16 October 2012

Paanama: unique, other-worldly and elusive

[Written in consultation with Wasantha Wijewardena, friend, fellow-traveler (at times) and a professional rastiyaadukaaraya, self-proclaimed]

‘John Seeya’ is an elderly resident of Paanama.  Some would say he is Paanama.  Others would say he is bigger than Paanama, considering his vast knowledge of Paanama, Okanda, Kumana and Ampitiya. He would probably say he is but another resident of a place with a unique, colorful and god-touched history and an equally fascinating present. 

‘Come,’ he says as you leave, with the inevitable ‘and stay for as long as you like’.  Between that goodbye and the customary greeting, ‘Ayubowan’, he will regale you with a few stories that say a lot about the place as well as himself.  John Seeya is not just conscious of tradition, he is tradition.  John Seeya is both disciplined and empowered by his belief system, conscious of the inalienable truths of Buddhism as well as the territories and necessitated venerations of those entities referred to as ‘gods’. 

John Seeya is Paanama. So too the Chairman of the Lahugala Pradeshiya Sabha, ‘Paanama Puncha’, who cares little for party color.  So too Ukku Mama whose is friend to people from Karativu, Thirukkovil and even the United States of America.  So too the loku haamuduruwo of the Paanama Pansala, who is an uncrowned king, educated and erudite, compassionate and pragmatic, dispenser of wisdom to all, patron to all organizations, giver to every traveler. 

So too Punyamoorthi, benevolent and pious like his name, and physician and astrologer to all.  It was he who predicted the tsunami one month before it struck.  The people, strong in belief, spent that month in all kinds of religious activities.  They moved to high ground. They took care of foreign tourists and Muslim fishermen.  Only one person perished – he had gone fishing that day.  ‘I am Tamil,’ he says, adding that his wife carries Veddah blood.  He is heir to the ancient Lord Ganesh temple, is one of the prominent dayakayas of the Paanama temple and is the chief guardian, so to speak, of the temple of Goddess Pattini.

So too the young men who experience the rites of passage in the ancient game-custom called Alkeliya, the women in the paddy fields and chenas, the dust roads, the bylanes, the annual padayatra, the myriad tales of Skanda and Valli, in ritual and banter, conversations made and held, the sand dunes and rock formation, lagoon and tank, fish and fisherfolk, visitor and host, creature footprint and birdcall, legend and history, scholarship and veneration.  It is a story.  It is a collection of stories.  An epic. In a word, uncapturable.

Legend has it that Paanama was the birthplace of Mandodaree, Lord Ravana’s queen.  It was a commercial hub, dominated by the Nagas who are said to have been skilled in international trade. The insignia used by the trading caste that built Sanchi is also found in the monastic cave complex in Kudumbigala once the residence of hundreds of bikkhus.   Kudumbigala, on the border of the Kumana-Okanda park on the northern side, has unique geophysical features and is of immense archaeological value.  There are over 200 caves.  Inscriptions indicate that the monastic complex was established in the pre-Christian era, i.e. during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa.  The ‘Maha Sudarsana Lena’ gifted to Arahats by Nandimitra, one of the 10 ‘giants’ of King Dutugemunu. 
The complex was discovered by Maithree Upasaka, a Catholic by birth from Negombo, who was a railway worker.  He chose to live a life of meditation at Kudumbigala.  He had died in 1977.  His remains were displayed in a rock cave as per his wishes.  The LTTE, when it controlled these areas, had thrown away the remains, but after the end of their reign of terror, the skeletal remains have been recovered. 

There is also a legend of a tribe of Nittewo who had lived around Kudumbigala, the last of whom had been killed by Veddhas of Paanama near Bambaragastalawa for reasons as mysterious and elusive as the first claim itself. 

The most ancient remembered residents, i.e. those from several centuries ago, are said to have been Veddahs.  Their progeny take the name ‘Vediwela Bandara Mudiyanselage’ or ‘of Vediwela Bandara Mudiyanse’.  Those who fled the British soldiers in the aftermath of the failed 1818 rebellion are said to have taken up residence in Paanama.   It is said that a person by the name of Yahapath Hami along with some relatives had been wandering in the jungle when he had encountered an old Buddha statue and a statue of Lord Ganesh.  They had brought the image of Lord Ganesh to a place called Vekada in Helava while the Buddha statue was taken to Yahapath Hami’s place.  Upon returning, they found the statue of Lord Ganesh missing.  They went looking for it and found that it had ‘taken up residence’ in the Valli Amma temple in Okanda.  The Buddha statue was brought to present day Paanama when the residents fled a long drought. 

Several decades later, the Vidane of Kumana, a physician named Sinnapillai Thambirasa had brought the statue of Lord Ganesh to Kimbulawela for the convenience of Paanama devotees.  That area is now called Ganadevipala or Dandenahaduwa (Where alms were given). 
These stories are culled from an account related by 81 year old Yahapath Hami Gunatilaka, a physician and a grandson of Yahapath Hami above to his daughter, Vedivela Bandara Mudiyanselage Gunatilaka Gnanavathi, the Grama Niladhari of Paanama North.

