Splendour of the Maha Saman Devala Perahera in Ratnapura | Sunday Observer

Splendour of the Maha Saman Devala Perahera in Ratnapura

4 September, 2022
The three-storeyed Maha Saman Devala at Ratnapura
The three-storeyed Maha Saman Devala at Ratnapura

I visited the Maha Saman Devala with my family at an auspicious time before the commencement of the annual Perahera every year. Armed with my Nikon camera this year too, I captured the pre-preparation of the pageant and found the place a hive of activity, especially, in the evening.

During the days of King Rajasingha I, three other Devalas had been constructed in honour of God Saman at Mahiyangana, Deraniyagala and Boltumbe. The objective of the establishment of subsidiary shrines was to protect the valuable offerings of the main Devala in case of a calamity and an attack by alien rulers.

When the Saman Devala at Ratnapura was ransacked by the Portuguese in 1618 and the premises razed to the ground, the valuables were taken to Boltumbe Devala for safe keeping. During the days of King Rajasingha II (1635-1687 AD), the Devala was restored at the original site. Some of the remains testify to the Portuguese attack. In the annual pageant, the ornaments of the Queen (Queen Goddess) and of Kumara Deva (Prince God) are taken in the procession.

The annual procession at the Saman Devala, Ratnapura held usually in September is considered second only to the Kandy pageant in grandeur and the observances of age old customs and rituals.

Planting of the Kap

The first in the series of events is the planting of the Kap to coincide with an auspicious moment. It is followed by the Kumbal Perahera held over five nights and the main Perahera for another five days. God Saman is represented by an arrow which receives a prominent place in the arrangement of the pageant and rituals associated therewith. Many of the highlights associated with the main pageant held during the last five days enhance the grandeur of this religious festival. Bhikkhus from the Kottimbulwala Rajamaha Vihara chant Pirith before the commencement of the procession which is heralded by the firing of gun shots.

As in the case of the Kandy pageant, the arrangement at the Saman Devala pageant depicts a merging of several events. At the head of the pageant is the Perahera in honour of the Tooth Relic followed by the processions in honour of Goddess Pattini, Bisodeva and Kumaradeva. The procession dedicated to Deity Saman is the final item.

The entire venue is packed with spectators; and excitement grows as the dancers take turns to swirl and twirl and make the whole area alive with sounds and colours. More and more elephants join, and as the drum beats echo, more people come to view the perahera.

Various types of dancers representative of major dance forms, Kandyan, Sabaragamuwa and Low Country, add colour and grandeur. The culmination of the pageant is the water cutting ceremony at Malwala in the Kalu Ganga on the last day.

A huge two-faced figure of Maha Bamba with a serene face on one side and a fierce face on the other side is a unique feature of the annual Perahera of the Sabaragamuwa Maha Saman Devala in Ratnapura.

According to historical evidence, the Maha Saman Devala Perahera began during the reign of King Parakramabahu VI. However, King Sitawaka Rajasingha added the Dalada Perahera to the pageant.

Maha Bamba Kolama

Thousands of spectators, mostly children are mesmerised by the magnificent creation of Maha Bamba Kolama, a unique feature in Sabaragamuwa that can only be seen in the Saman Devala Perahera. The 15-foot-high figure is usually carried at the head of the Perahera as Peramune Rajakariya (frontal duty) which adds beauty to the age-old procession.

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 as a deity to the virtuous.

The two-faced figure has more features – five cobra hoods on the demon face, a sword in one hand signifying ferociousness, while the other hand is placed on the hip with a bunch of flowers signifying virtuousness.

Making the Maha Bamba figure is known as Peramune Rajakariya. It has been assigned to the Kolakkara caste of community who live in Kolombogama, a village near Nivitigala, 24 kms from Ratnapura. In ancient times, the king granted Nindagama to the people of the Kolakkara caste to create and perform the Maha Bamba Kolama in the perahera and thereby maintain the tradition. Today, the descendants entrust the creating of this figure to the most experienced persons.

It is not an easy task to create this 15-foot high figure which needs at least two people. Every year, they start to create the figure at an auspicious time prior to commencing the Perahera. First, they build the bamboo skeleton and fix the two-faced mask which is kept safely in the Devala store room. Thereafter, the figure is dressed in 15 colourful saris, which takes ten days to complete.

The creators themselves carry the Maha Bamba in the procession, walking and rotating it from inside. It is carried four inches above the ground on the five nights of the Perahera. A small hole is made at eye-level of the figure, and the person walking close to the figure shows the way and is ready to help the insider who is carrying the figure. When he is tired, he keeps it on the ground for a few seconds to rest.

After the completion of the procession, the clothes, hands and the two-faced mask are safely stored in the Devala to be used at the next Perahera. The rest of the bamboo skeleton is thrown into the Kalu Ganga.

Maha Saman Devala

The three-storeyed Maha Saman Devala of Sabaragamuwa stands majestically on a small hillock on the banks of the meandering Kalu Ganga in a picturesque setting, two kilometres from the Ratnapura town on the Ratnapura-Panadura road.

Arya Kamadeva, a Minister of King Patakramabahu II (1236-1270 AD) is said to have built a Vihara at Ratnapura in honour of the deity in fulfilment of a vow made by him before launching on gem mining. Subsequently, Kings Parakramabahu VI and Rajasingha I of Sitawaka had set up this Vihara and the Devala in the premises.

A figure of Saman which was in the Devala close to Samantakuta too had been brought to Ratnapura during the reign of King Parakramabahu II. The rituals had been organised since then. The origin of the pageant at Ratnapura, therefore, dates back to the Dambadeniya period. The Devala had been originally constructed during the Dambadeniya period (1236-1270 AD) and restored during the reign of King Rajasingha I of Sitawaka.

In the rampart in front of the Devala is a plaque depicting two warriors symbolising the destruction caused to the Devala by the Portuguese. On the night following the completion of the pageant, a ritual is performed to bless all those responsible including the Basnayake Nilame, Kapuralas, participants and the elephant who carries the casket. A large number of visitors and pilgrims visit the Devala, especially during the Perahera season.