Spiritual sanctuaries in estates | Sunday Observer

Spiritual sanctuaries in estates

12 March, 2023
A sacred cloth wrapped around a tree in a shrine at Maskeliya
A sacred cloth wrapped around a tree in a shrine at Maskeliya

Roadside shrines dedicated to the elephant-headed Lord Ganesh and other Hindu deities in tea estates in the central highlands, are common sites for estate workers to seek fortune in their daily life.

In Sri Lanka, a temple, a mosque or a church can appear just about anywhere and become a pilgrim spot. Most frequently visited pilgrim spots are roadside shrines. Across the country, in villages and towns, in the heart of the cities and in the middle of slums, we find shrines dedicated to various gods and goddesses. It may be a simple vermilion smeared rock, or a dramatic saffron coloured image of the Buddha, or an image of God Ganesha with garlands of flowers and offerings of Poojas.

The best part of a roadside shrine is to see how it works as a multi-functional space. Usually, under a tree, it is a lot more crowded with devotees in the morning and in the evening, who stand before it, pray, make offerings and go around it. In the afternoon, it is a place where old people sit and chat, children play, people go about their business ignoring the shrine. At night, dogs enter the shrine, eat some of the leftover offerings, and sleep next to the gods. No one minds.

mesmerising vistas

As we cruised along the A7 highway, relishing the mesmerising vistas of the lush green tea estates in Maskeliya, we came across colourful little roadside shrines dedicated to Hindu deities, gleaming in the sun. The sacred places were deserted.

We decided to explore, and trudged barefoot across the hot, stone flight of steps towards the shrines where one or two statues of Hindu deities wrapped in colourful sacred cloths stood with tridents, mostly set under trees. They are venerated by estate workers, mostly Hindus. Here we washed our feet, a spiritual observance of cleansing before entering the holy ground for a refreshing experience in the humidity of the late morning.

When I photographed one of these roadside shrines in an estate near Maskeliya, an elderly woman, Parameswari, shouted, “Swami, swami, this is our Kovil.” Smiling with her, I took several photographs of the deities. She said they make offerings daily to Lord Ganesh (Pillayar), before they set off to pluck tea leaves.

Estate workers have faith in the deities and the deities have compassion for people - this is what the workers in the estates believe.

Expansive tea estates surrounding the central highlands always had good climatic conditions for tea. As we climb through a cluster of well-grown tea bushes to the mist-laden peaks, a cool drizzle envelops the green carpet of tea bushes.

Standing on the peak we got a glimpse of the tea factories, a cluster of line rooms (houses) of the estate workers and charming images of Lord Ganesh.

The best ones are those found at roadside shrines, nestling under a rock or crudely carved stones, often smeared with turmeric paste and garlanded with flowers set on the roots of trees, at the tea plantations.

An image of God Ganesh etched in a granite monolith in a shrine dedicated to Hindu deities in Maskeliya

Lord Ganesh is an ancient god. His cult almost predates classical or Vedic Hinduism and some scholars believe Ganesh was probably a tribal god, a kind of totem. Maybe he was first worshipped by forest-dwellers of the South Indian subcontinent in pre-historic times. The colonial rulers brought estate workers from South India, especially, from Tamil Nadu to work in Sri Lankan estates, (Ceylon) and they brought their traditions and rituals along with them. Thus the small shrines built at an edge of each tea estate are known as Wathu Kovil (estate shrines).

Protection from diseases

The story goes that the people of Uttara Pradesh, the hottest province in India, suffered epidemic diseases such as, measles, yellow fever and chicken pox, considered as diseases associated with the deities. Those afflicted with a disease made vows to Goddess Pattini at the Kovils.

They bathed and cleaned their bodies in boiled turmeric water mixed with Kohomba (Neem) leaves. The females in their homes would come to estate kovils and invoke the blessings of the deities, especially, by bathing the statue of Goddess Pattini in the turmeric mixed water and cow-milk filled in new pots. Thereby, the patients were cured and the people continued to have faith and devotion towards the deities. Hence, even after Indian workers settled down in Sri Lankan estates, they maintained their beliefs and traditions.

To estate workers, mostly, the Hindus, religion forms part and parcel of their daily lives. Observing the traditions that passed down the generations is part of their way of life. At the Maussakele tea estate, I met an estate worker, Parama Sivam, 73, who has been living in the estate since his childhood. “Early in the morning, we make offerings to the Pillayar Swami (deity) with pongal, flower garlands and boiled gram before commencing work.


The overseers on the estates also join these poojas with the workers. Not everyone can administer these poojas and a priest or Poosari is needed to conduct the offerings. People should venerate and invoke blessings of the deities before starting work,” said Parama, adding that religious observance is a must when commencing work at auspicious times. “Today, no one works properly. People of the bygone years, offered poojas and venerated the deities to invoke their blessings before they commenced work,” he said.

Those in the management of the tea estates were mainly concerned about profits, forgetting the traditions of the estates and its workers. As a result, most Kovils, which were widespread in the past, were left to decay due to the lack of the veneration of deities. However, some Kovils still maintain traditional rituals and Hindu devotees throng these places to voice their grievances or make vows and offerings.

These are not like grand temples in the cities. These shrines are not regulated by the state. In Western countries, unregulated religious places are forbidden. You have to take a licence for a religious establishment like you take licences for shops. But in Sri Lanka or India, a temple, a mosque, a church can appear just about anywhere, in a small room of the neighbourhood and simply under a tree, to create a sense of community, to give support to the lost and the hopeless and the hopeful, a moment of peace, a moment of connection, with a force that cares more than humanity.

A trident under a tree wrapped in scarlet red cloth in an isolated roadside shrine near Ginigathhena where estate workers worship the deities daily

A garlanded image of God Ganesh under a tree at a roadside shrine in Maskeliya

Wrapping colourful spiritual cloths around the two images of Lord Ganesh bearing spiritual spears at a roadside shrine (Kovil) in Dickoya