
ceremony, that of almsgiving. It is generally known as sanghika-dana, meaning
"the alms given to the community of monks." Such a ceremonial almsgiving is
often preceded by an all-night pirit ceremony. Even otherwise this ceremony too is
usually performed on important occasions in the same way as the pirit ceremony,
associated with such events as house-warming, setting out on a long journey, a marriage,
birth, or death anniversaries, and so forth.
At least four monks who have obtained higher ordination (upasampada) must
participate for the dana to become valid as a full-fledged sanghika-dana.
Such danas were held even during the Buddha's time, the Buddha himself
participating in very many of them.
Of the many items of offering that dana or the act of generosity could include,
food is usually regarded as the most important and the formal meal offering accordingly is
done with much ceremony and ritual. The monks are conducted from the temple in procession
with drumming as in the case of pirit. A layman leads the procession, with the
relic casket (dhatu-karanduva), representing the Buddha, borne on his head under an
umbrella or canopy. As they approach the particular household they are received by the
host. As the monks step into the house, one person washes their feet, while another wipes
them. This part of the ceremony is the same as in the case of the pirit ceremony.
The monks are then conducted to the cushioned seats arranged on the floor against the
wall. Alms are first offered to the Buddha in a separate bowl, and are placed on a
separate table on which the relic casket, containing a bone-relic of the Buddha, has been
set. All the items of food are served in plates and placed on mats or low tables before
the seated monks. A senior monk administers the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts (see
pp. 5-6) to the assembled gathering, as this has become the established custom with which
any Buddhist function commences. After he has given a short address on the significance of
the occasion, the food is formally presented by getting the chief householder to repeat a
Pali statement: imam bhikkham saparikkharam bhikkhusanghassa dema ("These
alms, along with other requisites, we offer to the whole community of monks"). Next,
the food is served and once the monks have finished eating (which should be before noon)
the other requisites (parikkhara), referred to in the statement quoted, are also
The most important item among these offerings is what is traditionally known as
"the eight monastic requisites" (ata-pirikara): the alms-bowl, three
robes, belt, razor, water-strainer, and sewing needle. This offering is regarded as
especially meritorious. As it is an expensive item and therefore difficult to offer to all
the monks, generally one ata-pirikara is offered to the chief monk and other items
such as books, towels, pillow-cases, umbrellas, etc., are presented to the other monks.
Once this is over, another monk administers what is called punnanumodana or
"thanks-giving" wherein all those who were connected with the ceremony are
requested to partake of the merits (punna) for their future good. The participants
are also called upon to transfer the merits they have thus acquired for the well-being of
their dead kinsmen and friends as well as for the sustenance of beings in the deva
worlds, i.e. the deities, who are expected to protect the donors out of gratitude. The
relic casket and the monks are conducted back to the temple in the same manner as they
were brought and the proceedings are concluded.
A related ritual that cannot be ignored as regards the ceremony of almsgiving is the
custom of getting the neighbours and friends also to serve into the alms-bowl that is
offered to the Buddha. On the morning of the day on which the almsgiving takes place a
separate bowl is kept on a table for this purpose. This is called the Buddha-pattare,
or the Buddha's alms-bowl. Alms served into it are regarded as offered to the Buddha
himself. The neighbours would come with plates of rice prepared in their homes and serve
into it. This rice is also taken when the bowl of food is prepared for offering to the
Buddha, near the relic casket at the time of the dana proper, the purpose here
being to get the neighbours and outsiders also to participate in this merit-making
Among Buddhists death is regarded as an occasion of major religious significance, both
for the deceased and for the survivors. For the deceased it marks the moment when the
transition begins to a new mode of existence within the round of rebirths. When death
occurs all the kammic forces that the dead person accumulated during the course of his or
her lifetime become activated and set about determining the next rebirth. For the living,
death is a powerful reminder of the Buddha's teaching on impermanence; it also provides an
opportunity to assist the deceased person as he or she fares on to the new existence.
Both aspects of death -- the message of impermanence, and the opportunity to help the
departed loved one -- find expression in the Buddhist funeral rites of Sri Lanka.
Naturally, the monastic Sangha plays a prominent role in the funeral proceedings. One of
the most important parts of the funeral rites is the ritual called "offering of cloth
on behalf of the dead" (mataka-vastra-puja). This is done prior to the
cremation or the burial of the body. Monks are assembled in the home of the dead person or
in the cemetery. The proceedings begin with the administration of the Five Precepts to the
assembled crowd by one of the monks. This is followed by the recitation in chorus of the
Anicca vata sankhara, uppadavayadhammino.
Uppajjitva nirujjhanti tesam vupasamo sukho.
Impermanent alas are formations, subject to rise and fall.
Having arisen, they cease; their subsiding is bliss.
Next follows this ritual, which consists of the offering of a length of new white cloth
to the monks. The cloth, called a pamsukula -- literally, a dust-heap cloth -- is
intended to be cut into pieces and then stitched into a robe.
After offering it, the close relatives of the deceased sit together on a mat, assume a
reverential posture, and together they pour water from a vessel into a cup placed within a
plate until the cup overflows. While the water is being poured, the monks intone in unison
the following stanzas extracted from the Tirokuddha Sutta of the Khuddakapatha:
Unname udakam vattam yatha ninnam pavattati
evameva ito dinnam petanam upakappati.
Yatha varivaha pura paripurenti sagaram
evameva ito dinnam petanam upakappati.
Just as the water fallen on high ground flows to a lower level,
Even so what is given from here accrues to the departed.
Just as the full flowing rivers fill the ocean,
Even so what is given from here accrues to the departed.
The context shows that the pouring of water in this manner is a ritualistic act
belonging to the field of sympathetic magic, symbolizing the beneficial inheritance of the
merit transferred by the living to the dead, as a kind of dakkhina or offering. The
entire ritual is hence an act of grace whereby merit is transferred to the departed so
that they may find relief from any unhappy realm wherein they might have been born.
