Sri Lanka Week 4: All wonderful. All temporary.

Hikkaduwan sunset

Welcome to my latest blog post about my Suramedura residency in Sri Lanka in association with UZ Arts and Galway 2020. You can read about week 1 here, week 2 here and week 3 here.

Day 22: Monday 23rd November 2015
Ella to Hikkaduwa

I (reluctantly) leave Ella at 6.40am on a beautiful morning onboard the train to Colombo. My return trip is as beautiful as the one that brought me here. I make it to Colombo less than an hour behind schedule at around 4pm. I take the next train for Hikkaduwa and even manage to get a seat. This is a doddle I think to myself, I’ll be back in time for dinner. Then the rain came. At the station at Kalutara, about an hour from Hikkaduwa we are told to get off. A kind man on the train tells me that the storm has caused an incident further down the line and we’ll have to bus it from here. What follows is an insane dash by hundreds of people through torrential rain in the dark of evening to get whatever bus we could. I follow my helper as he explains we have to go well past the bus stop and grab a bus coming into town. This is a good idea. So good that everyone else tries it too. The rain does the impossible and gets even heavier. We are standing in the middle of the road, trying to dodge tuk tuks, bikes, cars, trucks and buses as they all try to dodge us. The lightning is now directly overhead. Young men are throwing themselves at buses and hanging on to the outside. We run on further and get as far as a temple. I duck in for cover. I lose my guide and can only guess he gets sorted. Eventually the rain eases off a little. I wander back to the bus stop and finally manage to board a bus I can only resume is going in my direction. I take a seat at the back, the only non-Sri Lankan on board. I ruefully wonder why I didn’t just stay in the train station until the rain stopped.

We get delayed again at (I think) Balapitiya but this time I am not complaining. A parade (a devil procession a passenger informs me) is in progress and we get caught in the middle of the whole thing. The parade is mostly made up of young men and women dancing, singing, playing drums and all wearing the most incredible costumes. There are fire dancers and stilt walkers. And there are elephants. Magical, amazing stuff.

I walk into Sunbeach Hotel after fourteen hours travelling to be warmly greeted by the staff and my fellow artists.

Hikkaduwa I’m back.

Day 23: Tuesday 24th November 2015

I spend the day writing my blog and getting on paper some ideas for the structure of the tea ceremony. I have decided that I will ‘bless’ the four points of the compass so as to create a holy place within which I will make the tea. I then start working on devising gestures and sounds for South, West, North and East. I also work on a timetable for my remaining three weeks. A nice day spent making theatre on my balcony. I feel good.

Day 24: Wednesday 25th November 2015

I awake to my old friend fear. I am afraid that what I worked on yesterday is worthless. I am scared that I have wasted the first half of my residency in idleness and will not have enough time now to make something good. I am well used to moments of doubt such as this in the process of creating something but still I feel it deeply. I try as best I can to ignore the fear and work away on my schedule practising what I started yesterday. The blessing for South will be a chant that begins with me on my knees and finishes with me standing, then dancing then exclaiming to the sky, tá mé ábalta!

Today is a Poya day. A Poya occurs on every full moon and is a sort of religious Bank Holiday. To mark the day we go to the temple at Seenigama, about 5km to the north.  The temple is in two parts, one part on the coast and the other is on an island just off the coast. As it is dark and raining we can’t make it to the island. Nevertheless I have a wonderful experience on the temple on land. It is full of locals and we are the only foreigners I see. Jury and I sit on the floor of a side chapel with many Sri Lankans who are praying to a statue of the Buddha. I just sit and soak in the sounds of the singing and praying. Through a rain streaked window I watch the myriad flames of the oil lamp stand. Almost at once I can feel the fear that has been consuming me lift away. This here is the sacredness I didn’t find in Kandy. Did I mention that there were no tourists around?

Later Juri, Matteo and I walk in the rain to the beach to see if we can get a boat out to the temple on the island. We are unsuccessful but I get a kick out of walking in puddles of warm rain water. Silent lightning flashes light up a scene of children playing in the surf. I don’t know to laugh or cry for the joy in my heart.

Oh my Sri Lanka.

Day 25: Thursday 26th November 2015

I start the day with a tuk tuk driving lesson with Sudu, one of the drivers based here in the hotel. It’s harder than it looks. A tuk tuk is basically a covered trike. Steering, acceleration and gear changes are controlled via handlebars. I find it hard to change gears with my left hand. After a while though I start to get some sort of handle on it if you’ll excuse the pun. I drive up and down a country road a few times, with Sudu beside me on the front seat making sure I don’t put us in the ditch or hit someone. Fun.

Before lunch I head to a clay-maker and get my brazier or urn as Chaminda calls it. It’s a simple but clever device. There is an opening above the fire chamber for heating a pot or kettle and a short chimney running from the chamber to a second pot stand. Chaminda says that an urn like this can be used to make excellent rice and curry, with the main ring for maximum heat and the second ring for slower cooking. I will use the main ring for boiling my kettle and the second ring for keeping the teapot warm.

