“This project serves to raise awareness in Sri Lanka that there is a shared deity between Hindus and Buddhists. As the Tamil government has such a violent history, this epic of the Goddess calling for justice is a way to talk through our grief, our suffering, and our loss.”
So began Malathi de Alwis’ November 11th lecture on devotion to the Goddess Pattini-Kannaki. de Alwis, Mount Holyoke College Class of 1985, is currently employed by the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka teaching in the Master’s program for Women’s Studies. She also is highly involved with the work of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. Her lecture, given to a group of about 40 students, professors and community members, explored the impact of over 120 photographs of representations of the Goddess taken around India and Sri Lanka. de Alwis was sure to note that as the worship of Pattini-Kannaki is primarily practiced by members of the lower castes, these photographs also highlight the religious diversities of emerging complex societies.
I nodded along with this introduction but after about two minutes it became very apparent that I was out of place. Wait, which goddess? Is she talking about more than one? Did I misunderstand story? These thoughts and more raced through my mind as I tried to actively listen and take notes. I entered the space with little background knowledge about the religious culture of Sri Lanka and India (my only understanding came from the advertising blurb), and as this lecture seemed to operate on an assumed cultural knowledge, it was difficult for me to follow. As I sat in the front row, I subtly turned to scan the crowd behind me. All 40 sets of eyes stared ahead with rapt attention, seemingly fascinated by the presentation. So it was just me. I listened harder.
After her introduction, de Alwis read directly from what seemed to be an academic paper. While she was able to deliver great information this way (she explained the intersections of the exhibition with the structuralization of Buddhism and Buddhist identities) it did seem to limit her interaction with the audience. As there are images of this Goddess that are both Hindu and Buddhist, de Alwis noted that viewers often wanted to know which is which because the visual clues were not enough to cement an alliance with or distaste for the representation in a certain work. Laughing, de Alwis reminded the crowd “there are actually very few differences between the two.” This small statement made the biggest impact in reminding the Mount Holyoke audience of this photo-project’s goals: unity, and healing from the violence of perceived differences – a task on the forefront of the American consciousness (re: Ferguson). It was here that I began to connect with this lecture, because even though the context confused me, the overarching idea of truth as portrayed through objective visual culture was very clear: pictures function as unbiased documentation of suffering, and thus can help people heal.
de Alwis showed the audience many painted images of the Goddess is rapid fire, and when she asked if we could identify the special items in Pattini-Kannaki’s hands, she barred faculty from answering to make the game more fair.
“I want to hear from the students,” she said.
“Anklets?” one suggested. I snorted, as did many others around me. Yes, she is holding anklets. In her hands. Anklets.
“Snakes?” asked another.
While the anklet is crucial for recognizing the Goddess (just in a different location), de Alwis explained that the Goddess was holding a mango – -a very powerful symbol in the Buddhist canon, also associated with dewdrops and fire. Both of which, I thought, are symbols of change and rebirth.
As de Alwis continued to weave the 5th century epic of the Goddess with the strife of the 20th and 21st centuries, all my confusion fell away. She noted, “because Pattini-Kannacki was a human who became divine through works, she is a great solace to modern women.” Many women pray to the Goddess about the disappearances of their husbands, sons, and brothers. They hope that because she received justice, that they will, too. These prayers are very politicized, as mothers of the disappeared have cursed two presidents, prompting these men to complete large-scale rituals to ward off the bad energy.
Although the political leaders only attempt to engage with the Goddess in a defensive way, de Alwis noted that there are also men who proactively seek out contact with her, hence the title of the lecture. She said that “spaces connected with the worship of Pattini-Kannacki can be particularly safe for men struggling with their gender identities, for as a priest of the Goddess, you continually inhabit female spaces and can thus explore different times of masculinity and expression.”While audience members (myself included) were curious if the space was equally as open to women exploring alternate identities, we learned that the priests of the Goddess were nearly exclusively men taking on female roles. These men would often go into trances and make prediction about those attending the rituals, and many of the photographs in the exhibit document this occurrence It is thought that even if one if uncomfortable, or if they do not want to hear what the priest has to say, that they must – for it is not him speaking, but the goddess.
As I was leaving, I overheard the lingering conversation of passionate audience members. “The Goddess is agile” one said. “ She is a global. A shape shifter. She can adapt to new communities.” I had to agree with him; especially in regards to the connection I felt this project had with the events in Ferguson, Missouri. “This goddess serves lots of needs and purposes,” he said, “so people keep coming back to her.”