Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

Politics and the Feast of Fools

Feast of Fools
A villager who knew the freedom and comfort of a loincloth would never dress up like this except to play a role.

by Manik Sandrasagra

The Feast of Fools is one of the oldest relicts of ritual theatre left on Planet Earth. This is a day in which all order is deliberately inverted (Subha and Yasa is a local parallel); the higher perform lowly tasks while the low do no work and give orders to their usual superiors.

In many villages and towns in various parts of the world the most foolish person is given a title such as the Lord or Lady of Unreason-Misrule-Chaos or the King or Queen of Fools. Not an honor sought, but for just that day everyone has to obey whatever orders, however foolish, are given by the 'chosen one'. Called the Festival of Unreason, the Festival of Fools or Fools' Day; the Feast of Fools was also considered most propitious for weddings.

Although the roots of our indigenous culture are hidden in the mysteries of time, to a careful student it reveals itself even now as in the beginning. It is well to remember that the story of the emperor without clothes has universal currency in folklore. Having been initiated into the ritual theatre of the Kataragama theocracy over 29 years ago, and having studied the role of humor and double meaning in native culture and having compared and contrasted it with the ritual that represents the nation state we call Sri Lanka, I see several local parallels with the 'Feast of Fools'.

My curiosity was first awakened when I learnt about the anonymity of kings in traditional societies in which human portraiture was considered sasvargaya' because the knowledge of impermanence was common to all. Then while in Rajasthan which the kshatriyas - the ruling tribes of India call home, I spent sometime travelling around with Suriya Vijay Singh of Nawalgrah, Shekawathi, a Rajput connected to most of the 'royal' families of Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodphur. Sunny as friends call him, insisted that the Rajputs were the first dacoits. According to him the Rajputs robbed the caravan routes that passed through their 'soil' or territory fled up the hills and built forts to prevent reprisals. He said the word Rajput originally meant 'Son of the Soil' and that the creation of a Maharajah cultures a colonial addition to pomposity. He said that as his ancestors acquired wealth the people called them Rajahs and Ranis. He roared with laughter at the very word "Maharajah" and kept calling all his 'royal' relations sarcastically by this title that seemed to be an in-joke with the Rajputs.

Sunny represents the tribal Rajput at heart, although he too is greatly westernized. Always in jodphurs, elegant bhopali kurtas (designed by Brigitte Singh his partner of many years) and dark glasses that he never removes, he has always lived in havelis and palaces from Roop Niwas in Nawalgrah to the Fort in Mandava. Traveling with him, meeting all his 'royal' cousins and sitting in their throne rooms and sipping tea, I soon realized what 'royalty' was all about. Rajputs like Sunny are well aware of the role their clan plays in the ritual theatre of kingship, but the Kingdom starts in the village and everybody dresses up for their parts.

One evening in Jodphur I visited the Raja's palace (now partially a hotel) for dinner accompanied by two charming girls, close cousins of Charles the Prince of Wales. Xenia Hohenlohe and Vanessa Bismarck were in their early twenties and they were on a magical mystery tour with excellent 'Buck House' introductions. Both of them had grown up in castles in Europe and were connected to most of European royalty. When we arrived at the massive palace, they were both most amused because the building had nothing of India reminding them more of Hitler's Germany!

Except for Sunny who was a connoisseur of Indian art, (his late father Sangram Singh being one of India's foremost collectors and authorities), Balendu Singh of Bikaner, and John Singh who with his English wife Faith, created the retail business called Anoukhi, most of the other Rajputs I met were far from enlightened. Most of them were relicts of a by-gone era, creations of Doone College, Mayo College and that anchronism called La Martiniere in Lucknow. A collection of 'brown sahibs' or 'westernized Orientals' with outrageous bad taste often accused of living off the fat of the land and its people. The poorer westernized Rajputs on the other hand obsessed with a mythological past spend their time dreaming of a return to the 'good old days' under a Kshatriya banner.