Arthur C. Clarke's home in Hikkaduwa

After lunch I finally go see Arthur C. Clarke’s old home. When Clarke first came to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was then known) he lived in Hikkaduwa for a while before moving to Colombo. The house stands on the beach side of the main Galle road about a fifteen minute walk south of the hotel. It is a strange place, a gothic pile built I think by the Dutch and is probably over a couple of hundred years old. There are a number of swastikas in the house’s façade. Of course this predates Hitler’s appropriation of the symbol but the sight of them is disconcerting nonetheless. The house looks abandoned but the gate is opened so I enter the grounds. It turns out that the house is inhabited. I meet a woman and two men who appear to me to be squatting. I may well have that wrong. They have no English and I have no Sinhalese so we can’t communicate so well. They let me enter the house and have a look around. The house isn’t in very bad state but it is mostly empty. They explain that I can’t go upstairs because it is unsafe. I read so much Clarke when I was a boy. I never thought I’d one day stand in his hallway.

Clarke's hallway

After dinner we all have a meeting to discuss our ensemble performance that will take place on Saturday 12th December at the fishing village Dudanduwa. The piece will be called Moving Through. We have just over two weeks left to make it. We start to put a shape on the performance/exhibition and talk about how we see our individual work integrating into the larger piece. We talk logistics and discuss possible themes. Steve reminds us that we haven’t yet been invited by the fisher folk to perform in their community. We decide to all go there on Sunday and introduce ourselves and bring some of our work with us to show them what we have in mind. We hope to encourage them to join in.

A good meeting. Tired now. Oíche mhaith.

Day 26: Friday 27th November 2015

After breakfast Juri brings us to a shaded place on the beach for some cupa cupa practise. A cupa cupa is a southern Italian friction drum. Juri has made a Sri Lankan version comprising of a bamboo tube about 3 feet high with a cloth fixed tight on one end. Through this cloth springs a light strip of bamboo. You have to wet the cloth, the strip and your hands. Then holding the strip lightly in your palm you run your hand up and down the strip in a very suggestive manner, the vibration is amplified by the large tube and results in a delightfully strange, deep base wompa woompa woompa sound.

Cupa cupa practise
photo by Stefanie Oettl

Some of the surfer dudes who spend their day on the beach at our hotel join us for our first practise session. We have fun trying to get a rhythm going. Juri and Samson sing some call and response songs and we gather a small crowd of locals and tourists. Good stuff.

After this I finally get a fire lit in my urn. Chaminda has sourced some dried cinnamon root for fuel and Juri found some dried coconut leaves for kindling. The leaves are still a little damp and they won’t take off for me. One of the older men working construction on the hotel sees me struggling and takes over. In no time there is a good fire going. I ask Chatura for the loan of a kettle from the kitchen and I get it to boil. I love the look and the feel of the urn. It’s very presence will aid me in creating a real holiness (with a small h) that I hope to infuse my ceremony with.

Making fire
photo by Samson Ogiamien

Tonight Juri, Martin and I are going to a Tovil ceremony in somebody’s home about an hour’s drive away. I can’t wait.

Day 27: Saturday 28th November 2015
Uragaha & Hikkaduwa

We arrive at the house in the jungle where the Tovil is taking place at around an hour to midnight. We stay all night and leave sometime around 7am. Juri organised our visit through the leader of the Tovil troupe who had given him his number at the last ceremony that Juri and Martin had attended. So I think the family whose home we have arrived at knew we were coming. They immediately welcome us and we are given a seat on a couch just outside the front door. All the furniture of the main room in the house has been cleared away to make room for the ceremony. We arrive during a break in proceedings. We are brought food and tea. We say hello. We are surrounded by a multitude of kids, all simultaneously shy and bursting with curiosity.


After a quarter of an hour or so we are called into the house because the ceremony is about to restart. The Tovil troupe consists of five men and a boy, all bare-chested. Two of the men wear brown, the rest wear white. The men and boy in white are the main priests/performers and do most of the chanting and drumming. The two men in brown mostly help the priests in getting them what they need – a knife here, fire powder there. Tonight’s ceremony doesn’t involve the wonderful mask performances that Juri and Martin had seen at their first Tovil but is compelling all the same.

A Tovil is a religious ceremony that is used for healing purposes. If somebody is ill they are considered to be possessed by a demon. The task of the ceremony is to drive out the demon. Tovil has elements of Buddhism but it is mostly a pagan affair. It’s probably similar to what would’ve happened in rural Ireland before Christianity fully took hold. In fact the best way to describe a Tovil is to say that it is a cross between a station mass and the Wren Boys.

So the ceremony is restarting. We are invited to sit in the corner on a rug on the floor. An impressive altar the size of a kitchen dresser stands at one wall. In the centre of the room sits a low shrine. The shrine and the alter are beautifully made from banana plant. All wonderful. All temporary. One of the priests begins to sing/chant whilst swaying and dancing before the shrine. The rest of the troupe join in as a chorus with one of them playing a drum. This chant is performed nonstop with no drop in intensity for a solid hour. Thirty minutes and I am tripping. By the end of the hour I am in a daze.

