Leaves of life
Every individual's past, present, future and previous births are recorded on Ola leaves say the believers. Ruwanthi Herat Gunaratne and Vidushi Seneviratne report.

Saga of seven sages
Where did the ola leaf reading originate? Three thousand years ago, seven rishis (sages) in India set themselves a mission. They would write down the fate of as many people in the world as they could.

These forecasts are said to have been originally written on goatskins, later transcribed onto copper plaques and then onto ola leaves. The script was initially written in Sanskrit and was translated to Tamil only a century ago. It seems that they were tutorial exercises set by the ancient sages to their pupils who were set the task of composing the horoscopes of persons yet to be born in a series of dates and times.

It is said that the leaves were unearthed during colonial times by the British, who then auctioned them off. The ones that were left over and retrieved are the leaves that can be found and read today.
Source: Virtual Library

It's a rainy Monday morning. But the inclement weather does not deter the steady stream of people making their way down a literally unknown lane on the seaside off Galle Road, Bambalapitiya. It's a mixed bunch that enters the building. Youngsters hiding behind their grandmothers' saris, stern-faced men clasping heavy files and folders, anxious-looking young couples and schoolchildren dragged along by eager mothers.

What is the force that draws them here? The building is not impressive, there is no signboard informing patrons of what is in store for them. There's no smiling receptionist to greet you. Though apprehensive at first we too enter, up the winding staircase and onto the landing looking out to the sea. There is still no one to greet you, just a throng of people. There seems to be an unwritten set of rules to follow. Slip off your shoes and join the queue.

At 8 a.m. the main door opens and everyone scrambles to be the first in. The procedure after that is simple. When your turn arrives, you place two thumbprints on the given paper. You are then asked for your birth-date, which is quickly noted down, as is your gender. After that, it's time to wait. The door closes. By around nine, everyone is impatient. Yet there's not a murmur from the crowd.

The birth-dates are called out as a form of identification. It is then that you are told when to come back. But what is the ultimate goal of this tedious exercise? Simple, it's to fulfil a need that grips this country. It's the inherent desire to know your past, present and future being read by a complete stranger.

There's palmistry and there's astrology. Numerous are the times we've listened to interpretations of our horoscopes. Now there are even computer-generated life histories. They analyse your life, your personality through your handwriting and your body language. There's hypnosis and there's mind reading. And then there's the ola leaf.

But what are these ola leaf readings? "The horoscopes of people, Asian and non-Asian written on ancient ola or palm leaves have been found in southern India, particularly in Tamil Nadu," says P. Jaisankar, the head of the ola leaf readers down Galle Road who have been practising the art in Sri Lanka for the past 19 years. "The ola leaf contains the life histories of nearly every human being on earth."

According to the ola leaf readers, every individual's life can be split into 12 chapters. The first or general chapter must be read, if you are to discover your fate in relation to the other chapters. The other chapters range from education, marriage and lifespan, to employment, details and particulars relating to parents and siblings. For whoever is courageous enough to check it out, there is even a chapter on your previous birth.

When the thumbprint and birth-date are handed over to the readers, they shortlist a number of bundles, which carry roughly 50 ola leaves each. Once the thumbprint has been studied it can be categorised into one of the 108-thumbprint varieties. Amongst them being Magudamse Saghu Rekha, Erusuti Eruwal Rekha and Sanggumani Vatta Rekha. But isn't each thumbprint unique? "Yes, it is. But there are a few common traits in the lines, loops and dots." It is by using this method that the matching bundles are found. On the appointed day, the leaf is read whilst a tape recording is made. There are several readers and translators, one pair dealing with a given leaf. The other Indian readers in Sri Lanka at present are B. S. Sendhil, Shanmuga Sunderam, Kalyana Sunderam, R. Sekhara and Gopal. The readers are selected by their gurus in India as only a few are blest with the ability to read, they say.

After each sentence or part of it is read, it is followed by a translation in the required language. There is no discussion between the reader and the person seeking the horoscope except initially when he is asked to verify that the leaf is indeed his. Questions such as the initials of his parents' names, number of siblings and age are asked. Yes or no answers are expected. After this initial communication the person can choose the chapters to be read. No more questions are asked. The relevant chapters are noted at the bottom of the general leaf as reference.

Most of those who visit here on a regular basis, swear by the ola leaf readings. M. Silva from Kalutara first visited 'Shri Kowsika Agasthiya Nadi Astrological Bureau' on seeing a notice in the papers five years ago. He's been a regular ever since. "I've mainly questioned them on my children's education and marriage. They once told me that my daughter's first marriage would not be a success, and that she would have a second marriage and one child. This troubled us and we resorted to fulfilling a vow that they asked us to do for the marriage to work. And it has."

The vows vary depending on the religion of the person concerned. Most are encouraged to give alms to the poor and help out in temples, kovils and churches.

Ruvindra (23) is also a regular visitor. He first came here out of curiosity after completing his A/L examination. "They reeled off everything that was going on in my life at the time. They also foretold aspects of the near future, which did come true." He also took some of his foreign friends along and their readings too proved to be accurate and satisfactory.

But there are the disbelievers. "When I first visited, the entire reading was very accurate, they even told me where I live,"says Maria (30). "But I went back to them out of curiosity without my tape, and got them to read it again. It was a far cry from the first reading and I haven't gone back since."

Thilan (28) is another disbeliever. "I felt that they retrieved most of the information from me. While the past and the present was very accurate, the future was hazy."

Some of our questions still remain unanswered. How is it possible that each and every person in the world has a pre-written leaf? "Not everyone has the balma to have their leaves read, and some of the leaves did get misplaced during the last three thousand years. It all depends on an individual's karma," insists Mr. Jaisankar.

A translator at the establishment also said that they are yet unsure of how many generations have been covered by the ola leaves. Some leaves not found in Sri Lanka at the moment have to be collected from their main base in Tanjavur, famous for its ancient temples in southern India.

The ola readers are confident that each individual's fate is pre-destined and written down word for word on an ola leaf somewhere.

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