Cultural strands that bind Sri Lanka and Kerala

Cultural strands that bind Sri Lanka and Kerala

By Dr. Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/

Savoring a Sri Lankan paratha with dhal curry at the popular fast food joint Sen Saal in Colombo, I was reminded of the familiar paratha of picturesque of Kerala in south India.

Interactions with the chef and close observation of the paratha making process in Sen Saal showed how closely it resembled the Kerala style of making paratha. The mixing, softening, layering and finally laying out the dough were similar, including the deftness of the single stroke by which the smaller balls of dough were separated.

Socio-cultural communication and connections between Sri Lanka and Kerala have been part of history through centuries. Cultural, religious and trading connections existed between Sri Lanka with various parts of India, such as Bengal (West Bengal and Bangladesh) Odisha, coastal Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat, and Maharashtra.

Cross-cultural connections are reflected in  art, drama and poetry. Sri Lanka’s connection with Kerala is reflected in history, folklore and oral traditions, rites, rituals and festivals, architecture and lifestyle and, of course, in food.

Caparisoned elephants in the Kandy Perehera, Sri Lanka

The former High Commissioner of India in Sri Lanka,  Nirupama Menon Rao in her speech on January 14, 2006, to mark the launch of ‘COMAL’ and its website said: “History records that there had been longstanding interactions between Malayalese and the Sri Lankans from ancient days itself. The place name like Kochchi Kada and Sinhala word Kochchikka testify this…and similarities in temple art and temple observances. The houses in Jaffna are modelled in Kerala style. The renowned Kandy Perehera has lot of similarities with Trissur Pooram festival. The influence of Kerala could be seen in Kandian dance as well.”

Kerala- Sri Lanka connections can be traced back to the time of the Chera kings of South India. Mention of the Chera kings of Kerala can be found in Emperor Ashoka’s Pali edict (3rd century BCE). They are referred as ‘Kedalaputo’ (“Kerala Putra“). Pliny and Ptolemy referred to them as ‘Kaelobotros’ and ‘Kerobottros’ respectively. The he Graeco-Roman trade map ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ refers to the Cheras as ‘Keprobotras’.

Kerala paratha is the same as the one made in Sri Lanka 

Most interesting is the term ‘Ceralamdivu’ or ‘Ceran tivu’ and its cognates which mean the “island of the Ceran kings.” According to the Sangam poems, a Sri Lankan king, Gajabahu, had visited the Chera country during the Pattani festival at Vanchi in Kerala. This could have been in the first or the last quarter of 2nd century CE (depending on whether he was the earlier or the later Gajabahu).

The Pattani cult is said to have been brought to Sri Lanka by Gajabahu along with a sacred anklet of goddess Pattini, which is said to have been given to Gajabahu by king Senguttuvan as a token of goodwill. With the cult brought to Sri Lanka, a temple was built in her honour at Vattapallai near Mullaitivu – the Vattapalai Kannagfi amman Kovil (Ethnology Vol. 1 p. 124).

The principal Pattini Devale is at Nawagamuwa in Colombo district. According to folklore,  Gajabahu built the Devalaya or temple enshrining the Pattini anklet at a place where he stopped to rest on his return to Anuradhapuara. However, another folklore mentions the goddess Pattini to have come from India with 12,000 devotees to settle in this area.

Kannagi Amman or Pattini at the Vattapalai temple in Mullaitivu district Sri Lanka

The Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka declared the Nawagamuwa Pattini Devalaya a Protected Monument in Colombo District in 2002. Another important Pattini Devalaya is the Halpe Pattini Devalaya, situated under the Ella Divisional Secretariat jurisdiction. This temple was also declared a protected monument in 2002. According to folklore, this Devalaya was originally constructed in a nearby village called Hettipola, but was later shifted to the current site.

The Ezhavas

Interestingly, legends and folk songs connect the Ezhavas to both Kerala and Sri Lanka. the Ezhavas were toddy tappers. According to legend and some Malayalam folk songs, the Ezhavas were the progeny of four bachelors that the king of Ceylon sent to Kerala at the request of the Chera king Bhaskara Ravi Varma, in 1st century AD. These men were sent to set up coconut farming in Kerala.

There is also a story that a Sri Lankan king sent eight martial families to Kerala at the request of a Chera king to quell a civil war that had erupted against him (See E. M. S. Namboodiripad: Kerala Malayalikalude Mathrubhumi; Deshabhimani publications, Volume 1, 1947 page 27).

Traditional Sri Lankan Villa.The resemblance with houses in Kerala is stark

It is noteworthy that the Sri Lankan form of martial art, Angampora, shows strong resemblance to the Kalaripayattu form of martial art of Kerala. Kalaripayattu is the oldest traditional combat system still in existence.

Even in present times, Kerala and Sri Lanka display similarities in festivals. The Netthipattam or elephant caparisons of Kerala are similar in design and structure to the caparisons used on the elephants of Sri Lanka during the Perahera processions in Kandy. The Kandy Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka and the  Thrissur Pooram of Kerala (Vadakkunnathan Temple, Thrissur) are  similar. In both the festivals, beautifully caparisoned and decorated elephants are an integral part of the celebrations.

Food items such as puttu, Idiyappam or string hoppers, appam, the paratha represent cross country links. Kerala and Sri Lanka both use coconut wood and shell kitchen utensils. Large wooden grain storage bins which are quite famous as antique pieces from Sri Lankan culture, are also part of traditional Kerala furniture.

Pieces of furniture from the recent past, including those of the colonial era, are common.The burgermeister Dutch-era chairs are an example of this.

Traditional houses also resemble. The  open space at the entrance of a house is a common  feature. The entrance has pillars which hold up the tiled roof. The open space has a relaxing chair meant for the head of the house.

The entrance opens into a courtyard, which can be accessed from all the rooms. The roof is tiled and sloping, with a decoration at the edge that helps divert rainwater downwards and away from the house.

(The featured image at the top shows the Thrissur Pooram festival in Kerala)


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