Vel Worship in Sri LankaDr. (Mrs.) Vimala Krishnapillai
Vel is the Tamil word for a spear, a lance, a javelin or, arrow. The arrow may be taken as the proto-type of the Vel. It denotes a long handled sharp metal pointed weapon of hunting or war of ancient time. The Vel of Murukan are of two basic types. One is Vel, the leaf shaped lance and the other is Sakti a double or triple headed lance commonly associated with the Goddess. The Vel became inter changeable with the Sakti in the 15th century
The worship of Vel holds a unique position in the cult of Skanda-Murukan. In many of the Murukan temples of Sri Lanka, the Vel is the mūlamūrti the presiding deity and is considered as an aniconic representation of Murukan in his totality for all purposes of ritualistic worship. The Vel is no exception to the Hindu ideal that the divine is immanent in all things and that it embodies the power and energy of Murukan.
The focus of this study is on the antiquity, continuity and symbolism of Vel worship in the Sri Lankan tradition
The generic roots of Vel worship can be traced to proto-Dravidian and tribal belief systems. Sri Lanka has been chosen as and ideal ground for this study, because many Proto-Dravidian indigenous Tamil traditions have been preserved in this island. The infiltration of Aryan traditions has been weak and slow in Sri Lanka due to its geological and historical isolation from India. Further, Prof. Ellawala concluding his study of religious practices in early Sri Lanka, made a series of relevant observation, “It becomes clear,” he said, "that the majority of the civilized people in pre-Buddhist Ceylon were followers of Hinduism in one form or another”. Before Buddhism became the established religion of Ceylon several popular proto-Hindu cults prevailed in the Island, features of which are evident today in legends and the surviving folk cults. In Buddhists folk worship the Hindu deities including Skanda continue to lurk in the background, to protect, support and give honor to Lord Buddha. (Ellawala p.161) “The pre-Buddhist gods and god-lings who the average man continued to believe in, were reduced to the position of the humble servants of Buddha -- the God of Gods” (Paranavitarana. S p. 100).
Antiquity of Vel worship in Sri Lanka
Evidences of archeological findings in Sri Lanka and South India, ancient Tamil literary sources, and the belief system of the Veddas point to the antiquity of Vel worship. An analysis of mythology, the Puranic tradition too helps us to unravel the antiquity of Vel worship.
According to modern archeological findings, Sri Lanka was connected to the Indian subcontinent for the past one million years up to as recently as only 7,000 years. During this vast period, says Director-General of Archeology Dr. Shiran Deraniyagala, (Indigenous Lanka conference), many hundreds of nomadic groups of adivasis or indigenous people must have walked across what is now the shallow Palk Strait to engage in subsistence hunting and gathering activities. Iron Age peoples, by comparison, seen to have settled here about 800-1000 B. C.
There were no anthropomorphic icons of Murukan in South India or Sri Lanka before the third and fourth century A.D. Evidences indicate that the aniconic representation of Murukan as Vel preceded that of the anthropomorphic images of Murukan. In prehistoric archeological site, iron Vel, bronze cock, and a gold mouth cover used by pujaris and those who take kavati to cover their mouths were found in Adichanallur in South India. (Deraniyagala P.E.P. 1902) (Thurston E., p. 149) Similar findings in Sri Lanka Puttalam district in 1955 and such related findings found in Ponparippu (Western Coast) Valavganga valley (Southern Coast), Katiraveli (Eastern Coast), Vallipuram, Varani (Northern Coast) and Mathotam, indicate that Vel worship was prevalent and also points to the antiquity of Vel worship (Begely, p. 49). The representation of it as an amulet is also found on the ancient coins and on the crowns of kings (Parker, pp. 469, 538).
Ancient Tamil Literary Sources
The generic history of the Murukan cult is old as the classical language of Tamil itself. Eons ago, in Sangam3 period literary source Murukan was known as Cevvēl or Vēlan meaning ‘red tinged lance' or 'wielder of the lance’. In Puranānūru .56 we find reference to ‘The powerful God dwelling in the Vel. In Akanānūru .158. Paripatal .9. and Painkursmuri .249 references are made to Murukan as Vēlan. Cilappatikāram speaks of Velakottam, implying Vel was singled out and installed for worship and shrines were built around it.
In the ancient Dravidian concept of the supernatural, a great deal of religious importance was attached to certain objects, which they considered eminently sacred. The Vel is one such object. The worship was addressed to the outside spirit, which had taken up its residence temporarily or otherwise in the object. The Dravidian notion of the sacred should be understood, both in its positive and negative manifestations as ananku It should also be understood in the symbolism of being here and now -- inke and hippo. The above concept of ananaku is a unique heritage in Hinduism of ancient pre-vedic culture. Peracirayar explains in the Mippattiyal of Tolkāppiyam, the meaning of the word ananku, indicating 18 kinds of deities.
