Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sketches from the South: Wewurukannala

Human beings love being reminded of what awaits them after they die. Heaven or hell, earth or purgatory, they want to know. And by knowing, they either work to make their afterlife a reality or do their best to change that afterlife. We all want to ascend to paradise, after all, and even if we don’t, we want to be born in this paradise of ours we call Earth. This is true of the Sinhalese and the Buddhists, especially those who plan out every deed they do in the name of what they will encounter once they leave home. And to a considerable extent, the hopes, fears, sorrows, and joys which this sense of karmic expectation compels from us is reflected in the way we depict our faith on temple walls: intense serenity on the one hand, for those who do good and merit, and intense suffering on the other, for those who do bad and evil. Visit a typical temple and chances are you’ll come across more of the former: in places of worship as with businesses, crowds come in to know how they will be benefited. They want to be reminded of the path to heaven. Not hell.

For atheists, agnostics, and rationalists, heaven and hell are metaphors denoting extremities on earth: starvation in Africa versus opulence in America. According to the Buddhists texts, this is false. Even the rationalists who say they’ve found in Buddhism the ultimate religion to square with their scientific outlook overlook the fact that no less a figure than the Buddha himself contended that such realms do exist and they are not a “state of mind”. (To call them that would be to invite censure the way Rahul Gandhi did when he called poverty a “state of mind”.) While I am certainly not equipped to write at length about Buddhist hells and heavens (which are different from their Christian counterparts on the basis that no matter how divine the reward or horrible the punishment, people always return to this realm, and are not sent to those realms for eternity), I would recommend a careful reading of the Devadutta Sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya for the lay reader who wishes to know more about this subject. That, and a visit to those temples which lay down the torments of the underworld.

Buddhism has no art to speak for itself; much of the art which cropped up, years and centuries after the passing away of its founder, was secular, conforming to standards created in the human mind. And more so than their Christian counterparts, who depicted fanged demons as guardians of hell, Buddhist temple painters seem to have found out eventually that either of two ways served to frighten or embolden the people into doing good. (Back in the early days, when worship was as integral to daily life as going to a job is to us today, most of those people took the precepts of Buddhism seriously, to their hearts, and made them a pivotal part of their lives.) The first way was by “externalising” the various torments of hell. Here, the paintings depicting those torments were etched out side-by-side with paintings of onlookers and visitors from heaven. The Beauvais Cathedral resorted to this method, with devils subjecting sinners to pain through boiling vats and prongs to the discomfort of those heaven-sent onlookers.

The second method was easier, though rarely resorted to: turn those hellish torments into veritable exhibits. Here the disturbed onlookers weren’t messengers from heaven, but the viewers themselves, us. The thin line between us and the punishments of hell was the imagination of the artist involved in drawing up the latter, which is why these paintings tended to be labelled, meticulously, with stanzas and allusions to religious texts, particularly (when it comes to the Sri Lankan temple) the Buddhist canon: so that we would know that these weren’t just figments of that imagination, that they were a reality. As I pointed out above, however, Sri Lankans, especially Sinhalese Buddhists, prefer to know the consequences of doing good on earth: they want to be emboldened into accumulating kusal (good karma), and that by discerning the various pleasures and comforts of life in the higher realms. Over the years, though, because of rising crime rates and vagrancy and other indicators of social evil, artists may have had to rethink on this issue, and consider depicting the consequences of bad deeds.

