Kohomba Kankariya one of the most venerated and elaborate traditional dance rituals in Sri Lanka. Held to invoke the blessings of the twelve deities (Kohomba Yakka, Irugal Bandara, Kande Bandara, Viramunda Yakka, Meleyi Yakka, Vadi Yakka, Kadavara Yakka, Vali Yakka, Kadu Guru, Maha Guru, Ambrapati and Kalu Kumara), the Kohomba Kankariya is a Shanthi Karma (a traditional art of healing) demonstrating the pre-Buddhist worship of Yakshas (demons) who are regarded as deities. It is an all-night event that commences in the evening and continues into the early hours of the following morning. The significance of the Kohomba Kankariya is well known to those who have studied the history of Sri Lankan dance rituals. Today, a Kohomba Kankariya is performed to bring about peace and bountifulness to a household, village community or the country, and to invite the blessings of the said deities to ward off evil. The historical roots of the ritual, performed since ancient times, is connected to the legendary tribal queen of Lanka Kuveni, and Prince Vijaya (who became Lanka’s first King).
Kuveni met Vijaya when he landed in Hela Deepa (as the island was known during pre-Vijayan times) with his 700 followers after having been banished from Lála kingdom (now Bangladesh) by his father King Sinhabáhu. Incidentally Vijaya had been leading a wild existence from boyhood to adulthood, and his father, unable to reform him to his satisfaction, decided he had had enough. Princess Kuveni hailed from the Yakka (demon worshippers) tribe, one of the two known tribes of Lanka (the other being Naga or snake worshippers). Upon meeting Kuveni, Vijaya falls in love with her and Kuveni betrays her tribe to unite with Vijaya, and her tribe is massacred by Vijaya and his followers. Vijaya and Kuveni marry according to ancient tribal rites, and they have two children, a son and daughter named Jivahatta and Disaala.
Now Vijaya’s followers have a deep fear of Kuveni, who is said to have had superhuman abilities. They believe that she had casted a charm over Vijaya to win him over, as well as his followers. The story takes a different turn when Vijaya is influenced by this story, and, wanting to establish himself as a legitimate monarch in the eyes of the rulers of the Indian subcontinent, decides to marry a princess from a ‘noble household’, to be consecrated as his Queen. He asks Kuveni to leave, and she is broken-hearted. She leaves with her children, but in her distress she curses Vijaya and his descendants thereafter. Kuveni is soon killed when she encounters her own tribe as she flees, but her children manage to escape.
The curse of Kuveni is called the ‘Divi Dosha‘. Divi in Sinhalese could have two meanings; ‘Life’ or ‘Leopard or similar cat’. Dosha means ailment. It is not sure therefore whether the affliction is related to a Leopard, or life. Legend goes on to say that Kuveni comes to Vijaya in the form of a Leopard and tries to kill him. Vijaya escapes death with the help of the deities. His successor King Panduwasdeva however is afflicted by the curse and dreams of Kuveni in the form of a Leopard, whereupon he becomes seriously ill. The Sakra (King of the Gods) advises that the illness could be healed by a prince born out of a water-lily.
Now the King of Malaya, who is said to have been thus born, is sought out by god Rahu who volunteers to bring the king of Malaya to Lanka to perform the ritual. Rahu who is mischievous uses trickery to get the king to come to Lanka. He assumes the figure of a wild boar and destroys the royal garden. In anger, king Malaya chases him all the way to Lanka, whereupon he is affronted by Sakra who relates the real reason behind the incident. King Mayala then agrees to perform the Shanthi karma dance ritual to cure king Panduwasdeva from his illness. King Panduwasdeva is duly cured, and King Mayala assigns a local prince Kohomba to perform the ritual in future. The ritual was henceforth known after the name of this Prince Kohomba, who assumed the form of a deity. The Kohomba Kankariya (Prince Kohomba’s art of healing) has been performed thereafter in various regions of the country to protect against negative forces, to call for the gods’ blessings and to invite peace and plenty.
In the original dance, it is said that King Malaya wore golden attire complete with 64 royal ornaments and finery of a Brahmin. Today, the costume of the Ves dancers, as they are called, consists of exactly half of these finery, 32 in number, and is in silver as they are not royalty. Although the Kohomba Kankariya originated from Anuradhapura and was performed around the country, it is the foremost Kandyan Dance Ritual. Preparation for the ritual commences three months in advance and each step of the preparation is performed with veneration. The steps include kap-situweema (fixing of the posts for the pavilion), cleaning of the dancer’s consumes, storing the food in the Yak ge (store house), the building of the Kankari maduwa, the Yakdessa (Chief Dancer) inviting the others to participate in preparing the Yahana (bed), making pandum (torches), pounding paddy and collecting other supplies. Traditionally villagers offer various supplies during the preparation of the ritual such as flowers, fruits, camphor, lamps, cloth for the canopy, banana tree trunks etc. All this work precedes the final performance itself.
The ritual consists of more than 30 discrete dance forms including drumming, chanting, group dancing, dialog and drama, sometimes mixed with comedy. All this is sure to keep the audience awake and attentive throughout the proceedings. It an exclusively male dance unlike other Kandyan dance rituals where women play a major part. The dances take the audience through the sequence of events from Rahu’s deceptive journey and King Malaya’s arrival, to the Yak a numa (inviting the deities), the Kuveni asana (lament of Kuveni) and all the way through the healing process. It is a cultural pageant not to me missed.
Story | Nilu Rajapakse
Photography | Nilu Rajapakse