Saman devi and perahera rituals dedicated to him

The month of September sets the Sabaragamuwa region in a festive mood. The air is filled with color, traditional music and dance and religious harmony. It is the time of the devala perahera that is held in honor of Sumana Saman devi or Maha Sumana, the patron god of the Sumana kuta or the Sripada Mountain. Out of all pereharas held in Sri Lanka, the peraharas dedicated to Saman can be undoubtedly name as an event entwined with ancient mysteries and has links with the island’s untold past. This perahera has undoubtedly the essence of Buddhism nevertheless; its pre-Buddhist nature still remains intact. 

Saman is one of the well known chief gods of Sri Lanka and considered as one of the four guardian gods of the island and its inhabitants. Saman is known to his compassionate nature and is always associated with kindness and harmony. He is portrayed as a radiant white deity, with blue eyes and a serene face, with a white elephant and a pink lotus in one hand. Historical data and folklore suggests that Saman was once a regional ruler of the vicinity of Sumana kuta. He is venerated in areas around Sabaragamuwa and main shrines dedicated to him can be seen in Mahiyangana, Deraniyagala, Haton, Badulla, Sumana kuta, Ratnapura, Boltumbe and Samanthure (Saman  thota). Henry Parker in his book Ancient Ceylon states that Saman could be the god of the Eastern plain of the Island. 

According to folklore, Maha Sumana was the deity or the local ruler of Sumana-kuta or Sripadaya. During Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka Saman has met him at Mahiyangana where he became a follower of the Buddha. Then he requested Buddha for an object for worship. Fulfilling his request Buddha gave him a handful of hair. These hair relics were housed inside the Mahiyangana stupa which was first erected by Saman. During his third visit Buddha visited Sumana-kuta at the invitation of Saman, and marked his left footprint on the summit of the mountain. One can see a shrine dedicated to Saman at the summit of Sumana-kuta.

Facts and myths surrounding Saman-

The tale of this god is all veiled with mystery. History says that Saman was the local ruler of Sabaragamuwa (Saparagamuwa) area, during the 5th century BCE. According to folklore of the Vedda people Saman’s sister is referred to as Maha loku akka (The great elder sister.) 

The Veddas believe that they are descending from Kuweni’s two children who found refuge in the Samanala adaviya (The vicinity of Sripada or Sumana-kuta). The siblings Jiwahatta and Disala, after their father abandoned them and their mother was murdered, settled in the Smanala adaviya area. Their decedents were referred to as pulindas. Some scholars identify them as the Veddas. Veddas worship Kuweni as Kuweni Kiri Ammilaththo. She is their ‘goddess’. Also Maha loku akka, sister of Saman, is one of the highly venerated yakshi-goddesses among the Veddas.  Though there is a slight mismatching of the time periods and disparity in evidences, there surely is a link between the characters and the said incidents. Moreover, the veneration of Yakshis and goddesses are traits of a pre-Aryan or matriarchal culture. The contribution of the Veddas in the Saman devala perahera is evident of the association between Veddas and Saman. The annual perahera held in September, brings a forgotten tale of history back to life. 

Shrines dedicated to Saman

There is no mentioning of a shrine or cult of Saman till the 13th century in Sri Lankan history. Savul sandeshaya was written by poet Alagiyawanna Mukaweti to evoke the blessings of Sumana who was residing at the Rathnapura maha Saman devale. Rathnapura maha Saman devale is the most well-known devale of Saman. In Savul sandeshaya and Salalihini sandeshaya the bird is advised to worship Sumana and then his consort, Biso deviyan and son Kumara deviyan. 

There are devalas dedicated to Saman at almost all Buddhists temples including life size statues and life size paintings of him inside the Budu-ge. Out of all the devalas dedicated to him the chief devale is the ‘Maha Saman Devale’ or the ‘Great Saman Devale’ at Ratnapura. The Saman devale at Mahiyangana, Mt.Sumana, Boltumbe and Deraniyagala are other most significant Saman devalas of the country. At these devalas an annual perahera is held in honor of Saman and that is the most important event of these places. The entire village takes part in these events. 

Ratnapura Maha Saman Devale –

The devale at Rahnapura stands out as the most significant Saman devale in the country. Myths and folklore entwines this mystical place.  According to history there had been a Temple called Saparagama Viharaya, assumed to be located in the same premises during the Anuradhapura kingdom, as it’s mentioned in Mahavamsa that monks from the Saparagama viharaya attended the ceremony held at Ruwanwelisaya during the period of King Dutugamunu. 