Another funeral rite is mataka-bana or "preaching for the benefit of the
dead." The usual practice is to conduct a monk to the house of the dead person,
generally on the third day (or occasionally on any day within a week) after the funeral
and to request him to preach a sermon suited to the occasion. Accordingly he preaches a
suitable sermon for about an hour's duration to the assembled audience, which inevitably
consists of the deceased's relatives and the neighbours of the household. At the end of
the sermon, the monk gets the relatives to recite the necessary stanzas to transfer to the
deceased the merits acquired by organizing the event. Following this, a gift is offered to
the monk, and the invitees are also served with refreshments.
Three months from the date of death, it is customary to hold an almsgiving (sanghika
dana) in memory of the deceased and thence to repeat it annually. As in the case of
the rituals mentioned earlier, here too the purpose is to impart merit to the deceased.
Hence it is called the offering in the name of the dead (mataka-dana). The basis of
the practice is the belief that if the dead relative has been reborn in an unhappy
existence (i.e. as a peta or unhappy spirit), he or she would expect his or her
living relatives to transfer merit in this manner as these departed spirits or petas
are incapable of performing any meritorious deed on their own. Even their hunger and
thirst, which is perpetual, subside only in this manner. Hence they are referred to as
"living on what is given by others" (paradatta-upajivi). This custom can
be traced to the Buddha's own time when King Bimbisara was harassed by a group of his
departed kinsmen, reborn as petas, because the king had failed to give alms to the
Buddha in their name. Once this was fulfilled as requested by the Buddha, the petas
became happy and ceased to give any more trouble (KhpA. 202f; PvA.19ff). This was the
occasion on which the Buddha preached the Tirokuddha Sutta referred to earlier, which
further says that once these rites are performed, these contented spirits bless the donors
These rites, it may be mentioned here, resemble the sraddha ceremonies of the
Hindus in some ways. And it is also significant that, according to the Buddha himself,
only the dead relatives who have been reborn as petas are capable of receiving this
benefit (A.v, 269ff.).
6. Monastic Ceremonies
1. Vassa and Kathina
The Vassa, a three-month rains retreat, was instituted by the Buddha himself and
was made obligatory for all fully ordained bhikkhus; the details are laid down in the
Mahavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka (3rd and 4th chapters). The retreat extends over a period
corresponding to the North Indian rainy season, from the day following the full moon of
July until the full-moon day of October; those who cannot enter the regular Vassa
are permitted to observe the retreat for three months beginning with the day following the
August full moon. From the time Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Arahant
Mahinda, the observance of Vassa -- Vas in Sinhala -- has been one of the
mainstays of monastic life in the island. During the Vas the monks are expected to
dwell permanently in their temples and suspend all travelling. If unavoidable
circumstances necessitate travelling, they are allowed to leave their residences on the
promise that they will return within a week (sattahakaraniya). On the first day of
the retreat the monks have to formally declare that they will dwell in that manner in the
selected monastery or dwelling.
The Vassa is also a time for the lay Buddhists to express their devotion to the
cause of Buddhism by supporting the Sangha with special diligence, which task they regard
as a potent source of merit. It is customary for prominent persons to invite monks to
spend the Vas with them in dwellings specially prepared for the purpose. In this
latter case the host would go and invite the monk or monks formally. If the monks accept
the invitation, the hosts would prepare a special temporary dwelling in a suitable place
with a refectory and a shrine room. On the first day of the Vas they would go with
drummers and dancers to the monastery where the invitees reside and conduct them thence in
procession. The hosts would assume responsibility for providing all the needs of the monk
or monks during this period, and they attend to this work quite willingly as they regard
it as highly meritorious. If no special construction is put up, the lay supporters would
invite the monks to observe the retreat in the temple itself.
At the close of the Vas season, the monks have to perform the pavarana
ceremony. At this ceremony, held in place of the Patimokkha recitation, each monk invites
his fellows to point out to him any faults he has committed during the Vas period.
On any day following the day of pavarana in the period terminating with the next
full-moon day, the kathina ceremony is held. Different monasteries will hold the kathina
on different days within this month, though any given monastery may hold only one kathina
ceremony. The main event in this ceremony is the offering of the special robe known as the
kathina-civara to the Sangha, who in turn present it to one monk who has observed
the retreat. The laity traditionally offer unsewn cloth to the monks. Before the offering
takes place, the robe is generally taken, with drumming, etc., around the village in the
early hours of the morning. Once the robe is given to the Sangha, certain monks are
selected to do the cutting, sewing, and dying of the robe -- all in a single day. Public
contributions are very often solicited to buy the robe if it is not a personal offering.
This ceremony, which is performed with keen interest and devotion, has today become an
important occasion of great social and religious significance for the Buddhist laity. This
seems to have been so even in historical times when many Sinhala kings made this offering
with much interest and devotion (e.g. Mhv. xliv,48, xci, etc).
2. Monastic Ordination
There is deep ritualistic significance in the two stages of monastic ordination called pabbajja
and upsampada. The former is the initial admission into the homeless life as a
novice or samanera, which can be granted to any male over the age of seven or
eight, provided certain conditions are satisfied. The ritual proper consists in shaving
the hair and beard, donning the dyed robes, whose colour ranges from yellow to brown, and
then taking from the selected preceptor (upajjhaya) the Three Refuges in the
Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and the Ten Precepts (dasa sikkhapada): abstinence from
(i) destroying life, (ii) theft, (iii) unchastity, (iv) lying, (v) fermented liquor,
spirits, and strong drinks which cause intoxication and heedlessness, (vi) eating solid
food after midday, (vii) dancing, singing, music, and improper shows, etc., (viii)
adorning and beautifying the person by the use of garlands, scents, and unguents, (ix)
using high and luxurious beds and seats, and (x) receiving gold and silver, i.e. money.
The ceremony is performed on an auspicious day at the monastery where the ordination is
sought. Thus the postulant becomes a novice.