Rajasthan today is a place where every minor Rajputs with a haveli or palace is sought out by aspiring westerners wanting to become 'royalty'. Europe's petite bourgeois seeking art, culture and respectability, sometimes marry into Rajput families and try to 'live the grand' in badly restored havelis or palaces which are soon converted into hotels to pay for their folly. However the real Rajput knows their pastoral origin although their creation myth claims descent from either the Sun or the Moon!

Now let us return to Mother Lanka. We have had no royal court here since the Kandyan Convention was signed in 1815 as a result of what K.M. de Silva in History of Ceylon calls a "conspiracy hatched by the aristocracy against the ruler whose government was a threat to their interests as a social group".

Kings and Queens

At the time of this conspiracy the King was an Indian. Although in small isolated pockets of the Maritime Provinces a few families still have a pre-occupation with royal lineage claiming they are Kshatriyas from North India, in village Lanka all claims of a 'royal' lineage is considered ignorance. Peasants know that only a mother can be known for certain, all else being an assumption. The most one refers to in village culture is Seven Generations or Hath Muthu Paramparawa! In Chilaw, Negombo and Moratuwa where a few westernized cranks with a 'royal' obsession claim kshatriya descent, Professor Gananath Obeysekera calls it the Gajabahu Synchronism, in which new immigrants go up the social ladder locally by claiming linkage with some unverifiable tradition elsewhere going back centuries. Upward social mobility always arises when people move away from their traditional occupations and homelands. The Maritime Provinces of any country exemplifies this syndrome.

The real history of a people is not the rise and fall of royal dynasties, nor that of the frequent invasions and constant wars, but that of the steady growth of the people in social, moral and religious ideals, and their ceaseless attempts to realize them in actual life. The story of Kings, Queens and Royalty concerns the city more than the village and written history nothing but a court record that has little relevance to the country or its inhabitants. The city then, as it is now, has always been a parasite living off the fat of the land. Moving up the social ladder is a global phenomenon, and its manifestation in Lanka no different to how it happens elsewhere. It all begins where social contact with outsiders starts.

A theocracy on the other hand is where everybody is equal and an unseen deity or Devi-Devata is said to reside at the center of all ritual. This center is also the axis that connects heaven and earth. A close look at traditional Sri Lanka and it becomes quite clear that we were once a matriarchal society, a commonwealth of villages under different tribes. This tribal system was centered on divine service - Rajakariya - based on temperament. Everybody played inherited roles. Leadership was vested with the elders and the center of ritual in every village an old tree and often a lake or tank. If you ask a person from a traditional village who he is the reply is often an occupation: "I am a cultivator", " I am a blacksmith", "I am a washerman". Nobody ever replies "I am a Sinhalese" or "I am a Tamil" or "I am Sri Lankan". If you continue and ask him where he comes from he will often answer giving a name that is a composite a union of a tree and a lake. "I hail from Nikawewa" or "I come from Kumbukwewa". It is always and everywhere the same. In addition if you study the ritual language of the place and the annual festivities 'fertility' will emerge as the real religion.

My studies of the Kataragama tradition clearly indicate that Sri Lanka consisted of innumerable theocracies with mythical ancestors and gods ruling over given areas. Skanda, Ganesh, Saman, Aiyanayake Mutta, Dedimunde, Pattini, Kadawara, Kalu Kambili are just a few examples. K.N.O.Dharmadasa has written a book in Sinhala giving the divisional breakup. Village Lanka was once an enlightened society in which all the participants through consensus arrived at a decision, and both environmental and social stability were by products. Ambition was never a factor in this society since Akimcanna or 'self-naughting' was a core realization. Being nobody was the highest state. Naturally this island was known as Dharmadwipa the island of Dharma or 'Balance'.

