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A Parallel Study: The Cult of Pattini


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Crystal Thielkien
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« on: November 13, 2008, 01:34:04 pm »

A Parallel Study: The Cult of Pattini

In his penetrating study of the goddess Pattini in Sri Lanka -- where her cult survives alongside that of Kataragama -- anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere has observed a similar nexus of correspondences between the cult of Pattini and the mystery cults of popular mother-goddesses current in West Asia and the Mediterranean world from the earliest historical period until the sixth century AD "Initially," he concedes, "I attributed the parallelism to similar sociocultural and psychological conditions . . . . Yet, after fieldwork and historical research in Kerala in 1974, I was convinced that the Pattini cult diffused to Kerala (and other parts of South India) from West Asia."5

Commercial contact between West Asia and India, as Obeyesekere found, had been brisk until the sixth century AD Strabo (AD 20) attests that upwards of 120 ships each year sailed to India from Myos Hormos on the Red Sea.6 And with the discovery in AD 45 by a Greek mariner, Hippolus, of the pattern of the monsoon winds, which enabled ships to leave Ocelis near Aden and reach the west coast of South India in forty days, trade increased dramatically.7 As Obeyesekere observes:

However, most of the foreign trade to Malabar and South India during this period was dominated by Alexandria, the great entrepot of trade in the Greco-Roman world (Woodcock 1966, p. 141) . . . . Along with trade, the merchants brought their own religions . . . . Syrians, Jews and Greeks -- most of them from Alexandria and other parts of the Levant -- were influential in Kerala trade during the first through sixth centuries at least, as I noted. Some of them must obviously have adopted the mother-goddess cults that spread from Anatolia, Lydia (Asia Minor), Phrygia, Egypt and Syria into the Greco-Roman world from about 500 B.C.8

Obeyesekere argues that "it would indeed be surprising if the Alexandrian and West Asian merchants did not bring with them the more popular religions of the time -- the cults of the various mother goddesses and the dead god."9 He cites accepted facts from the later history of South India and Sri Lanka to support his hypothesis that the cult of Pattini -- originally an ecstatic mystery cult of the mother-goddess of West Asia -- migrated via Kerala to southern Sri Lanka by the twelfth century.10 At the same time, he cautiously concedes that the evidence for his hypothesis of the West Asian origin of the Pattini cult "must remain tentative and circumstantial."11 This same proviso must apply to the present study as well.

The popular religions among Alexandrian and West Asian merchants of their day most assuredly included the cult of Dionysus or Bacchus as well. Oral traditions as well as archaeological evidence and the testimony of the Mahavamsa or Great Chronicle suggest that Kataragama had a long history as a center of cult activity even before the Christian era. It is also worth noting that both gods are depicted as appearing from over the sea. According to Sinhalese legends, god Kataragama came to Lanka as a foreigner who arrived by a stone raft (Sinhala: gal-poruwa), landed on the island's southern coast and thence walked to Kataragama where he has remained ever since.12 This suggests that a maritime origin or formative influence -- possibly from Alexandria or West Asia via Kerala -- cannot be ruled out. And yet, the cult's geographical fixedness in Kataragama is one of its most persistent traits and points to an indigenous origin in remote antiquity, quite likely among the Neolithic hunter-gatherer forbears of the island's Vedda forest-dwelling people.

Ptolemy's map of Taprobane

Ptolemy's map of Taprobane.

This brings us to a remarkable source of evidence which, combined with the preceding observations, it suggests that Alexandrian navigators of the early Christian era were very well acquainted with the ancient Kataragama shrine and fully recognized its close affinities to the surviving cult of Dionysus of their own Mediterranean cultural sphere. The precise nature of this contact and the extent of its impact upon either cultus must remain a matter for speculation and further historical research.

