March 2016


Looking for Certainty
March 2016




Theatrical performances in between narrate many a legend connected with the ritual

Gammaduwa, an elaborate ritual, is part of humankind's desire to be safe from life's sadnesses and undesirable events.


Words
Jennifer Paldano Goonewardena Photography Anuradha Perera


Drums beat. Men dance. One is dressed as a woman, others as deities and demons. One act follows another. The spine-chilling atmosphere is illuminated with torches, which turn in the darkness as men in white, black and yellow, with coronets, turbans and bandanas, spin to the songs of invocation and prayer. From dusk to dawn, the Gammaduwa, a ritual that has crossed between Buddhism and Hinduism, is performed, to call for a village and its people to be protected from adversity.

Gammaduwa is usually performed in the months of January to May, which are considered the most fertile months of a year, suited for auspicious events
The genesis of the ritual is steeped in legend. A king is cursed with an endless headache. Neither medicine nor magic could break the grip of the curse. Guided by wise men to seek solace in a land sanctified by Buddhist philosophy, the king headed for the shores of Lanka. Arriving in Navagamuwa, a grand ceremonial altar was built, where the ritual of Gammaduwa was first performed. This was a symbolic display of the consolidation of the Buddhist ethos with that of the Hindu Pattini Cult.


Gammaduwa is usually performed in the months of January to May, which are considered the most fertile months of a year, suited for auspicious events. Widely performed in Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara, up to the Bentara River in the South, Gammaduwa belongs to the low country tradition of dance. The Gammaduwa ritual is also part of the up country and Sabaragamuwa dance traditions, with regional variations and similarities.


Gammaduwa means “a hall in the village”, constructed  to worship gods by the people of one or more villages
Described as shanthikarma a cleansing ritual, the ceremonies called Gammaduwa and Devolmaduwa are an invocation to the gods. Gammaduwa means "a hall in the village", constructed to worship gods by the people of one or more villages. The Devolmaduwa, on the other hand, is held in the premises of a Devale, by a single family or village. Mudiyanse Dissanayake, Senior Professor at the Department of Drama, Ballet and Contemporary Dance at Sri Lanka's University of the Visual and Performing Arts, explained that the Gammaduwa ceremony is a multifaceted rite that includes many stages.


Performed only by menfolk, there is a period of earnest preparation, involving abstinence and self-discipline. The preparation culminates with a bath of purification prior to the ceremony. The cutting and preparation of the Milla tree (vitex pinnata) for fire walking is done in a procession, the practice being famously associated with the Pattini Cult. The ceremonial floor is adorned with simple home-grown décor made from palm fronds. Water is poured out of a clay vessel resembling the face of a leopard with 12 spouts, invoking blessings of deities. This vessel is subsequently destroyed as a symbol of purging all evil. A lamp is then lit in the altar of every deity. A bamboo trunk is ignited and remains alight throughout the ceremony, to evoke times when torches lit the landscape. A purification ceremony with incense, flowers and saffron water ensues. A man dressed like a woman, epitomising Pattini with hands decked with bracelets and rattling anklets, performs an hour-long dance. Another important element is the placing of armaments at the altars, followed by a powerful performance to invoke power to these implements. According to Mudiyanse Dissanayake, people believe that the dancer is possessed by the spirits of the deities. At the end of the dance, he runs amidst the audience with a flaming stick of fire.

rituals such as the Gammaduwa will endure as long as humans continue to seek answers to life’s unexplained questions
The repetitiveness of dance sequences is interrupted by the performance of a drama, again associated with history and legend. The arrival of Devol, the god of vengeance, is also depicted melodramatically. Dancers cavort with various instruments, such as the veena, conch shell, flute, tupan and oboe, and implements such as a canopy, umbrella, flags and fans made of palm fronds. The penultimate performance recalls the legend of the god Sakra bringing Pattini's spouse, followed by the finale, the Gara Netima, where a dancer wearing a devil mask delights the audience. This performance is meant to ward off all evil. At dawn, people share the milk rice cooked in honour of the deities; for people reliant on the vagaries of nature for a bountiful harvest, the provision of gods is an assurance of good fortune. As Dissanayake said, rituals such as the Gammaduwa will endure as long as humans continue to seek answers to life's unexplained questions.


Thus, a legend may have given birth to the Gammaduwa, but for centuries the people of Sri Lanka have found succour in a practice that invokes the gods. Whatever the rational mind may think, for ordinary folk pitted against life's misfortunes, such a complex spectacle of deference is an antidote to an uncertain world.

 

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    An altar dedicated to one of the deities

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    Performers are generally entrusted with all the duties such as lighting lamps placed on stylised palm fronds

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    Crowds watch with great reverence

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    An all-male performance, the Gammaduwa ritual is an energetic and animated display of religious fervour

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    A pandama is handed over to an important layman in the audience at the beginning of the ritual

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    The beat of drums adds that all important crescendo to a mystical night

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    Gyrating dancers display electrifying performances with torches of fire

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    Evocative of times when torches of fire lit the landscape, an erected bamboo trunk known as a 'pandama' is ignited and remains alight throughout the ceremony

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    A dancer with a ''pandama'' in hand orbits the ritual ground

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    White, black, red and yellow being the colours worn by the performers, the costumes are often two piece ensembles with a bandana or turban

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