By P.K. Balachandran
The Munneswaram Kovil in Chilaw is presently at the centre of a controversy over animal sacrifice.
Although animal rights activists are among those, who are fighting for the end of this practice, the opposition voiced by the standard bearers of Sinhala-Buddhism like the Janthika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a section of Buddhist monks, and the ebullient Minister of Public Relations, Mervyn Silva, has given the movement an ethno-religious colour.
Since the Tamils, per se, have kept their views to themselves (barring the All Ceylon Hindu Congress, which has issued statements opposing animal sacrifice) the movement has acquired the look of Sinhala-Buddhist opposition to a time-honoured practice in an ancient Tamil Siva temple.
However, this divide, seen in media coverage and political statements, does not reflect the situation on the ground at Munneswaram. The divide also goes against the rather unique historical association of the Munneswaram Temple complex with ethno-religious harmony, namely, harmony between the Tamils and Sinhala-Buddhists. Literature on the temple complex reveals that from the earliest times, it has been a unifier rather than a divider of Sri Lanka’s two major communities.
The temple, including the shrine for Bhadra Kali, where animal sacrifice takes place, has been a rallying point for Tamil Saivites and Sinhala-Buddhists since the 10th century, when it was constructed. The main shrine, devoted to lord Siva and his consort Ambal, and the smaller one for Bhadra Kali, have been meeting grounds for these two communities even in periods of great ethnic strife, as in the 1980s, when the island was torn by rioting, terrorism and war.
Though the kovil was built in an era when Chilaw was dominated by Tamils from South India, the Sinhala Buddhist King, Parakramabahu VI, granted it land and revenues during his reign in the 15th century. Interestingly, parakramabahu VI (1412-1467) was the last Sri Lankan King to have ruled over a unified island.
In the early 1600s, when the area was under the sway of the Portuguese, Jesuit priests broke the idols and pulled down the temple. But in the 1670s and 1750s, when Chilaw was part of the Sinhala-Buddhist Kandyan Kingdom, attempts were made to rebuild it with the blessings of the Kandyan Kings. However, it was only a century later, in the 1870s, under British rule, that substantial reconstruction took place.
Though the Hindu temples in the Munneswaram complex are owned and headed by Tamil Brahmin priests and non-Brahmin Poosaris, patrons and worshippers have been predominantly Sinhalese-Buddhist, says Rohan Bastian, in his doctoral thesis turned into a book entitled: The Domain of Constant Excess: Plural Worship at the Munneswaram temples in Sri Lanka, Berghahn Books, 2002.
During his fieldwork from the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, Bastian found that worshippers at the main shrine for Siva and Ambal were 78% Sinhala Buddhists. In the case of the Bhadra Kali shrine, it was 82%. There were some Roman Catholics, and even a small number of Muslims, among the worshipers, he points out.
The Munneswaram temple complex has five shrines, three of which are Hindu and the rest are Buddhist. The biggest is the Siva and Ambal kovil (the main shrine). The Bhadra Kali kovil comes next. The smallest is a Pullayar (Gana Deviyo) kovil. The two Sinhalese-Buddhist shrines are the Pusparama Pansala and the Aiyanayaka Temple. The Pusparama Pansala was established in the latter part of the 19th century and the monks there belong to the Siam Nikaya of Kandy.
Aiyanayaka is the guardian deity of the entire Munneswaram complex. According to Bastian, Aiyanayaka is the Sinhala form of the Tamil ‘Aiyannar’, who is a village guardian deity among the Tamils. Bastian also says that the Aiyanayaka of Munneswaram could be having a Kerala origin as he rides an elephant rather than a horse. However, as in Sinhala-Buddhist shrines for village guardian (gambara) deities, the Aiyanayaka here receives bundles of green leaves as offering. The shrine is owned by a Sinhala-Buddhist.
Merging with Pattini cult
Although, the Munneswaram complex is identified with Siva (the Sinhala Buddhist Isvara) the more popular deity is his consort, Ambal. The main festival in Munneswaram, which attracts the biggest crowd is that of Ambal and not Siva. Most of the worshippers are Sinhala-Buddhists.
This is probably because Sinhala-Buddhists identify Ambal with Pattini, a popular Sinhala-Buddhist deity, whose worship was introduced to the island by the Sinhala-Buddhist King Gajabahu (114-136 AD). Gajabahu had brought the cult with him from the Tamil Nadu-Kerala region of South India, which he had visited during the reign of the Chera King, Sengottuvan. Pattini is the honorific name for Kannagi, the virtuous and dedicated wife of Kovalan in the Tamil classic Silapadikaram. She later became the goddess of chastity, loyalty, courage of conviction and fearlessness, and came to be worshipped in many parts of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka, albeit under different names.