Etymological clues lead us to believe that ananku had basically to do with atmosphere of the place. Ancient Tamils identified each land with a particular deity personifying its distinctive qualities, mirroring the essential character of the atmosphere the spirit of nature. The gods of these regions had their origin on earth and evolved in accordance with the geographical characteristics of each region. Kuriñci was the earliest habitat of the South Indian man. In these tracks stood low hills resulting from age long erosion. The occupation of these inhabitants was hunting. The God of the hilly region Kuriñci is Murukan. Tolkāppiyam refers to Murukan as Kuriñci God. The hill God Murukan was worshipped as beauty, fragrance festive character. Murukan, also called Cēyon was an abstract force which in course of time assumed a personality as a chieftain, king or god of the hills, the wielder of the Vel. The Vel represents the power of the bearer, whether the power is seen as hunter, warrior, King or God. The God of Paleolithic hunters associated with the abstract notion of beauty, Muruku has developed from a tribal hunter god, through warrior war god to Murukan the national god of the Tamils.
Kantapurānam4 too extols the worship of Vel by portraying the elaborate abhisekam and puja performed by the Devas to the victorious Vel of Murukan soon after it split the body of Cūran. The sthala puranams5 of most of the ancient temples of Murukan situated in Sri Lanka trace the genesis of these temples to Vel worship. Nakīrar in Tirumurukārrupatai praises and extols the protective nature of the Vel as Vīra Vel, Tira Vel, Vinnor serai nīta Vel, Tirukai Vel, etc.
The Belief System of the Veddas
From the point of view of anthropology the work of the eminent scholars referred to in this study are considered authentic. Knox referring to the Veddas of Ceylon said “The wilder and tamer sort of them do both observe religion. They have a God peculiar to them.” (Robert Knox pp. 61-63). The Veddas are the indigenous people of this island. “On grounds of ancestral racial and cultural heritage the Veddas, the Sinhalese, and the Tamils are the three primary races of Ceylon.” (Stondt, 1901). In our present context the study mainly centers around the Vedda religion. Though the belief system of the Veddas is extremely complex it holds to us a mirror of the genesis of the earlier concepts of God.
The Veddas, the aborigines of Sri Lanka whose ethnic origin dates back to the very dawn of evolution are considered to descend from the yakkas or are related to the hunting tribe called Vettar in South India or to the Savaras of India or the Mundari people (Hugh Nevill 1886, Seligmann 1911, Parker 1909). Whatever the historical and literary reference may be, it is evident that a group called Veddas have lived in the jungle solitude in Sri Lanka throughout and remained in complete isolation for 2,500 years. These Veddas were also called Pulindas and Sabaras. The Veddas appear to be basically pre-megalithic people, reaching beyond 1800 B.C. Today they are reduced to a few hundreds verging on extinction. Presently they are being evacuated from their traditional territories to agricultural land and very soon they would be an extinct ethnic group. Today, the identification of Veddas has become quite controversial for most of them have been absorbed into the main communities. They range from fully Sinhalized groups in the South to the fully Tamilized groups in the Eastern coastal belt of Sri Lanka. (Brow, J. 1978).
Seligmann ethnography is the standard account of the Veddas, which defines Vedda country as Vedda ratta, an area of about 2400 sq. miles. The area contains the whole of the present Batticaloa District parts of Polonnaruwa, Badulla and Monaragala Districts. "Formally it is known to have embraced the whole of Uva." (Seligmann 1911 p.4) In a sense the great portion of the population of the Eastern part of Ceylon appears at some time or other have been called Vedda rata. (J. Baely. pp. 278-320)
In the Vedda hunting community, in almost all their religious rites the arrow (dart, lance, Vel) takes the central role. The arrow or kanai is the predecessor of the lance or Vel. The forms of arrow used by them are of two types, the ordinary hunting arrow and the long bladed, short handled ritual arrow or the Āyudha. The arrows are about 3ft long and are headed with a sharp iron bit nearly six inches long and an inch wide. These arrows vary greatly in the size of their steelhead, Vedda arrows are wider near the stem. (Hugh Neville. 1887). Worship takes the form of dancing and singing resembling that of Kraunci verriattam. It is directed by a priest usually called Kapura it is possible that there is another older name, referring to them which may have been recorded. The dancer becomes often inspired into ecstatic frenzy. The spirit invoked in the arrow is probably identified with Kanta Yaka. An arrow is thrust on the ground and the Vedda dances around it in high frenzy with the ceremonial arrow in hand and hair let down. His offering are coconut, betel leaf, araconut and cooked rice. The arrow dance the simplest of the Vedda dance is performed imploring good luck in hunting or when a spell of ill luck has attended.
