Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

Fertility, Gods, and Water

Girl bathing in village tank in the Wanni. Photo © Stephen Champion

Sri Lanka has a long history of a hydraulic civilizations and an even longer tradition of a culture in which water was regarded as a purifier and life giver, a destroyer of evil, and a symbol of fertility and mystery.

Living organisms are able to produce young or bear fruit because they are fertile. Milk and water are two of the most important elements of fertility. The absence of these elements can cause barrenness, sterility or even death.

Water plays an important role in Sri Lankan culture as a symbol of fertility. Life cycle rituals that involve fertility, and calendrical events that mark the change of seasons, in particular, exploit the symbolic function of water to augment fertility.

Marriage is the most important life cycle ritual that involves fertility and procreation. Some of the rites performed at the marriage ceremony are intended to ensure fertility and for this purpose water is introduced ritualistically.

One of these rites is known as ata paen vakkaranava in Sinhala. It means, literally, pouring water on the hands. At the marriage ceremony, the bride and the bridegroom are made to stand on a pedestal, the po:ruva, and their little fingers of their right hands are tied together by means of a white thread. The father of the bride then pours water from a golden pitcher onto the thread, to cement the binding, as it were.

Another rite at marriage is the splitting of a husked coconut, as the betrothed couple lift their feet to descend from the pedestal. As the husked coconut is split asunder, its water gets splashed, and the two halves fall apart. The manner in which they fall apart is taken as a prediction of their future: whether they would beget children, and if they do, whether they would be males or females.

The most important calendrical festival of the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus is the New Year that dawns in mid April. Astrologically, the New Year relates to the movement of the Sun-god along the circular path known as the zodiac, which is divided into twelve segments. Each segment is identified by a sign which has associations with an astronomical constellation, and bears a name such as me:sha (Aries) or mi:na (Pisces). The time taken by the sun to complete one cycle of movement along the zodiac is one year.

According to Sinhalese and Tamil belief, the sun does not re enter the new cycle immediately after completing the old one. There is a short space of time during which the sun is supposed to be in transit between the Old Year and the New. Since this period of transition belongs neither to the Old Year nor to the New, it creates a sense of anxiety and ambiguity in the minds of the folk.
Heritage Reserve, Koslanda
Heritage Reserve, Koslanda

Ambiguity, from a folkloristic point of view, implies potential evil and ritual danger. These beliefs of ritual danger compel the folk to keep all symbols of fertility out of reach during this period of transition. Thus all symbols of fertility, such as milk, water and fire, are not even touched during this period. No water is drawn from the well and no fire is lit in the hearth. It is the task of the housewife to ensure that there was an adequate supply of water in the house when the New Year is ushered in.

One of the first ritual acts at the dawn of the New Year concerns water. A female goes to the well with a small bundle containing certain items of ritualistic significance and drops it into the well before the first bucket of water is drawn from it. A portion of this water is stored in a small container and is kept in the house until the dawn of the next New Year, when it is emptied and refilled with new water. If, at the end of the year, there was no drop in the water level in the container, it would be interpreted as a positive sign that the New Year would also be fertile and prosperous.

The New Year coincides with the beginning of the agricultural cycle and contains many features of a fertility festival. A rite that characterizes the fertility aspect of the New Year is that known as isa tel ga:nava, the anointing of one's head.

This rite is performed at an auspicious moment and the entire Sinhalese-Buddhist society observes this custom. An oil prepared from medicinal herbs is applied on one's head either by an elder of the family, by the chief monk of the village temple or by the native physician. After the anointing, the members of the family go to the well for a bath, which takes the form of a water festival. People chat, have fun and frolic, as they clean their heads thoroughly with a special medicinal preparation known as tel aembul. Even animals, such as, cattle and elephants, are made to go through this ritual of anointing of oil.

Water as a symbol of fertility, is among the objects that are considered subha (auspicious) in Sri Lankan culture. On the basis of various parameters, cultures classify beings and objects into binary sets of ‘positive' and ‘negative' or subha and asubha significance. In Sinhala culture, positive objects are called suba (auspicious) and negative objects asubha (inauspicious). Subha symbols promote fertility, and water is such a symbol.

Auspicious symbols play an important role in the everyday life of the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Water, for example, is one of the symbols known as pera maga nimiti (omens on the way). These are visual omens, nimiti, that one meets on the way (pera maga) as one sets out on a long or important journey. An omen that foretells success is a suba nimiti (good omen) and an omen that predicts failure or disappointment is an asuba nimiti (bad omen).

A Sinhalese poet of the fifteenth century, the author of Saelalihini Sande:sa, enumerates a list of good omens and, among these are two that have particular links with water: piri kumbu and ran kendi. Pin kumbu denotes filled pots, that is, pots filled with water and ran kendi denotes pitchers in gold, and these pitchers are used primarily to store water (12.3).

If one meets, as one sets out on a journey, a woman walking towards him or her, carrying a clay pot, (kale:) filled with water, it is considered a good omen and the journey is deemed to meet with success.

Good omens bear intended fruits only if they are met in a natural setting. However, deliberate attempts are made sometimes to make these omens occur as previously planned. For instance, when a bride or bridegroom is about to leave his or her home, planned arrangements are made for him or her to meet someone with a glass or pot full of water, in order to ensure that no bad omens are met at the outset of his or her journey into marriage, a journey into the unknown.

Hair, being another symbol of fertility, increases its potency when it is in touch with water. Thus, one of the first things that Sinhalese parents do as soon as a child is born, is to cut a small tuft of hair and throw it into a waterway, usually a river, so that it mixes in water, thereby ensuring fortune and prosperity for the child. Since hair is one of the items used in black magic to bring harm to someone, throwing hair into water may also signify the destruction of evil that might affect the child in later life.

Sri Lankans believe that the water collected at the diya kaepima (water-cutting) ceremony is sacred and to touch this water or to bathe in it is considered particularly efficacious to remove evil. Therefore people collect at a spot just below the site of water-cutting to allow the sacralized water to touch their half-naked bodies already immersed in water.

This is especially true of the water cutting ceremonies at Kataragama. The water-cutting ceremony at the Menik Ganga is particularly interesting because it is shared both by the Buddhists and the Hindus.

Cartman, in his Hinduism in Ceylon (7.122-123) describes this water-cutting festival that takes place in the early hours of the morning, thus:
Water-cutting pandal, Kataragama
The pandal beside the Menik Ganga for the diya kaepima or water-cutting

"But the most spectacular procession is on the last night of the festival when the object of worship, placed upon the sacred elephant, is taken not only to the Valli Amman Temple but also to the Kiri Vihare. The following morning the high priest again accompanies the sacred elephant in procession. They proceed from the Skanda Temple, call at the Valli Amman Temple and then descend to the Menik River where the water-cutting ceremony takes place. A tent-like construction is placed in the river at a chosen point. It is covered with leaves and branches. The high priest alone enters this enclosure. Here he stays, sometimes two to three hours, awaiting the auspicious moment.

Meanwhile the crowd gathers round, standing in the shallow water, or sitting on the banks on either side of the river. Men from various walks of life, all stand together bare-bodied. Meanwhile the sacred elephant stands sentry outside the tent... When the auspicious moment arrives, the high priest leaves the tent, and together with the elephant, moves quickly away from the scene. But immediately he emerges from the tent, there is a great shout from the people, and the tent is crushed down by those who seek to reach this most sacred spot. There they bathe in, and drink of, the water. Elsewhere all along the river, men and women are splashing in the water, many lying prostate in it, whilst most of them make sure that they obtain a vessel full of this sacred water to take home with them"