The full or higher ordination (upasampada) is more formal and difficult. The
higher ordination ceremony should be conducted in a prescribed and duly consecrated
"chapter house" (sima, or Sinh.: poya-ge), without which the
ritual is not valid. If the candidate possesses the necessary qualifications like
knowledge and intelligence and he is above twenty years of age, he may formally apply for
admission and appear before a chapter of bhikkhus. Before admission he is made to put away
the yellow robes and wear the clothes of a householder and face an interview at which he
would be thoroughly examined as to his fitness for admission. If he successfully passes
the test, he is led aside, reclothed in mendicant robes, and called back. Bearing his
alms-bowl, he once again appears before the Sangha and goes through certain formalities
after which, if all the monks agree, he is declared admitted.
3. Uposatha Observance
This refers to the ritual of confession performed by the monks on the new-moon and the
full-moon days, when the Disciplinary Code, the Patimokkha, is recited. This is a set of
227 rules, to be observed by the members of the Buddhist Order. When each of the seven
sections of the rules is recited amidst the assembled Order, if any among those present
has infringed any of those rules, he should confess and undergo any punishment prescribed.
Silence implies absence of guilt.
7. Bali and Tovil Ceremonies
Bali is the ceremony wherein the presiding deities of the planets (graha)
are invoked and placated in order to ward off their evil influences. The belief in the
good and evil influence of the planets according to the time and place of one's birth is
quite widespread in Sri Lanka. The first thing done at the birth of a child is to cast the
horoscope, which has to be consulted subsequently at all the important events of his or
her life. When a calamity like a serious illness comes upon such a person, the horoscope
would inevitably be consulted, and if the person is under a bad planetary influence, the
astrologer would recommend some kind of propitiatory ritual. This could be a minor one
like the lime-cutting ritual (dehi-kapima) or a
major one like a bali ceremony, depending on the seriousness of the case. If it is
a bali ceremony, he might also recommend the specific kind of bali suitable
for the occasion.
The term bali signifies both the ritual in general and also the clay
representations of the planetary deities which are made in relief on frameworks of bamboo
and painted in appropriate colours. The ritual consists of dancing and drumming in front
of the bali figures by the bali artist (bali-adura), who continuously
recites propitiatory stanzas calling for protection and redress. The patient (aturaya)
sits by the side of the bali figures.
The bali artist is helped by a number of assistants working under him. The
knowledge and art of performing the ritual are handed down in traditional families. The
retentive power of these artists is remarkable, for they can continue to recite the
appropriate formulas and verses from memory for days.
The bali ceremony is a mixture of Buddhism and folk religion. This cult of the
planets and the allied deities has become an important element in the popular living
Buddhism of the island. The origins of this type of bali ritual have to be traced
to the Kotte Period of the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was introduced into the island
from South India by some Hindu brahmins from that region. However, mainly owing to the
efforts of the celebrated Buddhist monk of the period, Ven. Vidagama Maitreya Thera, this
ritual was recast with a Buddhist significance, both in form and content, in that all the
verses and formulas used in the ritual are those extolling the virtues of the Triple Gem
-- the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha -- and of the Buddhist deities. It is these spiritual
qualities that are invoked to bring redress. The entire ritual is thus made subservient to
The ceremony begins after paying homage to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Even
during the course of the ceremony this homage is paid at important junctures. The majority
of the stanzas recited as benedictory verses by the artist extol the virtues of the Triple
Gem or refer to the Buddha's previous existences as a Bodhisatta. The verbal part of the
entire ritual consists mainly of the recitation of these verses and the pronouncement of
the blessing: "By the power of those virtues let the evil influence of the planets
disappear." It is believed that this kind of pronouncement of blessings becomes
effective only if they are made at such an elaborate ceremony like bali. As in the
case of the pirit ceremony described earlier, the spiritual qualities of the Buddha
are regarded as superior to any worldly powers like those of the planets and stars as in
the present instance, and consequently the ceremonial and ritualistic pronouncement of
those qualities is believed to counteract those evil forces. Those propitiatory
recitations also include the panegyrics (stotras) praising those planetary deities.
The preparation for the bali ceremony takes a day or two. Plantain stems, tender
coconut leaves, coconut and arecanut racemes, powdered resin, limes, betel, torches made
by wrapping clean rags around dry reeds (vilakku and pandam), coconut oil, flowers of different colours, and burnt offerings are among
the main items needed. Plastic clay and reeds will be needed in large quantities to cast
the bali figures. Life-size images of the planetary deities are moulded from these
and painted beautifully in bright colours. Each planetary deity has its own dress,
colours, diagram (mandala), support (vahana), weapon, etc. It is the nine
planets (navagraha) that are generally propitiated: the sun (ravi), moon (candra),
Mars (kuja), Mercury (budha), Jupiter (guru), Venus (sukra),
Saturn (sani), and Rahu and Ketu, the ascending and the descending nodes of the
When everything is ready, with the bali figures propped up leaning against a
wall and the patient seated by a side facing the figures, the chief bali artist
starts the proceedings by taking the Five Precepts and reciting a few benedictory stanzas
while the drummers start drumming. This takes place in the evening. After these
preliminaries it is more or less customary for the chief artist to retire to the side,
while one or two of his assistants would appear on the scene to perform the more vigorous
part of the ritual, consisting mainly of dancing and reciting.
The dancing artist wears an attractive and colourful dress consisting of white tights,
a red jacket adorned with white beads, anklets, pads of jingling bells around his calves,
and an elaborate headdress. In one hand he takes a pandama or lighted torch
adequately fed with coconut oil. While reciting formulas and dancing to the beat of the
drum, he throws handfuls of powdered resin into the burning pandama, setting up
flares of flames which are regarded as very powerful in driving away the invisible evil
spirits (bhuta). In addition to the virtues of the Triple Gem, his recitation would
also include legends and anecdotes taken from the Buddha's and Bodhisatta's lives.
Sometimes references to previous Buddhas are also made. Planetary deities are eulogized
and requested to stop troubling the patient.
