Publication year: 2020

Munnesvaram: Controversial animal sacrifice ritual October 03, 2012 AnimalSacrifice, Hinduism, Munnesvaram, Premakumara De Silva, Religion, Social | by Premakumara De Silva ( October 3, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)

For the anthropologist, a sacrifice is a special kind of offering. A mere offering to the gods by the average religious adherent deprives the worshiper of little. But a true sacrifice creates a significant cost to the worshiper. In antiquity, we see evidence in both written and material record of sacrifices that truly put the worshiper in a situation where piety becomes more important that personal gain, wealth or even well-being. The sacrifice demonstrates that the level of piety is directly proportional to the level of sacrifice. Anthropologists take the term sacrifice in a wide sense as it is common to all the religions. It is not essential that it involves giving up something valuable but only that a symbolic gesture is made. This can be a gesture recognizing the presence of a spirit or ancestor. Extreme cases of human sacrifices are very rare. Most common animal sacrifice such as goat or a cow is slaughtered for the ancestors or god but actually eaten by the living people who perform the sacrifice. This paper aims to explain briefly about one such place: Munnesvaram temple near the coastal town of Chilaw. Munnesvaram is a religious complex that draws people for a variety of reasons. For some, it draws them because it is regarded as the most powerful Kali temple in all Sri Lanka, for others it is because Munnesvaram is one the most important Siva temples in the country, and for still others, it is because the temple is their regional temple. They all share the sense that Munnesvaram is a temple complex of great importance for Tamil Hindus and Sinhala Buddhists. The annual Munneswaram festival is an important part of the temple calendar and it attracts Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics and even Muslims. Until the 1830s the festival lasted up to 18 days but since the 1960s it lasts for 28 days in the months of August and September. The two principle temples, the Munnesvaram temple and Bhadrakali temple, are the largest, best known, and most popular temples in the complex. Each temple is owned and run by a distinct group of Tamil Hindu priests. The worshippers are drawn from all over the country and predominantly Sinhalese and Tamil. Hence, Munnesvaram provides us a classic example of how religious pluralism works in the contemporary religious landscape of the country. It is so important to see how Buddhists worship alongside Tamil Saivites in Tamil Saivite temples. It is not my intention to write about the pluralistic aspects of Munnesvaram temple rather I’m interested in writing about one of the controversial ritual practices, animal sacrifice, that has been taking place at the Munnesvaram Kali Temple. This temple is regarded by many Buddhists as the entry-site for Kali when she first arrived by stone ship from India. According to Kali’s myth when she arrived she could not get to the Munnesvaram goddess, Pattini, so she set about wreaking havoc among the local human inhabitants, destroying their homes and consuming the occupants. Pattini acted quickly and caught Kali, then subdued her and made her into a servant. The subdued, but still ferocious Kali dwells in her temple adjacent to the temple of Pattini. She gives up human sacrifice but remains addicted to the consumption of blood in the form of animal sacrifice. Pattini allows her this habit but insists that any violence she might direct against human beings be a righteous violence that rights wrongs and stops injustice. Kali has her righteous form as Bhadra (Skt. ‘Auspicious’) Kali, and several demonic forms particularly the most terrible Sohon (Skt. ‘Cemetery’) Kali who will dance on the corpse of her dead husband Siva at the end of the current age, the Kali Yuga. At the Munnesvaram temple she is represented with a large black basalt statue of Bhadrakali. Bhadrakali Temple Festival The festival is celebrated at the Bhadrakali temple over the last ten days of the month of August up to and including the day of the flag lowering. The first day of the festival consists of an elaborate bathing rite to all the statues done in the early morning, followed by a lengthy morning puja of a kind usually reserved for Kali’s special days, Tuesday and Friday. Saffron-coloured protective threads are tied around the statues and the wrist of the officiating priest who then takes a kumbha pot on procession to each shrine where coconuts are broken. The kumbha is returned to the temple inner sanctum and when it is brought back the priests and helpers shower it with flowers. The movement between shrines corresponds to the temple’s daily rites, so, if anything, the festival is merely the enlargement of the daily puja. The key element here is the kumbha as an aniconic representation of Bhadrakali. She dose come out of from the sanctum but only in this aniconic form. With current use of a kumbha, there is an advantage for most devotees not knowing that Bhadrakali is coming out and no large processions occur. As the festival progresses the goddess increasingly becomes present in the world. Each day of festival resembles a busy Friday morning during the rest of the year. At some point devotees offer basket containing fruits, flowers, incense, vibhuthiash and vermilion kunkuma powder, betel leaf and money. During the festival time, thousands of coconuts are broken, dozens of limes are cut to draw out sorcery (huniyam), the organized cursing with cow dung against enemies is performed, and above all, hundreds of cocks and several goats are given. While the Munnesvaram temple is calming down following the flag lowering on the final day of the festival, the morning puja at the Bhadrakali temple is the busiest of the year. This is the main festival day for Bhadrakali, the day of velvi or animal sacrifice. The donation of animals as offerings is a common feature of Tamil Saivite temple festival, but the sacrifice of some or all of these animals depends directly on the nature of the deity. The Bhadrakali temple priests insist on the necessity of blood sacrifices for Kali. Sacrificial offerings of chickens and goats can be sorcery offerings to Kali, enlisting her support to harm an enemy. A chicken sacrifices simply requests that the enemy be injured, a goat that the enemy be killed. However, not all such offerings are sorcery offerings. Goats were also slaughtered, but less frequently, and only if the donor specifically requested it. Such offerings are sacrificial offerings, but sacrificial offerings can also be live offerings that the temple can then sell at an auction on the final day to devotees who take the animals home. At the Bhadrakali temple, the practice of live offerings and auction extends to small children who are given by their parents to the goddess kali. The rite is designed to turn the child into Bhadrakali’s child and thus under the goddess’ protection. In 1977 the government of J.R. Jayewardene banned animal sacrifice. But recently it has recommenced. Tamil Saivites were the principal focus of the legislation as animal sacrifice is most extensive in their religion. Moreover, the element of sacrifice of Saivism relates to the Vedic Brahmanism against which the Buddha reacted. Hence, the ban on sacrifice celebrated key Buddhist principles of nonviolence and was promoted especially by government ministers and Buddhist monks. Some of these same ministers would remain active, albeit secret, patrons of the Kali Temple was a point not lost on many devotees. This is what the Bhadrakali temple is about, what Kali is all about. She accepts blood sacrifice, indeed demands it, and notwithstanding Buddhist-inspired bans, the recognition of the sacrificial element by Buddhists, their insistence on its performance, remains a key feature of Kali worship.

PS: I would like to acknowledge the materials that I used to develop this article from work of Rohan Bastian.