Rituals, Unpacked

Sri Lanka is rich in religious and cultural rituals. Some of them are a mix of different religions and many of them cut across communities. This feature, while not an exhaustive list of the country’s many rituals and beliefs, explores a select few that highlight the richness and diversity of our country. Instead of documenting them through an obvious lens, we took a more conceptual photography approach with studio photography by Shafraz Farook. We have ‘deconstructed’ them, focused on the elements that make up each of these rituals, and highlighted the significance of the items used. From cleansing rituals that use turmeric and lime leaves, fragrant incense burning practices and auspicious rice meals shared by three religions, 5,000 rupee alms to monks, to wearable tech thats replacing wearing pirith strings, this feature takes a unique look at rituals, practices and beliefs that have shaped, and are shaping, Sri Lankan society and culture today.
Flowers are a key element in Buddhist rituals. Flowers are offered to the Lord Buddha in worship and temples and shrine rooms are designed with space in front of statues in order to place flowers. White or yellow are the preferred colours for flowers, and pink lotuses that have a symbolic place in Buddhism as pink lotuses are believed to have blossomed when Lord Buddha took his first seven steps after he was born. The use of flowers in rituals has also meant that it has generated an industry, as many people earn an income from it. It’s a ubiquitous sight to see dozens of flower sellers selling fresh flowers outside of temples, some arranged in “mal watti” or flower baskets. The fading of flowers is also significant, as it is meant to remind worshippers of the impermanence of life – a key tenet in Buddhism.
The ‘buth packet’, or packet of rice, is one of the most common items used by Sri Lankans in rituals to give thanks, bestow merit, or remember lost loved ones. Cutting across all religious and ethnic communities, giving a rice packet to someone less fortunate is believed to help acquire good karma to the giver or for the person in whose memory the rice packet was given. On death anniversaries of loved ones, rice packets consisting of the favourite food of the deceased are given away. On birthdays or anniversaries, the number of rice packets given away correspond with the number of significance of that occasion. A typical bath packet would consist of boiled red or white rice, curries of dhal, beans, tempered potato, and fish or chicken.
Lime and turmeric play a significant role in auspicious and cleansing rituals in Sri Lanka. Lime is considered to have protection powers and households often hang a sprig of lime leaves at the entrance to their homes or places of business. Those making long journeys or journeys to religious festivals hang lime in front of the vehicle in order to protect those who travel in the vehicle. In addition to the health benefits of turmeric, it has an important place in Sri Lankan and Indian households and considered to be very auspicious. It is believed that the auspicious or scared association attributed to turmeric is an outcome of Sun worship. Given its antiseptic powers, certain Buddhist households use turmeric mixed with water to cleanse the entire house, including sprinkling it on walls, after a death has taken place in the house. More recently, the use of ‘Sunlight’ soap instead of turmeric is also noteworthy. As turmeric is believed to ward off evil spirits, people often wash or sprinkle the entrance and front steps of homes and places of business every morning before commencing the day. (Photo by Shafraz Farook, Text by The Picture Press)
The foundation stone laying ceremony is an important part of any construction in Sri Lanka, whether it is a small house or office, or a high-rise building. An auspicious time determines when the foundation stone will be laid and in which direction the person laying the stone should be looking towards. In the construction of a home, the homeowner generally lays the stone while in non-residential construction a person of importance or significance to that building lays the stone – such as a religious priest, the Chairman of the company, a Government dignitary, etc. The foundation stone that people purchase is a hollow brick with several items placed inside. The number and type of items inside vary, but some items like gemstones are a must. Once the items are all inside the foundation stone, some fill up the space with unhusked paddy. The items found inside the foundation have various purposes – for protection, for luck, to ward off evil spirits, symbolic representations of the people, the land and the produce. Some of these items include sea sand, river sand, sand from between two stones, river bank soil, soil that has been touched by an elephant’s tusks, dried herbs and roots, dried flower buds, grains such as green gram, red rice, mustard seeds, pieces of tree bark, camphor, gemstones, gold, silver. Each item has a specific and significant meaning and is a mixture of beliefs and usages from different ethnic and religious communities.