Coconut-oil lamps, an incense burner, water pots with full-blown coconut racemes (pun-kalas)
are among the items inevitably found on the scene. Offerings done on altars made of
plantain trunks and tender coconut leaves will also be found. A number of such altars
called pideni-tatu may be set up; these are for the departed kinsmen of the family (nati-peta)
who are expected to stop harassing the living after receiving these offerings, which
generally consist of rice, seven selected curries cooked together (hat-maluwa),
burnt offerings (pulutu), coloured flowers, betel leaves, five kinds of seeds, etc.
A live cock, with its legs tied together so that it cannot run about, is placed in a
corner as an offering to the evil spirits. This is a kind of scapegoat, for all the evil
influences of the patient are supposed to be transferred to this bird, which is released
on the following morning.
The ceremonies actually end early in the morning when the artists carry the clay images
(bali figures) and the altars of offerings or pideni-tatu and leave them at
the cross-roads that the evil spirits who give trouble are believed to frequent.
Tovil or "devil-dancing" is another ritualistic healing ceremony that
primarily belongs to folk religion. As in the case of the bali ceremony, here too
many Buddhist elements have crept in and it has become a ceremony purporting to fulfil, at
the popular level, the socio-religious needs of the simple rural Buddhists.
Tovil is essentially a demonic ritual mainly exorcistic in character, and hence
a healing ceremony. In its exorcist form it is meant to curb and drive away any one or
several of the innumerable hosts of malevolent spirits, known as yakkhas, who are
capable of bringing about pathological states of body and mind. Petas or departed
spirits of the malevolent type, referred to as mala-yakku (mala = dead) or mala-peta,
are also brought under the exorcist power of tovil. While some of these could be
subdued by the chanting of pirit (described earlier), there are some for whom
methods of a more drastic type have to be adopted. The most popular of such methods is the
As was pointed out earlier in relation to rituals in general, tovil is also an
important aspect of folk religion that has been adopted by the Sinhala Buddhists. In the
case of tovil too, religious sanction is conferred on folk-religious elements that
have crept into normative Buddhism, supplementing, as it were, whatever is lacking in it
to satisfy the religious needs of the masses. The Buddha is the chief of living beings,
who include the yakkhas and other related non-human beings that figure in tovil.
Although they have the power to make their victims ill in various ways -- such as by
possession, gaze, etc. -- they have to leave them once propitiatory offerings of food,
drink, etc., are made to them. Even the mere mention of the Buddha's virtues is enough to
frighten them. Moreover, the chief of the yakkhas, Vessavana (Vesamuni), is
one of the four regents of the universe (maharaja) and as such a devoted follower
of the Buddha. The ordinary yakkhas that trouble human beings have to obey his
commands. Thus, in all rituals connected with tovil, it is in the name of the
Buddha and Vessavana that the yakkhas are commanded to obey the orders of the
exorcist. And in the rich folklore that deals with tovil, there are many anecdotes
that connect every ritual or character with some Buddha of the past or with some Buddhist
3. The Atanatiya Ritual
It is of interest to find a purely Buddhist form of an exorcist ritual that has been
practised by the Buddhists of Sri Lanka from very early times. This is the recital of the
Atanatiya Sutta (of the Digha Nikaya) in order to exorcise an evil spirit that has taken
possession of a person. The commentary to the sutta (DA.iii, 969), dating at least as far
back as the time of Buddhaghosa (c. 6th century A.C.) or even earlier, gives a detailed
description of how and when to recite it. According to this description, first the Metta,
Dhajagga, and Ratana Suttas should be recited. If the spirit does not leave by such
recital, the Atanatiya Sutta is to be recited. The bhikkhu who performs the recital should
not eat meat or preparations of flour. He should not live in a cemetery, lest the evil
spirits get an opportunity to harass him. From the monastery to the patient's house, he
should be conducted under an armed guard. The recitation
of the paritta should not be done in the open. Thoughts of love for the patient
should be foremost in the reciter's mind. During the recital too he should be under armed
guard. If the spirit still refuses to leave, the patient should be taken to the monastery
and the recital performed in the courtyard of the dagaba.
Many preliminary rites are recommended before such a recital. These include getting the
patient to offer a seat to the bhikkhu who is to recite the paritta, the offering
of flowers and lamps to the dagaba, and the recitation by the bhikkhu of a set of
benedictory stanzas, called (Maha)-mangala-gatha.
A full assembly of the deities should also be summoned. The person possessed should be
questioned as to his name, by which is implied the identity of the spirit who has taken
possession of him. Once the name is given, the spirit, but visibly the patient, should be
addressed by that name. It should be told that the merits of offering incense, flowers,
alms, etc. are all transferred to him and that the mangala-gatha just referred to
have been recited in order to appease him (pannaharatthaya: as a gift) and that he
should therefore leave the patient in deference to the Sangha (bhikkhusangha-garavena).
If the spirit still refuses to leave, the deities should be informed of his obstinacy and
the Atanatiya Paritta should be recited after declaring that as the spirit does not obey
them, they are carrying out the order of the Buddha.
It is significant that this is a purely Buddhist ritual of considerable antiquity
performed on lines similar to those in tovil. But the difference between the two
should also be noted. When tovil is performed to cure a person possessed by a
spirit, the spirit is ordered to leave the patient after accepting the offering of food
and drink (dola-pideni). But in the case of the Atanatiya ritual, it is the merits
earned by making offerings to the Buddha that are transferred to the spirit. Another
significant difference is that the Atanatiya recital, in keeping with its purely Buddhist
spirit, is much milder and more restrained than its tovil counterpart. The latter,
however, is much more colourful and theatrical owing to its complex and essentially
secular character. From the purely curative aspect, too, there is another attractive
feature in tovil: when the spirit leaves the patient it does so leaving a sign of
its departure, like breaking a branch of a tree, making a sound like a hoot, etc. It is
perhaps because of these attractive features that tovil has become more popular in
the island, replacing the truly Buddhist ceremony of the Atanatiya recital.
