A tale retold: Reinterpreting Pattini-Kannaki cult through photographs

The Hindu
May 22, 2014

Reinterpreting Pattini-Kannaki cult through photographs.

During the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka many found shelter in her spaces and many saw life slipping away in those same spaces as the militant outfit LTTE used some of those sites to inflict more damage. They used them to conscript kids and youngsters into the extremist outfit. These are the shrines of the goddess Pattini-Kannaki revered by Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka. With “Invoking the Goddess” (presented by Ritu Menon’s Women Unlimited), the anthropologist and photographer duo of Malathi de Alwis and Sharni Jayawardena set out to document the Pattini-Kannaki cult and retell it in the context of war. The result is an assortment of 50 photographs on view at the art gallery of India International Centre. The pictures form a compelling narrative of the cult and its relevance in the post-war period.

The faith in the goddess is such that it warrants documentation but a mere telling isn’t the objective of the pair. “The idea is to talk about the shared heritage between Tamil Hindus and Sinhala Buddhists and the syncretic nature of our culture. We are also looking at it in a post-war context. A lot of these sites have been revived and become more accessible after the war. A lot of people go to these shrines to meet soothsayers and find out about the beloved ones who disappeared during the conflict. I know of a woman whose husband disappeared during the war and now she predicts future at one of these shrines. People relate to the goddess as to how a human being became a goddess and fought for justice,” says Malathi, who became interested in the subject during the course of work around disappearances in Sri Lanka.

According to the legend of Pattini-Kannaki, Kannaki was a woman whose husband Kovil was falsely accused of stealing the queen’s anklet. On king’s order, he is executed and then Kannaki avenges his death by destroying the city of Madurai. It is this legend that the photographs of Sharni interprets through her lens. Rituals and customs associated with the goddess, celebration of her festivals, devotees and their extreme faith in Pattini-Kannaki occupy the colourful frames of Sharni accompanied by detailed texts. One such ritual is ‘An Keliya’ (tug of war) using sambhur horns or wooden hooks between two teams of men. Sharni captures them preparing for the ritual in which women are not allowed. The side that has lost is first shamed by the victorious team and then pleaded for forgiveness.

Then there is a section depicting a Koothu performance in Mulliyawalai being performed by an all-male cast. The folk drama of Kovalan-Kannaki is inspired by Silappadikaram, a seminal Tamil epic. After the war ended, when one of the first Koothu performances took place in 2011 after a gap of several years, the audience wept watching the poignant story. “I consider myself a documentary photographer and this is the first time, I have collaborated with a person from another discipline and it has taken my photography to another level,” says Sharni of her work which can’t be described as a straight-on documentation of the faith.

The objects and rituals associated with the goddess gave her enough opportunities to play around. Just a hand with anklets on the wrist — a major symbol of the deity — or the brass mango — another major symbol as it is believed that the goddess was born out of a mango — dangling from a finger are some really fine specimens. At Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, Sharni presents a procession of the deity. “The fact that she found a place in Dalada Maligawa, most important site for the Buddhists as it stores his tooth relic, implies her significance and acceptance within the Sinhalese Buddhist pantheon,” adds Sharni.

Ironically, most of the rituals that are to do with the female deity, are practiced by men. Sharni shows quite a few examples. In a frame, men wearing the anklet and dressed up as women are shown dancing. The post-harvest ritual of Gammaduwa has men dancing wearing coconut leaves and flowers.

While her shrines are spread across the country, many are concentrated in the eastern and northern province. “Just one district alone in the eastern province has 60 temples. We have covered around 300 temples. In the western province is a shrine which is visited by the Catholics so there remains a lot of work to be done,” says Malathi. And one of them is to make the website more interactive.

(The exhibition “Invoking The Goddess: Pattini-Kannaki Devotion in Sri Lanka” presented by Women Unlimited is on at the Art Gallery, Kamaladevi Complex, IIC, Lodi Estate, till May 24. It will then travel to Australia, Canada and the U.S.)

For more photos, follow the [link].

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