The Shrine- 

Though folklore dates back the place’s history back to the period of King Dutugemunu, the shrine that we see today was constructed by a court minister in Dambadeniya named Arya-kamadeva in the 13th century AD, as a fulfillment of his vow to erect a shrine in the name of deity Saman, if his effort to find gems happened to be successful. This was under the patronage of King Parakramabahu II.

During the time of the Portuguese invasions this devale was demolished and a Portuguese Church has been built. However King Seetawaka Rajasinghe has rebuilt the shrine eradicating the church. It is also believed that King Keerti Sri Rajasinghe of the Kandyan kingdom also renovated the devale.

The architecture is humble and less sophisticate in its style, and till to date the walls are constructed out of clay. Scholars believe that due to the low financial facilities and political unrest that was happening in Sri Lanka at the time of its construction, a fairly low budget was spent on the reconstruction. 

The Perahera, an experience never to miss

The Saman devale perahera that takes part in the month of September every year, takes two weeks to complete. There are rituals preceding the Maha perahera and rituals following the Maha perahera. During these days the perahera premises and the vicinity is wrapped in a veil of spirituality and festivity. 

Yet, this place’s history is associated with King Seethawaka Rajasinghe. It was during his time that the dalada perahera (starting from Delgamuwa rajamaha viharaya) joined the Maha Saman devale perahera.  Yet today there is no Dalada perahera commencing from Delgamuwa rajamaha vihara. Instead a Dalada perahera is held at Ratnapura Maha Saman Devale that starts from the Budu-ge at the devale premises. 

The perahera rituals begin with a pirith ceremony followed by an alms giving for Buddhist monks. This is followed by the ritual of kap situwema and by the Kumbal perahera. This is a simple perahera that carries one piece of jewelry of the god and the anklet of Pattini. Once the Kumbal perahera is over, the Devale perahera starts. The number of participants for this perahera is higher than the Kumbal. This perahera carries the sacred jewelry of Saman and Pattini in well adorns palanquins. The Maha perahera comes after this. A large number of dancers, drummers, office bearers, priests and elephants take part in this event. Oil cakes (kewum) prepared by Aalaththi ammas of the devale, are fed to the elephants. This is a unique ritual that can be seen only here. The sacred relics of the Buddha are carried inside a beautifully adorned casket and this casket is taken out of the Budu-ge (shrine of the Buddha) by a monk accompanied by the Basnayake nilame. The casket is placed atop of the head of the kapu mahattaya and it is he who that places the casket on the back of the tusker. After the ceremonial gun shot is heard, the perahera starts moving forward.  The ritual of the gun shot can be seen as a remnant of the Portuguese.                                                                                                                         

The first to walk the streets are the ritual of Maha bamba kolama. This cannot be seen in any other peraheras of the island. It is believed that the fifteen feet tall structure symbolizes King Rajasinghe and the two faces of the dummy resembles the two traits of the king’s personality. One side of the face is pleasant and calm, while the other side is fierce with five cobra heads around the face. One hand he holds a sword while in his other hand it is a lotus. Some believe that this symbolizes Ravana’s brother Kumbakarana. Another belief is that this could be representing Saman before and after embracing Buddhism. This is a unique ritual that adds color and excitement to the perahera. 

The Maha perahera of the devale will be led by the dalada perahera. Then comes the pattini perahera, Biso perahara (perhera of the queen consort of Saman), kumara perahera (son of Saman), and the Saman perahera. Once the maha perahera is over, the Diya kapeema (water cutting ceromony) ritual is performed. This ritual is performed in utter secrecy, hence very less is known about the ritual. Two rafts carrying the palanquins of Pattini and Saman, rows towards the port at Ratmal ella while the perahera moves towards Kotambaya thotupala (a port located on the river kalu). The raft carrying Saman’s palanquin reaches the highest point at the river and the ritual is performed. Only the Basnayaka nilame and Bathwadana nilame performs this mysterious ritual. The water that is splashed during the diya kapeema is collected to a container (ran kendiya) and brought back to the devale. This is kept till the next year’s perahera. Once again a ceremonial gun shot is heard, marking the conclusion of all rituals. The palanquins joins the Maha perahera at Kotambaya thotupala and together they returns to the devale. After resting for a while near the Sinhasana maluwa, the perahera enters the premises of the Maha Saman devale. At the main entrance of the devale, the Gara yak natuma dance is performed to ward off any evil eye casted on the participants. This marks the end of the perahera. 

