Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Those were the observations of the 13th century poet-king, Parakramabahu 11 of Dambadeniya. He marveled at the beauty of disporting maidens and, in searching for an answer toi the sensual appeal of water splashed upon their breasts, evoked the image of a pun kalasa.
Pun kalasa is a poetic name for what is more commonly known as a gok gediya- a tenderly shaped pot made with the young coconut palm leaf. “Gokkalawa” refers to the art of making such decorative constructions from them. Gokkalawa is to Sri Lanka what origami is to Japan, a fine folk art based on common native materials. It might properly be considered Sri Lanka’s most truly national art. Seven centuries later, Parakramabahu’s words are still uniquely appropriate to the fleeting and exotic beauty of this traditional art from.
Though a relatively small island nation, Sri Lanka has a 2,500 – year history & a surprising amount of ancient literature on almost all aspects of life, from mythology to medicine. Despite that, there was no written treatise on Gokkalawa until just a few years ago. Thought centuries old, the skill has been passed from master to student through practical instruction.
To comprehend how the creation of such beautiful objects could be ignored, we must look at the development of Sinhala culture. There are two distinct paths of art development in Sri Lanka: folk are which originated in pre-Buddhist times, and those art forms emanating from Buddhism. Buddhism inspired temple painters & sculptors of images in stone. These two culture & arts drew their inspiration from a developed & refined tradition, folk arts derived from belief systems often long forgotten.
The “new religion” also gave rise to a cultivated genre of poetry writing, distinct from the simple ballads about local gods & heroes which formed the material of folk poetry & drama. Neither Gokkalawa, which was not an intrinsic part of décor in folk rituals & ceremonies, nor folk art itself, which portrayed the themes of everyday life, was considered sufficiently dignified for literary treatment. Consequently, folk art did not receive the patronage of elite social classes.
RITUAL USES OF GOKKALAWA
Parakramabahu’s putn kalasa had more than a sensual resonance with bare- breasted women in his poem. Palm leaves fashioned into this shale also represent a pot of five mythical objects held sacred by the gods. Gok gediya is a more common term for the same thing, but the pot retains its uncommon associations, regardless of what it’s called.
The pot of eternal life & prosperity occupies a time- honored place at auspicious celebrations. Originally, it was represented by an earthenware pot with etchings of the lotus flower adorning both brim & base. The flower symbolized its life- giving qualities. Today, the spherical gok gediya (or Parakramabahu’s pun kalasa) has replaced the clay pot & a coconut flower substitutes for the lotus.
The gok gediya has numerous uses in Sri Lanka. For instance, house-warming ceremonies feature one on either side of the new home’s doorway to invoke prosperity is performed. These also feature gok table decor in the from of fruits & flowers & even seafood centerpieces.
It is a small leap from an eternal life pot to an oil lamp, & there are earthenware lamps neatly concealed in gok holders in place of brass lamps to enliven ritual events, For instance, newlyweds light such a lamp as an auspicious start to married life in much the same way as Western couples cut their wedding cake. Vesak lanterns are also sometimes made from gok. These are used in the festival season, which commemorates the birth, death & Enlightenment of the coconut palm leaf.
Gok gediya, are also placed at the four corners of a Buddhist ceremonial structure, the Pirith Mandapaya, room which priests chant benedictory stanzas. The structure itself is usually made of coconut palm leaves.
As a symbol of abundance the “Pun Kalasa” is similar to the mythical cornucopia of the West. The “Pun Kalasa” represents prosperity & is an auspicious object. Rendered in peels of plantain trunk & “Gokkola”, the Pun Kalasa is used in the Tovil of exorcism & Shanthikarma rituals of blessing. Considered one of the five mythical objects held sacred by the gods, the Pun Kalasa occupies a time- honored place at auspicious celebrations, including house- warming, traditional Sinhalese weddings, & the ornate “Prith Mandapaya”, from which Buddhist monks chant stanzas of blessing & protection.
Phan Pela is the station where the ritual or devotional lamps are it. Also known as “Mal Pela” or the “Gok Kuriya” ,this arrangement is permanent fixture in rural Sri Lanka Homes. Phan Pela Made using “Gokkola” plays a significant part in “Shanthikarma” a ceremony performed to attract divine blessings, especially in offerings made to deities who are believed to protect the villages. At “Pirith” ceremonies, a Buddhist ritual of blessing,& “Bahirava Pooja” offerings to spirits that influence land & wealth, done for protection of homes, the “Pahan Pela” is where the ritual clay lamps are placed at each corner of the property sought to blessed.
