From annual trips to Kataragama to visits to the Embekke devalaya, the concept of going on pilgrimage for spiritual upliftment is something most Sri Lankans are familiar with. Apart from the main devale, there are hundreds more scattered across the island, hidden away and supported by their own traditional system called a ‘devala gama’. At a time when the layouts of our modern cities are constantly changing, these age-old support systems and town planning offer unique insight into the lives of our ancestors.
What Is A Devale?
A devale is a shrine dedicated to deities, taking on a unique form of architecture found in the Gampola and Kandyan periods of Sri Lanka. Scattered across Kandy, Kegalle, Matale, Ratnapura, and Badulla, these devale represent a mix of Hindu-Buddhist ritualistic practices that have been localised, thus modifying the original Hindu concepts.
What is a Devala Gama?
There is a defined hierarchy and a set layout for a devale with the devala gama (village that supports the devale system) scattered around it or along the access path. The village houses, too, have a hierarchy based on the proximity to the devale with the high ranking officials closer, and others further away. The villagers or serfs work and cultivate on the lands owned by the devale as servants of the devale.
The responsibilities and duties to the devale have been passed on from generation to generation and in some cases, are considered a prestige rather than a chore and, and the practice continues today, as seen at the procession of the tooth relic in Kandy. The more laborious work is paid for rather than done by these same individuals.
Following are some such beautiful devale one ought to visit, irrelevant of religion or belief, in order to understand the unique architecture, systems, and practices of our ancestors. The stunning locations are an added bonus.
Bolthumbe Saman Devale
Located about 13 km away from Balangoda off the Colombo-Bandarawela main road, the Bolthumbe Saman Devale is dedicated to the Saman deity, but closely associated with king Ravana of the Rama-Seetha legends. Built by King Seetawaka Rajasinghe I to move the valuables of the Ratnapura Maha Saman Devalaya from the grasp of the Portuguese invaders in the 15th century, it was built in the same fashion as in Ratnapura.
The annual procession is held in August with the Ravana Flag, the devale’s most prized possession, being carried at the forefront. The Ravana vehicle (a mythical flying chariot which was used by Ravana in the Ramayanaya) is also supposedly at the devale but is not exposed to outsiders.
Wegiriya Natha Devalaya
Located 2.5 km from the Kalu Wahalkada junction at Wegiriya on the Gampola Kandy Road, the Wegiriya Natha Devalaya has both a viharaya and a devalaya with two beautiful moonstones at the entrances to both. The devalaya is dedicated to the deity Natha, who is believed to have been the highest ranked during the Kandyan period. Two clay statues of Natha and his consort Tara can be seen. Built by ‘Mayim Bandara’, this temple has a long history dating back to a pre-Christian era, supported by Brahmi inscriptions found in a cave called the ‘Vavul Gal Lena’.
Ambokka Paththini Devalaya
Situated 2 km from a turnoff at Maaning Gamuwa, along the Madipala road connecting Matale and Galewela, is the rural village of Ambokka. The devale is at a slightly elevated ground at the end of a winding procession path. Dedicated to the deity Paththini, there is also the smaller Kamara Bandara devale adjoining the main structure.
Villagers visit the devale every Saturday and with directions, one can visit the ‘diya kapana staanaya’ on a little stream surrounded by a forest thicket. The diya kapana ceremony marks the end of the annual procession and is conducted by the kapurala of the devale where he cuts the water with a sword and collects water in a ceremonial kendiya. This is kept through the year and is released back into the stream at the end of the year.
Wallahagoda Katharagama Devalaya
Dedicated to the Kataragama deity, this devalaya was built by King Bhuvanekabahu IV in the Gampola period and is located along the Gampola-Nawalapitiya road. Wallahagoda is known for its many caves in which monks used to meditate in the forest. There are a number of interesting stories on the origin of the devalaya; however, they are all centred on a divine arrow, which is still paraded on the streets during the annual procession of the devalaya, atop a majestic elephant.
The above are just a few of the many devale of the country which are hidden away. This is a village plan unique to our country, but is, unfortunately, being fast forgotten. A visit to any of these devale promises not only cultural insight, but an altogether serene experience.
Information sourced from: Kandycity.lk, amazinglanka.com, and the Central Cultural Fund
Featured image credit: Pasindu Kithmina