[Editors note: Once published, Groundviews does not change the heading of an article. On this post, the author concedes to a point made by Chandula Kumbukage that it would have served her intent better to have titled it ‘Female Deities of Sinhala Buddhism’. The author’s intent is further clarified here.]

Female deities do not occupy major positions in the Theravada Buddhist pantheon. In Sri Lanka the goddess Pattini is an important exception. And, unlike most other deities revered by Sinhala Buddhists, her origins are particularly South Indian. Pattini is considered the goddess of fertility and health, a guardian of Buddhism and, indeed, protector of the island.

The goddess descends from the wind and cloud and sky
She looks at the sorrows of Sri Lanka with her divine eyes
She takes the anklet and carries it on her shoulder
Arrive O Pattini of wind and cloud and flower.

From Pahan Pujava: Offering of Lights, from the Gammaduwa ritual texts
Gananath Obeyesekere, Cult of the Goddess Pattini (Chicago: 1984)

The anklet is an important symbol of the goddess. Kannagi, the central character of the Tamil epic Cilappatikaram (The tale of an Anklet) sought – and gained – justice for her husband wrongfully accused of stealing the queen’s anklet. Kannagi avenged her husband’s death by destroying the city of Madurai, the royal seat – an act that gained the respect and reverence also of people across the samudram. Today her influence continues to be visible in Sri Lanka: she is worshipped by the Hindus of the east and north as Kannaki Amman, but by far the larger numbers of devotees are among the Sinhala Buddhists, from all parts of the island, for whom she is Pattini Amma.

When the time for offering mangoes arrived
And seeing that the mangoes were ripe
She covered them in cloth at the correct time
And offered them to the Buddha.

By the merit of the mango I gave

May I be born in a golden mango…

From the Pattini Patuma, the wish to become a Pattini
Gananath Obeyesekere, Cult of the Goddess Pattini (Chicago: 1984)

Sharni Jayawardena is a photographer participating in the Sethusamudram Art Project of the Theertha International Artists Collective. The project, which explores the complex histories shared by India and Sri Lanka, includes both Sri Lankan and Indian artists.

  • yapa

    (Female) “deities” of “Theravada Buddhism”???

    Kannagi and Pattini????

    Any body who has a slightest idea about Buddhism knows that Buddhism is a philosophy/way of life that that advocates people to rely on their own will and effort to reach at its goal. It never advocate their followers to pray for favours to anybody, deities or whatever it is.

    These deities mentioned above really are Hindu deities who got some respect of some of the Buddhists through Hindu influence felt in Sri Lanka. It is natural for any social group to absorb some elements from those come to in touch with it. However, this does not say all the Buddhists believe or follow these deities or these deities belong to Buddhism, and has no any reason to specifically attribute to “Theravada Buddhism”.

    I don’t think the writer does not know that Theravada Buddhism is not rituals practiced by average Sri Lankans of Sri Lanka. Buddhism found in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia are also known as Theravada Buddhism. Is the writer saying that Kannagi and Pattini are deities of the people of these Theraravada Buddhist countries as well, if these deities are Theravada Buddhist deities?

    Is your notion “everything believed by any of the Buddhist in Sri Lanks is Theravada Buddhism” or “Theravada Buddhism is what any Sri Lankan Buddhist believe”? Can you really identify Theravada Buddhism in this line and is this the correct line for it? Is it what you say is Theravada Buddhism or it is a completely different one? Don’t you think that your definition is one of your own that has no any relationship to acceptance by any school of scholars? Can you show me any accepted definition of Theravada Buddhism found in in any accredited definition at least going close to your notion?

    “Aththahi aththano natho, Kohinatho parosiya” Buddhism says.

    This learned writer or the panel of editors who chose this to publish in the forum, I cannot think not to know these simple facts. In the light of this I don’t think I am wrong if I am inclined to think that this is a calculated attack having a special target, which I indicated a few days before referring to the recent trend.


  • sudesh

    This article is misleading people.The God Saman(Sumana saman dewiyo)
    is the only Buddhist God in Buddhist literature.There are other gods but not exact names and information.But God saman plays a major role and he is considered as the protector of Theravada Buddhism in sri lanka.And God Paththini clearly is a Hindu concept which merged with Buddhist culture in Kandy era.
    You may see both Buddhist Tamil and Hindu people worship God Paththini but not God Saman.Because God Saman is only related to budhist culture and literature.
    BTW “Pattini is considered the goddess of fertility and health” this concept came from Egyptian myth Taweret.Do a little research before you post online articles.

