From ritual to performance: The sociology of ‘Kohomba Kankariya’

By Uditha Devapriya

One of the oldest rituals in Sinhala culture is the “Kohomba Kankariya”, which is also the biggest. It is certainly the most expensive, requiring tremendous reserves of energy, effort, enthusiasm, and initiative. Bringing together a galaxy of deities and demons, the Kankariya has, since the late 19th Century, made a transition from being a healing ritual to a secular performance. Today, more than its low-country counterpart, the Gammaduwa, it exists as an object of spectacle.

Yet, this transformation has not taken place at the cost of its cultural origins. What Dr. Sarath Amunugama has done in his book, “Kohomba Kankariya: The Sociology of a Kandyan Ritual”, is to present a comprehensive account of the ceremony, probing into its origins, outlining its framework, and charting its influences and offshoots.

Dr. Amunugama’s aim in the present work is to explore the sociology of Sinhala ritual. In doing so, he offers us an insight into the syncretism of Sinhala culture. Having described the ways in which that culture accommodated European colonialism, he provides the framework from which the Kankariya evolved into an object of spectacle. Though much slimmer than his previous work, the book delves into how a ritual conceived by an agrarian society to usher in prosperity could transform into an art form patronised by cosmopolitan elites.

The book is divided into five sections. In the first, the author describes the Kankariya, probes into its possible origins and myths, and comes up with a framework governing the totality of Sinhala healing rituals, including the Gammaduwa. In the second, he ventures into a study of “ves natum”, its genesis as a cosmic drama, its separation from the ritual in the age of colonial modernity and mechanical reproduction, and its later patronage by the 43 Group. He outlines the biographies of four key figures associated with these transformations in the fourth section, while in the fifth he presents a series of photographs, including those of a Kankariya that the author held in 2015 as well as of past Kankariya dancers and drummers.

What animates these forays is the author’s standing: What he has – which most other scholars on the Kankariya lacked – is not just agency in terms of capital, but access to families that have been holding the ceremony for decades, if not centuries.

One of the many concerns Dr. Amunugama tackles in his book is the lack of research into Kandyan healing ceremonies. By comparison, much has been written on low-country rituals, especially the Gammaduwa. Along the southern coastline, these rituals came to absorb facets of European colonialism, projecting what anthropologists like Bruce Kapferer diagnose as an aggressive streak inherent in Sinhala Buddhist culture.

This is, of course, a generalisation too crass to consider seriously, but as Dr. Amunugama notes, the near absence of anthropological studies of Kandyan rituals has led to foreign scholars propagating totalising claims about that culture. Though they share a common framework, he informs us that Kandyan healing rituals are “more measured, non-aggressive, and processional” than their low-country counterparts. Any study of Sinhala rituals should, therefore, take into account the “countervailing politesse of the Kankariya”. Observation must, of necessity, precede theorising here.

Dr. Amunugama divides the Kankariya and Sinhala ritual in general into “preliminary steps” and “core rituals”. The object of the preliminary steps is threefold: To prepare the backdrop for the ceremony, to welcome gods and demons into our world, and to initiate the dancers and drummers into theirs.

Having set the stage, these eventually lead to interactions between the two worlds through the core rituals: The Katha Paha, Aile Yadina, Kuveni Asna (Kankariya) and Pattini Kolmura (Gammaduwa), Guruge Malawa, Kolmura Kavi and Palavela Danaya (Kankariya), Pantis Kolmura (Gammaduwa), Dunu Malappuwa, and Muva Mal Videema, all of which pit one world against the other yet also bring them together, culminating in a grand communal feasting of a boar’s carcass; the latter, as the author wryly speculates, rebels against the popular view of Kandyan kings, nobles, and locals as vegetarians.

The lines of inquiry these open are many, but Dr. Amunugama chooses to dwell on four themes. The first and second are to do with the core ritual: The “divi dos” ailment at the heart of the Panduwasdeva story the ceremony revolves around, and the agency of the female archetype that ceremony centres on. As with the Gammaduwa, the Kankariya is filled with sexual symbols that immediately summon associations with fertility rites; after all, the ritual begins with the boiling of milk (procreation) and ends with the shooting of a banana flower (penetration), with the dousing of a flambeau (castration) to boot.

