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Kohomba Kankariya harks back to traditional art of healing

The ritual dance of Kohomba demons is the basic spirit of Kohomba Kankariya or Kohomba Yakuma which is a type of ceremonial dance considered to be the most primeval devil dance in Sri Lanka. Today Kohomba Kankariya has emerged to be a widespread folk cult among the Sinhalese particularly in the upcountry. Kuveni Asna a popular book compiled in the Kotte period makes the initial reference to this festival of dance which was organised to bless King Parakramabahu VI of Kotte and to dispel doubts of illness and enemy attacks on the kingdom. The ritual dance more over invoked the supernatural powers to infuse the king with majesty and power with longevity.

A scene from Kohomba Kankariya

The origin of Kohomba Yak Kankariya dates back to King Panduvasdeva’s reign. The popular tradition expounds on the predicament King Panduvasdeva was in when he fell prey to serious illness probably caused by the malicious curses by Kuveni on Prince Vijaya and his descendants. The devil dance was thus arranged to cure King Panduvasdeva’s illness caused by the magic power of Kuveni’s curse unleashed in her frustration of being betrayed by her prince. In order to bring the evil influences and illnesses under control an assembly of deities was formed with a prince who was said to be found in a Kohomba forest. The prince was called a new god (Aluth Kohomba Deyyo) and twelve other deities were instructed to protect kings and princess against all types of evil influence.

The Kohomba Yak Kankariya retains certain elements of devil dance effectively suggestive of pre-Buddhist worship of Yakshas by the Sinhala people. In complete contrast to other forms of Shantikarma (art of healing) Kohomba Kankariya noticeably ignores praises to the triple gem-Buddha Dhamma and Sangha. This is probably because the devil dance originated against a non-Buddhist background where worship of Yaksha, Naga, or deva reigned supreme without any exposure to Buddhist culture. In this peculiar devil dance, no yantras or mantras (talismans and incantations) are intended for ‘Bhuta’ spirits or devils and dancing is absolutely carried out without wearing masks.

Salient features

The absolute theme of this type of devil dancing is prominently associated with demons and even the gods are called Yakshas. The term Yak dominates the phraseology intended to appeal to various aspects of the Kohomba Kankariya and offerings to demons and gods are made without incantations (Mantra). The Yak dessa (the priest of devil dance) invokes gods by Yak enavuma. He invokes Bhuta (spirits) and Yaksha (devils) to bring blessing and dispel all evil influences without a trace.

The ‘Kup Situweema’ (planting of post) on a proper ground to construct a pavilion takes place three months prior to the ceremonial performance of Kohomba Kankariya. The dancers’ costumes and decorative accessories are washed clean and the necessary food is kept in the stone house and the dancehall (Yak Ge. The whole ceremony is duly set in motion when Gambara Yak dessa (Chief Yakdessa) invites others to work in and outside the pavilion. The work involves preparing ‘Yahana (bed), making ‘Pandam’ (cloth torches), pounding paddy and collecting food and vegetables.

Offerings, particularly rice offerings, are prepared and placed in the ‘Yahana’ before noon - a peculiar practice called ‘Pe bat Yadinawa’.

The ornaments, symbols, weapons and insignia of gods are brought to the village from Devale in an splendidly organised ceremonial procession. Those involved in the work place on the Yahana offerings and food which include jaggery, fruits, coconuts, curry of seven vegetables (hat maluwa)curry made from wild boar flesh, oil cakes, roti and mellum.

In the afternoon, the dancers in a training session take to dancing ‘melei yakun netuma' prior to making offering of pumpkin rice, coconuts etc.

The dance is of three hour duration while the practice dance is going on, the real yak dessas begin to dress up with all the accessories needed for the dancing.

The torches are set alight and oil lamps are lighted as an effective prelude to the grand ceremony of Kohomba Kankariya the main dancing.

Vigorous dancing

The first step in the real dance of Kohomba Kankariya is the vigorous dancing to the accurate rhythm of loud drumming preceded by a formal and dignified invocation to gods. This rhythmic invocation is called ‘Yak enavuma’. The dance vigorously continues with invocations accenting on names of varied gods and placing even gods on the same rank as demons. Here the gods are addressed in ‘Yak’ (signifying demons). During this segment of dancing the gods are described in detail and even the chiefs of the Veddahs are introduced.

During the special act called ‘Asne Yama’ a protracted dancing is accompanied by earnest appeals to gods for protection and blessings. Here the viewer witnesses a spectacular series of dances being staged with solemn prayers for both demons and gods. A noteworthy feature of this stage is the pronounced variations in the patterns and movements of dancers and the rhythm of drumming according to different purposes.

Deity in swine form

One of the most distinguishable characteristic of Kohomba Kankariya is the panoramic tree - like dance in which prayers are uttered to a god in the likeness of a pig. Here ‘Dunumal Akkama’ and Yamampaha’, twin forms of vigorous dance, dramatise the adventures of the King of Malayadesha who, lured by a pig, came to Sri Lanka.

The king pursues the pig and finally he comes near it. Here the dancers perform in frenzied movements and king’s adventures are all dramatised by the dancers.

Towards the dawn of the following day the vigorous dance of the night begins to be characterised by a lighter spirit.

During this phase of the Shanthikarma, five devil dancers (Yakkama) are played and even the Veddahs are simulated. Those who take part here are Kadawara devatava, Kaluwedi devatava, Mahaguru kudaguru malei devatava, Kotuvaturottamaya and so forth.

During this stage, Kapuralas who are in control of the deities, become actually possessed and the atura (patient) can then be ensured of the blessings of Kohomba Kankariya. After this, all the yakadessas appear for a dance which assumes a solemn expression.

With the shooting of the plantain bud (Muvamala Videema) all evils are dispelled and the Kohomba Kankariya draws to an end. One of the most amusing feature in this devil dancing is the presence of sardonic and pungent verbal exchanges among the players throughout the night. Most of these dialogues level bitter criticism on the common weaknesses of society and at the sametime keep the patient in good humour making him feel perfectly healthy.

 

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