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Friday, 11 March 2011

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Off the main road:

A day in Naramwala

More than ten long years ago while I was an undergraduate at the University of Kelaniya a batch-mate from Hanguranketha asked me if I knew the taste of elixir from heaven (amurthaya was the word he used). When I shook my head to say no he said it is the combination of a banana, kurakkan thalapa, kitul treacle and curd. Having never got the opportunity to find out if this were true or not, until last Saturday I believed him, completely. But not anymore. Now I know amurthaya is...well...not the above combination.

As with most things in life this great discovery too comes by, accidently. A simple, mediocre trip to Giriulla turns into a memorable journey of thanksgiving, to a quaint temple called the Temple of Three ponds (Thunpokunu viharaya) an hours drive away from the Giriulla town, with four other pilgrims. Legend has it that a temple had been built here by King Mahasen 1700 years ago.


Ready for harvesting

An inscription on a slab of rock on the temple premises mentions the name of the temple as “Pashana Gumaka Vihara”. About 500 monks had been resident at the two storied temple building, and in the individual huts spread on a large area surrounding the temple. The daily meal had been brought to the temple on carts, and a wooden gong was sounded to summon the monks from their huts.

A platform of rock stretches from one end of the temple precincts to the other. Where the rock reaches a stop stands the Bo tree. Under the shade cast by the leaves sits Susima thero, propounding the virtues of worshipping the sacred Bo tree, to a dozen devotees seated on mats laid at his feet.The murmur of his voice and the chorus of the devotees mingle with the ‘sara sara’ sound of the Bo leaves.

The Nayaka thero, the chief incumbent of the temple stands at the entrance of the avasa geya, watching the group under the tree. The saffron robes of his disciple, Susima Thero stands out against the white attire of the devotees while the wind carries his strong, vibrant voice back to his mentor and guide the ‘Loku hamuduruwo’. ‘May the Gods accept the first plate of rice prepared with the first grains of the harvest by these devotees’ says Susima Thero.


Bo tree at the Thunpokuna Vihara

Unlike in big cities like Anuradhapura and Kandy, where the Harvest Festival, has been observed since time immemorial here in Naramwala a ‘festival’ to mark the consecration of rice is non existent. In the same way farmer Kithsiri offered a potion of his harvest to the gods last Saturday, every farmer comes on his own to the temple as and when his paddy is harvested to offer a share to the deities. According to the Chief Incumbent, Panditha thero, the Aluth Sahal Mangallaya here in the Wayamba province has two stages.

The first is the offering made to the Buddha and the deities when the grains of rice begin to ripen in the paddy fields. ‘The young grains are pounded to extract juice which is then mixed with cow’s milk. This preparation is called Kiri Payasaya’ explains Panditha Thero.

‘The next stage of the Aluth Sahal Mangallaya takes place after the paddy is harvested and pounded into rice. The rice is cooked adding coconut milk. The kiribath thus made, is offered to the deities.’

Dr Praneeth Abeysundera, Head, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Sri Jayawardenepura says even though individual farmers too may offer the first fruits of their harvest to the gods, in agricultural societies this ritual is normally observed as a collective activity. ‘The ritual stems from the concept of collectivism. In cities like


A sea of golden grains

Anuradhapura, farmers come together and offer the first harvest to the Sri Maha Bodhi’. In other parts of the country the farmers of the entire village offer a part of the rice, first to the temple and then to the deities whom they believe safeguarded the paddy fields from the day the seeds were planted to the day the paddy was milled and turned into rice.

Back to Kithsiri, his wife, their children and relatives at the Thunpokuna temple. Not only have they brought Kiribath to offer to the deities, but rice and curry for Loku Hamuduruwo and Susima Hamuduruwo as well. When they see us they insist we too partake of the dane.

The meal of white rice, jak fruit curry, thalkola, and polsambol beats the most sumptuous buffet served in any five star hotel.

Now hold your breath. Here it comes. A blackened pot covered with a white cloth. Dip a spoon into its dark depths, take out a soft white bun, similar to the middle part of a plain hopper and place it on your plate. Pour the white gravy over it. Break off a piece, place it in your mouth...close your eyes...you are in heaven.

The name of this elixir? Kiri rotti!

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