Nowadays in Sri Lanka, tovil has become the most popular form of cure adopted
for spirit possession as well as other pathological conditions consequent on this. When a
person is ill and medical treatment does not respond, the suspicion arises that it is due
to some influence of an evil spirit. The person to be consulted in such a case is the
exorcist known as kattadiya or yakadura or yaddessa who would discover and identify the particular evil spirit causing the
disease and perform the appropriate tovil. There are also certain forms of tovil
performed as pregnancy rituals (e.g. rata-yakuma) and others as means of
eradicating various forms of evil influences like the evil eye, evil mouth, etc. (e.g. gara-yakuma).
The devil-dancers start their ceremony by first worshipping the Buddha, Dhamma, and
Sangha, as in the case of the bali ceremony. The yakkhas -- who constitute
one of the main classes of malevolent spirits placated in devil-dancing -- are believed to
become satisfied with the offerings made by people through tovil and cease
harassing them. The yakkhas like Riri, Sanni, Kalukumaraya, Suniyan, Mahasohon,
Maru, etc. are some of the main spirits placated. There are eighteen main yakkhas
in this category, each representing a particular kind of illness, and in tovil
these demons are represented by the devil-dancers themselves, who wear their specific
masks and other apparel in keeping with the traditional forms ascribed to these spirits.
It is believed that by dancing, chanting, and acting the part of the demons after assuming
their likenesses through masks and other paraphernalia, the demons possessing the patient
would leave him. The sound waves created by the drum-beat and the chanting of stanzas
accompanied by rhythmic dancing in keeping with these sounds are all performed to a set
pattern traditionally laid down.
The collective effect of the ceremony is believed to cure the patient's illness. Thus
this dancing in tovil is a therapeutic ritual. The impersonation of the demon by
the dancer is regarded as tantamount to the actual presence of the demon who becomes
placated through offerings, recitations, chanting, miming, etc. When the spirits are
threatened and asked to leave the patient, they are asked to do so under the command and
in the name of the Buddha.
The ceremony known as rata-yakuma is performed to make barren women conceive, or
for the pre-natal care of pregnant women, and to ensure the safe delivery of children. One
of the episodes mimetically performed by the exorcist in this ceremony shows how barren
women, according to a Buddhist legend preserved among the Sinhala people, offer cloths to
the past Buddha Dipankara, the fourth in the line of twenty-eight Buddhas accepted by
Theravada Buddhists; they obtain children through the merits of the act. Among the rituals specially connected with women may be mentioned those
devil-dancing ceremonies that invoke the yakkha called Kalukumaraya in Sinhala. He
is very often associated with another group of yakkhas called rata-yakku,
whose leader is a female named Riddi-bisava. Another pregnancy ritual that deserves
mention here is the one known as kalas-tabima (lit. setting apart a pot). When the
first signs of pregnancy appear in a woman, a new clay pot is filled with certain
ingredients and kept apart with the solemn promise that once the child is safely delivered
a tovil will be performed. The ritual known as hat-adiya (seven steps) in
the tovil ceremony called suniyam-kapima, signifies the seven steps the
Bodhisatta Siddhattha is said to have taken just after he was born.
Two important facts that emerge from this brief description of tovil is the
theatrical value present in these rituals and the way in which religious sanction has been
obtained for their adoption by the Buddhists.
4. Goddess Pattini
The large number of rituals and ceremonies connected with the goddess Pattini also come
under Buddhist practices. This goddess, believed to be of South Indian origin, has become
the most popular female deity of the Sinhala Buddhists (see below, pp. 65-66). While Hindu
goddesses like Lakshmi, Sarasvati, and Kali are also worshipped by the Buddhists, only
Pattini has separate abodes among the Buddhists. The most important of the rituals
connected with Pattini is the gam-maduwa, which is an all-purpose ceremony. As this
ceremony is usually held after the harvest by offering the first portion of paddy
harvested, this is also a ceremony of first-fruit offerings.
A gam-maduwa has many interludes dramatized mainly from rich legendary lore about
the goddess Pattini. Kohomba-kankariya, or the
ritual of the god Kohomba, is a ceremony similar to the gam-maduwa but performed
more as an expiatory ritual.
Two other ceremonies of this type are pan-madu and puna-madu. All these
are different forms of the same type of ritual with slight differences. They are generally
referred to as devol-madu or occasions for the propitiation of the gods. The general purpose of such devol-madu is the
attainment of immunity from disease and evil influences and the achievement of success,
especially agricultural, for the entire village. A point that is sociologically important
is that as they are big communal gatherings they also fulfil the social needs of the
village folk. As they are performed in public places to bless the community as a whole and
turn out to be social get-togethers, they bear a corporate character. When it is decided
that such a ceremony should be held, all the village folk would forget their differences
and work together to make it a success. Further, while it mainly serves as a ritual to
propitiate the deities, it is a form of entertainment as well. Serving as it does the
socio-religious needs of the masses, it becomes a big social event for the entire village.
Gara-demons (gara-yakku (plural); -yaka (singular)) are a group of
demons twelve in number whose female aspects are called the Giri goddesses. Their
chief is called Dala-raja who is represented as having three hooded cobras over his
head, ear-ornaments, two protruding tusks, and a torch in each hand. When referred to in
the singular as gara-yaka it is he that is intended and when performing the ritual
it is the mask pertaining to him that is generally used as representing the group. These
demons are not inimical to humans but are regarded as removing various kinds of
uncleanliness and evil influences. Accordingly it is customary among the Sinhala Buddhists
to perform the ritual called gara-yak-natuma (dance of the gara-yakku) at
the end of religious ceremonies like annual peraheras, tovil ceremonies,
etc. This is to ward off what is called vas-dos in the terminology of the folk
religion, the effects of evil-eye, evil mouth, evil thoughts, etc. The malicious
influences of these evil forces have to be eliminated before the participants return to
their normal activities. And for this it is these demons that have to be propitiated.
Accordingly, they are invited to come and take away their prey, promising not to harm the
participants thereafter. A dancer impersonates the gara-yaka by wearing the
appropriate mask just referred to and in the dialogue that takes place between him and
another dancer, he promises to comply with the request if certain things are given to him.
