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The Pattini cult 

Divinity of chastity

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

The Pattini cult is a system of Hindu religious belief woven into the fabric of chastity or sexual purity claimed as the highest virtue of womanhood.

The cult was brought to the island by king Gajabahu alias Gajabahuka Gamini (112-134), from South India, along with the sacred anklet of the goddess, presented to him by king Senguttuvan, a Solian, as a token of goodwill.

While in India, king Gajabahu became aware of the miraculous powers of the goddess and saw the newly built temple erected in her honour. He participated in a grand 'pooja' conducted by the devotees who had assembled at the temple to pay homage to the deity.

When the cult was brought to Sri Lanka, a Hindu temple, dedicated in honour of the goddess, was first built at Vattapalli near Mullaitivu (Ethnology Vol. 1 p. 124). Today, the principal Pattini devale is at Nawagamuwa, about 20 km. from Colombo on the low-level highway to Avissawella.

The Buddhist temple near the devale is of later construction and was the work of Ven. Katuwawala Sumanatissa thera, for worship by the Buddhists before beseeching divine help of the goddess, in keeping with the Buddhist principle that gods are subordinate to the Buddha.

According to authoritative sources, the devale at Nawagamuwa was built by king Rajasinha I (1581-1592), who embraced Hinduism, on the advice of Artittakivendu Perumal, a Saivite, to overcome the patricidal sin in killing his father, king Mayadunne of Sitawaka.

Since then, the devale has become a principal place of divine worship, specially for women who go to the devale to invoke blessings to ease childbirth and to make vows to cure infectious diseases, such as smallpox, chickenpox, measles, mumps, pertussis etc., which are viral diseases.

When it comes necessary to prove the legitimacy of a child in dispute, and on an order of court, the mother is made to swear her innocence, by touching a stone pillar within the devale. It is known as 'divurum-gala' (swearing stone). It is done on an order issued by the magistrate, in the presence of court officials. According to folklore, the pillar has become shorter than before, by women touching it in averment.

Clandestine affair

This Tamil goddess Pattini, before she became deified, was known as Kannaki and her husband was Kovalan. According to the Tamil text 'Seelappadikaram' (the tale of the anklet), Kovalan developed a clandestine affair with a young temple dancing girl called Madhavi, who made him a destitute person, a pauper, by wasteful means.

Kovalan, leaving Madhavi, went to meet Kannaki and asked her for some money to redeem his debts. As she had no money to give Kovalan, she removed her anklet of gold and gave it to him to sell and find the money.

Kovalan went to a goldsmith and sold it to him, who melted it. In the meantime, the queen of the Pandyan king had told her consort about the loss of her anklet. Immediately, the king made a public announcement that anyone who could give information as to the whereabouts of the anklet, he would be rewarded. Hearing the news, the goldsmith rushed to the palace and told the king that a person sold him an anklet which he melted to make ornaments.

The king sent for Kovalan and butchered him for stealing the queen's anklet. Hearing the sad news, Kannaki rushed to the palace, blatantly upbraided the king and told him that the anklet was hers which she gave her husband to sell and find money.

In anger, she pulled out one of the breasts and dashed it on the ground. Immediately the palace was ablaze killing the king and the inmates. Her act of chastity made her a deity, receiving the veneration of those who had faith in her moral purity, a rare character of womanhood.

Goddess Pattini has seven manifestations ('avatars'), known as Orumala, Karamala, Gini, Devol, Saman, Ayragana and Siddha. These manifestations are represented by the Seven 'Kriammas' to whom 'dana' (alms) is offered in the fulfilment of vows.

Although these women are called 'Kiriammas' (breasts full of milk), the participants are all haggered-looking old women who have gone dry years ago. According to the Pattini-hella, the goddess was born of a mango. Legend has it that there was a huge mango tree in the garden of the Pandyan king.

It bore a huge fruit, bigger than a water pitcher, but no one was able to pluck it. God Sakra (Indradeva), who came down to earth, disguised as a brahmin, shot an arrow and the fruit fell to the ground. A drop of its lactiferous juice accidentally fell upon one eye of the king and he became blind.

He was so wrathful that he ordered to fell the tree. But, all efforts failed.

Miraculous power

The king having become scared of the miraculous power, put the fruit inside a golden pitcher and allowed it to float down the river Kaveri. The king Manthoduwa Manayara and his consort Marakkali, brought it to the bank of the river. Immediately, a princess was born and she was named Kannaki.

A twisted version of this story is that the fruit was offered to the Buddha, who, after eating it, threw the seed into the river and from it sprang the princess. However, it is evident that attempts have been made to connect the princess with Buddhism.

Today, goddess Pattini is one of the four guardian gods of the island, the other three being Natha, Vishnu and Kataragama. She came into prominence during the Kandyan period (1706-1815), when Malabari kings from South India ruled the Kandyan kingdom, from 1739 to 1815.

They were Hindus and had much faith in the goddess. Before this period, god Saman, the tutelary deity of Mount Sri Pada, was one of the guardian gods, but his place was taken over by goddess Pattini and the Esala perahera in Kandy has a place for the Pattini devale.

Apart from Pattini-hella, other works such as Palanga-hella, Salamba Santiya and Ambavidamana, deal with the story of Kannaki and her elevation to the status of a deity. There is also the story that she was born of a flower. Hence the name Mal Pattini. The work 'Panthis Kolmura' is associated with the 'Pooja' conducted by 'kapuralas' of the devale beseeching divine help of the goddess.

The birth of Kannaki, her marriage to Kovalan alias Palanga, her chastity and her miraculous powers are interwoven to form a group of 35 chants, known as 'Panthis Kolmura'. It is recited by the 'kapuralas' when offering 'Poojas' and by 'pattinihamys' (women who participate in the 'ammavarunge dana').

The text 'Seelappadikaram' has a Jain cum Hindu influence, where 'Kolmura' is influenced by Buddhism. 'Manimekhalava' is another text in Tamil that deals with the story of Pattini and the miracles performed by her. The Dance of Madhavi is similar to temple dances which were in vogue in Hindu temples in the ancient past. These dances are highlighted in the 'Sandesa-kavyas' (epic messages) belonging to the Gampola and Kotte periods.

Fire - walking ceremony

The Nawagamuwa devale perahera is held in the month Esala, with the plating of the 'kapa (sacred log) to mark the event. The 'Gini Maduwa' is held seven days after the perahera. It is also known as 'Devol Maduwa'. This event is marked by the fire-walking ceremony, to signify the valour of the god Kataragama. The water-cutting ceremony is conducted at the Kelani river.

The ceremony ends with the dance of the Gara-yaka, to remove the malignant effects of the 'evil-eye' (esvaha) fallen upon the "kapurala'. The sight of awful.

The name 'Nawagamuwa' is a corruption of 'Na-gomuwa' (the place clustered with 'Na' (Mesua ferrea) trees, which still adorn the devale premises. The old devale is about 400 years old and the 'kapuralas' are Sinhalese who become officials by right of inheritance.

There is a folklore known among the local residents of the village. It is said that a jak fruit grew on one of the door panels of the devale. When it was ripe, a beggar who saw it hanging, plucked it and ate a piece of it to overcome his hunger.

After transferring the merit, he went away. When the ;kapurala' saw the fruit missing, he cursed the one who plucked it, calling divine wrath on the person. But the curse boomeranged upon the 'kapurala' and his family that they all died, because the goddess had mercy on the hungry beggar.

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