Karnataka magic
By Esther Williams
"Who are you, dear traveller? Historian, incurable romantic, nature lover, surf rider, shopaholic or pilgrim? Whoever you are, welcome to the theatre of inspiration - Karnataka, India, where you can play any role you like......." This is how the Karnataka Tourist Board, invites prospective visitors to a holiday that can take you back in time to the magnificent past of temples and historical monuments, or to discover wildlife treasures or relax in one of the cool hill stations.

With Sri Lankan Airlines flying to Bangalore, the Karnataka state's capital four times a week, holidaying there comes easily within a Sri Lankan tourist's reach. Since flights were launched in mid-July, a number of incentives and packages have been offered by travel agents. "Bangalore - here we come," is the package that Sri Lankan Airlines has offered to passengers flying Bangalore-Colombo-Bangalore. Besides a four-days and three-nights stay at a five star hotel, you get free airport transfers. The offer is open until end October.

The proposed bridge to India and the passenger ships that are scheduled to operate shortly between the two countries would also make travel much easier in the future.

Karnataka boasts a rich and varied history that dates back to the 3rd century BC that saw a succession of Hindu rulers. In the 18th Century, the state was taken over by a Hyder Ali, a Muslim ruler and later by the British. Even after independence, the state was called Mysore until 1973 when its name was changed to Karnataka, meaning lofty land as it lies on a high plateau. Located on India's southwest coast, the state is the sixth largest in India.

Karnataka is a home to around 52 million people, the local language being Kannada. However, English is widely spoken in the main cities. The garden city of Bangalore is also known as the silicon valley of India and the fastest growing city in the world. Silk textile manufacturing and sandalwood oil processing are some of the interesting industries. More lately there has been an influx of visitors to Puttaparthi, the Sai Baba centre that lies on the outskirts of the city.

With Bangalore as your base, there are a wide variety of tourist destinations to choose from. Most of them are relatively unknown and that is their biggest attraction.

Because of the scores of exquisitely sculptured temples, Karnataka is often known as the cradle of stone architecture. 186 kms from Bangalore is the Hassan district, a good transit point where lies an ancient temple trail that can be linked to the Hoysala period of the 12th Century.

The Hoysalas were a mighty race that created history from the 11th to the 14th centuries. Great patrons of art, architecture and dance forms, the kings commissioned some of the most awe-inspiring temples in the region. Regular bus services are available to the district. Alternatively you can hire a smaller vehicle for private use.

A must see in Hassan are the temples in Belur, Halebid and Shravanabelgola. The main temple in Belur is the star-shaped Channakeshava temple built on a raised platform. To the East, North and South are finely carved doorways that reveal yet again fine carvings of gods and goddesses on pillars, ceilings and doorways. The walls are decorated with endless rows of carvings, drawing attention to the patience and skill exhibited by the artists of the period in fashioning the elephants, the miniature turrets, human figures and gods. Equally captivating are the 38 bracket figures that decorate the pillars supporting the caves of the temple.

Not far away is Halebid that was once the capital of the Hoysala kings. As you approach the temple, a huge Nandi (cow) statue, carved from the same black stone in which the entire temple is carved greets you. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple, again on a star-shaped foundation, characterised by wall to wall carvings depicts the legends of Mahabharatha and Ramayana in stone. Just outside the temple is a museum of Hoysala Art.

Located between the two hills of Chandragiri and Indragiri lies the picturesque spot Shravanabelgola that dominates the countryside as far as you can see. Legend goes that Chandragupta Maurya, the grandfather of Ashoka retired to the solitude of these hills after renouncing his kingdom.

Today, Shravanabelgola is a renowned centre of Jain pilgrimage. Standing 57 feet tall on the hill is the gigantic statue of Gommeteshvara, considered one of the tallest monoliths in the world. A flight of 500 steps, cut into the rock's surface elevates you to the foot of the statue that was built in the 10th century. For all Hindus, this climb up the hill is a special trip that they look upon with great reverence. The statue tells the story of Gommata or Bhubali, the Jain prince who renounced the world after his victory in war and was known for his great moral strength and saintly character. Once in every twelve years during a certain planetary alignment, the most celebrated festival - the anointing ceremony of Bahubali takes place. During the ceremony priests scale the giant scaffolding, especially erected for the occasion and pour over the unclothed standing idol, hundreds of pots of sacred water, ghee, milk, jewels, gold and silver coins. This tradition has been carried over since the 10th Century.
Next week: Mysore

Unmasking a craft
By Naomi Gunasekara
Beeralu-fringed and surrounded by trees full of yellow and white araliya blossoms, the tranquil abode facing the sea suggested the unassuming, down-to-earth nature of the man who stood at the doorstep. Dressed in a batik shirt of earthy shades and a sarong of similar hue, he greeted us with a warm smile.

Dancer, mask-carver, musician and teacher, Bandusena Wijesooriya is a man who has put in great effort to protect local arts and crafts over the years with a view to preserving and strengthening the mask-carving traditions handed over to him by his mask-carver father, Juwanwadu Ariyapala de Silva Wijesooriya, better known as Ariyapala Gurunnanse of Ambalangoda.

Born to a family of eminent artistes and craftsmen, Wijesooriya runs the Ambalangoda Masks Museum and the Ariyapala Dancing Institution today. Situated along the Ambalangoda-Galle Road, the museum was established in 1987 to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Sri Lanka while preserving it for future generations.

Funded by the German Foreign Ministry, Linden Museum in Stuttgart and the West Berlin Museum, the project was discussed by anthropologist Prof. Volfgung Mei, who visited Ambalangoda to study the socio-cultural, socio-religious and socio-political relevance of masks in Sri Lanka.