These include drinks, food, sweets, and money. These items are given and he departs in
peace. The ceremony is held annually at the Vishnu Devalaya in Kandy after the annual
Esala Perahera. It goes on for one week from the last day of the Perahera and is referred
to as vali-yak-natuma.
8. Worship of Devas
1. Deva Worship
Besides the ceremonies and rituals like pirit, sanghika-dana, kathina,
etc., that can be traced in their origin to the time of the Buddha himself, there is
another popular practice resorted to by the average Sri Lankan Buddhist which cannot be
traced to early Buddhism so easily. This is deva-worship, the worship of deities,
in what are popularly called devalayas or abodes dedicated to these deities. This
practice cannot be described as totally un-Buddhistic, yet at the same time it does not
fall into the category of folk religious practices like bali and tovil
adopted by popular Buddhism.
The word deva, meaning "god" or "deity" in this context,
signifies various classes of superhuman beings who in some respects are superior to
ordinary human beings through their birth in a higher plane. As such, they are capable of
helping human beings in times of difficulty. There is also another class of such superior
beings who were originally extraordinary human beings. After their death, they have been
raised to the level of gods and are worshipped and supplicated as capable of helping in
times of need. These are the gods by convention (sammuti-deva) or glorified human
heroes like the Minneriya Deviyo, who was glorified in this manner in recognition of his
construction of the great Minneriya Tank at Polonnaruwa, or God Vibhishana, one of the
four guardian deities of Sri Lanka. Both these categories of deities are, however, subject
to the samsaric laws pertaining to birth and death. Thus it is seen that deva-worship
is based on the theory that a superior being can help an inferior being when the latter
needs such help.
In addition to their role as helpers in need, an additional duty ascribed to the devas
is the safeguarding of the Buddha-sasana, i.e. the Buddhist religion. This also has its
origin in the story of the Buddha himself when the four divine regents of the universe
mounted guard over him and helped on various occasions of the Bodhisatta's life from his
conception onwards. The benevolence of the deities is also extended to the protection of
the faithful followers of the Buddha's teachings as exemplified by Sakka, the good
Samaritan in many Buddhist stories.
In Sri Lanka there are four deities regarded as the guardians of the Buddha-sasana in
the island: Vishnu, Saman, Kataragama, and Vibhishana. Although Vishnu is originally a
Hindu god, the Buddhists have taken him over as a Buddhist deity, referring to him also by
the localized designation Uppalavanna. And so are Siva, specially under the name Isvara,
and Ganesha under the name Ganapati or the more popular appellation Gana-deviyo.
In the devala-worship the devotees make offerings to these deities and solicit
their help for special purposes, especially in their day-to-day problems. A noteworthy
feature in this practice is the presence of a mediator between the deity and the devotee,
a priest called kapurala, or kapu-mahattaya or simply kapuva, the
equivalent of the Hindu pusari. This figure has been copied from South Indian Hindu
practices, for even in North India the devotees appeal directly to these higher powers
without the help of such an intermediary.
By devala offering is meant the offering of food and drink as well as gifts of
cloth, coins, gold, and silver often accompanied by eulogies addressed to the particular
resident deity and recited by the kapurala. In many Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka
there are devalayas dedicated to various deities. Devala-worship of this
type is a ritual that has gained popularity among the local Buddhists since the
Polonnaruwa period (12th century). In the present day it has acquired a vital place in the
religious life of the Buddhist masses. This is one of the aspects by which the "great
tradition" of Nikaya Buddhism has been supplemented by popular elements. This shows
that if Buddhism is to prevail as a living force among all classes of its adherents, it
has to make provision for the popular demands related to the day-to-day life of the common
It is customary for many Sri Lankan Buddhists to visit a devalaya of one of the
deities and make a vow that if the problem at hand (i.e. illness, enemies, etc.) is
solved, they will make an offering to the deity concerned. Offerings are made even without
such a special request. Whatever the case may be, this practice has become a ritual of
propitiation through the kapuralas.
The main duties of the kapuralas are to look after the devalayas in their
charge, to perform the prescribed rituals, and to offer in the inner shrine the offerings
brought by devotees. The kapurala is given a fee for his services. Once the ritual
is over, a part of the offerings is given back to the devotee for him to take home and
partake of as having a sacramental value. The offerings normally consist of milk-rice,
coconuts, betel, camphor, joss-sticks, fruits, along with flowers, garlands, flags, etc.
All these are arranged in an orderly manner in a basket or tray and handed over
respectfully to the kapurala, who takes it inside and offers it at the statue of
the main deity inside the inner room. The devotees wait outside with clasped hands while
the kapurala makes his pleadings on their behalf.
The statement he recites, called yatikava in Sinhala, is a panegyric of the
deity concerned and it constitutes a humble and respectful request to bring succour to the
devotee in his particular predicament. After this the kapurala emerges from the
inner shrine room and blesses the devotees by using his thumb to place on their forehead a
mark of a paste made from saffron, sandalwood, and other ingredients. This mark, the
symbol of sanctification, is known as the tilaka.
This form of ritualistic propitiation of deities is a clear adaptation of the Hindu
system where the very same method is followed, though more elaborately.
2. The Gods
Kataragama. Devalayas dedicated to the different deities are scattered
all over the island. God Kataragama (Skanda) in southern Sri Lanka is by far the most
popular, as he is considered to be the most powerful deity capable of granting the
requests of the worshipper. It is for this reason that he has acquired territorial rights
throughout the island. Devalayas dedicated to him are found in many places in the
island, some of which are maintained by the Hindus.
Ganesha. The elephant-shaped god Ganesha, regarded as the god of wisdom and the
remover of obstacles, is also very popular among the Buddhists under the names Ganapati or
Gana-deviyo. He is worshipped as the chief of obstacles (Vighnesvara) because it is
believed that he is responsible for creating and removing obstracles. He does this through
troops of inferior deities or demi-gods considered as attendants of Siva, present almost
everywhere, who are under his command. It is in this sense that he is called Gana-pati
(chief of hosts), which is the epithet popular among the Buddhists. The devalayas
dedicated to him are mostly run by the Hindus. The Buddhists worship him either through
his statues, found in many Buddhists temples, or by visiting the Hindu kovils
dedicated to him. As the god of wisdom and of learning, he is propitiated at the time a
child first reads the alphabet. As the chief of obstacles, as their creator as well as
remover, the Hindus begin their devala-ritual by making the first offering to him.