Claudius Ptolemaeus (2nd century AD), or Ptolemy of Alexandria as he is best known, was a Greco-Egyptian astronomer, mathematician and geographer whose influence upon all three disciplines endured for many centuries. Remembered to this day as the 'Father of Modern Geography', Ptolemy laid out a coordinate system of meridians of latitude and longitude and employed it to chart the surface of the then-known world with such accuracy that his maps remained in use until the eighteenth century. Living in Alexandria when that city was the Roman Empire's foremost center of commerce and perhaps the world's leading center of scientific and esoteric or theological studies, Ptolemy would have been well acquainted with the major mystery schools of his day, including the cult of Dionysus and their practices if, indeed, Ptolemy was not an initiate himself.

As a resident of second-century Alexandria, Ptolemy was also well-positioned to encounter and de-brief his principal informants, the adventurous and enterprising mariners of Alexandria who regularly ventured as far as the fabled island of Taprobane (Lanka) and beyond, navigating the high seas using newly-improved astrolabes and quadrants. For these navigators, the success or failure of a long and risky commercial voyage depended upon accurate and reliable geographic information. Returning fresh from lucrative voyages to obtain the island's rare spices, pearls, gems and silks of her great emporia or trade centers, they could accurately describe the location and character of coastal landmarks from first-hand experience as well as from current maritime lore.



Ptolemy's Taprobane: Greek mariners reported the existence of a 'town of Bacchus ('Bachi ciuitat') in the vicinity of present-day Kataragama.

Indeed, Ptolemy provides at least three references to Dionysus in his catalog of island Lanka's coastal landmarks -- all of them in the close vicinity of Kataragama, which was already an ancient cult center in Ptolemy's day. In most cases, he retains transcribed renderings of local names. But off the island's desolate southeastern coast, Ptolemy records that the waters were known to Alexandrian mariners as Dionysi Mare (Latin: 'The Sea of Dionysus'). Some versions of Ptolemy's Taprobane indicate a coastal landmark near Kataragama called Dionysi Promontorium -- 'The Promontory of Dionysus'. Thirdly, but not least, he attests that there was an important settlement near this coast which his mariner-informants called Dionysi seu Bacchi Oppidum -- 'The Town of Dionysus or Bacchus'.

This terse identification, based upon the supporting testimony of not one but many Alexandrian mariners who typically sojourned for weeks or months at a time in Taprobane, bears the stamp of authenticity. As informed observers, some of these mariners must have been bacchantes or initiates into the still-flourishing mystery cult of Bacchus, for whom the fundamental identification of Dionysus with the local cult center or deity was self-evident. At the very least, there was a clear consensus among contemporary observers that here, far from Greece and Asia Minor, was an outpost-realm of god Dionysus extending even to the sea off Kataragama, a graveyard of wrecked trading vessels from ancient times.

Moreover, this association of an ever-youthful Dionysian god with a promontory extending into a restless sea is not without precedent. In the very opening verse of his Hymns to Dionysus (I. 1-4), Homer evokes the god, saying "It is Dionysus, son of the most glorious Semele, that I speak and I shall tell how he appeared on the shore of the untiring sea, on an outmost promontory with the aspect of a young man in his first adolescence" (my italics).13 It is tempting to conclude that early Greco-Egyptian mariners, who were familiar both with the cult of Dionysus and with Homer's Hymns to Dionysus, had this opening verse in mind when they spoke of the Kataragama region. Evidently, Alexandrian mariners -- and Ptolemy along with them -- believed that here in exotic Taprobane was the original home of Dionysus described by Homer a thousand years earlier in the ninth century BC This identification would have further reinforced the prevailing opinion of the time: that Lanka or Taprobane was the Antipodes (Greek: literally, 'where feet are opposite'), a fabulous, topsy-turvy island realm where anything was possible -- the natural abode of gods like Dionysus. Remarkably, this simple attestation by one of classical antiquity's great scientists has attracted scant notice among scholars of the modern era. Apparently, what was once obvious to the ancients is no longer evident to modern observers. In the remainder of this study, I will argue that this is less due to changes in Kataragama than to changes in the fundamental assumptions of modern observers.