With the growth of a city culture court ritual also grew. We are told that the abhisheka ritual connected with Kingship was introduced to Lanka at the time of Asoka. With centralized focus there was also a slow transition in ritual from theocracy to monarchy - from mud to stone. For ritual re-enactment of heavenly principles players had to represent the Priest and King. There had to be a Priest (Brahmin) to perform the ritual and someone on ceremonial occasions had to depict the unseen King (kshatriya) who ruled from behind seven veils. It was however an open secret and common sense that God alone was King.

In Kataragama there are two main shrines, one to Ganesh the Brahmin and the other to Skanda the Kshatriya. For four days of the annual festivities the King is said to walk about his Kingdom unseen listening to every conversation.

Loin Cloth

Strangers are consequently treated with respect, especially elderly people and young boys. On the fifth day a man appears grandly dressed signifying prosperity. Eighty to ninety yards of cloth in all are draped around him to make him look immense. A villager who knew the freedom and comfort of a loincloth would never dress up like this except to play a role. Under yards and yards of fabric this impersonator also wore tight pants with frills around the ankles very much like what clowns wear. Although this costume and the arrogance that goes with it was originally for ritual purposes only, it has today ceased to be thought of as such and has been transformed into a chieftain's costume, implying that the aristocracy of the period dressed up like this to attend the 'royal' court.
Skanda, the God-King of Kataragama
Skanda, the God-King of Kataragama, is represented by two inverted triangles the yantra.

According to traditional culture the King was never seen. He could therefore move around at will since nobody knew him. The King was represented by his standard or insignia. In the case of Skanda, the God-King of Kataragama, is represented by two inverted triangles the yantra.

When the British first marched to Kandy, in the absence of photography, they would have carried their King's standard not his physical likeness. In days of yore where the British King was represented only by his symbol, it is the union jack that would have been seen. Color and symbolic language is universal. Red is blood and rajasic; white is purity and satvic and blue or black tamasic. The Union Jack being a traditional symbol would have been recognized as signifying justice and mercy, attributes of kingship, similar to the Kathira Thorana that adorns the entrance to every village festival, and consequently as K.M. de Silva states "the townspeople showed not the slightest interest in the proceedings". Who played the part of the King was unimportant as long as the principles were constant.

Let us consider the various conspiracies and riots that we have had in the past. In the conspiracy of 1814-1815 and in the riots of 1848 many 'puppet kings' appeared. Even Moratuwa's courageous bandit Francisco Fernando alias 'Puran Appu' claimed kingship! Since nobody had seen the King it was possible to do so. Who ruled was immaterial. It was the King's justice that was the law -- and this was based on principles not persons. The King's insignia represented this understanding. Whoever ruled, principles were enshrined and therefore there was balance. It rained in season, the harvest was plentiful, and there were plenty of children, cattle and forests. Fertility was assured, and the King was seen to be just. Dharma Dweepa or the Island of Balance was the result. Ecological sustainability was not a theory but a living fact.

What the British found in Lanka they could not comprehend. They had lost their own traditional culture with the renaissance although Lanka still lived in a mediaeval mind-set. In their ignorance the British created a new elite based on their own experience. Having killed all the old guard they gave their titles, names and holdings to new aspirants, often illegitimate children of the old guard who would champion their cause. This new radala elite soon became personality oriented, pompous and possessed by the role they had to play forgetting their real peasant origins. With the introduction of English and parliamentary democracy this new elite was polarized into a class the noveaue riche. They joined hands with the British in plundering the countryside. Very soon the notion of emptiness was replaced by belief in self-importance. Svaraj, which was originally self-rule was turned into home-rule and independence. Symbols were inverted. An upside down world had arrived. The fool stops seeing life as a stage and is soon seduced into believing in his or her divinity. Falling in love with ones own reflection mortality follows and with it hubris. Whom the Gods want destroyed they first make mad.