    • Amarnath

      Yapa and Sudesh,
      don’t get so upset about that article. The writer is very clear in what she has written. She is not writing about Buddhist philosophy as preached by Gauthama Buddha, that has no relevance in society and even to Buddhist monks, any more. The writer has focused on the type of Buddhism that is commonly practised by every citizen who claims he/she is a Buddhist, goes to temple and worships the Bo tree, the Buddha statues and all the Hindu Gods in the temple. Its the practising Buddhism that is being written about, not what is wholly restricted to academia for library value.

  • Citizen

    unlike most other deities revered by Sinhala Buddhists, her origins are particularly South Indian

    is she tamil then?

    • Nithyananthan

      Of course, there shouldn’t be any doubt. She is the tamil and a Tamil. Kan’naghi is the heroine of the illustrious rich Tamil literature ‘Silap’Pathikaram’ which revolves around her life and her husband Kovalan’s lifestyle with his chosen favorite; and named after her story of anklet. She is also symbol / icon for modest and chastity. Can there be anything wrong if She so happens to be a Tamil Woman? Thanks! Nithy!

  • chandula kumbukage

    Dear Sharni,

    Beautiful photography. Let me give a small suggestion to your title. Instead of “Female Deities of Theravada Buddhism” I suggest you title it as “Female Deities of Theravada Buddhism”. Because, although Sri Lanka follows Theravada Buddhism, in practice it follows “Sinhala Buddhism” as mentioned by prof.Gananatha Obeysekara.

    It is true that with the arrival of Arahath Mahinda, Theravada Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka and remained the dominant Buddhist tradition in Sri Lanka. However we cannot rule out the influence of Mahayana and Hindu traditions into Buddhism of Sri Lanka. For instance, worshiping the tooth relic is a practice influenced by Mahayana tradition. Similarly deities such as Katharagama, Vishnu, Natha and Pattini were worshiped by Buddhists under the influence of Hindu traditions. Therefore it is correct to mention that what is practiced in Sri Lanka is “Sinhala Buddhism” combined with Theravada, Mahayana and Hindu traditions.

    Godess “Pattini” is popular among Sinhala Buddhists. Therefore it is more correct to title this article as “Female Deities of Sinhala Buddhism”

    • sam

      “worshiping the tooth relic is a practice influenced by Mahayana tradition”
      This is wrong. Lord Gautama Buddha clearly admired worshiping relics (Dhathu wandanawa). He asked the followers to make stupas in commemoration of Buddhas, Arahaths and Chakkawatti Kings.

  • Sharni Jayawardena

    The point I am making here is that the Theravada Buddhist tradition, unlike the Mahayana or Vajrayana traditions, is inclined not to venerate female deities. I have not tried to examine the nature of Buddhism here, and do not dispute the fact that Buddhism does not advocate prayers for favours from “deities or whatever it is”. I am focusing here on an aspect of Buddhist practice, rather than Buddhist philosophy, in the context of Sri Lanka.

    It is a fact that Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, almost without exception, have designated places of worship for a range of deities. The Goddess Pattini is one of them. That she is considered the goddess of ‘fertility and health’ can be validated by talking to any of her devotees; where the concept originated would certainly be a point of interest but not relevant to the brief introduction I have provided to contextualize my photographs.

  • chandula kumbukage

    Sorry, In my previous comment I have mentioned that the title of this article should be changed to “Female deities of Theravada Buddhism” by mistake. My suggestion to the author is that the title should be changed to “Female Deities of Sinhala Buddhism” instead of”Female deities of Theravada Buddhism”. Thanks!

  • Sharni Jayawardena

    And yes, I agree that the title suggested by Chandula Kumbukage is the more appropriate one. Thank you.

    • Sri Lankan

      Kannagi/Pattini is NOT venerated by other Theravada Buddhists such as those in Myanmar/Thailand/Cambodia. This is particular to Sri Lankan Buddhism, and that too it is a minority among the Sri Lankan Buddhists who worship/venerate the deity. It is no doubt the influence of Tamil Hinduism. A more appropriate title would be “Female deities of Sri Lankan and/or Sinhala Buddhism: Kannagi and Pattini”

  • Any religious doctrine or ideology is useless and “man made” only, if it is unable to change any person’s life to be good.

