One heat-stunned afternoon, I climbed onto a bicycle and started pedalling through the streets of Jaffna. That weekend the city blushed with a great sun and I swerved my bicycle over to the shadowy parts of the streets as I pedalled.
Women walked alongside the roads, wearing bright coloured saris and vegetarian restaurants played loud music.
I stopped closer to the sea and started pushing the bicycle up an elevation leading to the old Jaffna fort, leaving a cloud of dust behind. When I reached an iron-grated gate, some narrow stone steps led me into the salt-worn buildings of the fort encircled by the sea.
I was in Jaffna, in the North of Sri Lanka, to be a part of an anthropological conversation about Kannagi worship in the North and East of the country. Kannagi Amman, a goddess, or deity, is a symbol of courage, hope and resilience to many war widows and women-headed households in this area. And there I was at the old Jaffna fort, a quiet and a lonely place; beyond these walls are the many temples devoted to Kannagi Amman, where the bells were ringing and devotees were praying.
Kannagi is a fascinating and a complex example of womanhood. According to historical writings, she remains the faithful wife of Kovalan despite his unfaithfulness, an outraged and vengeful widow who tore out her left breast and hurled it at the evil king who falsely accused and beheaded her husband (Kovalan) for stealing an anklet of the queen. She set fire to an entire city, sparing only the innocent, in her determination to readdress this injustice.
Kannagi worship is also an inspiring example of Buddhist and Hindu syncretism in Sri Lanka. While Hindus worship her as Kannagi, Buddhists know her as Pattini. According to an anthropologist I met, a significant number of Sri Lankans are unaware that she is a shared deity. This made me question whether this is an indication, perhaps, of the alienation between these two main ethnic communities in the country.
In the old Jaffna fort, I found a magnificent Bodhi tree, a symbol of Buddhism. The sun stood bright, hot and alert through the leaves of the Bodhi tree. While I observed the tree, hunched into a ruined wall made out of stacked coral rock, I recalled my visit to the Nawagamuwa temple, situated further to the south of the island from Jaffna, where Kannagi Amman is worshipped by Buddhists as Pattini.
In the Nawagamuwa temple, I recalled observing an elderly woman reciting out loud from a small prayer book with yellow stained pages. She was seated on the white-sanded temple grounds next to a Bodhi tree and was singing songs to the goddess mother Pattini. Her prayers slowly mixed into the air perfumed with incense. Flames of oil lamps flickered to a slow breeze. Her bare feet lay on the soft white sand and her stiffened white sari made a crisping sound as she rocked back and forth while praying. And the temple bells were ringing.
In many parts of the country, I have watched devotees fastening their hopes and wishes in the form of coins wrapped in coloured pieces of cloth onto a ‘wish tree’, in the belief that the goddess mother will quell all their miseries. Women beat their chests as they weep for sick children, children who have migrated to the Middle East and children lost in the war. As they pray, they shut their eyes tight until wrinkles appear on their foreheads.
Kannagi-Pattini has hence become a symbol of resilience, to many sick, impoverished, widowed and unemployed. It’s phenomenal how this devotion has been preserved over centuries and generations through rituals and practices of veneration that vary between the two religions and regions. The preservation of, and devotion to, Kannagi-Pattini worship is an indication of how humans find methods of coping, especially in the worst of circumstances, when neither the development goals nor socio-political structures help alleviate their miseries. This is what I’ve come to learn.
Sri Lanka, emerging from decades of conflict, is currently undergoing major growth-centered transformations. The strange poverty of language is that the government-built major highways and shopping arcades that have been surging in the recent pastare popularly acclaimed to be ‘development.’ Yet the many facets of poverty persist, and human vulnerabilities are evolving. More and more people are pushed to the margins of impoverishment and indebtedness to make way for such massive growth centered development projects.
Injustices against women are rapidly expanding around this bubble called ‘development’, like a giant heartache. As someone once told me, the major conflict in the country right now is the terror against women
Every 90 minutes, a woman is raped in Sri Lanka, and is the fifth-worst country in the world for domestic abuse. In terms of both men and women, suicide is appallingly a common occurrence; Sri Lanka was most recently ranked fourth among 172 countries, with ~29 suicides for every 100,000 persons.
Yet we boast of our achievements in the millennium development goals and human development indicators. This begs the question, what kind of ‘development’ are we talking about? And who benefits from this development?
In Jaffna, with the first sign of dusk various hues of purples and reds appeared in the sky above the old Jaffna fort.
I watched women pedalling their bicycles along a road closer to the sea to somewhere far. I watched the change of colours in the sky as time passed by, as did the silhouettes of the women pedalling their bicycles. They disappeared slowly but suddenly into their lair — the night sky.
This transformation of the sky from blue to dusk to night is the predisposition of the universe to change. Be it the imprisoning sea or the unpredictable sky, life keeps changing and moving, constantly adrift; so do the life’s miseries and vulnerabilities.
But the bells of the Kannagi-Pattini temples kept ringing, and the sounds of the drums, and the mourners’ tread continued, indicating how ‘development’ has failed and left many behind…