Tasbih is a string of prayer beads used by Muslims to perform dhikr, in which short phrases or prayers are repeatedly recited silently or aloud, glorifying God (Allah). A tasbih with 99 beads symbolise the ninety-nine names of God in Islam. Sometimes only 33 beads are used, in this case tasbih would be cycled 3 times to reach 99.The main phrase repeated through the first thirty three beads is “SubhanAllah” which means “Praise be to God.” For the next thirty three beads, “Glory be to God,” or “Alhamdulillah” and for the final thirty three beads, “Allahuakbar” which means “God is most great”, is repeated.
In an exclusively Buddhist ritual, ‘pirikara’ is offered by lay people to monks as part of an alms giving conducted in a home or at the temple. In addition to serving a meal, the giving of alms would include, what is traditionally known as, the ‘eight monastic requisites’ or ‘ata-pirikara. This offering would consist of an alms-bowl (‘paaththaraya’), a set of 3 cotton robes (‘depota sivura’, ‘thanipota sivura’ and ‘andana sivura’, a cloth belt (‘benda patiya’), a razor (‘deli pihiya’), a water-strainer, and a sewing needle and thread. These items represent the very simple lifestyle and basic needs of a monk. But the full pack is not inexpensive (around Rs. 4,000), and may be difficult to offer to all the monks, so often 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 the offering is complete, and before the monks return to the temple, they would administer what is called “punnyanumodana” to bestow merit on all those involved in the alms giving ceremony. They are also called upon to transfer the merits they have thus acquired for the well being of relatives and friends who have passed, as well as to those in the ‘deva world’, i.e., deities or Gods, who are expected to protect the donors out of gratitude.
A ‘pooja vattiya’ or basket of offering is a ubiquitous sight in Buddhist places of worship in Sri Lanka. Whether it is to mark a family member’s birthday, invoke blessings from the Gods for a child’s examinations, bring luck in a new job, wish success for a new business venture, the offering serves any purpose. Some devotees, and indeed pooja vatti vendors themselves, prefer to offer up the fruits whole, while others prefer to cut them. The baskets come in different sizes, with the price increasing from about Rs. 300 to sometimes Rs. 1000 for the largest. The colour and pattern of the plastic “necklace” draped on top of the fruits corresponds to the particular God or Goddess to whom the offering is being made. It’s believed that once presented to the Gods, eating the fruits returned to you brings blessings. It is also customary to offer some of the fruits to others around you – even strangers – and as alms to any beggars in the temple premises.
Kiribath or Paalchoru is a dish demarcating an auspicious day in Sinhala and Tamil culture. Traditionally cooked using the milk boiled at an auspicious time for example at the New Year, milk rice is typically served on festive days, celebrations days and at the New Year. Rice is cooked with fresh coconut milk and salt and laid out in a thick layer on a banana leaf. Pockets of air are smoothened out using a banana leaf and the milk rice is cut into diamond shaped once it is set. Pongal is typically made on Thai Pongal festival days for example and is another form of festive rice made by those of tamil origin. It is made as an offering or gesture of thanks to deities. It is made using mung beans, jaggery and raisins.
In the event of a family death, no meals are cooked in the home. Family and friends gather around the bereaved in support and refreshments – tea, coffee or soft drinks – maybe served. It is believed that this is based on hygiene considerations. Once a body leaves the home, women boil a pot of milk over the space where the body was, and it is believed that impurities remaining are absorbed into the milk. Following the burial or cremation of the deceased, the first meal to be cooked in a home where a funeral was is known as the ‘Mala Batha.’ This simple meal typically consists of pumpkin and dried fish curry. Pumpkin is is said to have antidepressant properties, while it is believed that salted fish or dried fish will replace salts lost through tears. Vegetable curries such as beans, dhal are typical accompaniments, and in more urban settings, large funerals onion sambols, coconut sambols etc are also now typically included. Salted fish and pumpkin are often not cooked and served together, in the same meal, in the absence of a funeral.