Komariya and Muhudu Maha Viharaya are associated with the story of King Kavantissa and his Queen, Vihara Maha Devi.  The auspicious time for their union is said to have been calculated by a bikkhu at Shasthrawela, then a well-known residence for scholar bikkhus.  The ‘wedding’ is said to have taken place at Magul Maha Vihara, again in the Lahugala area.  The old ‘Paanam Pattuwa’ encompassed Paanama, Bakmitiyava, Lahugala and Hulannuge.  It is home to many a hero of the 1818 rebellion.  Kebiliththe Rate Rala, Meeyangoda Mudiyanse, Daddile Mahagedara Aththo, Kottagaha Walawwe Atapattu and other key leaders are said to have been connected to the clan of Vediveda Mudiyanse and Tamil families from Paanama, Kumana, Vadagama and Meeyangoda.
Paanama and Kataragama are inextricably linked by tradition and family, faith and ritual, then and now.  The God Kataragama is referred to as ‘Hura’ by Paanama folk, denoting ‘cousin’, since he met his consort, Valli, in the plains around Okanda, literally ‘happiness’.  The vessel that brought the ‘deity’ or ‘Murugan’, is said to have been turned into stone and the place is now called ‘Ran Oru Gala’ (Stone of the Golden Boat).  The wealth of the Kataragama Devale was in the trust of the Paanama people until the 1818 rebellion, at which time it was transferred to Mahabethme Atapattu Rala of Kottagaha Walawwa, Kumana, the Basnayaka Nilame of the Devale. 

The species diversity is matched by the cultural mix.  One finds the pride of Kanda Udarata rebels, the simplicity of the Veddahs, the color of Hindu influences and the equanimity wrought from a long association with Buddhist tenets.  This is a product of or a condition that enriched the traditional annual pilgrimage from Mullaitivu to Kataragama.  Faith is key.  Certain sacred groves are treated with reverence.  No meat or fish is taken or consumed.  Those who do, pay dearly.  John Seeya has dozens of stories about what befell those who pooh-poohed such traditions. 

It is a place ‘to do nothing’.  A place where all contradictions are resolved without effort.  Some consider it god’s own forest.  It is dotted with the sacred.  There is the Sasthrawela Maninaaga Pabbatha Raja Maha Viharaya, the Ulpassa Samudra Naga Viharaya, the Weheragala Weherakema archaeological site, the Ragamwela Sri Walukaramaya, Panama Raja Maha Viharaya, the Weve Pansala pillaged again and again by treasure hunters, Veherakema, Bambaragasthalava, Paanam Purana Ganadeyyanpala, the Okanda Sri Murugan Kovil, Sannasimale Pullayar Kovil, Paanama Sri Manikka Pullar Kovil, and the Ampitiya Paththini Devale. 

An entire book can be written about Paanama cuisine where that which is available at the given moment is used to give bite and distinctive flavor to the simplest of dishes.  There is, after all, enough fruit, fish, game if necessary, leaves for the mallum, tamarind for a lace of sourness and mushrooms that come with the sudden and heavy rains in the month of Bak.    

It is beautiful.  The fields, shrub jungle, dunes, the many wevas, beach and hillocks are made for meditation and wholesome living.  Vadagama Weva, Helawa Weva, Kumana Weva and Kumana Weva ensured that the people would never be in want.  Indeed the ancient irrigation complex contained other wevas such as Veddanne Weva, Ulpasse Weva, Naulla Weva, Miyangoda Weva, Ragama Weva, Panama Weva, Paankala Weva, Goo Weva and Kudumbigala Weva. The pond or pokunu system included Maha Pokuna, Waththe Wala, Rodi Pokuna and Pansale Pokuna.   They had the rice. They had cattle to give them all the milk they needed.  They still do.  Nothing can beat Paanama buffalo curd, they say.    

Paanama a melody, let’s say, that will not be taken down in note-form.   John Seeya won’t tell the whole story because it is just too long.  And deep.  And wide.  We can only sketch.  The full picture will remain elusive, but its features do reveal themselves.  To particular kinds of gaze.  One has to go there to test ability, but even if one gets just a blur, it refreshes, rejuvenates and convinces, ‘there’s something unique and other-worldly in Panama’. 



SANDIKA said...

this is a information - full, resources - full, poetry - full, so much talk the picture - full, word - full ' i have no way of imitating the style' :) or rob the words :) article.

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful writing.Pictures too are beautiful.I was just in 'Panama' while reading through . I have heard people from Panama are uniquely very generous and kind.May you find more and more time to visit these beautiful places so we can at least read and imagine the beauty.