How did Alexandrian mariners come to identify the Kataragama god with their own Dionysus? In classical times, such identifications were accepted as natural. Caesar, for instance, assigned Roman names to non-Roman deities when he wrote of the Gaulish Celts: 'Of all the gods they worship Mercury (i.e. Hermes) most of all -- After him they honour Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva."14 By the same token, Tamils identify the Kataragama god with their Murukan and people of North Indian heritage, including the Sinhalese, identify him with Skanda-Kumara of Sanskritic mythology. And yet, as we shall see, such identifications are not based on outward similarities alone, but on deep-seated resemblances or resonances which traditional people ascribe not to a human origin by cunning 'myth-makers' but to divine intelligence operating in the super-human sphere and manifesting itself variously at different times and places.

Regarded from the diachronic perspective that prevails today, god Kataragama 'became' Murukan or Skanda-Kumara or he 'became identified' with them, but did not 'become' Dionysus because the identification did not endure among the local population. However, from the synchronic perspective common to traditional cultures, the Kataragama god already is Murukan and Skanda-Kumara and Dionysus from the very beginning, i.e. in principio. It is worth noting that this amalgamation -- or rather, identification -- of three 'distinct' gods is perfectly concordant with their characteristic association with the dissolution of boundaries.

Modern scholars -- who are devotees by profession of Apollo -- regard with disdain the secrecy and paradoxical, double-edged logic common to Dionysus and Kataragama and abhor what they regard as cult excesses. Charles Segal observes, "As Apollo imposes limits and reinforces boundaries, Dionysus, his opposite and complement, dissolves them."15 Undoubtedly, Kataragama and Dionysus "cannot be understood, only appreciated".16 Accordingly, an attempt may be made not to dissect the cults but to evaluate their bonds of commonality with a view to understand better their inner dynamics, if not the common source of their sacred power as well.

From its beginning, European indological scholarship has tended to focus on languages, texts and traditions of Indo-European origin while overlooking indigenous and Dravidian sources or downplaying their role in the evolution of Indian thought. As part of a general reappraisal of the history of Indian thought, the present study also aims to reapproximate the archaic worldview, alone from which archaic cults draw their soul-inspiring vision and vitality and outside of which they appear to the modern mind as mere 'belief systems' with no ontological basis in what we moderns fondly cherish as 'reality'. As Walter Otto observes in his landmark study Dionysus: Myth and Cult, "It is the custom to speak only of religious concepts or religious belief. The more recent scholarship in religion is surprisingly indifferent to the ontological content of this belief. As a matter of fact, all of its methodology tacitly assumes that there could not be an essence which would justify the cults and the myths."17

As befits a multi-faceted god like Skanda-Murukan, this study considers his cult from multiple perspectives which often appear to be mutually incompatible and irreconcilable, especially where the modern, pragmatic-diachronic perspectives come up against -- and clash with -- the traditional, idealistic-synchronic point of view, laden as it may be with menacing paradoxes. Specifically, I maintain that no study of traditional initiatic (Skt: parampariya) knowledge (Skt: vidya) can dispense with that tradition's own approach to the acquisition of such knowledge, according to which the means and the end are inseparable. And I contend that it is precisely because of the modern reluctance or inability to recognize and comprehend the premises of archaic religions like Kataragama that modern observers including the vast majority of casual cult adherents have scarcely glimpsed more than the most superficial aspects of this archaic cult. As such, their understanding remains narrowly confined to the outlook of the modern era, which typically fails even to recognize, let alone appreciate, the implicit assumptions of archaic cults. This, in turn, partly explains why the very word 'cult' has overwhelmingly negative connotations to modern ears. So vast is the gulf that separates modern observers from the cult life of Dionysus or Kataragama that only a very tentative and imperfect attempt to bridge that gulf may be contemplated within the context of this study.
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