Rituals in a village community at Paiyagala 75 years ago



St. Joseph church in Paiyagala

by Jayantha Perera

St. Joseph church in Paiyagala has a beautiful façade and a belfry. Its nave is broad, with stunning floor designs. A magnificent painting of the creation of the universe covers the vault. Two short rows of colonnades support the two aisles, broadening the space in the nave. A short, narrow gravel road connects the church compound with Colombo-Matara road, and the church’s backyard is only about 200 yards from the Colombo-Matara railway line and the beach. The feast of St. Joseph is the main annual event in Paiyagala.

In the late 1950s, the Church Committee discussed with the Italian parish priest, who ruled the catholic community, the desirability of celebrating the church’s feast on May 1, Labour Day. Several parishioners opined that celebrating the feast on Labour Day might drag the church into national politics. Some others worried that parishioners might go to Colombo to celebrate Labour Day instead of the church feast. A few threatened to become parishioners of Kuda Paiyagala church, which was only half a kilometre from St. Joseph’s. In his Sunday sermon, the parish priest advised the ‘rebels’ not to harm the village solidarity. Ultimately, the warring parties buried their hatchets and aligned with the Committee’s decision to celebrate the church feast on May 1.

In 1962, Nihal, my brother, and I reached Paiyagala ten days before the day of church feast. At the Kalutara main bus stand, we bought two packets of inguru dosi (ginger fudge) for Aachcho (maternal grandmother) as Amma (my mother) instructed. We met Aachcho at the bus stand. She was in a long-sleeved white embroidered jacket and a floral cloth. She wore no slippers. Her graying hair added more charm to her face. She kissed and took us to the dining table, where she kept our favourite walithalapa (steamed rice pudding) and a bunch of kolikuttu bananas. She told us that we should spend time with her at the church and explained the importance of ‘confession’ before the vespers (evening prayers on the eve of the church feast).

Aachcho had arranged with a coconut toddy tapper to deliver a large bowl of mee raa (unfermented toddy) to her daily. She added crushed black pepper, sliced red onions, and green chillie to the toddy bowl. One hour later, she gave us a glass of mildly fermented toddy. She treated toddy as a medicinal tonic for children which kills harmful worms and improves appetite.

The Church Committee painted the church walls, polished the wooden pews and the floral floor, and repaired the church roof, expecting the monsoon rains. It collected donations from catholic families in the parish and discussed with them how to decorate the sorole (procession) path of the statue of St Joseph. Those who had colorful banners washed them a week before the feast and tied them to poles across roads. The Committee hoisted a flagstaff with many bright flag lines in front of the church. The parish priest blessed the flagstaff, and nuns from a nearby convent distributed sweetmeat to the participants.

The Church Committee invited about 25 women to the church compound on the eve of the church feast to cook rice and fish for the grand almsgiving on the following day. The Committee got cooking utensils from the convent. Local businessmen donated rice, thunapaha (spices), cooking oil, firewood, and small brown paper bags. One fisherman donated a large Maduwa (stingray) fish. Several women cleaned and cut the fish into large pieces. Another group of women prepared fresh thunapaha for the fish curry while young women washed and de-stoned the rice.

A woman who was known for her culinary prowess supervised the cooking gangs. She directed several young girls to mix spices, tamarind paste, and salt in large clay pot. She also checked the heaps of fish pieces and decided how many pots were needed to cook them. Then, she studied the spice mixture – color and taste – before pouring it into each fish pot in different proportions. She controlled the heat of the firewood under each pot by pulling out or adding pieces of firewood. (Many years before, Aachcho’s mother supervised the cooking of fish and rice at the church compound. She had never tasted the mixture of thunapaha before adding it to fish pots, Aachcho declared proudly.)

The cooking of rice had its own rituals. The supervisor recited a short prayer that ended with “Jesus, Mary, Joseph” before putting a handful of destoned and washed rice into each large cooking pots. After that the girls filled the pots with rice and water as the supervisor directed. Before the rice was cooked, a handful of rice was thrown out with water from each rice pot. The thrown rice was the food for hobgoblins and other harmless spirits hovering around in the cooking space. Devotees considered them as community members who celebrate the feast.

The parishioners worried that the monsoons might spoil the feast. When dark clouds appeared on the horizon, the parish priest brought the statue of St Joseph from its glass box on the top of the altar to a temporary altar next to the cooking station. With the statue overlooking the cooking area, women did their work without worrying about the weather.

While women cooked food, vendors descended on the gravel road with goodies. They sold sweetmeat, toys, laminated pictures of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, plastic balls and bats, prayer books, and rosaries. On the eve of the feast, Aachcho broke her clay coin jug, counted the money and bought toys for her grandsons. She bought me a small toy boat. The vendor poured water into a basin and filled the tiny detachable capsule in the boat with paraffin. The boat moved on the water when he lit the wicker connected to the capsule.