When democracy was first introduced to us, we were asked to vote for a colour. When the electorate had been educated to know the rules of the game, a symbol was introduced. Finally with the presidential system the options have been narrowed to a contest between people. But, whoever wins this game inherits the following: The King is no longer unseen. Principles are no longer enshrined. Ambition has become a virtue. Assassinations are the order of the day. Anonymity is called ignorance. The people are divided. The cycle of rain has been replaced by drought. Our youth are dying. Our elders are in disarray. The magic kingdom of Lanka known for its material and spiritual wealth across the ancient world is now said to be a poor third world country living off the generosity of young cultures.

What we are witnessing today is the dismemberment of the nation state this class created and called Sri Lanka. This dismemberment is being achieved as a result of the ignorance of our political leadership. We are daily losing our independence to determine our own future, and if peace were to come we will become a service nation catering to the greed of emerging elites. In this age of darkness, namely the Kali Yuga, Name (nāma) and Form (rūpa) are deified, with personality cults making monsters out of the nicest people. Instead of the governing principles being enshrined, a mug shot of a political 'leader' is displayed everywhere, even in toilets. This loss of anonymity makes the 'leader' a prisoner to the palace guard and to the palace. The 'leader' because of this alienation is controlled by a file-culture with all the information made available carefully filtered by an ill informed and often self-serving inner circle with an agenda all of its own. Information is today a commodity and trading in information the biggest growth industry. Every gossip and storyteller who has access to the 'leader' has a field day. The mass media also becomes a part of this syndrome as 'money' and 'personal power' replaces 'principle'. The number of interested players' increases and the 'leaders' lack of ease and public paranoia a clear indication of such a state of affairs. Chaos and anarchy follows.

For example how many people are aware that the Indian industrial giant Birla is also interested in our phosphate deposits in Eppawala now being offered to the Americans? What about the thorium deposits in the monazite soils all over the East Coast? Thorium is a mixture of radioactive isotopes and thorium-232 can be used for a breeder reactor closest to the eternal cycle of energy re-creation. Surely Prabhakaran knows what he is sitting on? In our haste to consolidate personal political power have we given this any thought?

Having at various times interviewed for the electronic media an assortment of fellow dreamers: Presidents and former Presidents, Prime Ministers and former Prime Ministers, Ministers and Revolutionaries it is my contention that in the modern nation state with office and personal power the individual changes. He or she has no chance. Power possesses them and the sycophants around ensure their alienation from reality. Traditionally personal power is only possible over one-self and trying to rule another ignorance. The story of Prince Siddhartha is a perfect example. Even in his last incarnation he chose to be born a kshatriya but he gives up temporal power for sacerdotal power namely enlightenment.

With enlightenment comes anonymity, and the notion that all life is just a passing show. True wisdom reinforces the notion that all are equal, and that every man and woman is born alone, dies alone, eats, drinks, sleeps and goes to the toilet by themselves. So common sense dictates that there are no great people and small people all being the same. From this awareness arises 'Common Consensus' or Mahasamatta. This is a state in which all agree. The farmer waits for rain and all agree on what should be done and when. The fisherman does the same when drawing his nets in. It is a collective undertaking. Traditional societies were all about collective undertakings, but modern society is just the opposite. Ambition, greed, personal glory, competition and social mobility are considered virtues. Politics represents this breed. Consequently there is decline and decadence. Monitoring election violence merely measures the level of the lust for personal power. It achieves nothing more.


Our obsession with preserving democracy is similar to our obsession with cricket, English and other remnants of western culture. Whether these are worth preserving and fostering is never questioned. At whatever cost we are forced to appreciate these alien standards of measuring our civilization. The present buzzword is globalization. Everybody we are told must be alike. Bio-diversity is spoken of on the one hand and genetic engineering on the other. The contradictions inherent in younger cultures are obvious to us from older cultures. What is required is maturity. Maturity dictates that unless the King is a cakravartin or bodhisattva, or, as Plato says, a philosopher, the society he rules is destined to collapse.

