Saparagamuwa Maha Saman Devale pageant: The men behind the magic | Sunday Observer

Saparagamuwa Maha Saman Devale pageant: The men behind the magic

15 September, 2019

It is during September that the five-day long spectacular cultural pageant at the historic Saparagamuwa (the word hailing from ancient times, though people have got used to saying Sabaragamuwa) Maha Saman Devale at Ratnapura is held, which is considered second only to the Esala Perahera in Kandy. The festival this year was held from September 9 to 14.

The pageant showcases the observance of age-old customs and rituals dedicated to God Saman, the guardian deity of Sri Pada. The rites are performed over five-nights of sounds and lights.

We slowly make our way to the premises of Maha Saman Devalaya as we wait patiently for the rain to recede. In a while, the rays of the sun stream out from the clouds. People concede that the rain in the months of July –September is called ‘Keviti Vessa’, because it rains for only a few minutes and ceases. However, rain is part and parcel of the life of the people of Ratnapura.

Most viewers of the pageant are mesmerized by the unique and significant Maha Bamba Kolama, which can only be seen at this pageant, an inherited feature, carried at the head of the pageant.

The huge, 15-foot-high, two-faced figure of Maha Bamba with a serene face on one side and a fierce demonic face with a five cobra figured hood on the other, is a remarkable feature. It is believed that this figure depicts the character of King Rajasingha I who was considered to be fierce like a demon in anger and pleasant like a deity to the virtuous. It is also believed to have been introduced by King Rajasingha I.

Prior to the Saman Devale pageant last week, we spent last Monday (9)at the premises of the Maha Saman Devalaya witnessing and photographing the making of the Maha Bamba Kolama.

Having got permission from its incumbent Basnayaka Nilame - the lay custodian of the Devalaya - Migara Jayasundera, we met the artisans who make the Maha Bamba figure.

The ancient chronicles state that for the making of Maha Bamba Kolama and carrying it at the final five days at the head of the pageant, the king had ordered to grant them property worth more than twelve thousand rupees (a huge sum those days) and free food and lodging on the five days at the Devale.

He also ordered to supply the raw material, bamboo and cloths to make the figure of Maha Bamba and after returning to their home at Kolombogama, 12 miles by foot, a sack of rice and four pots of Jadi (a unique dried fish dish) as expenses. This duty has been passed on from generation to generation.

The process of creating the figure is begun at an auspicious time by artisans descending from a specific caste that have traditionally inherited the right of making and carrying Maha Bamba Kolama in the pageant. Making the Maha Bamba Kolama is called a ‘Peramune Rajakariya’ (frontal duty) of the pageant.

It was granted to the people of Kolakkara lineage in Kolombogama, a village near Nivitigala in Ratnapura. They were also granted land ‘Nindagama’ by the king to create the Maha Bamba and keep up the tradition.

At the Devalaya ground, we met Amarasekara Vitharana, the incumbent descendant of this tradition of Peramune Rajakariya, overseeing the making of the Maha Bamba Kolama at this year’s pageant.

We then met the present makers of the Maha Bamba figure at the Devale premises. They are Lal Serasinghe and his assistant W.N. Nihal. Both hail from Ratnapura, in the locality of the Devalaya. Their duty is the Peramune Rajakariya of the pageant and this post goes to the most experienced person in the pageant.

Every year, a few days prior to commencing the pageant, Lal and his assistant start to make the figure of Maha Bamba. First, he makes the bamboo skeleton of the body, selecting a strong and light bamboo plant that can be stripped into seven parts and easily carried by one person. The bamboo structure is made in about ten days. Later, they fix the hands, wooden sword and the mask onto the bamboo skeleton. They dress the figure in around 15 colourful saris.

Lal is in charge of making the figure of Maha Bamba. He carries the Maha Bamba, walking and rotating inside of the figure on each of the five nights of the pageant, every year. He now counts 12 years of participation in the Saman Devalaya pageant.

“Carrying this figure is not as difficult as it seems. Being inside the figure, I adjust my walking according to the movement of the pageant.

If I want to rest, I place it on the ground,” says Lal dressing up the figure in colourful saris. Nihal helps Lal in numerous ways to put the final touches to the figure.

“Once the pageant is over, the cloths and mask are removed and kept in the Devale in a protected room. The rest of the bamboo skeleton is thrown into the Kalu Ganga. We make a new one every year,” Lal said.

On the completion of their duties, they return to the Devale, where they are awarded with money at the end of the pageant. The people who work for the pageant performed their ‘Rajakariya’ from generation to generation with devotion and dedication.

“Many people from other pageants in the country ask me to make Maha Bamba figures for them. But regretfully, I refuse because my duty is dedicated only to the Saman Devalaya at Ratnapura,” says Lal smiling.

At the office of Saman Devalaya, we also met B. V. Dharmawardena, 73.

He says, “During King Rajasingha’s time, all the people who worked for the Devalaya called ‘Rajakariya’ (duty) were granted lands and other facilities for their services”.

“Before the present makers, an elderly person called A. R. Jaanis was in charge of making Maha Bamba.

After his death a few years ago, that generation faded away,” says Dharmawardena, a scholarly officer who has been associated with the Devale since 1963. He said the present generation of the families of past Devala Rajakariya has no interest in participating in the pageant.

However, the dedicated duo Lal and Nihal have excelled in making the Maha Bamba Kolama for several years and each year, thousands of spectators, mostly children are mesmerized by this magnificent creation, which adds majesty to the Saparagamuwa Saman Devala pageant.