Another popular aspect of his worship in some parts of Sri Lanka can be observed along
the main roads, especially in the North-Central Province, where his statue is placed near
trees and propitiated by travellers so that they may have a safe journey. The propitiation
usually consists of breaking a coconut in his name, offering a coin (pandura), etc.
Natha. Natha is purely a Buddhist god, apparently the local counterpart of the
all-compassionate Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. He is referred to in Sri Lanka by
the abbreviated form Natha. His cult, as that of Natha, had become quite popular during
the Kotte period (14th and 15th centuries), while references to him are found as early as
the 9th and 10th centuries as shown by archaelogical evidence. The centre of the cult was
Totagamuwa near Hikkaduwa in the Galle District. Two of the more ancient devalayas
dedicated to this deity are found at Kandy and at Vagiriya. The premises of the Kandy devalaya,
opposite the Temple of the Tooth, are considered especially lucky and sacred, for the
important royal rites like choosing a name for the king, putting on the royal sword, etc.,
were held there. It was Natha's all-pervading compassion that seems to have been appealed
to by the local devotees.
Vishnu. The important Hindu god Vishnu has also assumed a special Buddhist
significance in the island. He is identified with the god Uppalavanna of the Mahavamsa,
to whom Sakka, the king of the gods, is said to have entrusted the guardianship of Sri
Lanka at the request of the Buddha before his passing away. This god is said to have
arrived in the island to fulfil this mission. The name Uppalavanna means "the colour
of the blue water-lily." As Vishnu is of the same colour, Uppalavanna became
identified with Vishnu, and in the wake of the Mahavamsa tradition, he became, as Vishnu,
the protector of the Buddha-sasana in Sri Lanka. The calculated omission of the name
Vishnu in the Mahavamsa in this connection may be viewed as an attempt at total
localization of the divinity with a view to harmonize him with the cultural fabric of the
island. His main shrine is at Devinuwara (Dondra), at the southern tip of the island,
where an annual Esala (July-August) festival is held in his honour. If the identification
is correct his cult can be traced to the earliest phase of the history of the island and
has been popular up to the present day.
Pattini. Goddess Pattini, referred to above (see p.59), is prominent as the most
popular female Buddhist divinity; she has her devalayas scattered throughout the
country. Her cult goes back at least to the second century A.C. The then ruler, King
Gajabahu, is said to have introduced the worship of this divinity into the island from
South India. The legend about her life is told in the
Tamil poem Silappadikaram. According to the myths current in the island about her,
she had seven incarnations, being born seven times from water, the tusk of an elephant, a
flower, a rock, a fire (or peak), cloth, and a mango. Hence she is designated as sat-pattini,
sat meaning seven.
There are colourful stories woven around these births. The story about her unswerving
fidelity to her fickle husband Kovalan (or Palanga) in her birth as Kannagi, is quite
popular among the local Buddhists as attested by the existence of many Sinhala literary
works dealing with the story (e.g. Vayantimalaya, Pattinihalla, Palanga-halla,
Her favours are sought especially at times of pestilences like chicken pox, measles,
etc. and also by women who desire children. It is customary for the Sri Lankan Buddhists
to visit her devalaya and worship her with offerings after recovery from infectious
diseases. The banishment of evil influences and the attainment of prosperity in general
and good harvests are other purposes behind the ceremonies performed in her honour. She
also plays an important part in the ceremonies connected with the offering of first
Devalayas dedicated to her are found in many parts of the island, the one at
Navagamuwa, about fifteen miles from Colombo on the old Avissavella Road, being the most
important. The sanctity of this place seems to go back to the time of King Gajabahu.
Sakka. Sakka, the king of the gods, has been an important figure in the Buddhist
affairs of Sri Lanka. Tradition connects him with the Buddha himself in connection with
the landing of Vijaya and his followers in the island in the 6th century B.C. On this
occasion, at the Buddha's request, Sakka is said to have entrusted Vishnu with the
guardianship of Buddhism in the island. It was Sakka too who sought Arahant Mahinda and
requested him to come over to the island when the time became opportune for its conversion
Saman. Another important deity in the island is Mahasumana, Sumana or Saman, the
guardian or the presiding deity of Sri Pada mountain or Sumanakuta (Adam's Peak), which
the Buddhists treat as sacred on account of its bearing the impression of the Buddha's
left foot, which he left on his third visit to the island. (Mhv.i,77ff.).
God Saman is recorded as having met the Buddha on the latter's first visit to the
island when he visited Mahiyangana to drive away the yakkhas. Saman became a
stream-entrant (sotapanna) after listening to the Buddha, who gave him a handful of
hairs with which he erected the dagaba at Mahiyangana (Mhv.i,33). He is regarded as
the chief deity of the area surrounding the sacred mountain as well as of the hill-country
in general. Accordingly his main shrine is at Ratnapura, where an annual festival is held
in his honour.
Vibhishana. Another deity, somewhat similar to Saman, is Vibhishana, who is
regarded as the brother of the pre-historic King Ravana of Sri Lanka. His main shrine is
at Kelaniya, as a part of the famous Buddhist temple there.