Most of our post independence leaders did not die of old age in bed. The father of the nation D.S. Senanayake was thrown off his horse; his son died in his prime of a stomach ailment; Bandaranaike was shot dead by a man in the robes of a Buddhist monk; Premadasa was blown away on the streets of Colombo, and President Kumaranatunga may have lost the use of her right eye. Is there a parallel like this anywhere else on the planet?

Politics in traditional societies like Lanka has always been a sacrificial altar unless Dharma rules. This is the hidden message of our indigenous culture. In the absence of principle there will always be bloodshed. The LTTE is a symptom not the cause. It is hypocrisy, conceit, delusion and lies that confront us not justice and mercy. As a result although we have banned animal slaughter as burnt offerings to the Gods every ancient spirit is still being propitiated with human blood.


Hatred is not the prerogative of just the suicide bomber. The suicide bomber is motivated by passion. Both love and hatred comes from passion and fire. To douse a fire we need cooling water. Fire is also tanha or desire. Desire for power, money, position, rank, separate state they are all the same. It is for this reason that in an enlightened society nobody accepts personal power. They enshrine power and worship it - the Dalada or the Triple Gem is a good example. Even those who symbolically play the role of a leader have to cope with vas-dos or evil eye. In Kataragama there is a ritual purification of the officiating priest soon after the annual festivities. Till this is concluded nobody is permitted to even gaze at the kapurala who conducts the water-cutting ritual. What happens to those who forget the symbolism?

At every election more and more sacrificial lamps are offered up on the altar of democracy. It is always the same. Politics makes 'a nobody want to become a somebody'. Death glorifies these nobodies. It is well to remember in this context that in nearby Kerala the King at the end of his cycle of office had to commit ritual suicide. It is a lust for power -- bala kāma -- that creates a King and with it the threat of death and assassination.

Karmic twist

In every kingdom when the King dies it is immediately stated 'Long live the King' because kingship and not the King are the symbol of power. As we enter the new millennium let us not forget this maxim. It is the institution not the person. Given the karmic twist of fate that has created the present situation it is well if the players in this drama understand the dynamics instead of dragging the common folk of this protected theocracy into the quagmire of their personal fantasies and inadequacies.

In this context the JVP uprising of 1971 is also worth studying. The basis of the JVP was a book by J.R.P. Sooriyaperuma and another by Dr. S.A. Wickramasinghe. Many joined the movement and the ideals alone were enshrined. Since 'on going' revolution was the core philosophy no single leader could emerge. All were equals ready to die for the cause. In fact seven leaders were mentioned, like the puppet kings who surfaced when the British took Kandy. One man however was different. He wanted personal power. Nandasiri returns from the Soviet Union and turns into Rohana Wijeyweera and projects himself as the leader. A traditional concept was abandoned and a leader replaced it. It was this act that made it possible to destroy the movement.

Goddess Kali

Similarly today the LTTE has a supreme leader called Valupillai Prabhakaran. His likeness adorns his supporter's homes together with their gods, goddesses and heroes. It is this vanity that will eventually destroy him. His anonymity blown he too is a prisoner. Hence the so-called ethnic war like all wars is not the product of free men and women but of prisoners caught in an urban mindset over who controls power. Till both contending parties find out what real power is we will continue to shed human blood for our transgressions. We cannot blame someone else for reaping the benefits of our own karma. Cause and effect it is called. Enlightened self-interest on the other hand should make wisdom and svaraj our only goals.

Lanka is a blessed land but Lanka strikes back. She is the land of 'balance'. That is her contribution to global culture from mythic times. Only the Goddess Kali rides the tiger, and with it comes the initiation into the teaching of annica and impermanence. The cyanide capsule can thus become an amulet. Only when all ignorance is destroyed and the power hungry transformed will peace reign. Lanka is in no hurry. She, like Kali, devours 'time' since she is older and wiser than all her children are. In the meantime her sacred bosom will be bathed in the blood of her ignorant progeny.

I conclude with this traditional rhyme from Britain:

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steals the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

This article first appeared in The Sunday Times (Colombo) of 23 January, 2000.