Panama. 15km South of Arugambay

Pattini Devale, Panama

After the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, I made several trips to Pottuvil on the East Coast of Sri Lanka with loads of supplies for the displaced people. On one such trip, in early April, I continued south to the village of Panama (pronounced paa-nuh-muh).
Over 200 years ago, on the 13th of September 1800, an Englishman, William Orr, Esq (a civil servant) visited Panama on the way from Tangalle in the south to Batticaloa in the East. According to his report to the British Governor,

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Paoneme contains sixty inhabitants, who cultivate seventy-three amonams of paddy ground.
The following year Thomas Anthony Reeder, surgeon of the 51st Regiment of Foot (who was to die soon after, during the 1st Kandyan War) travelled in the opposite direction. According to his journal,
Panoa is situate on a plain surrounded by jungle. Here are some cultivated fields, and several large stocks of paddee.
A year later, the British Governor himself, the Hon. Frederick North (later 5th Earl of Guilford), followed the southward route. He was accompanied by the Inspector of Hospitals in Ceylon, Thomas Christie, Esq, who reported that Zyban price in pakistan
Panoa is a considerable village, and the country round it abounds with paddee fields.

What these descriptions – which appear in James Cordiner’s A Description of Ceylon (London, 1807; Dehiwela, Tisara Prakasakayo, 1983) – show (apart from the recognised inability of the English to tackle with any accuracy the phonetics of foreign place names) is that Panama’s chief attraction was its paddy fields. The surrounding jungle was far more notable to these perfidious Albionians: Christie was highly excited by the sight, en-route to the village of
a herd of wild hogs, and an alligator, both of which allowed us to approach very near.

Rock, fields and tank at Panama

When I visited the place, however, it was in the knowledge that it possesses a Devale (temple) of the goddess Pattini. The shrine, on a rocky spot on the shore of a tank, is a Buddhist one. However, Hindu shrines of Pattini also exist, although she was not originally a Hindu deity.

Main Pattini shrine (larger photo available here)

Pattini is a goddess of fertility, who may originally have been a middle-eastern deity, Potnia. Mogg Morgan calls Pattini one of the many names of Isis, pointing out that in both cases the male consort is killed and dismembered, but brought back to life by the female deity.
Pattini was said to have been born from a mango and to have destroyed the city of Madurai by tearing off her breast and casting it on the ground, a sort of divine nuclear hand-grenade.

Image of Pattini in the shrine. The doorway to her right leads to the inner sanctum
Pattini was married to Palanga, a mythical ancient South-Indian version of Prince Philip. Palanga appears to have done little except hang around being dissolute with a pretty young mistress and get himself killed by a wicked king. Nevertheless he is propriated as ‘Alut Deviyo‘ (‘the New God’), having his own shrine next to his more powerful wife’s.

Palanga’s shrine (larger photo available here)
Originally Pattini and her consort did not have elaborate temples to house them, the present structures having been built in the 1920s. Instead, two large tamarind trees served as shrines.
Tamarind tree (original Pattini shrine)
In addition to the two large temples, two smaller shrines have been built to the Parakasa Deviyo, the guardian deities of the temple precinct – who punish those who misbehave on the premises.
Shrine of one of the two guardian deities (Parakasa Deviyo) (larger image available here)

One of the central rituals of the Pattini cult is the Ankeliya, the Horn Game, which is similar in concept to the town games of Uppies and Downies in Britain – including it being a male-only sport. In the Ankeliya, two opposing teams, the Udupila (‘Upper team’) and the Yatipila (‘Lower team’) try to break the horn of the opposing team in a game of tug-of-war.

Horn tree and channel for the ‘thunderbolt tree’ (another, larger photo of the Horn Tree available here)
The Upper team tie their horn to the ‘horn tree’, which grows about equidistant from and slightly behind the shrines of Pattini and Palanga. The Lower team tie their horn to a large tree trunk about 4.5 m (15 ft) long, pivoted in a 2 metre (6 ft) long channel and held in position by logs called ‘haepini kandan‘ (‘female cobra trunks’). This tree trunk is called a ‘Thunderbolt Tree’ (henakanda – cf Anaconda). Paranthetically, these Milliganesque references to snakes in what is, after all a fertility ritual should make a psychoanalyst positively drool.

Closer view of the channel for the ‘thunderbolt tree’
The two horns are hooked together and two ropes are tied to the ‘thunderbolt tree’. The two teams tug on the ropes, moving the the ‘thunderbolt tree’ forward and bringing tension to bear on the two interlocked horns until one of them snaps. The winning team – the one whose horn doesn’t break – gets to yell obscene songs at the vanquished team; certainly worth more than a cash prize.
If you want to visit Panama, it is quite close to the lovely Arugam Bay, which has a few hotels. If you want to learn more about Pattini, you can go to this website or read Gananath Obeyesekere’s excellent anthropological study, The Cult of the Goddess Pattini (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984; ISBN 0-226-61602-9). And here is an interesting take on Pattini in the context of modern Western society.
Posted by Vinod at 15:57

2 Responses to “Panama. 15km South of Arugambay”

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