Mask performances and drumming being a local tradition prevalent in the eastern and south-western coastal areas of Sri Lanka, the museum, contains a library, workshop and important masks used for kolam and sanni dances.

The history of mask-carving dates back to many centuries and it is widely believed that mask-carving was introduced to Sri Lanka over 200 years ago by those southern-folk who visited Kerala.

"Our folk used to travel by boat during windy seasons and stay in Kerala until the winds blew towards Sri Lanka. They stayed for nearly six months each time they went there and mastered various Indian traditions and rituals like kolam and sanni."

According to Wijesooriya, the term 'kolam' is a derivation from Malayalam. "But India was not the only country that used masks at that time. The history of masks indicates that they have been used in hunting societies like France, Egypt and Israel in ancient times. But masks were introduced to Sri Lanka by those who visited India," says Wijesooriya"Old people referred to these trips as 'Deshe Yanawa' and my father's grandfather who went to Kerala from Dodanduwa too became a mask-carver."

While a number of people have attempted mask-carving over the years, the traditions of mask-carving have been developed into a fine skill in the hands of the Wijesooriya family that has produced many an eminent dancer, musician, drummer and craftsman leaving a mark in the cultural history of Ambalangoda.

Ariyapala Gurunnanse, the most well-known of the Wijesooriyas, carved famous masks, many of which are now part of well-known museum collections all over the world.

He not only carved masks but trained dancers, introduced the Devale Perehara and liberally supported cultural institutions such as schools and Buddhist houses of the area.

He shared his vast store of knowledge of Sinhalese traditions and folk traditions with the people of Ambalangoda and contributed immensely to local social and cultural life as a healer, architect, astrologer and artist.

He received many awards for the contribution he made to preserve local traditions and rituals. Today his eldest son Wijesooriya preserves the family tradition by carving new masks in adherence to family tradition.

His living room is full of masks both vibrant and terrifying , carved out of soft kaduru wood.

Interestingly, however, according to the tradition of Ariyapala Gurunnanse, masks have been originally cut from the stem of the 'ding' palm tree that lines the rivers and lakes in the hinterland of Ambalangoda.

"When those masks did not last long enough, he started using the wood of the kaduru tree (nux vomica), which is a comparatively light durable wood that is easy to carve."

Wijesooriya is determined to disseminate his knowledge on local dance, music and carving methods and preserve mask-carving and authentic dancing traditions of Sri Lanka. "My father's grandfather, Juwanwadu Ondiris de Silva, performed a traditional southern dance for Prince Edward XIII when he visited Sri Lanka during colonial rule. My father performed for Pandit Ravi Shankar during his visit here.

I want to make a contribution to the field too." Wijesooriya plans to contribute to the field by compiling a book on local masks.

"Traditional masks have become a dying breed today because most masks carved are non-traditional masks that are distortions of original faces," says Wijesooriya who is in the process of drawing traditional masks in a large book. "My father introduced these distorted masks after spotting a mask of Maname Kumaraya hung at the entrance to a Bar in Germany."

"The traditional masks of Sri Lanka reveal a lot about our cultural, religious and political background. For instance, there is a mask of a Portuguese soldier with a pack of cards and a bottle of brandy in his hands. Such masks indicate the hatred we had towards the Portuguese.

"We must leave details of traditional masks for our future generations," added Wijesooriya, who carries out extensive research on traditional Sri Lankan masks by referring to a musty 100-year-old book full of masks.

What is kolam dance?
Kolam is a dancing tradition rooted in the eastern and western coastal belts of Sri Lanka. Although the tradition is believed to date back to the early 19th century, anthropologists believe that kolam has a history beyond that. Over the years the traditional kolam dance consisting of diverse stories and characters has been enriched by political, economic, social and religious factors. While anthropologists debate over the birth of kolam dance in Sri Lanka, folklore traces its origin to a craving of Mahasammatha Bisawa (Queen Mahasam-matha) who yearned to see masked dancers.

Unable to quench her desire to see masked dancers, the pregnant Queen had become disheartened and sad according to folklore. Noticing the queen's despondency God Shakra had ordered Wishwakarma to do the needful and masks had been discovered along with music instruments in the palace gardens. The king had ordered his subjects to perform a dance and thus the queen's thirst for seeing masked dancers had been quenched.

Ever since every kolam dance performed is said to begin with the arrival of the queen. Kolam dance, however, is not confined to folklore. Various aspects of colonial rule and the feudal system are subtly dealt with through this form of dance to discuss social realities while conveying religious messages.

The various types of kolam include Arachchi kolama, Andabera kolama, Hewa kolama, Peedi kolama, Raja kolama, Sinha kolama, Raksha kolama, Badadharu kolama, Surambhawalli kolama, Gama kathawa and Dhanudhdara jathakaya.

What is Sanni yakuma?

Sanni yakuma is a healing ritual during which various demons causing illnesses are summoned and given dola pideni on their promise to leave the patient. Once the demon promises to leave the patient without tormenting him/her further, the demon is chased away.

Prior to performing a sanni yakuma the performer determines whether the patient is affected by a demon or not. Once convinced of the presence of a demon, he chooses an auspicious day to perform the ritual (thovilaya) and prepares himself.

The patient is seated facing the platform/area in which the dance is to be performed and the performer invokes the blessings of the gods before summoning demons to the decorated platform.

During the second stage of the ritual, the relevant demons causing the patient's illness are summoned and promised whatever they want. In return, the demon is ordered to leave the patient.

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