Sign of Sri Lanka’s hidden cultural complexities


Human religious and cultural practices tend to flow far outside neat ethnic demarcations. Often in ways that are taken for granted to the point of invisibility. For me, the most prominent manifestation of this tendency is the undercurrent of Hindu beliefs in Sinhalese and Buddhist cultural practices. Given the complex layers of histories in Sri Lankan culture, bi-cultural flows are particularly hard to spot or to explain. Shrines like the Hindu temple (Kovil) in the photograph below and of local deities are to me the most visible sign of these hidden complexities.

Sri maha Bathrakali (Bhadrakali) Amman Kovil, Warakapola

This particular kovil (- Sri maha Bathrakali (Bhadrakali) Amman Kovil) is dedicated to Bhadrakali a form of the Hindu goddess Kali. The kovil is located in Warakapola, a small town in the Sabaragamuwa Province situated half way along the A1 highway to Kurunegala (before the A1 branches off into the A6). The Google map below will make things clearer.

9 comments

  1. Nice contrast of red and white.Wonder where that tradition came from.
    Reminds me of Ice creame vans. Quite cherry. Kali does not look quite so scary against that cherry background🙂

    “For me, the most prominent manifestation of this tendency is the undercurrent of Hindu beliefs in Sinhalese and Buddhist cultural practices. Given the complex layers of histories in Sri Lankan culture, bi-cultural flows are particularly hard to spot or to explain”

    Cerno, this could be the case if you were not versed in Sri Lankan or Buddhist history. A pity as both can be interesting.

    As Buddhism originated in India there are TONS of Hindu practices in temples. The kovil in the temples in only one of them. Even the Vas practice in Buddhism originates from Hinduism. The teachings of cause and effect and other core teachings differ hugely but “traditions” are similar. Even the five precepts were adopted from Hinduism.

    Further as many kings brought wives from India kovils were integrated in to temples to provide them with a place of worship.

    This interwoven nature of Hindism and Buddhism is one of the most interesting elements in Asian philosophies. Of course any Christians reading this would be quick to tell me that Pagan and Christian practices are similar, including the practice of chistmas and the figure of Santa itself.

    Many aplogies for the history lesson there. Like I said , plenty of time till the next ship comes in🙂 ETA hopefully 13th Wednesday🙂

    Wish to death that I could tell you a couple of good books to read but honestly

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    • So I’m not alone in thinking that the red and white stripe was like the old milk board shops🙂 Hindu/Buddhist mixing – its much more prominent in the old kingdoms of Cambodia and Indonesia.

      If you got any good book recommendations on the topic please do post them.

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  2. Very interesting, both your post and Anne’s comment.

    By the way, on a separate but related note, another way Hinduism has influenced Buddhism is seen in the moonstones (සඳකඩ පහන්) of the Polonnaruwa period, where the cows that were seen in the moonstones during the Anuradhapura period were removed.🙂

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  3. “The Kingdom of Sinhala was addicted to immoral religious worship.” Xuan Zang (Hsuan-tsang)

    I suppose what you are talking about is religious syncretism which seems to be very wide spread but hardly discussed because it threatens the established and institutionalised religions. I have noticed an almost re-merging of Buddism and Hindusim going on at various kovils and temples, may be this has always been there, but I didn’t notice when I was younger. That kovil in Kandy has a separate Buddhist shrine and monks hanging around inside the main area. Certainly many
    Buddhists worship an Hindu temples. I suppose people take what they want from each system; personally I can see the attraction in this, Buddism can be a tad po-faced and worthy, lacking the colour, spice and sex that Hinduism has.

    And dont forget the pre-buddhist stuff, those yasksha masks everyone has in there homes, the sun and the moon symbols.

    Anyway, this happens all over the world and probably ever since people started thinking in religious terms. There are Jewish Buddhists, and Candomblé and Santería combine African beliefs with Catholism and so it goes. The article on wikipedia does a good job, however if you are specifically looking for things on Sri Lanka it may be worth digging around anthropological studies on the island. I’m sure people like Gananath Obeyesekere must have wrote about it.

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  4. Love the photos🙂 The lore of local deities are always such fasinating stuff- especially in their co-existance in Buddhist temples. It’s such a great example of religious syncretism, which I suppose is the one thing that is sadly absent in matters of the ethnic divide where it’s most needed.

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  5. One very useful thing I got from this post. The location of Mirigama🙂 There is a new race-track opened in Mirigama which I need to visit sometime when some kinda event is running.

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  6. Chavie: Interesting detail. thank for that. I took some pics of a moonstone in Polonnaruwa a while back. Worth another look at them.

    chamira:
    Interesting points there. Sorry it took so long for your comment to appear – it got stuck in the spam filter. I did read a book by Gananath Obeyesekere on the Hindu/Buddhist mingling a long time back – can’t remember what it was.

    Vindi: Glad you liked the picture.🙂 I think that religious practices tend to be more fluid that most people care to vocally admit. In Sri Lanka there’s a messy political element to such discussion as well (as chamira pointed out). Each his own I guess🙂

    Pericles: Finally one of my posts is of practical use to someone!!😀 Happy (and safe) motoring.

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    • I’ll tell you something, if I ‘reply’ to an existing comment my post appears, but if I comment directly to one of your blog posts – it ends in the junk! Strange stuff.

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      • And I just fished one of your comments out from the spam filter. Sorry about that. I guess wordpress.com’s the spam filter is a bit of an aggressive animal. If it wasn’t though, I’ll be busy cleaning out viagra spam to do much posting🙂

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