GOKKALAW ALTRARS & SHRINES
“In the time of the Buhhha, in the midst of sixteen thousand queens, sixty thoucesses, there were seven barren queens whose hearts were full of grief because they could not conceive. ‘What shall we do in order have children,’ they thought.Some of them made sacrifices, others made vows to the gods, while others thought. ‘if we pick some fresh cotton & make some thread out of it, weave a cloth & offer if to the Dipankkara Buddha to be used as a robe, we will indeed get children.’ And when they did as they thought, they all bore children & were happy……
This legend is enacted in a ceremony known as the Rata Yakuma, in which gok figures extensively as a source of ceremonial decorations. The sacrificial altar dedicated to the Rata Yakku (seven barren queens) is constructed out of banana stems & tender coconut leaves. Inside it are seven smaller altars, made of gok.
This particular version is performed in thovil form, a stock therapy in the exorcist’s repertoire, administered to make barren women fertile.
The exorcist who represented the queen entered the ceremonial area attired like a female – “They have long flowing hair made out of the tender coconut leaves. Thus attired, the exorcists relate in chanted verses, accompanied sometimes by mime & gesticulation, the legend of the seven barren queens…..”
In the thovil ceremony, a kind of shock therapy administered to be possessed, practically every offering was lavishly decorated with gok, for them believed that the beautiful presentation of the offerings would appease the spirit & persuade it to leave its victim.
Used during ‘Tovil’ in the south ‘Pidavili Serasili’ are ‘Gok’ decorations that embellish a dais used for offerings made to deities. Throughout the performance the gifts remain on the platform, enticing the divine beings into helping the individual or community on whose behalf the ceremony is being held.
The Daraheva & Pideni Thattu were structured out of kehel bada & gok. The Daraheve is a litter shaped bier, upon which a human effigy representing a human sacrifice was placed. The Pideni Thattu was a small rectangular table, laden with food offerings. A larger structure, the Vimana ( a house which varies in style according to the spirit concerned ) was also constructed out of gok.
The spirit is lured away from the victim to the Daraheve & Pideni Thatt. At midnight, when the ceremony ends, the exorcist takes off, with both Pideni Thattu & Darahevi in his arms & the spirit supposedly at his heels. He discards his load at the first crossroads he chances upon & hides himself. The spirit is expected to stay behind to inspect the Daraheva & Thattu. Thus distracted, he loses both wily exorcist & victim. The yakadura (exorcist) is a man who exercises power over supernatural beings by virtue of his knowledge of certain rites & rituals.
Thought to embody a wishing tree that can grant prosperity this Gok embroidered post is used in divine rituals such as Gammadu held in the Southern & Sabaragamuwa Provinces of the county. Historically a representation of king Seraman’s queen (biso) & a special ritual held for her benefit. During the ceremony the ‘Biso Kapa’ is planted on the ground & left as a promise of its blessings.
HARVEST & HUNTING
After the harvest of the first crop, the youth of practically every farming village in ancient Sri Lank gathered together gathered together at their village centre’s to perform the Telme Natuma or “Oil service dance”. They would dance through the night around a brightly illuminated structure constructed out of gok leaves & pith of the banana tree ( Kehel Bada). This was part of an important collective ritual known as the Gam Maduwa, to which every household contributed a portion of the rice harvest – thanks offered at the altars of various gods to ward off pestilence & drought & to bring about plentiful crops.
In a Tovil ceremony a ritual of exorcism every prop including the altar for the offerings to the demon causing the malady is generously decorated with Gokkola Kirula means a crown. Thoppiya is a headdress. Exorcists wear this elaborate headdress called the Kirula Thoppiya made of Gokkola, while performing a dance to appease the demon. This is commonly seen at Tovil ceremonies endemic to the south such as the Sannni Yakuma performed to overcome the malefic influences of demons.