When he finishes they remove the shrine to reveal an old woman sitting on the floor. We find out that she is the grandmother of the house and that the Tovil is for her. Nobody could or would tell us what ailed her and to be honest we didn’t feel it was right to press.

After this there is a break. We go back outside and are given more tea and have a chance to chat with some of the adults. Juri sings and they love it. There is a lack of preciousness to the whole event that somehow makes it more real.

So the night goes. We get invited back into the house for the next part of the ceremony which takes an hour or so and then back outside for tea and a smoke. Witnessing the ceremony is a delightful endurance test. The repetition, the intensity and the long performance durations all combine to transport my head to other places. But it is the smoke that really sends me off. On a regular basis the priests burn fire powder, filling the room with heavy, pungent smoke. Throughout the first half of the ceremony a rooster is smoked into a daze and placed under the shrine. I feel for the rooster. I am pretty knocked out myself. By 3am I am fading fast and I go into a state of half asleep and half awake. The chanting permeates dreams of Galway and I am nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

We come to a break and leave the house dazed. We sit on the couch. The rooster is also given a break and he is slid in under the couch. An hour or so later we are back on the couch on another break when we hear distant cock crows from all the houses around us. Then we get a jump as the rooster we’d forgotten about under the couch adds his voice to the predawn chorus.

Preparing the cage

The men in brown build a cage out of banana plant. The old woman is seated across the room from the cage. Seven steps are made from the same banana material leading from the woman to the cage. Each step is blessed by chant and smoke. Then the patient is slowly brought past each step towards the cage. As she passes a step, it is dismantled. Eventually she enters the cage. This all takes over an hour. We sit outside for another break as the men in brown bury the dismantled steps in the ground around the house.

Preparing the steps

The ceremony continues. The woman in the cage is chanted to for a long time until the cage is cut to pieces around her. Now the demon is no longer in her but in the rooster. I think.

Blessing the steps

The last piece of the ceremony in the house is performed by one of the men in brown, a striking, tall bald-headed man. He lies on his back on the floor with is head at the feet of the patient who is sitting where she had been in the cage. He is completely covered in a blanket and the rooster is placed under the blanket between his feet. He holds a large fruit the size of a melon on his chest. A sickle attached to a long handle is held by the old woman with the help of some of her family. The man under the blanket chants continuously for about a half-hour with an intensity that almost frightens. Finally the fruit is split on his chest. He rises and grabs the rooster. The kids are sent from the room. Bye bye rooster, I think. But he just sings/chants some more at it, douses it in smoke and, intentionally or otherwise, throws it straight at me where I sit on the floor and walks out. Mad stuff.

By now the sun is almost up. A group of men, including the three of us, led by the tall man in brown bring the shrine down the road to a junction where it will be left. The idea is that the demon will be confused by the junction and not be able to find it’s way back to the house. But at the first crossroads we come to, a woman comes out of her house and says that she doesn’t want the shrine left near her. A strange woman, one of the men says to us.

We come to a point on the road in paddy fields where it is crossed by a narrow water channel. This will suffice for a junction. Here the shrine is left on the side of the road as the tall man chants to it. He uses a torch to burn three lines in the road and douses them in fire powder explosions. We stand there watching him chant at the shrine, the torch held in his right hand as the sun comes up over the mist covered paddy fields. The ceremony is complete.

The rooster is put in a sack and given to a boy to bring to a nearby temple. I ask what happens to the rooster there. Freedom, answers one of the women.

Now it is time for breakfast and we are encouraged to eat our fill of rice and curry. Such gracious, welcoming hosts. We talk a little about where we come from and where they’ve been to. A normal family. Juri sings some more.


We are driven to the bus stop. We get a couple of buses and arrive back at the hotel twelve hours after we’d left the night before, beat, blown away and changed.

I spend the rest of the day having a perfect lazy Saturday by the sea.

Day 28: Sunday 29th November 2015

Dudanduwa, stage right

Today we all go to the fishing village at Dudanduwa where we will perform our ensemble piece.  We start working out the route the audience will take through the performance. Samson and Stefi come up with a wonderful idea to incorporate their mask performance with my tea ceremony. I like it and it will help embed the ceremony into the overall performance.

Dudanduwa, stage left

Juri has the cupa cuppas with him and he sets them up in the sand at the edge of the sea. We play and sing and draw a small crowd of young and old. After a while some of the more adventurous young boys join us. In no time all the cupa cuppas are being played by these young lads. They are great, singing along to Juri and Samson’s songs whilst getting a pretty decent rhythm going on the drums. Then incredibly they start to sing their own songs. And so we stay dancing and singing on the beach with the boys of Dudanduwa as the sun goes down.

The boys of Dudanduwa

A good day’s work. We are made feel incredibly welcome by the community. They are all aware already that we will perform here in a couple of weeks. And it looks like some of the kids will be part of the performance. We couldn’t ask for more.

Back at the hotel we are all tired but happy. So ends week 4.

See you next week.


Galway 2020  UZ Arts

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