Yet, what fascinates one here aren’t so much the associations themselves as the role they assign to the female figure at the epicentre of the ritual. The Panduwasdeva story, Dr. Amunugama notes, underscores the theme of betrayal. The arc of that theme bends towards no less than the founding of the country: Vijaya’s betrayal of Kuveni, which, so to speak, condemns him to failure in producing an heir. What the ritual seeks to do, in other words, is redeem an entire community from the betrayals of their ancestors. This is also what underpins the Pattini myth that undergirds many low-country rituals, especially the Gammaduwa.

Far more interesting and intriguing than this, however, is the author’s exploration of the role of Brahmins in the Kankariya. Here we come to one of several distinctions that separate the Kankariya from the Gammaduwa. In the low country, encounters with communities beyond geographic borders facilitated the assimilation of certain caste groups after the 13th Century. In the Kandyan Kingdom, such encounters did not immediately lead to comparable processes; in fact, as the rebellions instigated by the radala aristocracy confirm, there was much hostility towards men of South Indian extraction holding the crown.

Roughly, the same attitude prevailed among locals towards Brahmins: Historians have noted how Buddhist monks resented their habit of smearing ash on their foreheads. It is fascinating, if not coincidental, that these attitudes are reflected in the structure of the Kankariya itself, and that they echo a popular, though unflattering, view of Brahmins propagated by litterateur monks in the Kotte Era. Dr. Amunugama’s attempts at reconciling this with other accounts of relations between the Nayakkar kings and their radala subordinates, in particular Gananath Obeyesekere’s, make for insightful reading here.

The fourth theme occupies the rest of the book and is crucial to our understanding of Sinhala ritual: The relationship between these ceremonies and traditional dance forms. The dance form associated with the Kankariya, of course, is ves natum. The commonality linking Afro-Asian healing rituals to each other is the separation of these dance forms from their ritual origins, or the secularisation of those dance forms under conditions of colonialism.

Ves natum was by no means an exception to this rule. As the economic base sustaining the Kankariya collapsed due to the absence of royal patronage, ves natum became separated, or in Walter Benjamin’s words, emancipated, from its “parasitical dependence on ritual”. In light of official disregard, indigenous art forms evolved into objects of public spectacle.

How the purveyors of ves natum survived these turbulent times is charted well by Dr. Amunugama. We have been told that ves natum was first devised as a public exhibit in 1917, when P.B. Nugawela, Chief Lay Custodian of the Dalada Maligawa, included it in the Nuwara Perahera. Dr. Amunugama asserts that this followed a process that had been set in motion half a century earlier, when, during a visit by Albert Edward (later Edward VII), Kandyan nobles organised a special pageant that, as official illustrations show, featured ves natum.

Exceptional as this would have been, it laid the groundwork for the commoditisation of these art forms, when, a decade or so later, the human zoos of Hagenbeck, Marinelli, and Wallace began exhibiting Kandyan and low country rituals. Pivotal as they were to the transformation of ves natum, they were by no means an easy ordeal for ves dancers. It is to Dr. Amunugama’s credit that he does not romanticise these encounters; as he admits, many local dancers, hoping for better prospects abroad, found themselves reduced to poverty.

1917, the year P.B. Nugawela included ves natum in the Perahera, marked the establishment of the Ceylon Reform League. Led by Ponnambalam Arunachalam, it was succeeded by the Ceylon National Congress two years later. Assessing these developments from the standpoint of the colonial elite, the author gives us a succinct overview of this period.

The decision of the colonial elite to remould themselves as nationalists during these years was shaped by two factors: The Indian independence struggle and the Donoughmore reforms. The latter more or less moved politics from the elite circles, to which it had been limited until then, determining the course of the Buddhist and cultural revival. Without these developments, the cultural domain, like the political, would have remained an elite preserve.