Intricate patterns made up of coloured rice denote an auspicious day in Hindu culture and tradition in Sri Lanka and South India. Kolams patterns range between geometric and mathematical line drawings around a matrix of dots to free form art work and closed shapes. Hindus strongly believe that it is an invitation to the Goddess of prosperity and wealth, Lakshmi into their home, warding off evil spirits on days of significance. Traditionally, the front steps of a home was washed and, cowdung was used to prepare a kolam with white rice flour. This tended to also attract small insects and ants, which indicated that Goddess Lakshmi was welcome. Rites of passage including coming of age, weddings, and birth of children have specific Kolams, and become more extravagant for example Kolams prepared during weddings are undertaken by all women in the family and can stretch across the street.
Warding off evil by burning incense powder over coconut shell coal embers is a ritual shared by Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims alike. The incense is often a mixture of natural plant-based materials and essential oils, and much of the fragrant powders used in Sri Lanka are imported from India and the Middle East. More recently, a local cottage industry of incense (or ‘joss’ sticks) has emerged, however. The incense is sometimes bought whole, in the shape of small rocks, and later powdered or granulated as required, in order to maintain freshness. The fragrance of the powder used may differ from one religion to another, but their uses are often similar. Warding off evil spirits is common to all three, and the incense powder is burnt and spread around homes, offices, and places of worship. Buddhists would light it up and sprinkle the powder while walking around a scared Bo tree chanting slokas. Hindus would light it and carry it around the house to bless a newborn child or cleanse a new house. Some Muslim households would light it up on “Friday’s eve” in the belief that it is the day of the week that angels visit, and spreading this fragrance would attract them to their home.
Coins and notes are an integral part of the offering made by Sri Lankans of all religions at their respective places of worship. Coins, a single one or several at a time, dropped into a large till box in front of the shrine or stupa; a larger note placed in a rolled up betel leaf and stuck into a fruit basket offering, or a coin washed, wrapped in a clean cloth and tied alongside a statue to make a vow; are just some of the numerous ways in which money is used in ritualistic offerings in the country. While just around ten years ago, the most common denomination to drop into a box would be a one rupee coin, now it’s not uncommon to see 5 or 10 rupee coins, or even 10 and 20 rupee notes being dropped in. It’s also not uncommon to see pooja vattis with a thousand rupee note stuck amidst the betel. But yet, the singular coin has remained the same for those who use it to make a vow or “baarey”.
The necessity of dry rations such as rice, dhal, tea, milk powder and tinned fish transcend religious and cultural divides. Sri Lankan homes often stock these items in times of need and it made up the building blocks of relief efforts post tsunami and during the IDP crisis. The dry rations in this instance mean something simpler, yet significant. A popular bhikkuni residing 45 minutes outside of Colombo is renown for welcoming people in their times of extreme grief, recieves them with a warm smile, and counsels them with a matter of fact approach to life and its hardships. She preaches little about the dhamma and more about common sense and the need for compassion amongst all beings. Her only request to those who come to see her is to bring dry rations, which she then uses to feed the hundreds of people who visit her for her company or for their solitude. She serves them all a meal before they leave.
From a generation that would reach for the ‘pirith book’ or wash and then worship in the shrine at home, lifestyles have changed dramatically in much of urban Sri Lanka today. ‘Millenials’ are more likely to wake up and reach for their smartphone to reply texts or wash and then check Facebook. Gadget use of young Sri Lankans is visible everywhere – from public transport to political rallies. In the past, people would keep a protective medallion in their handbag, now many would keep a USB ‘juice pack’ to give their phone extra battery life as they use it incessantly throughout the day. Alongside pirith strings or bands of blessing of other religions around people’s wrists, we are seeing wearable tech devices like fitness trackers. Ensuring that a work or home space has Wi-Fi coverage is treated almost as critical as ensuring the space has is regularly blessed. But gadgets are also allowing young people to interact with religion and rituals in new ways. Increasingly, churchgoers in the city are seen reading verses off their iPads instead of a bible. Pirith chanting can be played off CDs or audio tracks can be downloaded and listened via personal music devices like iPods. (Photo by Shafraz Farook, Text by The Picture Press)
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