Enchanting saga of Goddess Kanaki

Enchanting saga of Goddess Kanaki

With the three-decade long civil war in the island country as its background, the photo exhibition ‘Invoking The Goddess: Pattini-Kannaki Devotion in Sri Lanka’ plays upon a living irony.

Worship of Kannaki by Tamil Hindus and Pattini by Sinhalese Buddhists is exemplary, given the fact that the goddess is a shared deity between the Hindus and Buddhists. Ironically, a large number of Sri Lankan devotees are ignorant of this reality. Exhibited in India International Centre, the photo series dwells upon the beliefs, rituals of veneration and the variations in these rituals as it takes a look at the traditions followed by Hindus and Buddhists. 

Documentary filmmaker and photographer Sharni Jayawardena and socio-cultural anthropologist Dr Malathi de Alwis set upon this journey to comprehend the diversity and complexity of worshipping Pattini-Kanniki two-and-a-half years ago. As the anthropologist Malathi delivered a talk on the subject, she explained, “During our research we found that after the war women looked at this goddess as a symbol of hope; when they were not getting justice in their life, they hoped for divine justice, the story of Kannaki stayed with them.” 

As the story of Kannaki is the pivotal link to establish the foundation of this exhibition, it is thus important to refer to the South Indian epic Silappadikaram. Kannaki was married to Kovalan before he is smitten by the courtesan Madhavi and goes off to live with her. When he has a change of heart and comes back to his wife, they have no money left to start their life anew. Kannaki then gives her precious pair of anklets to Kovalan to sell them in Madurai, Kovalan lands in trouble when the king accuses him of theft. Kannaki breaks open her anklets in the kings courtyard to prove that those were hers and later puts the city on fire by tearing her breasts. Malathi in her talk describes, “The rituals in both the tradition begin the narrative with the goddess being a human before she turns divine.

 Thus, a lot of people can relate to this goddess.” Even without knowing the significance of this anklet, once you cast a look around the exhibition, you will realise it’s importance to the rituals that celebrate the veneration of the goddess Kannaki-Pattini. The exhibition emphasises four different rituals: A Kaliya (Horn game) and Kombu Vilaiyadu, a 15-day long ritual in the Sinhalese-Tamil villages of eastern province; Gammaduwa, a post harvest ritual associated with goddess Pattini, and Koothu, a folk drama presented by a cast of all-male artistes. With history as its backdrop, it’s interesting to lay importance on the introductory note that many of the Kannaki Amma Kovils (temples) in the eastern province were shelled by the armed forces and annual fests at these shrines used by LTTE to forcibly take away children. During the course of civil war, some devotees shunned their goddess out of helplessness and others took to these shrines as their only refuge.  The exhibition is on till May 24 at the Indian International Centre.