By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
In modern Sri Lanka, the common view is that the Hindu Kovil and the Buddhist Devale are two different ethno-religious spaces. The Kovil houses Hindu deities, is served by a Hindu priest and attracts Tamil Hindu worshipers, but the Devale houses local Sinhalese deities as well as Hindu Gods, is served by a lay Sinhalese priest and attracts Sinhalese Buddhist worshipers.
However, empirically, the Kovil-Devale dichotomy is not so clear cut, whether one looks at it from a contemporary perspective or from a historical perspective, argues Sujatha Arundathi Meegama in her thesis submitted to the University of Berkeley in 2011 entitled “From Kovils to Devales: Patronage and Influence at Buddhist and Hindu temples in Sri Lanka.”
Meegama says that the popular ethno-religious dichotomy stems from 19th.century historiography in which a clear distinction was drawn between Sinhala-Buddhist and Tamil Hindu cultural practices. This was tagged to the notion that Sinhalese culture is indigenous to Sri Lanka pre-dating other cultures, and that Tamil culture is an alien one which was introduced much later by invaders from Tamil Nadu from the 10 th, to the 12 th.Centuries.
Simon Casie Chetty, John G.Rogers, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Senarath Paranavitana proffered the view that Sinhala art is Lanka’s original art form in which artisans preferred to work on wood and not stone. It was said that stone had come into vogue as a result of Chola rule in the island (993 AD to 1017 AD).
According to Paranavitana, during the Chola period, the indigenous Sinhalese architect or artisan was out of work as the stone temples of the Cholas were built by immigrant personnel. However, K.R.Srinivasan says that such a clear cut Hindu-Buddhist dichotomy is not possible. In fact wood was the medium in Tamil Nadu before stone was introduced during the Pallava period (275 AD to 897 AD), he points out.
The more contemporary Sri Lankan archaeologist/historian Senake Bandaranayake had said that the Sinhalese and the Tamils could not be put into water-tight compartments as both had lived cheek by jowl in Lanka from the earliest times. The existence of people with a distinct Tamil identity since an early period is evidenced in the Brahmi inscriptions of the period 3 rd.Century BC to the Ist. Century AD, he pointed out. And these were also the earliest inscriptions in Sri Lanka.
“These clearly indicate that both Sinhalese and Tamils have shared the island at least beginning from the historical period, if not from the pre-historic period,” Bandaranayake said.
According to Meegama, the indigenous Sinhalese tradition could be seen in the Anuradhapura period but not in the Polonnaruwa period (1017 to 1296 AD). During the Polonnoruwa period, also called the “transitional period”, ethno-religious boundaries had become fluid due to heightened interactions and dialogues across ethno-religious boundaries not only among the Kings, but also among religious personages, merchants and artisans.
During the Pollonnaruwa peiod, Devinuwara in South Sri Lanka was a microcosm of the ethno-religious mix in the island. An inscription attributed to Parakramabahu II (1236-1269) of Dambadeniya, gives an idea of the variety of places of worship in Devimuwara. Besides Buddhist Viharas, there were Kovils and Devales. There were even Agraharas or villages for Brahmins. Parakramabahu II had himself donated a village to 12 Brahmins. He had also decreed that nothing “inappropriate” should be done in any of these places of worship, whether Buddhist, Hindu or indigenous. Indigenous god, Upulvan, was worshipped by both Brahmins and Buddhist monks.
Parakramabahu II’s son Virabahu, went on a pilgrimage to Devinuwara to offer thanks to Upulvan for helping him defeat the Javanese invader Chandrabhanu. But Virabahu also built a Pirivena there named ‘Nandana’ for the Sangha.
Parakramabahu II described a temple for Upulvan as a Kovil or Devarajalya (House of the King). But Devarajalaya is but a translation of the Tamil term Ko-il (Abode of the King). However, it was also in the Polonnaruwa period that shrines for local deities and Hindu gods came to be known as Devales (Abode of the Gods).
During the Gampola period (1341 to 1415 AD) temples for the Buddha included Hindu and local deities because of constant commercial and political encounters with South India. Meegama notes that in this period, Buddhist monks began to patronize Hindu deities. The Buddha Vihara and the Kovil shared the same complex of shrines. Dravidian-style stone temples were built, but not necessarily by South Indian labor. The idea that the Dravidian style is alien did not exist then.
During the Sitawaka era (1521-1593 AD) King Rajasimha I built a kovil for Bhairava (a fearsome form of Siva). It was said that he had converted to Hinduism (Saivism). Alarmed by the growing Hinduization of Buddhist worship, many Buddhist monks raised their voice against the trend. But the Portuguese threat to both Buddhism and Hinduism in the 16 th.Century made the two religious groups close ranks. The Portuguese destroyed the kovil built for Bharaiva by Rajasimha I. All this resulted in Rajasimha I being made into a deity.
Between 1474 and 1815, the worship of Skanda or Murugan had become common for both communities. Buddhist monks wrote Sandesa poems on Skanda, who had become a God for Kings and commoners alike, and for both Sinhlese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. Skanda temples big and small were built by local architects all over the island.
In the Paravi Sandesaya (Pigeon’s Message) written by Buddhist monk, Ven. Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero (1408-1491), was meant for Upulvan as was Kokila Sandesaya, written by the head of the Tilaka Pirivena of Devinuwara. Eventually, Buddhist monks became the intermediaries between the Kings and the deities, in competition with Brahmins, Meegama says.
At any rate, from the Polannaruwa period to the Gampola and Kotte periods, both Tamil Brahmins and Sinhalese Buddhist monks were praying to the same deity at the same place of worship, Meegama points out.
However, the 15 th.Century Kotte period saw opposition to the Hinduiszation of Buddhist religious thought and practice. Vidanagama Maitrya in his Buduguna Alankaraya, extols Buddhism and denounces deity worship. Bhakthi Sataka written in Sanskrit by a Brahmin, Ramachandra Bharati, during the reign of Parakramabahu VI (1412-1467 AD), came down heavily on Hindu gods.
It says: “ Brahma is overpowered with Avidya; Vishnu is embraced by great illusion; Samkara (Siva) holds Paravti in his own person owning to excessive attachment. But in this world the Great Muni, the Lord (the Buddha), is without Avidya , without illusion, and without attachment.O! brothers! tell me, who among these is to worshiped by people possessing intelligence?’
The Hamsa Sandesaya , also written in the Kotte period, prescribed Buddhist chanting in place of Hinduistic rituals. However it recommended worship of Skanda (Murugan) before worshiping the Tooth Relic at Jayawarddana. Making entreaties to deities like Vibhishana, Saman, Skanda and Upulvan was allowed.
After the Kotte period, Buddhist temples ceased to house Devales. But both were built and visited. But by the 1700s, ethnic concentrations took a different form with some areas being dominated by Tamil Hindus and others by Sinhalese Buddhists. Hindu Kovils dominated the landscape in the Tamils areas and Viharas and Devales came up in the Sinhalese-Buddhist areas, each with its ethnic set.
By the first decade of the 20 th.Century, Hindu Kovils with the Gopuram, began to be built in the classical Chola style in the Tamils areas and Buddhist Stupas came up in the rest of the country. But the Devales still housed Hindu Gods along with indigenous deities.
(The featured image at the top shows the Lankathilaka temple in Kandy)