    Let alone normal followers of Buddha if any person “ordained as a Bikkhu cannot practice Ahimsa (non-violence), Karuna (compassion), Metta (affection), and Maithriya (loving-kindness) towards fellow humans, (irrespective of race or religion), not only by words but also in his thoughts and action” in Sri Lanka(SL); Is Buddhism anywhere ever practiceable?

    2500 years of Buddhism cause war atrocities of Japan, Tinnamen Square massacre in China, Pol Pot killings in Cambodia, war crimes and Tamil genocide in SL are unprecedented ruthfulness by Buddhists.

    Obviously, there is no “inner spirit” from a supernatural God to help Buddhists to do good in their daily lives.

    Unfortunately,” in Sri Lanka, due to the wrong influence of the Mahavamsa, a Buddhist Bikkhu is at liberty to engage in racist politics and promote Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism and hatred, as we see today.”

    Doing harm to mankind instead of the expected good!

    I always believed as nonsense the story of Vijaya and 600 followers. Now I realise how that myth became history. It is purely because Bhikkus wanted to show that a prophesy by a Buddhist monk has come to pass timeously.

    Can we revert to true spirituality in SL to do good?

    • wijayapala

      Dear Spiritual Man

      Obviously, there is no “inner spirit” from a supernatural God to help Buddhists to do good in their daily lives.

      Could you please share with us how your “inner spirit” contributed to centuries of Protestant-Catholic warfare, persecution of other theists like Jews, and conquest of non-Western lands which far far outweigh whatever brutalities committed by Buddhists in history? Thank you.

      • Man is a spirit being. He is not merely a lump of flesh and bones.

        A man seeing himself on a mirror knows full well that he is not just all what he sees on it, He is something beyond that.

        If he asks himself the question ” Who am I?” and “what is inside of me that drives me to do what I do?” He finds the answer that he has a “soul” -with mind, emotions and will- and an “inner spirit” that controls his mind emotions and will.

        Spirit in man can be good or evil. Good spirit in man brings love and care and evil spirit brings out wickedness and bloodshed.

        Regardless of what “religion” a person belongs to, when his spirit is evil he becomes dangerously ruthless and justifies it like Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and other present day wicked rulers.

        I agree that colonisation of the past was wicked regardless of who did it. And the recent military occupation and colonisation of Tamil Eelam by Sri Lanka(SL) is also equally evil.

        Spiritual wickedness in high places made the Roman empire to fail in the past and Japanese empire to fail in 1940’s.

        In SL there is spiritual wickiedness in high places. The “Empire” of SL will fail like Roman and Japanese empires.

        We must admit that our finite mind cannot understand supernatural things. Our non-understanding of it is no proof of its non-existence.

  • Krishnapillai

    [Edited out.]
    [Dear Krishnapillai/Ananda, please make sure that your comments are related to the topic of the article. The comment that you wish to submit is entirely unrelated to the present discussion. Thank you. GV.]

  • yapa

    “Can we revert to true spirituality in SL to do good?”

    Yes! When bogus spiritual men who preach politics, who post just unsupported narrations, wild opinions and mislead people are exposed.


  • yapa

    “I have not tried to examine the nature of Buddhism here, and do not dispute the fact that Buddhism does not advocate prayers for favours from “deities or whatever it is”.”

    Then what was your purpose of naming it “Theravada Buddhism”? Don’t you think you have made a sweeping generalization, to the whole population using a small sample? Don’t you think you have done a massive harm to Buddhism by your negligence or by your calculated attack or what ever you would like to call it? I think you should apologize.


  • Ranga

    Just shut up and appreciate the photography. Nothing more Sri Lankan than the hear say thats published as facts. I challenge all you [Edited out] to not respond to my post, accepting it as ashta loka dhamma (Nindha Prasansa).


  • yapa

    Dear All;

    “Can there be anything wrong if She so happens to be a Tamil Woman?”

    Not at all, it is the right thing and the truth, they are not Theravada Buddhist deities or Sinhala deities.

    However, there is one female deity who is only known to Sinhalese culture, but should not be identified as a “Theravada Buddhist deity” or a “Sinhala deity” with a pre-assumed objective or in haste ” . This is just a female deity mentioned in Sinhala literature, but no prayed for favours, just like the deities mentioned in Buddhist Suttas. Please read the story.

    When king Dutu Gamunu was seeking a place to build the “Maha Stupa” he found a place he thought would be proper for the purpose, however, he found an obstacle, a gigantic “Thelambu tree” in the place. Then he also found that there was a female deity living in the tree and requested her to find another dwelling so that he could build the Stupa. However, the deity asked for a favour in return, that the Stupa should be given her name when it is built. The king accepted it and that is how the Maha Stupa became “Swarnamali”.

