Sadangu festival reverberates with frenzied dance

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By 2017-09-10

BY PANCHAMEE HEWAVISSENTI

The Sadangu Festival of Eastern Coastal Veddahs is held in August every year. Ceylon Today took part in this year's Sadangu Festival on the invitation of the leader of Eastern Coastal Veddahs N. Velayudham. The annual Sadangu Festival was held at Kunjalkalkulamin Vakarai where the majority of coastal Veddahs live. Sadangu which literally means the 'ritual' is a distinct feature of the Veddah community. The coastal Veddahs are popularly known as 'Vedars' meaning "the hunters". It is an indigenous community that lives in the Eastern part of the country and is evidently a part of the Veddahs who live in the inlands of Sri Lanka. Although the original practices and culture of the Veddahs have been compromised due to various reasons, they have been absorbed into the Tamil culture and Hinduism.

The annual Sadangu Festival which is a feature unique to Veddahs can still be seen among the Coastal Veddahs. Although there is no apparent contrast between Hindus and Vedars (Veddahs) in the coastal areas, religious observances set them apart. Hindus dedicate systematically and architecturally designed temples to their gods such as Shivan, Murugan, Pillaiyar and Amman. On the contrary, Vedars do not build edifices to their deities commonly known as "Ne Yakku" (Kin Devils). Vedars engage in their day-to-day religious observances at temporarily erected huts in the vicinity of a cluster of Vedar families. Elderly people usually take the lead in the liturgy by chanting incantations.

Spirits of deceased relatives

The exclusive deities of Vedars are not found in the mainstream Hinduism. They are known as "Ne Yakkus" or "Vedar Theivam" (the deities of Vedars). "Ne Yakkus" are the spirits of their deceased relatives. Vedars believe that once their relatives die they become devils and bring about fortunes and protect them if they are kept happy by the living Vedars. If the dead souls are unhappy or are provoked, Vedars believe that those dead relatives can cause harm to them. Hence, the Kin Devils are worshiped, offered alms and are prayed with the intention of driving off bad spirits, getting cured from illnesses, invoking blessings and seeking protection for the Vedar community. Vedars annually hold Sadangu to worship the spirits of their dead relatives.

The most notable religious ceremony of the Eastern Veddahs is the Sadangu performed usually in June, July or August on an auspicious day decided upon the sighting of the moon. According to Vedar tradition, the Sadangu is performed in the interior of the haunted wilderness where they believe the spirits of their Kin Devils dwell. Velayudham, the leader of the Eastern Veddahs said three decades ago, during the war against terrorism, the Vedars of the coastal areas were dragooned to abandon the holding of Sadangu ceremonies in the inner wilderness by the LTTE."During the war,Vedars performed the Sadangu ceremony in open areas within the boundary of the village. This practice still continues even after the end of the war," Velayudham said.

No infrastructure facilities

A few hours before the midnight, we set off to Kunjalkalkulam from Kayankerny. Spotting of roads in the dark was difficult as the interior villages are not provided with the infrastructure facilities such as electricity and roads. However, prior to our journey, Velayudham informed us to be wary of wild elephants that roam about in the night on the path that leads to their interior village.

When we reached Kunjalkalkulam to take part in the annual Sadangu ceremony, a slew of Vedar devotees from many villages in the Eastern Province had thronged to an open ground area. The place bore a resemblance to a pilgrimage site as there were temporary huts made for stay. Mats were laid for sleeping, seating and taking meals. This site has become their temporary home until the end of the ceremony and all day-to-day activities such as cooking and having meals were done in the premises. Males were tasked with decorating and arranging the place to engage in worship while women were occupied with looking after the children, preparing meals, serving food and washing utensils. The Sadangu ritual is held for over a week and the members of Vedars stay at the site during that period.

"The Sadangu or devil-dance ceremonies are commonly solemnized at night. Vedars of all walks of life attend the ceremony. Even a critically ill person is made to take part in the Sadangu in the expectation of quick recovery because we believe that the spirits of our dead kin help us during the Sadangu,"remarked Velayudham.