This latter phenomenon has neatly, I should think, tied up with rising tourist arrivals and the tendency of Westerners to “exoticise” the faith of the majority, Buddhism, in terms of paintings, drumbeats, and fragrances, once they’re here. Sri Lankans are howling at the fact that certain hotels are restricting them from entering their premises and instead favouring tourists, the outsiders, but the truth is that there is another side to this: because of the Westerner’s fascination with those paintings, drumbeats, and fragrances, the guardians and gatekeepers of certain other tourist spots, including temples and other holy sites, take in more money from them than from natives like you and me. On both counts it’s discrimination, and on both counts, the owners of the tourist sites want to cash in on the tourist, with respect to profits for accommodation (hotels and restaurants) and with respect to places of worship and the need to sustain them financially (temples). Depicting hell, as opposed to heaven, while obviously necessary with rising crime rates here, also spells out good business with the tourists who will be asked to contribute to the temple coffers once they’ve looked around. As far as Buddhism goes, “hell” is the nearest destination to their Westernised minds that they’d want to see, especially since while the concept of heaven in Buddhism is different from that in Christianity, the punishments meted out to sinners in hell are virtually the same in both faiths. They’ll pay to see how they’ll be flogged, stabbed, burnt, boiled, and brutally mutilated.

At Wewurukannala Viharaya, situated in Dickwella, near Matara, you’ll come across a tunnel to hell which compounds all these points, facts, and trends. It’s at once a reminder for the Buddhists, even non-Buddhists (and non-Sri Lankans: I came across Indians who visit for purposes of worship); a tourist hotspot for the Westerner; a cultural site for the historian; and a paradise for the ardent photographer. Since I was a little of all these things, I found Wewurukannala, and not just the tunnel, more than just fascinating. Composed of three parts – a budu medura in the front; the tunnel to hell in the middle; and a large seated Buddha statue, measuring at 160 feet, the largest in Sri Lanka, and resting against a building filled with paintings from the life of the Buddha along with a museum containing various cultural exhibits, further away – Wewurukannala dates back to the 18th century, to the reign of Rajadi Rajasinghe. While most people will remember the second and third of these sections, particularly the third (which, I rather thought, was more fascinating and colourful than the hellish exhibits), the budu medura at the front wasn’t all that bad either; in fact that’s where tourists are compelled or encouraged (depending on the time they’re in) to donate. Among those who had donated to the medura, and its paintings, I was surprised to come across a patron from Kolamunne, in my hometown, Madapatha.

Advertising is alien to Buddhists, since it’s probably the most lawkika (materialistic) of all forms of secular communication today, but just outside the tunnel there was an inscription which revealed to me just how well the Buddhist has been able to advertise and market his faith to the lay outsider.

The inscription, or quatrain, read as follows:

අපා දුක විදින්නට ඔබ කැමති නැත
එපා පව් කරන්නට තුන් දොරින් කැත
උපා යක් මෙන්න ඉන් වැලකෙන්න ඇත
විපා දක්වන්න බරපැනට දෙන් ඇත

Here’s a rough translation:

Desire, you do not, to suffer the torments of hell
Commit not, then, the sins that will lead you to hell
There exists a way out from the path to those torments
And that by extending your hand to help sustain us

It’s a neat roundelay, almost a rallying cry for Buddhists: keep away from hell and the sinful paths that lead to it; do your best to commit good in this life; and it’s a good deed to donate towards the temple and the tunnel in particular. In other words, it’s a good deed to help us market the consequences of bad deeds to the world! I don’t really want to consider this an advertisement, since that would be a rather crude way of rationalising what this particular quatrain (siv padaya) represents, but that’s the closest to a contemporary method of communication I can think of when describing these lines. (The quatrain might have been a recent addition; if it wasn’t, it proves that advertising or rather marketing was not alien to the Sinhalese Buddhist culture.)

Located 1.5 kilometres down the Dickwella-Beliatta Road, 22 kilometres away from Matara town, Wewurukannala presents to us a paradox: do we celebrate the tunnel as a masterpiece in design, cut it off from its cultural roots, and consider it as a veritable display, or do we take its message for what it is? I certainly couldn’t figure it out, partly because Sinhalese culture (secular, particularly when it comes to the arts and crafts) and Buddhism have intermingled in ways which are rather paradoxical. But considering it as a paradox is enlightening in a way: it gets us to think of the other paradoxes that exist in this world of ours, and how we can escape them, firstly by doing good, secondly by avoiding evil.