    Wsarnamali Seya or Ruwanmali Seya is still shining in the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura, attracting the all respects from the Buddhists and reminding us the name of that deity unique to Sinhalese culture.

    But our hasty or what ever writers have no any sense of such deities unique to Sinhalese, but bring forward Hindu deities to discredit an unblemished philosophy that cannot be challenged.

    This is how they discuss Theravada Buddhism. When they have no capacity to dive into deep philosophies, and has no good faith in their minds, they insult them with superficial and irrelevant jabberings. Kusal Perera is not an exception.

    Ignorants are the bravest! Ignorance is bliss!!


  • Truly beautiful pictures, I love the colours, the delicate details. And absolutely fascinating discussion in the comments section, at least for someone who does not know much about Buddhism.

  • Tanuja

    Amazing photography Sharni!

  • SL

    There is nothing to get here except the goof quality
    pictures. Pity that the author wrote such an article if she can’t
    get her though process right to put a sensible title.

  • sam

    The Heading should have been “The influence of Tamil Hinduism in The Budhism Practiced in Sri Lanka”

    People seem to be shy to admit the influence of Tamil Language and Hinduism have in Sinhala language and Budhism in Sri Lanka. Tamil is one of the oldest language in the world and Hinduism is one of the oldest religion practiced in the world. There is no denying that sinhala language is a comparatively new language which evolved borrowing words from all the Indian Languages.

    Pattini means a chaste woman in Tamil. Which refers to Kannagi of the “Silappathikaram” In the story Kananagi’s daughter becomes a Budhist nun called “Manimekalai”, who comes to Naha Deepam wiith an “Akshaya Pathiram” (a vessle containing food, which never goes empty)and settles down.

  • Asoka Undugodage

    It is telling that there is a palpable sense of paranoia among many people who have appointed themselves defenders of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. They should be active in other ways, I think…. to try to ensure that the essential Buddhism is practiced in the country without spewing very un-Buddhistlike insults. The author makes a very simple and in my opinion clear point, I don’t believe one should try to read things into it.

    • yapa

      It is also telling that there is a palpable sense of paranoia among many people who have appointed themselves destroying of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.


  • Max

    My own practice of Buddhism as I understand it may seem rather lax by most quarters, in essence I try to live my life in moderation, treating others as I would they treat me, believing that spirituality comes from within rather than outward displays of piousness etc. I could be wrong, but so far its served me well.
    The basis tenet’s of Buddhism as I understand it are compassion, tolerance, moderation and respect for all life, not difficult things to live by, seem fairly straightforward. Too often than not though, the very people who preach and practice Buddhism in an open and public manner somehow seem to miss this point – as you can see from some of the comments here in just this one forum. The author has an opinion, right or wrong its one she is entitled to, and that is something that we should all respect. Too often in times such as these we now live it, too many are too quick to point out hidden agenda’s and conspiracies, not through a sense of responsibility towards bettering our society, improving our lot, but rather a personal self serving agenda.
    I sometimes wonder what Gautama Buddha would think about the world today – to me he seemed a man who had a sense of humor, who knew that life was about living it, knowing that no matter what you accumulated, when those final grains of sand blew away, all that was left to go with you was your spirituality.

  • Thank you for this piece Sharni. And for the stunning pieces of photography. I feel like printing it and adding it to my myriad books on goddess worship around the world. Presently reading up on Devi worship in general and this more than adds to it.

    On a personal note, I haven’t read many of the other comments so I’m not sure if this point was covered, but I feel that maybe Sri Lankan Bhuddism would have been a better bet. I know a lot of non-Sinhalese who have both Bhuddist and Hindu leanings 🙂

  • yapa

    Dear Max;

    “The author has an opinion, right or wrong its one she is entitled to, and that is something that we should all respect.”

    Don’t you think writers have a responsibly in writing sensible things and do you think any opinion should be treated equally, on the basis of that entitlement? In that case should any wild opinion of anybody be treated alike with sensible opinions? Anybody can write any insulting nonsense in the name of that entitlement, do you think so?

    My dear friend, your problem in your argument to justify the writer lies in your analytical principle itself, “she is entitled to her opinion” itself is wrong. It is not necessary to say that outcome of your principle, that is ideas derived in your post have no validity/value.

