Thovil dancing in Sri Lanka



Sri Lanka is generally regarded as the home of the pure Theravada form of Buddhism, which is based on the Pali Canon. And Buddhism is the last religion or philosophy to endorse or encourage superstition. The country however, has its fair share of beliefs in the occult — in demons and devils, in gods and angels. Amongst these, rituals involving devil dance take pride of place in the cultural scheme of things. These can be divided into two forms of worship – Bali and Thovil. Bali is the ceremony wherein the presiding deities of the planets (graha) are invoked and placated in order to ward off their evil influences. The belief in the good and evil influence of the planets according to the time and place of one’s birth is quite widespread in Sri Lanka. The first thing normally done at the birth of a child is to cast the horoscope, which has to be consulted subsequently at all the important events of his or her life. When a calamity like a serious illness comes upon such a person, the horoscope would inevitably be consulted, and if the person is under a bad planetary influence, the astrologer would recommend some kind of propitiatory ritual. This could be a minor one like the lime-cutting ritual (dehi-kepima) or a major one like a bali ceremony, depending on the seriousness of the case. If it is a bali ceremony, he might also recommend the specific kind of bali suitable for the occasion.



Bali ceremony

The term bali signifies both the ritual in general and also the clay representations of the planetary deities which are made in relief on frameworks of bamboo and painted in appropriate colours. The ritual consists of dancing and drumming in front of the bali figures by the bali artist (bali-adura), who continuously recites propitiatory stanzas calling for protection and redress. The patient (aturaya) sits by the side of the bali figures. The bali artist is helped by a number of assistants working under him. The knowledge and art of performing the ritual are handed down in traditional families. The retentive power of these artists is remarkable, for they can continue to recite the appropriate formulas and verses from memory for days. The bali ceremony is a mixture of Buddhism and folk religion. The cult of the planets and the allied deities has become an important element in the popular living Buddhism of the island. The origins of this type of bali ritual have to be traced to the Kotte period of the 15th and 16th centuries, when it was introduced into the island from South India by some Hindu brahmins from that region. However, mainly owing to the efforts of the celebrated Buddhist monk of the period, Ven. Vidagama Maitreya Thera, this ritual was recast with a Buddhist significance, both in form and content, in that all the verses and formulas used in the ritual are those extolling the virtues of the Triple Gem — the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha — and of the Buddhist deities. It is these spiritual qualities that are invoked to bring redress. The entire ritual is thus made subservient to Buddhism. The ceremony begins after paying homage to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Even during the course of the ceremony this homage is paid at important junctures. The majority of the stanzas recited as benedictory verses by the artist extol the virtues of the Triple Gem or refer to the Buddha’s previous existences as a Bodhisatva. The verbal part of the entire ritual consists mainly of the recitation of these verses and the pronouncement of the blessing: "By the power of those virtues let the evil influence of the planets disappear." It is believed that this kind of pronouncement of blessings becomes effective only if they are made at such an elaborate ceremony like bali.



Spritual qualities

As in the case of the pirith ceremony the spiritual qualities of the Buddha are regarded as superior to any worldly powers like those of the planets and stars as in the present instance, and consequently the ceremonial and ritualistic pronouncement of those qualities is believed to counteract those evil forces. Those propitiatory recitations also include the panegyrics (sthothras) praising those planetary deities. The preparation for the bali ceremony takes a day or two. Plantain stems, tender coconut leaves, coconut and arecanut racemes, powdered resin, limes, betel, torches made by wrapping clean rags around dry reeds (vilakku and pandam), coconut oil, flowers of different colours, and burnt offerings are among the main items needed. Plastic clay and reeds would be needed in large quantities to cast the bali figures. Life-size images of the planetary deities are moulded from these and painted beautifully in bright colours. Each planetary deity has its own dress, colours, diagram (mandala), support (vahana), weapon, etc. It is the nine planets (navagraha) that are generally propitiated: the Sun (ravi), Moon (chandra), Mars (kuja), Mercury (budha), Jupiter (guru), Venus (sukra), Saturn (sani), and Rahu and Kethu, the ascending and the descending nodes of the moon respectively. When everything is ready, with the bali figures propped up leaning against a wall and the patient seated by a side facing the figures, the chief bali artist starts the proceedings by taking the ‘five precepts’ and reciting a few benedictory stanzas while the drummers start drumming. This takes place in the evening. After these preliminaries it is more or less customary for the chief artist to retire to the side, while one or two of his assistants would appear on the scene to perform the more vigorous part of the ritual, consisting mainly of dancing and reciting.



Devil dancer

The dancing artist wears an attractive and colourful dress consisting of white tights, a red jacket adorned with white beads, anklets, pads of jingling bells around his calves, and an elaborate headdress. In one hand he takes a pandama or lighted torch adequately fed with coconut oil. While reciting formulas and dancing to the beat of the drum, he throws handfuls of powdered resin into the burning pandama, setting up flares of flames which are regarded as very powerful in driving away the invisible evil spirits (bhutha). In addition to the virtues of the Triple Gem, his recitation would also include legends and anecdotes taken from the Buddha’s and Bodhisatva’s lives. Sometimes references to previous Buddhas are also made. Planetary deities are eulogised and requested to stop troubling the patient. The ceremonies actually end early in the morning when the artists carry the clay images (bali figures) and the altars of offerings or pideni-thatu and leave them at the cross-roads that the evil spirits who give trouble are believed to frequent.



Thovil dancing

Thovil or ‘devil-dancing’ is another ritualistic healing ceremony that primarily belongs to folk religion. As in the case of the bali ceremony, here too many Buddhist elements have crept in and it has become a ceremony purporting to fulfil, at the popular level, the socio-religious need of the simple rural Buddhists. Thovil is essentially a demonic ritual mainly exorcistic in character, and hence a healing ceremony. In its exorcist form it is meant to curb and drive away any one or several of the innumerable hosts of malevolent spirits, known as yakshas, who are capable of bringing about pathological states of body and mind. Prethas or departed spirits of the malevolent type, referred to as mala-yakku (mala = dead) or mala-pretha, are also brought under the exorcist power of thovil. While some of these could be subdued by the chanting of pirith (described earlier), there are some for whom methods of a more drastic type have to be adopted. The most popular of such methods is the thovil ceremony. As was pointed out earlier in relation to rituals in general, thovil is also an important aspect of folk religion that has been adopted by the Sinhala Buddhists. In the case of thovil too, religious sanction is conferred on folk-religious elements that have crept into normative Buddhism, supplementing, as it were, whatever is lacking in it to satisfy the religious needs of the masses.




Waste products after Thovil Dancing

These photos I have taken on the wayside at Uluwitike, Galle in southern Sri Lanka.













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