The arrow is said to exercise protective power. They leave tiny babes upon the sand for hours together with no other guard other than an arrow struck on the ground by the side. Their belief in the efficiency of this has received no shock, they never know such a child to be attacked by wild beasts. The Veddas also believe in the protective power of the āyudha when stuck on the door of a vacant hut. They say that they are the children of their god’s symbol. They believe that they themselves are protected as his children, calling themselves the Iya Vamsa or sons of arrows. The Veddas are never seen without their constant companion, the bow and arrow (Parsons 1907). The tradition of Alakital6, seen among Murukan devotees to this day may have had its gneiss in this belief system of the Veddas.
A comprehensive picture of Vedda religion and ritual given in the study made by H. Parker and Seligmann on the Veddas the aborigines of Sri Lanka almost a century ago, reveals a striking parallel between veddoid religious belief system and that of the Krunchi.
Symbolism of the Vel
The Vel is worshipped as the visible form of God's power. The Vel, even in the face of very long history, by a certain persistence but shifting of emphases and modifications of meaning has came to represent the power of Murukan the wielder of the Vel. The archetype of Vel symbol took on different meanings with time and coalesced around the personality of Murukan. The history of Vel illustrates the process of the symbol system by which a religion may survive and adapt itself to a series of cultural changes. Without symbolism a culture and religion cannot evolve. Every symbol participates in a web of significance which we call culture. Gods tend to reflect the cultural milieu of man. As Pettazzoi argued, when cultural context changes the imageries by which gods were understood also changes. In a large measure the way in which the people apprehend the divine is a statement about the way they see themselves and their content in a given moment. As in all symbols the Vel is multi-layered, its meaning may be understood in its anthropological, socio-cultural psychological and spiritual aspects.
The Vel persists with the coalescence of message but giving a broad collection of related meaning with the mood of the moment and earlier history of the symbol. In a symbol as Caryle pointed out, there is concealment and jet the meaning continues to evolve with time.
Old symbols never die but take on new meaning. To the hunting tribes the Vel embodied the power that could pierce the quarry to provide sustenance. To the warring chieftains and kings the Vel piercing the enemy represented valor and victory connoted by the names of Tīravēl and Vettivēl. Presently Vel symbolizes Jñānas'akti (the power of gnosis). Jñānavēl pierces avidyā (ignorance) and redeems man from illusion, maya. The Vel now becomes the instrument of spiritual victory and the means to conquest of all misfortune. In the words of Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy “Any great symbol becomes all things to all men, age after ages it yields to men such treasures they find in their own heart.” (Coomaraswamy, A. 1977)
The power of the symbol lies not on the object itself but on the thought forces projected into it. A symbol is an outwardly projected image of the inward feeling and thoughts of man. Symbols act to establish powerful persuasive moods and motivation in man by formulating conceptions of factuality, that the moods and motivation seems uniquely realistic. The symbol Vel retains its value through antiquity, fresh interpretation and sincere belief.
The relationship between various symbols and the human psyche operates in all the paths of the different bhakti cult.
Freud was the first to give an interpretation from which symbols arose. Jung went beyond these images emphasizing man’s quest for God. In the psychology of the unconscious, Jung has dealt with the symbolism of ancient religion and mythology. Jung in dealing with it has said that man’s most vital need is to discover his own reality through the cultivation of symbolic life. Jung affirms that man is in need of symbolic life but the modern man has no symbolic life. He confirms that man’s most vital need is to discover his own reality through the cultivation of symbolic life. Despite our scientific age of rationalism, the imagery of our ancestral fears, hopes and desires, survive in a repressed and improvised form through dreams mythology, rituals and symbols. The dreams symbol and myth making, still remains as a natural condition and activity of the unconscious mind (Jung 1938).
Freud also believed that the collective experience of the race is recorded in the individuals subconscious mind. They persist in the ancestral memory and take on new meanings. The symbol of Vel is deeply rooted in the collective consciousness of the Tamils and remains an object of veneration to this day. It animated the generation of the past, as it animates the generation of today.
Symbolism assumed great significance in Hinduism that everything had its exoteric and esoteric meaning. Vel too could be understood to have an esoteric meaning related to the inner self.
Though no formula can confine God, He provides scope for being adored in a variety of ways by the different religions. The facets of Īsvara undergo changes of names, forms and attributes according to the attitude and attachments of the worshipper. Symbols in general, particularly, religious symbols are not mere objective pictures but are highly subjective in that they form the most sacred and intimate part of ones being. With the deeper understanding of the symbolic significance of Vel, one's awareness of God is more easy and immediate. Hindu attitude is that, God under whatever name, form or symbol sought, comes forward to meet the seeker and help his progress onward, through means suitable to his stage of development.
The worship of Vel to this day is a prominent, popular and continuing tradition in Sri Lanka. In our study of Vel worship in Sri Lanka, we have correlated relevant aspects from the fields of anthropology, archeology, sociology, psychology and theology.