(@Daily News, by B. H. Hemapriya)
“There is another sport, which generally all People used with much delight, being, as they called it, a sacrifice to one of their Gods; to wit, Potting Dio. And the benefit of it is, that it frees the Country from grief and Diseases. For the beastliness of the Exercise they never celebrated it near any Town, not in sight of Women, but in a remote place.
The manner of the Game is thus. They have two crooked sticks like Elbows, one hooked to the other, and so with contrivances they pull with Ropes, until the one break the other; some siding with one stick, and some with the other; but never is money laid on either side.
Upon the breaking of the stick, that Party that hath won doth not a little rejoyce. Which rejoicing is exprest by Dancing and Singing, and uttering such sordid beastly Expressions, together with postures of their Bodies, as I omit to write them....
...and even the King himself hath spent time in it, but now lately he hath absolutely forbidden it under penalty of a forfeiture of money. So that now the practice hereof is quite left off.
But tho it is thus gone into disuse, yet out of the great delight of the People had in it, they ofGompala would revive it again, and did....”
Robert Knox, An Historical Relation of Ceylon AD 1681
The sport that Robert Knox writes about is the offering of ankeli puja to the Goddess Pattini. It is being revived over the weekend in Uva-Udagama, a purana village at the foot of the Namunukula Peak between Badulla and Passara at the historic ampitiya built during the reign of King Rajasingha 11 (1635-87).
Ankeli puja in the villages in the hill country was almost an annual event some decades ago. However, this festival as well as Sokari (ritual dance-drama and mime), pora pol and gammadu (socio-religious observances) which represent other rituals of the Pattini cult are becoming far and few between with the gradual removal of rural characterisation. Rising costs of organising these elaborate rites is another factor.
The culture pulsating in the rural interior, the heartland of the island, is derived from Buddhism. However, it is derived not so much from the lofty teachings of orthodox Buddhism as from folk Buddhism.
Folk Buddhism is an amalgam of Yakka and other magico-religious rites, primitive animism, the worship of some of the Gods of the Hindu pantheon and the propitiation of deities and demons of Sri Lankan conception. Folk Buddhist beliefs are tinged strongly with an element of the fear of the jungle.
These beliefs can only be understood in terms of the fears ingraved in the local psyche from times when Yakkas and similar tribes held sway over the island and thereafter when Brahmanism became the religion of the ruling elite with gods of the Hindu pantheon being venerated.
These awesome fears were infectious diseases, fickle weather patterns and natural calamities attributed to the anger of a variety of gods and demons who had to be propitiated to obtain succour.
Even after the introduction of Buddhism in the Third Century B.C. and in spite of state patronage for orthodox Buddhism, the new faith had to come to terms with entrenched folk beliefs, one being adopted by the other in a spirit of accommodation. The tenacious devotion to Pattini was one such characterisation.
Popular belief is that King Gajabahu (AD 113) introduced the Pattini cult to Sri Lanka. The king is credited with restoring the country’s honour by liberating 12,000 Lankan prisoners taken to South India during the reign of his predecessor.
He also brought back with him the sacred rice-bowl and the insignia of the four devales of which the’ kingdom had been despoiled previously. As a further reprisal he is said to have brought with him the jewelled anklet of the South Indian Goddess Pattini, the worship of which set off the cult of Pattini.
This belief that King Gajabahu introduced the Pattini cult is disputed by Prof. Gananath Obeyesekera, one of the country’s leading anthropologists. His view is that the cult was introduced in the 13th Century by traders and merchants and Royal patronage was conferred on the Pattini cult during the reign of Parakrama Bahu VI (1411-1466) of Kotte who first built a shrine in her honour in Sri Lanka.
Whatever the view, the cult was so compelling that during the Kandyan period Goddess Pattini was elevated as one of the four guardian gods of country.
Whereas other gods and deities in folk Buddhism are venerated in respectful awe, the Pattini cult has a folksy appeal. In traditional society where motherhood is sacred, people reach out to Pattini endearingly as Pattini Amma.
It is a measure of her diverse appeal that observances to please her range from Sokari, healing rites, agricultural fertility rites and mass sports involving martial arts, one of which is ankeli. Her diversity is completed by being, also venerated as the goddess of chastity.
Ankeli is referred to at length in the late P. E. D. Deraniyagala’s monograph Some Sinhala Combative, Field and Aquatic Sports and Games.Deraniyagala was of the opinion that combative sports were practised in various parts of the country, not merely for amusement but in order to foster a disregard for pain and death and to inculcate the valour and pugnacity essential for the survival of a race.
Ankeli, according to him, was the sport of hook tugging. Two teams took part—udu pila and yati pila — the traditional ‘division of a Sinhala village in respect of the veneration of God Pattini.
The teams met at the ampitiya or tugging field. The teams bring a variety of an or hooks either made from very hard wood or from the base of a sambhur horn. A strong liana is fixed to the base of the horn belonging to each team and is passed between the hole of a stout tree or leg stuck firmly into the ground. Eventually both hooks are interlocked and the two teams tug at the liana in the same direction until one of the horns give way or is damaged.
The team having the damaged hook is declared vanquished and the winning team sings, and jeers the losers by going round them and resorting to gestural abuse bordering on vulgarity.
It is this type of jeering that does not allow women to participate actively and be near the proceedings. They are, however, wont to watch discreetly from afar.
The sport goes on throughout the day with several horns pitted against the other. The whole village participates, all in good humour in spite of purple patches in the proceedings. It becomes a healing rite (shanti karmaya) with the Goddess Pattini believed to be presiding watchfully.