Participation of males

"The erection and decoration of raised platforms (pandals) are done collaboratively with the participation of males of the Vedar families before the commencement of the ceremony. Females are generally spectators and seldom contribute to the arranging of pandals and decorating gods. The idols of Hindu Gods such as Pillaiyar, Murugan, Sivan and Amman are commonly placed on a dais made of clay in huts during the Sadangu. The Vedars make offerings and worship a large number of Hindu Gods during the Sadangu ritual. Besides the chief gods of the Hindu pantheon, other forms such as Vairavan (one of the forms of Shivan), Veerabhadran and Amman (Parvati) are also worshiped and made offerings to," Velayudham elaborated.

He added that worshiping and beseeching the gods in a special liturgical language is one of the main activities in a Sadangu ritual.

"Making offerings to the deities also is a significant activity. Offerings are made to the Hindu Gods as well as the indigenous "Ne Yakku" during the Sadangu," noted Velayudham.

One of the elderly participants at the Sadangu ceremony said flowers, betel leaves, arecanuts, fruits, sweet meats, cooked food and some raw food items are offered to gratify the deities as well as the devils- the dead souls of kins of Veddahs (Vedars). " Some Vedars offer locally distilled liquor (Arrack)) and kill animals and offer the meat to malevolent deities such as Kali Amman to please them. They also burn camphor, light lamps (Pahan) and incense sticks as a part of the ritual," he added.

Vedar devotees

The Vedar devotees were engaged in executing duties assigned to them prior to the commencement of the Sadangu ceremony. There was a group of elderly women who were reciting some incantations seated on a mat. Taking a break from incantation, one of the elderly women related the story of Kappal Theivam (God of Ship) who is given a prominent place during the annual ritual.

Veneration of Kappal Theivam by the Eastern Coastal Veddhas is a deviation from the belief system of the central Veddahs. According to the story narrated by the elderly woman, the veneration of Kappal Theivam might have come to existence due to the fact that fishing has been the chief means of living of the Coastal Veddahs for many centuries. Kappal Theivam, literary meaning "God of Ship" (although the Tamil meaning of the Kappal is a ship, this god can also be called the God of Sea). Vedars believe that the Kappal Theivam holds the guardianship of fishermen. Fishing in the deep sea is a perilous task. Hence, Vedars might have manifested worshiping a God of Sea (chiefly psychological) as a safety measure against any mishap during fishing at sea.

The legend has it that the Kappal Theivam had arrived in a ship and landed in the area where the Vedars live. A temple in Palchenai in the District of Batticaloa is dedicated to the Kappal Theivam which has some distinct features in comparison to the Hindu religious edifices.

Female deity

Amman or the female deity is given a high importance during the devil-dance sessions. A statue of a female deity is decorated and worshiped while males clad in female attire during Sadangu to denote the female deity and dance in a trance and bless those who are afflicted with illnesses.

In the wee hours of the morning towards the end of Sadangu ritual, the ceremony becomes more enlivened, vivid and amusing as some of the members begin to dance in a trance. After worshiping and making offerings to their Utti Akkal (the spirits of their dead kin) they become possessed by the spirits of ancestors and begin to act in an aggressive manner. They seem to lose consciousness.

They usually hold woven coconut or Margosa leaves in hand and dance like insane people. They sometimes bless the spectators by placing their hands on the forehead.

Some people become extremely uncontrollable and find it difficult to get rid of the state. At such times a spectator comes forward and holds him. Some of them put fire in his mouth. It is strange to note that they do not get burnt by the fire. Some Vedars begin to speak in the voice of recently dead Vedars during their trance. The relatives make use of this opportunity to communicate with their deceased loved ones.

Able-bodied men

Erecting of a rod to denote the mast of a ship is done with the participation of able-bodied men. This is done as a means of worship to the Kappal Theivam who takes care of the Vedar fishermen at sea.

Once the annual seven-day ritual is over, devotees pack up to depart for their houses abandoned by them for a week. Prior to leaving the ritual site they make a pledge to attend the next year's ritual. We too left the ritual site at day break with the expectation of gracing the Sadangu ceremony next year too. The distinct annual Sadangu ceremony of the Eastern Coastal Veddahs that had faced a threat of dwindling was revived by Dilmah Conservation in a bid to preserve the unique cultural heritage of this minority community.

Photos courtesy: Dilmah Conservation

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