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Who are Alathi Ammala?

2018-08-27 00:00:20
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By L.B. Senaratne

As we view the Kandy Esala Perahera, we see a colourful procession of men, elephants and banners. But, little seems to be known about the behind-the-scenes rituals of the Sri Dalada Maligawa.

The Esala Perahera is not only about parading the Golden Karanduwa. The ritual performed during the Kandy Esala Maha Perahera season gives the entire festival more significance and meaning.

Amidst these busy preparations, there are two very important women, who are indispensable during the performance of rituals.

Their duties have been passed down from generations and their families have served the Sri Dalada Maligawa for years. They themselves are not aware of an exact date or period of when their duties began. They only know that they come from two families - the Ranaweeras.

For years I have been trying to delve into the status symbols and how they were first put in place to become the two most indispensable women during this festival.

But there is no record as to how they came to serve the Sri Dalada Maligawa and join its retinue. However, they are very much part and parcel of the establishment.

These two women are known as the Alathi- Ammala. There is no corresponding word in English to describe them. Their ritual is simple but dignified and they are present every Wednesday for the Nanumura Mangalya, (The bathing of the Sacred Relic) during every Vesak and Poson Day as well as every day of the Esala Maha Perahera or the exposition of the Sacred Relic.

The ritual is simple yet dignified. What one notices is that two women with lighted wicks dipped in pure coconut oil, goes and place them on a betel leaf and step into the Inner Shrine.

However, what they really do inside the Shrine Room is a matter of conjecture.

We are told that it is a simple but sacred ritual. They do not speak about it and no one asks them. Only the serving priests know what they do.

Some years ago when the Venerable Rambukwelle Vippassi Thera was the Mahanayake of Malwatte Chapter, while waiting inside the inner chamber during an exposition, we discussed as to how this office of  Alathi Ammala came into place at the Sri Dalada Maligawa.

It was said that this type of office existed during the time of the Walli Yak Mangalaya at Maha Vishnu Devale.

At that time the elder Alathi Amma was Ranaweera. The Mahanayake Thera summoned one of the two in service and asked them whether they know about how they came into office.

They replied, that their duties are bestowed upon them when the elder office bearer passes away, but are unable to trace their origin.

The Mahanayake noted in his observations, it could be that the Kings at that time were Hindu or aligned to Hinduism, though they performed Buddhists rites. So, it is a custom that the Mahanayake was not certain of.

But it could be attributed to the fact the Hindu Kings used women for blessings, whenever they leave the Palace for official functions and when he returns to the Palace to ward off the evil eye.

The Mahanayake said that it could be that ritual, which was carried out on the King and that this same ritual is also carried out to the Sacred Relic.

This ritual is to say Ayu -Bowan thrice with lighted wicks placed on a Betel leaf. It is a simple process, but a dignified one.


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