[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.