    Please see, I have mentioned this in the forum several times, the very popular quote “I am entitled to my opinion” is a logical fallacy.

    Anybody is not entitled to any opinion, but to justifiable/sensible opinions only.

    Please read.

    1. http://www.google.lk/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CBQQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fen.wikipedia.org%2Fwiki%2FI'm_entitled_to_my_opinion&ei=BrQtTfu-AYjprAfWtYjMCg&usg=AFQjCNFbnme5bw8q-FBKd3rXwWvtCgdjOg

    2. http://www.google.lk/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=4&ved=0CCoQFjAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Finviink.wordpress.com%2F2010%2F09%2F16%2Flogical-fallacies-that-just-wont-die-the-opinion-entitlement-fallacy%2F&ei=BrQtTfu-AYjprAfWtYjMCg&usg=AFQjCNFzCu78xyd0FGEsQASRVkg-gPs06w


  • ordinary lankan

    In some ways the true religion of sri lanka seems to be polytheism – a safe and “just in case” belief in all Gods and the need for us mortals to placate them and be on the safe side.

    Our pre-Mahinda (arahat not rajapakse) and pre- buddhistic history indicates some links with pre-vedic India and our beliefs in local Gods – astrology and many other native forms of worship begin there. These have continued to this day. I feel (this is subj to correction) that even Hindus, Muslims and some Christians take this path.

    so when we look at the principal forms of buddhism I can clearly see 3.

    1. popular buddhism that is largely polytheistic and rooted in native religion though embellished with buddhist ideas

    2. spiritual buddhism which is more rational – liberating and de-ritualized in the sense of not being enslaved to rituals. This is more atheistic than theistic. I am afraid I cannot share the pessimism of some contributors that serious buddhist practice is not prevalent among sri lankans. there are both monks and laypeople engaged in serious practice here so it may be rash to just give in to our prejudices.

    3. political buddhism – this we know mingles very exploitatively with 1 more than 2. 2 does not care to share the corridors of either wealth or power with 3. But in countries like Thailand even meditation practice has been exploited for political gains. Even in SL some monks have abused this for personal gain. all this is quite normal.

    It is only a sweeping assumption to label the sri lankan buddhist tradition as Theravada. as this is a very broad generalization I would urge that it be treated as such. of course theravada can be treated in a more technical sense but that aspect is not under discussion here.

    just happy to see so many people interested in buddhism….

  • Jake

    appreciate your point Asoka Undugodage!

  • wijayapala

    Dear Spiritual Man,

    Thank you for your response even though you did not answer my questions. You argued that Buddhists do not need the false crutch of a “supernatural God” to do good, unlike theists. Perhaps I misunderstood that point of yours.

    And the recent military occupation and colonisation of Tamil Eelam by Sri Lanka(SL) is also equally evil.

    The the leader of this “colonisation” force, Mahinda Rajapakse, believes in a supernatural God. Therefore he must be on the correct side.

  • ordinary lankan

    Well spoken Max

    all religions have their popular, spiritual and political versions. This enriches humanity so long as evil spirits do not reign.

    I would like to respond to spiritual man’s assertion of tamil eelam like this.

    we must all co-exist. that is the truth of inter-dependence. if in order to co-exist we have to bring in certain political and administrative arrangements let us do so.

    it is the two extreme positions on the sinhala and tamil sides originated by SWRD and GG Ponnambalam that led to this war. it is only natural that extremism should be continued by the winning side. This is the truth – that extremism has won.

    and when that happens the label – colour – race of the extremists does not matter. the same law that applied to LTTE will also apply to the sinhalese extremists who have become the biggest enemies of buddhism.

    rejection of religion is shared by all fascist forces. and they must be defeated.

  • Heshan

    This article backs up a claim made by Kusal Perera: that there is very little originality in the Sinhalese culture, whether it be in Portugese inspired Baila music, the Sinhalese language itself, or as this thread indicates, Sinhala-Buddhism. On the other hand, most of Asia seems to suffer from the same plague, so it is not something unique to SL. Of course, there are individual exceptions. On the other hand, I question whether this lack of originality is a hindrance to development, e.g. growth of a society.

  • HESH

    beautiful, beautiful photographs and words. the rhetoric is amusing.
    i love all form of female deities and their wisdom and stories. human made or otherwise..
    pl continue to take such pictures..
    love this..

  • Upekha Daniel

    Amazing pictures… Could you pls tell me where the location is? Thaks!