Today’s peasant farmer has toned this custom down to modest proportions, stripping away the elaborate & time – consuming details. Before sowing the field he shows a handful of paddy on a separate mound decorated with a structure constructed out of coconut flowers & gok leaves, & dedicates it to the gods. With the gods sufficiently propitiated, he begins to sow the rest of the field.
Until recently, sixty per cent of the land mass of Sri Lanka was forest. The people held the forest in awe & respect, especially those who lived in close proximity to jungles & whose livelihood depended upon them. The jungle was considered a living entity with a supernatural dimension whose laws were ignored only at one’s own peril.
Before the killing of certain species of protected animals was officially banned & tracts of forests declared game reserves, the villagers of Raja Rata used to organize lengthy sambhur hunting & honey gathering expeditions in the Raja Rata jungle – abode of leopards, elephants, & bears. Before leaving the village on such forays, they used to perform a curious ritual to propitiate the deity of the forest & seek his protection & assistance in the hunt.
“In a clear space under the branches of a large tree on the fringe of the forest, they erect a shrine with a base two by four feet made of interwoven tender fronds of the coconut palm. It is closed with the same plaited leaves on all sides but one, which faces east. The shrine is raised four feet from the ground level by four stout saplings cut from the forest & is decorated with tender leaves & flowers of the coconut tree.
“On the lucky day, at an auspicious time pre-determined by the village astrologer, the ritual begins. Those participating in the hunt offer betel leaves, limes or oranges, pineapples or sugar cane & two handfuls of rice, boiled specially at the site of the offering – all of which are purified by ceremonial washing & incense. These are placed on the temporary shrine called tattuwa – decorated with gok. A small lamp is lit in front of the offering & the hunting party watches solemnly. Occasionally paying obeisance to the offerings. The moment the light flickers out they utter a supplication for protection & favor of the forest deities before proceeding on the hunt.”
The ceremonial entrance or uthsawa thoana consisted of a simple archway in ancient Sri Lanka, designed out of bamboo to which streamers of gok were attached. This has been replaced by elaborate pandals, & today gok artists skillfully weave portraits of striking resemblance when the occasion involves the visit of an important dignitary.
The streamers of yesteryear which lined the road leading to festive grounds have taken on more beautiful forms. Strings of gok flowers strung along fence posts are a common sight.
Gok plays a more somber role in funerals. In mediaeval Sri Lanka, only the bodies of those of the highest rank were cremated. H. C. Sirr has this to say about ancient funeral customs: “The bodies of priests & those of the highest rank are along permitted to be burned – the bodies of others being interred in their gardens or any spot their friends may select.
“Over these last resting places, generally a light curvy structure is erected, composed entirely of split bamboo which is ornamented with coconut leaves, entwined & arranged in ornamental devices about the fragile edifice & as the split leaves become dried, they rustle as the soft breeze gently playa them, producing the most mournful, melancholy sound conceivable.”
The archway that was once confined to the pyre of a priest or nobleman is now constructed over most Buddhist funeral pyres. To add to the archway of yesteryear are gok wreaths which are fast replacing those of natural flowers.
CEREMONIAL USES OF GOKKALAWA
The Dalada Perahera,the magnificent procession which now takes place in honour of the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha, was originally a festival in honour of four local deities: Natha, Vishnu, Pattini & Kataragama in the month of esala. The tooth relic becomes the paramount feature by decree of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe.
In the past, as part of the rituals leading to the main event, the sacred woodcutter of the Vushnu Devale, the temple of God Vishnu, felled a young jak tree after purifying himself, divided the trunk into four equal parts & sent a portion to the chief priests of the other devales.
H.C. Sirr, who witnessed the spectacle, described the ritual:
“When the new moon appears, the piece of the consecrated jak – wood is placed on the ground before each devale, & is decorated with garlands, wreaths & flower arrangements.”
“A temporary building is erected over the decorated timber, the roof of which is composed of young palm leaves (gok) plaited & placed closely together….”
On the day preceding the full moon in November, the Feast of the Fortunate Hour (now abandoned) used to brighten the streets of Kandy with splendid ornamental archways & arbours made of bamboo gaily decorated with gok & flowers.
At the auspicious hour, the structures were illuminated by thousands of clay oil lamps, their reflections on the Kandy lake & the silhouette of the illuminated Dalada Maligawa – the royal palace – metamorphosing the hill city into a fairy – tale location.