Mahiyangana Saman Devale –  

The Shrine-

If legends are accurate, this could be one of the oldest surviving devalas of the country, as we have no archaeological remains of the devales built by King Pandukabhaya or any other early Sinhalese monarchs of the Anuradhapura period. The significance of this devale lies not only of its antiquity but also because Saman’s elder sister, Maha Loku Akka (The Great Elder Sister), is worshiped at this devale. Villagers perform rituals and offerings to the goddess Maha Loku Akka, and plead for her blessings. The five villages belonging to her are as follows: Thalagamuwa, Dehigolla, Makulu Golla, Serana and Velampalla. She has five chief ministers, who are ‘Yakshas’. Their names are as follows: Seran yaka, Kehelpathgala yaka, Maweragala yaka, Maldampaha yaka and Gurumal yaka.

The third significant fact about the Mahiyangana Saman devale is the Vedi perahera, which is an annual cultural pageant. This could be the only Vedi perahera held at a Saman devale in Sri Lanka.

The Vedi perahera-

The Vedi perahera is held on the last day of the maha perahera. The ‘water cutting ceremony’ (Diya kapeema), is held after the maha perahera, at port ‘Ranpuhulawala’. This entire event recreates a folklore that is believed by the Veddas. According to this folklore the native Yakshas who were residing in Mahiyangana has shown objection when Buddha visited them and they have protested. As the Veddas believe that they are descending from the Yakshas, this Vedi perahera recreated this historic event. Veddas who participate in this perahera applies bees honey all over their body as an adhesive and paste cotton wool and tries to create a fearful appearance, hooting all the way long, carrying spears and sticks. They assemble at the Mahiyangana devala premise on the night before the devale perahera commences. After circumambulating the devale for three times they break their sticks by throwing them over the moonstone at the devale’s main entrance. At this point, the chief Vedda shoots an arrow to the inner chamber of the devale. The rest of the Veddas collect the broken pieces of the sticks, runs with them towards river Mahaweli and floats them in the river. This ritual ends after the veddas bathing in the river.  

The second day is The ‘Daval perahera’. This marks the end of this perahera. Dodam perahera is a part of this. This is a peculiar ritual. Throughout this perahera, the Veddas throw oranges and catch them, not letting a single orange to fall, and continue to hoot. The oranges are distributed by the Basnayake nilame. At the end, the oranges are smashed on the floor at the main entrance of the devale. According to folklore and the book Kuweni-Asna, a Dodam perahera was held to cure the Vanga prince Vijaya who fell ill after Kuweni’s curse, which is popularly known as the Divi-dosa (Plague of the leopard). The present day Dodam perahera commemorate this legendary event. 

The Saman devale on the summit of Sumana-kuta – 

This is a shrine that is small in size and is being only operated throughout the six months of the Sripaada wandana time. Once the Sripaada wandana time is commenced the idol of Saman that was kept at the Palmadulle Galpoththawela temple, is brought to the summit of the mountain in a perahera. According to history this devale was built by king Parakramabahu I during the 13th century A.D.

Saman devale at Deraniyagala – 

This devala was built by King Rajasinghe II on a location where a Portuguese church was once built and later washed away by floods. Also legend says that he built this shrine after following a dream he once had seen. The ancient shrine is no longer to be seen as it has been removed. Instead one can see a newly built shrine. Only a few stone pillars are evident of its past. An annual perahera is held at the devale, and the rituals are almost the same as the perahera at Ratnapura Maha Saman devale.

The Saman devale at Boltumbe –

This is believed to be built by King Seetawaka Rajasinha) as a place to secure the treasures of Ratnapura Maha Saman devale if it was under attack. An annual perahera is held at Boltumbe devale. What is extraordinary about this place is the folklore that suggests a link between the Ravana mythology and Boltumbe devale. Villagers believe that Ravana’s flag and chariot is kept secured inside the shrine. Yet, there are no archaeological evidences related to the Ravana mythology.

Buddhas visit to Mahiyangana, wall painting by Solias Mendis at the Kelani vihara temple

Mahiyangana stupa

Painting of Saman devi

Summit of Mt Sumana or Sripada

Main entrance of the Rathnapuara Maha Saman Devale

Interior of the Rathnapura Maha Saman Devale

Mahababa kolama performance at the Saman devale perahera, Rathnapura

Mahiyangana Saman devale perahera

Boltumbe Saman Devale


Uncategorized, God Saman, perahera of Sri Lanka, Saman devi