Dadimunda. Another deity who likewise came into prominence during the Kandyan
period (17th and 18th centuries) is Dadimunda (Devata Bandara) who, according to the
prevalent tradition, landed at Dondra (Devinuvara) in South Sri Lanka from South India. He
proceeded to Alutnuvara in the Kegalla District, taking up permanent residence there in a
temple, which he himself got constructed. This is the chief shrine of this deity and here
too an annual festival is held. He is regarded as a general of Vishnu and accordingly, at
the main Vishnu shrines in the island, he also has his shrine on a side (e.g. Dondra,
Kandy, etc.). Another interesting tradition says that he was the only deity who did not
run away in fear at the time of Bodhisatta Siddhattha's struggle with Mara. While all the
other deities took flight in fright, he alone remained fearless as the Bodhisatta's only
guardian. He is portrayed in the attire of a Kandyan chief with his special attribute, a
walking stick (soluva). His Kandyan dress symbolizes his suzerainty over the
Huniyan Deviyo. The patron deity of the sorcerers in Sri Lanka is Huniyan or
Suniyan, who has been promoted from the status of a demon to that of a deity. He is also
regarded as the deity presiding over a village area bounded by its boundaries (gam-kotuwa),
in which role he is designated as gambhara-deviyo (deity in charge of the village).
In many of the composite devalayas he too has his shrine, the one at Lunava, about
seven miles from Colombo close to the Galle Road, near the Lunava railway station, being
his chief devalaya.
Besides these deities so far enumerated there are many other minor figures who are too
numerous to be mentioned here. What is important is that in the case of all these deities,
the method of propitiation and worship is the same as explained earlier and every such
deity is in charge of a particular aspect of life. And all of them are faithful Buddhists,
extending their respective powers not only to the Buddha-sasana but also to those who
follow it faithfully.
As Buddhists, none of these is regarded as superior or even remotely equal to the
Buddha. They all are followers of the Buddha, who has transcended the round of rebirth (samsara),
while they are still within samsara, hoping to achieve release from it by following
the Buddha's Teaching.
1. On the significance of the phases of the moon in Buddhism
see Ch. 3. [Go back]
2. The poya day routine will be described below, pp.24-31 [Go back]
3. This term has become a very common means of expressing
religious devotion; usually it is repeated about three times and the clasping of hands in
the gesture of worship inevitably accompanies it. [Go back]
4. These formulas may be found in The Mirror of the Dhamma
(BPS Wheel No. 54), pp.5-8. [Go back]
5. Authoritative opinion holds that there is nothing irregular
in its continuation now as its long usage has invested it with the necessary validity. [Go back]
6. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Mediaeval Sinhalese Art (New
York: Pantheon Books, 1956), plate XLV. [Go back]
7. See above, p.13. [Go back]
8. E.W. Adikaram, Early History of Buddhism in Ceylon
(Migoda, Sri Lanka, 1946), p.140. [Go back]
9. Ibid. [Go back]
10. It may be mentioned here that in astrology the month
begins with the new moon and all calculations are done accordingly between two new moons
as one month. [Go back]
11. This perahera is held in honour of God Kataragama
(see below, p.64). [Go back]
12. On this problem see NIBWA: Newsletter on
International Buddhist Women's Activities, Vol. 11, No. 1, Oct.-Dec. 1994, pp.3ff. [Go back]
13. At present Nagadipa is taken to refer to a small island
about twelve miles off the western coast of Jaffna, where a Buddhist temple is identified
as the place the Buddha visited. However, in historical times, Nagadipa referred to the
modern Jaffna peninsula and the northwest of Sri Lanka. (See Malalasekera, Dictionary
of Pali Proper Names, II, p.42.) [Go back]
14. The Pirit-Pota is also known by the more honorific
designation Piruvana-Potvahanse. For an English translation of the most important
texts from this work, see Piyadassi Thera, The Book of Protection (BPS, 1981). [Go back]
15. The protective spells represented by each of these terms
slightly differ from one another as regards their form. [Go back]
16. Kotagama Vacissara Thera, Saranankara Sangharaja
Samaya, pp.118-19. [Go back]
17. Ibid. [Go back]
18. For details of the Atanatiya recital see below, pp.55-57. [Go back]
19. For details see Ordination in Theravada Buddhism
(BPS Wheel No. 56). [Go back]
20. This is a ritual lasting for about an hour in which the
exorcist, using an arecanut cutter, cuts a certain number of charmed limes over the head
of the patient. A tray is placed before the patient holding flowers of various colours,
burnt offerings, betel, etc. Waving a mango-twig over the patient's head, the exorcist
utters incantations and recites benedictory stanzas. The mango twig is regarded as having
power to drive away evil spirits. [Go back]
21. Vilakku are the small reeds, about a foot long and
half an inch in diameter, while pandam signify the larger ones, about 18 inches
long and 2 inches in diameter. [Go back]
22. The choice between these two depends perhaps also to some
extent on the socio-religious maturity of the patrons. [Go back]
23. All these are precautionary measures meant to immunize the
reciting bhikkhu against the influence of evil spirits, which phenomenon is referred to as
tani-vima ("becoming alone") in a very general sense. [Go
24. The reference most probably is to the set of benedictory
stanzas beginning: "Maha karuniko natho," which is found at the end of
the local edition of the Catubhanavara text. See too Mirror of the Dhamma,
pp.30-34. [Go back]
25. When this person is addressed directly the common term
used is gurunnanse (the honorific suffix unnanse is added to the term guru
-- teacher). [Go back]
26. E.R. Sarachchandra, The Folk Drama of Ceylon, 2nd
ed. (Sri Lanka Government, Dept. of Cultural Affairs, 1966), p.40. [Go back]
27. First-fruit offerings are annual rituals held at important
Buddhist temples and devalayas. Almost every province of the island has an
important temple where it is held. The ritual is generally known as alut-sahal-mangalyaya
(the ritual of offering new rice), rice being the staple food of Sri Lanka. [Go
28. E.R. Sarachchandra, The Folk Drama of Ceylon, pp.
25, 26, 47f. [Go back]
29. Ibid., p.26. [Go back]
30. See Encyclopaedia of Buddhism, II, pp.413-14. [Go back]
31. C.W. Nicholas and S. Paranavitana, A Concise History of
Ceylon (Ceylon University Press, Colombo, 1961), pp. 79-80. [Go back]
32. E.R. Sarachchandra, The Folk Drama of Ceylon, p.47.
33. The Ceylon National Museum Mss. Series. Vol. IX --
Ethnology-4, p.iii, para. 5. [Go back]