Dr. Amunugama does probe well into these historical and social processes, but he does not, I think, pay enough attention to two crucial events linked to them: The resurgence of Kandyan nationalism in the form of demands for regional autonomy, and the relationship between the secularisation of local art forms and the secularisation of nationalism; as K.M. de Silva and Kumari Jayawardena have observed, after all, the years following 1915 saw the separation of political radicalism from cultural revivalism. These relate to another intriguing phenomenon: The paradox, embedded deep within European historiography, between colonial valorisation of non-western cultures and its denial of the agency of the bearers of those cultures. Senake Bandaranayake has commented on this contradiction in an essay on Ananda Coomaraswamy; it should, I think, make for supplementary reading here.

Lionel Wendt

The rest of the book is fairly straightforward, featuring a succinct overview of the 43 Group and their patronage of ves natum. Three figures stand out here: Lionel Wendt, George Keyt, and Justin Deraniyagala. If Dr. Amunugama does not focus much attention on Deraniyagala, whose sister Miriam Pieris became one of the first females to don the ves thattuwa, it is only because the link between the Group and ves natum was reinforced more strongly by Wendt and Keyt. The two, of course, were close; as Wendt’s work for Chitrafoto and for the Ceylon Observer Annual shows, Keyt became his gateway to Kandyan culture.

Given this, it is not really accurate to consider Keyt as a member of the Colombo elite, as the author implies; he belonged more to the world of Malwatta than to Guildford Crescent. Yet, in so far as they were conditioned by a colonial upbringing, Keyt and Wendt shared a common ancestry and a common interest in Sinhala culture. It is from this vantage point that we ought to approach Wendt’s and Keyt’s associations with leading ves dancers, including Tittapajjala Suramba, Sri Jayana, and the incomparable Nittawela Gunaya.

Justin Deraniyagala

Dr. Amunugama’s assessment of the role played by sexuality in these encounters stands out. His description of Wendt’s photograph of Sri Jayana as “homoerotic” is provocative, as is his observation that the 43 Group were attracted to the “lithe bodies” of ves dancers. Even more insightful is the way Dr. Amunugama makes clear the differences between these dancers on the basis of their cultural temperaments and approaches to art; hence, Sri Jayana’s attempts at a fusion between ves natum and Indian dance forms are portrayed as failures, while Nittawela Gunaya is depicted as more capable and restrained than his cousin, Nittawela Ukkuwa, who, we are told, “had learnt some bad elements of western ‘show business’”.

Despite its brevity, this book is packed with details, descriptions, and insights that do not make for quick reading. It is a work of social and cultural anthropology, but because it’s not rife with academic argot, it will appeal to scholars and general readers alike. Dr. Amunugama is perhaps our finest living social anthropologist after Gananath Obeyesekere, and the book, as with his previous work, makes his fascination with Sinhala culture clear. This is, of course, not to sideline the interspersion of visuals, especially Udaya Wijesoma’s photographs, which add up to a comprehensive portrait of the subject.

George Keyt

To be sure, there are certain points Dr. Amunugama could have pursued more, in particular the relationship between the commoditisation of culture and the development/underdevelopment dialectic governing colonial society. His description of Hamburg, where Hagenbeck held his famous human zoos, as an industrial hub that attracted Sri Lanka’s graphite, would have been more pertinent had he dwelt on how European capital underdeveloped the economies of Asia and Africa while fuelling the transformation of their indigenous art forms.

Whether or not the author pursues these lines of inquiry in future, however, he must rectify the many punctuation mistakes and typos in the book. There is also one glaring inconsistency: While correctly dating Albert Edward’s arrival in the country to 1875, he misdates it to 1876 a few pages later. Less glaring, though no less inconsistent, is his dating of the establishment of the Ceylon National Congress to 1917, rather than to 1919.

Of course, to point these out is not to belittle the achievement of his work. It may be the best study of its kind so far, authored by a perceptive local scholar on probably the most intriguing ritual to emerge from the recesses of Sinhala culture and the Sri Lankan nation. To read it is to enter a different terrain. To enter that terrain is to rediscover our past.

‘Kohomba Kankariya: The Sociology of a Kandyan Ritual’ by Dr. Sarath Amunugama is published by Vijitha Yapa (2021) and is available for Rs. 2,000.

(The writer can be reached at