According to Social Anthropologist Gananath Obeysesekere, the Sinhala-Buddhists were able to absorb the Pattini cult because it stemmed from the Buddhist-Jain era in South Indian history. Obeyesekere points out that while the Sinhala-Buddhists have made Pattini a part of their pantheon of gods and goddesses, they have kept Kali or Bhadra Kali out of it, although they worship her. Kali is still a Hindu deity, a ‘ghoulish outsider.’
According to Bastian, the term Ambal may actually be a corruption of Amma Paal (Tamil for mother’s milk), a deity, which is worshipped by lactating mothers for plentiful breast milk. He points out that the Sinhala-Buddhists also worship a similar deity called Kiri Amma (Milk Mother).
Sinhala-Buddhists look upon the Munneswaram Kovil as a temple for Pattini. For them, Siva’s consort Ambal, is none other than Pattini. They believe that the main Siva-Ambal shrine is a Pattini shrine, which had been turned into one dedicated to Siva-Ambal. This is reflected in the popularity of the Ambal festival at Munneswaram, Bastian points out. No wonder this festival attracts the largest number of people, of whom, over 75% are Sinhala-Buddhists.
Goddess of the masses
Though the Ambal shrine attracts enormous crowds, the more popular shrine is the one dedicated to Bhadra Kali (Auspicious Kali).
Sinhala-Buddhists flock to this shrine, vastly outnumbering the Tamils. The Navarathri festival, which is an important event in the Hindu calendar, and is one of the major festivals conducted by the Siva-Ambal Kovil, attracts the Tamils rather than the Sinhala-Buddhists. The latter go for the annual festival of Bhadra Kali instead.
In his field study in the 1980s and 1990s, Bastian found certain interesting socio-cultural differences between those, who frequented the main Siva temple and those who patronized the Bhadra Kali temple.
About the typical worshippers at the Bhadra Kali shrine he writes: “Many of them have impoverished urban backgrounds, and like some of the political leaders they supported in the 1980s, they were associated with organized crime and political thuggery.”
Contrasting this with the clientele at the Siva temple, he says that these were drawn from the landed gentry. “Their economic status had been closely woven with colonial history, land, plantations, government service and education.”
Comparing the clienteles of the two shrines, Bastin says: “In short, it could be said that if the elite frequented the Munneswaram (the main) temple, the parvenu frequented the Bhadra Kali temple.”
The Kali Kovil is said to owe its origin to the Chilaw region’s exposure to the Southern coast of India populated by Malayalis and Nadras (a Tamil caste group found in southern Tamil Nadu and southern Kerala). For the Nadars, Kali is a tutelary deity. According to the 1901 Census of India, Kali worship was popular in Kerala especially among the Ezhavas or the Ezhavathys, a caste group, which straddled Kerala and Sri Lanka. A caste of toddy tappers, agricultural workers and soldiers, the Ezhavas are believed to have gone to Kerala from ‘Eelam’ (the ancient Tamil word for Sri Lanka). The 1901 census had noted that the priests of the Kali temples in Kerala were Ezhavathys.
Sorcery and bloody sacrifice
Like many other temples dedicated to Kali in the Indian subcontinent, the Kali kovil at Munneswaram is noted for animal sacrifice, sorcery, alleviation from sorcery, and for rituals to protect oneself from distress, disease and the evil eye. Bastian noted that most of the experts in these Tantric rituals and also those, who went into trance were Sinhala-Buddhists. There was also a sprinkling of ritual specialists, who were Catholics.
That the Bhadra Kali shrine at Munneswaram has been in existence for centuries is attested by the fact that the Jesuit priests, who had been assigned the Munneswaram area for missionary work by the Portuguese rulers in the first decade of the 17th century, had painted a grim picture of it.
In a letter dated 5 December 1610, written from Chilaw to the Jesuit headquarters in Cochin in Kerala, Fr. Cagnola SJ said: “The enemy of mankind, who had so long held his tyrannical sway from the idol, as from a citadel, has been put to the rout by the celestial standard. Formerly, the wicked hell hound had such a mastery over the place that nobody dared to pass by it, even in broad daylight. Women, who dared to pass that way, were said to be possessed by a demon, or hung up on trees, or were stripped of her clothes, or had some indecent freak played upon them. But now, after the erection of the cross, wonderful to say, all these spectres and impurities have ceased altogether. The way is safe now, and people pass the spot unmolested, day and night and free from all fear.”
