Deities of Colour – Sri Lanka Hill Country
If one ever wanted to feast their eyes on colour, paying homage to a Hindu Temple (Kovil) is a must.
In the heart of Sri Lanka lies the scenic hill country, home to the island’s tea plantations. Typically over 90% of the tea pluckers are Tamil and most of Hindu descent, which means throughout this region, Kovils occupy prime realestate spots – often perched on cliff edges with lush green slopes of tea bushes as backdrops.
About three quarters of the way from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, a few kilometers from the Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre, was such a Kovil – situated right on a bend and standing out in all its colorful glory against the green sloping hills and overcast sky. While the actual building had only been in existence since 1989, inside at the center of this holy ground was the black stone carving of the Hindu God to which the local followers had been praying for generations.
As you walk towards the magnificent place of worship, you realize the intricate colourful exterior was echoed in the vibrant clothes of the worshipers and on this particular occasion also the upbeat mood of these devotees.
Inside the Kovil, the last day of a 21 day “puja” (prayer ritual) was taking place. It was the ‘Pathine Pujava’ – where the congregation consisted mostly of young single women coming to pray for a worthy husband. Scattered among them were a few men, and quite a few women of older generations that had come to teach them the traditional ways of the rituals. All these worshippers had not consumed meat or fish in 21 days. Amidst the lull of the chanting filling our ears and the musky incense infiltrating our noses, the eyes were left to feast on thecolorful myriad of sweets, flowers and other holy offerings.
Each way you turned it was truly a sensory experience.
The priest was kind enough to explain what was going on. He allowed me to take photos of those praying and their offerings to the deities and also blessed us with a ‘Tilaka’ – a mark created by the application of a powder or paste on the forehead. The Tilaka is applied by hand or a metal stamp and is made of ash from the sacrificial fire used in the temple, sandalwood paste, turmeric, clay, charcoal or red lead. It can apparently also be made of cow dung (although I can safely say, ours wasn’t – I have a killer sense of smell and I was willing to bet my camera that it was sandalwood!). On a man, the tilak takes the form of a line or lines and while on a women, a tilak usually takes the form of a ‘Bindi’ (dot).
Being blessed with a ‘Tilaka’ – a mark created by the application of a powder or paste on the forehead. The Tilaka is applied by hand or a metal stamp and is made of ash from the sacrificial fire used in the temple, sandalwood paste, turmeric, clay, charcoal or red lead.
Just before getting to our car, I couldn’t resist taking some pictures of the children outside. Most of them were quite shy but there was this one girl dressed in red that really stood out…
I feel ignorant starting phrases with the words such as “I can’t believe how..” but I guess that is part of traveling. You learn to let go of the stereotypes you’ve hung on to and you discover the reality of the world around you.So I couldn’t believe how well this particular girl in red spoke English. The others were not as confident. But this girl was quite forthcoming and insisted I took some photos of her. She tried talking to me in Tamil, a language I regret never having had the opportunity to learn. I tried talking back to her in Singhalese and it was her turn to look at me blankly. So the language we had in common was English and her great pronunciation really struck me. While part of me was so proud of her for knowing English so well, the other part really hoped that not much more of her environment would be lost to the Western world.
My driver quickly went to the nearby shops and picked up some pencils, pens and books. They were our gifts to them for being so welcoming.
Regardless of the religious institution I visit, I say my own little prayer of thanks in a way I know how and in a way I feel most comfortable with. After all, I was born into (and practiced) Buddhism in my early years, attended a Protestant boarding school in my teens and then in my 30’s converted to Catholicism for my children. So most days I haven’t a clue of the ‘right’ way to do things. And in honesty, it really doesn’t matter. God (or whoever or whatever you believe in) lives within you and it’s a very personal journey.
So I said my little prayer of thanks, for being welcomed in, for the opportunity to learn new things, for the women there hoping for good husbands and for this beautiful Kovil to continue operating like it did in this enchanting part of the world, so all these people may continue finding solace in such a place and continue passing down their colourful traditions to the next generation.