At midnight, the Dalada relic & images of the gods, borne by elephants & attended by the priests & musicians & dancers, were paraded through the town & replaced only when the lamps died out.
Pahana is the light that is most pleasant. The traditional lamp made of brass & lit with wicks soaked in coconut oil is know as the Pahana & is central to every Sri Lankan life. The Gok Pahana is a depiction of this brass lamp made of Gokkola seen at traditional Sinhala weddings & other important functions where the decorative ornamental “Pahana” is a regular feature. It is made to different sizes & shapes & can host from one wick to several depending on the artistry involved. Lit up from within using a neatly concealed earthenware lamp it is an exceptional piece of craftsmanship.
During the triple festivity of vesak that commemorates the Birth Enlightenment & Passing Away of the Buddha, Vesak Lanterns come out to deck the homes & streets with their elaborate design & fine craft. Considered a celebration of illumination & an offering of light there is a strong tradition of making these lanterns using fresh Gokkola. The designs are elaborate & many. Some large mother lanterns have the ‘kid’ lanterns suspended around them; Gokkola lanterns even make large pandals on display at Vesak. Other forms of ‘Gokkola’ art accompany these lanterns enhancing the effect & rendering it a sight to behold.
The throne where nuptials take place is known as the “Magul Poruwa”. It is believed this ornate presentation began with the wedding ceremony of Prince Siddhartha & his bride, Princess Yasodhara, millennia ago, & some of its original essence continues to date. A fresh Magul Poruwa is built for each couple, as a representation of their new life. Made in myriad styles & designs, the Gokkola motifs that beautify it varies from region to region some showcasing a twin swan design some lotus flower designs & others featuring designs found in ancient sculptures & frescos. The sun & moon designs of the Gokkola Sesath on either side are symbolic of a pledge that the couple will never be parted until there is day & night.
The depiction of a pearl studded umbrella this ornate showpiece seen in the “Mangara Sohon Samayama” is known as the ‘Muthu Kudaya’ or pearl Umbrella. Delightfully crafted from Gokkola the exorcist dances with this in his hand chanting the ritual stanzas of blessing on the possessed the Muthu Kudaya is considered a divine ornament of the Mangara deity.
A decorative from in Gokkola common to the Anuradhapura & Polonnaruwa districts of the North Central Province, the Tanimaaley Torana is a complex two strayed Pandal erected for the “Pandam Dolahadeema” & “Gotopaha Deema” rituals of blessing. Often taking many days to create, this construction can also be seen at ceremonies performed to seek blessings from the “Kambili”god or the “Kadawara” demon.
An ‘Eee Gaha’ is an arrow. A slight variation from the Sinhala word ‘Eeeya’ traditional Sri Lankan dancers use this term to describe a more decorative form of the arrow. When used in ‘Tovil’ ceremonies this is believed to be a symbolic representation of king vesamuni’s captivating weapon. With a head in the shape of a Thrishula or trident the Eee Gaha made of Gokkola is used in ‘Tovil’ as a weapon to drive away demons & evil spirits causing illness while in ‘Shanthikarma’ it is placed on the patient’s head to invite blessings. At the end of the performance the exorcist leaves the ‘Eee Gaha’ at a higher point away from the home of the affected, to rid the house of all evil.
KUMARA KALASA/EPA KALASA
Young village women, who fall under the soell of ‘Kalu Kumaraya’ the dark prince, are subject to a ‘Shanthikarma’ to free them from the malefic influence of this demon. The exorcist comes to pact with the dank prince to protect the possessed. The ‘Kumara Kalasa’ or the ‘Epa Kalasa’,a clay pot decorated with ‘Gokkola’ is a symbol of this pact as seen in the ritual known as the ‘Kalu Kumara Samayama’.
The Christian church in Sri Lanka has synthesized & assimilated local culture. The Western coastal belt stretching from Chilaw to Ja-ela is Catholic country. In alternate years, during the Holy Week, the area’s fisher – folk, whose faith in the saints & the Trinity is absolute, stage a Passion play called “Pasku” in the island of Duwa of Negombo. Pasku begins on Palm Sunday when, after Mass, the status of Christ is taken round the island – after which the priest distributes gok leaves for the purpose of making crosses. These crosses are kept in homes through the year.