Commenting on the Jesuit’s observations, Bastian says that if one were to weed out the remarks typical of Western missionaries about ‘pagan’ shrines and priests, Fr. Cagnola’s remarks will accord with the image projected by Munneswaram in the minds of some people now. This is because devotees regularly fall into trance, curse their enemies and offer blood sacrifice there even now.
History of Kali worship
Although Kali is an ancient goddess in India, her worship on a wide scale is a fairly recent phenomenon, says social psychologist Ashis Nandy. The image of Kali, her attributes, and the forms of Kali worship, have also changed from time to time in Hinduism’s 5,000 year history. Forms of worship too, have not been the same everywhere in the Indian sub-continent.
Kali, which in Sanskrit means ‘She Who Is Black’ or ‘She Who is Death’ is an ancient Hindu goddess of time, doomsday, and death, says Encyclopaedia Britannica.
“Kali’s iconography, cult, and mythology commonly associate her with death, sexuality, violence, and, paradoxically in some later traditions, with motherly love. Although depicted in many forms throughout South Asia, Kali is most often characterized as black or blue, partially or completely naked, with a long lolling tongue, multiple arms, a skirt or girdle of human arms, a necklace of decapitated heads, and a decapitated head in one of her hands. She is often portrayed standing or dancing on her husband, lord Siva, who lies prostrate beneath her,” the encyclopaedia says.
Mythology has it that on an appeal made by lord Siva, Kali took on the demons that were tormenting humans as well as the gods. But when the killing spree went beyond bounds, lord Siva intervened putting himself on Kali’s path of destruction. She came to her senses, but only after she unwittingly stamped on lord Siva himself.
Deity of the marginalized
Though ancient, Kali worship was not popular for centuries. According to Ashis Nandy, she was the goddess of marginal groups like thugs (highway robbers), dacoits, thieves and prostitutes. However, at the end of the 18th, and the beginning of the 19th centuries, Kali began to be worshipped by the elite of Calcutta in Bengal. The hard-pressed traditional elites of Bengal needed a powerful goddess like her to face a plethora of new crises in their lives.
After centuries of good harvests, late 18th century Bengal was laid waste by recurrent famines. In one of them two-fifths of Bengalis had perished. British rule, with its new laws and requirements, posed new challenges for the traditional elites, who were forced to re-establish their traditional high status as per the new Western norms. The monetization of the economy had enabled the despised traders and lower castes to become part of the elite and challenge the traditional gentry, who drew their status from land holding.
Traditional caste-based patron-client relations, which governed the agriculture-based economy had given way to new and unfamiliar labour relation norms in an increasingly urbanized setting.
Radha Kumar, writing on Kali worship, notes that Kali worship became prominent in times of crisis such as famines, epidemics and personal and familial crises. This was because the deity graphically represented brute power (the martial aspect of Shakthi) against the forces of evil. She also represented procreation and nature. In this context, it was only natural that bloody sacrifice was thought to be a suitable form of worship in the shrines dedicated to Kali.
In South India, vegetarianism is the norm for temple priests. But in the case of the priests in Kali temples, this is waived. The priests here also need not be drawn from the Brahmin caste. At the Bhadra Kali temple in Munneswaram too, the priests are non-vegetarian non-Brahmins. Everywhere in South Asia, including Munneswaram, Kali is the goddess of the masses, the hoi polloi. In Munneswaram, the worshippers cut across religious and ethnic lines also.
During the Indian freedom struggle in the early part of the 20th century, the revolutionaries, who believed in an armed struggle, used the imagery associated with Kali. Women’s rights campaigners used it in their fight against the traditional male-dominated society.
Kali undergoes makeover
But as the Bengali elite got reconciled to the systems introduced by the British, and economic conditions in Bengal improved, the public image of Kali took on more benign attributes. The image of Kali merged with that of Durga, and the deity was worshipped as a ‘Mother goddess,’ the provider of love, protection, sustenance and happiness, rather than destruction.
The makeover given to Kali’s image virtually put an end to animal sacrifice, which had been part and parcel of Kali worship traditionally. However, some Kali temples (like the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati in Assam and the Bhadra Kali kovil in Munneswaram) still allow animal sacrifice.
Bastian, Rohan, The Domain of Constant Excess: Plural Worship at the Munneswaram Temples in Sri Lanka, Berghahn Books ,2002.
Kumar, Radha, The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Womens’ Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990 ,Zubaan, New Delhi, 1993
Nandy Ashis, Exiled at Home: A Nineteenth Century Tale of Women, Violence and Protest, Oxford University Press ,New Delhi, 1998.
Britannica Online on Kali and Parakramabahu VI