The ice cream man was the most popular person among the vendors. Young boys and girls lined up to buy popsicles, each costing five cents. A woman sold Buundi aluwa (halva) claiming that the aluwa was from the Maldives Islands. The Achchar (pickle) woman had a profitable business and sold a small packet of veralu achchar (wild olive pickle) for three cents.

Before the vespers, Aachcho took Nihal and me to a nearby well, pulled several buckets of water, and bathed us. She had a special soap for the occasion. It was an expensive, imported cake of Goya soap. Afterwards, she dressed us in clean clothes. Just before we went to the church, thaththa (my father) and Amma with two younger brothers arrived.

Vespers were at eight in the evening and a musical show preceded it. A band played popular English and Sinhala songs and hymns. The chief of the band played a piano accordion while dancing. Once he fell off the stage creating chaos and cutting off the nearby noisy generator’s power supply. It took about ten minutes to restore electricity.

At a corner of the church compound, two fishermen auctioned fish. They invited the school principal to bid first. After bidding he put five-rupee note to a tin box. Afterwards, each bidder put one rupee into the box. The last bidder took the fish home, and the fishermen donated the money to the church.

Although liquor and smoking were not allowed in church premises, a few men gathered after sunset behind the church to consume alcohol. The priest and the Church Committee knew what was going on behind the church, but did not intervene. Thaththa explained that the vespers night was for all parishioners—sinners and saints— to enjoy life.

When the church bells rang at 8 pm, the band took a break. Through loudspeakers, the sacristan announced that vespers would start soon. Ten priests who had come to help the parish priest conduct vespers entered the church in procession from the church front door. The parish priest followed them with the statue of St Joseph collected from the open-air altar and re-installed it on the church altar. Devotees occupied pews, and some waited in the church compound. The highlight of the service was the twin sermon delivered by two priests on family values and the lessons to be learned from St. Joseph.

Soon after the vespers, devotees remained in the churchyard to watch fireworks. The parish priest blessed heaps of fireworks. Two men pushed the crowd away from the firework station. Chakra (revolving crackers) appeared first, shooting stars, flower blasts, and rockets followed. A rocket rose as high as 60 meters or more before blasting into different floral designs. Onlookers compared the quality of fireworks with that of the previous year. Someone whispered to thaththa that the Committee might have pocketed a part of parishioners’ donations.

Aachcho threw a sumptuous dinner for the family. Fried pork, chicken curry, deviled prawns, dhal curry, papadam and several vegetable curries were on the table. Thaththa and Amma did not join the children and spent time in the verandah (foyer) of the house talking with friends and enjoying drinks. Women, too, drank liquor with their menfolk.

Soon after dinner, Aachcho lowered the chicken pen that was hanging from two ropes tied to two coconut trees in the compound. There were three chickens in the pen. A visitor killed the chickens, and Aachcho cooked the meat for the following day’s lunch. She was lucky to save her chicken from thieves. During the church feast and the Christmas, local thieves had the habit of stealing chickens and pigs to raise money to buy liquor and to gamble.

Aachcho decided on our sleeping arrangements. The only bed at Aachcho’s house, where Nihal and I had slept for eight days, was given to Thaththa and Amma. Aachcho spread several mats on the sitting room floor. She got a few hard pillows from a cupboard. Nihal told us ghost stories and warned us that at midnight, a ghost in white might visit us. We demanded Amma to sleep with us on the floor, and she did. We liked the smell of the floor – a mix of cow dung and clay. We competed with each other to sleep next to Amma. I liked her body smell mixed with talcum powder and sweat.

Aachcho and Amma knelt down and prayed with their rosaries for 15 minutes. Then Aachcho prayed to St Joseph to protect us from committing maraneeya papa (mortal sins) that night. She and Amma recited this prayer three times. I wondered what mortal sins they could commit during that night. I was not brave enough to question Aachcho or Amma about mortal sins. Still, it bothered me for several years, until I talked to my spiritual mentor – a Jesuit priest, at school, who told me that some sins, if not pardoned by a priest at a confession, could condemn the sinner to eternal hell after his death.

Overnight fasting was mandatory to receive the Eucharist in the morning. We all got up early on the feast day to attend church. We had to go out in the darkness to wash our faces. Aachcho kept water in two large clay pots. There was no flushing toilet. A small shed covered with cadjan leaves had two flat stones to squat on. A toilet user had to take water in a small container. When the toilet was not in use, pigs visited it and cleaned it up in a few seconds!

On the feast day, everyone, including children, had breakfast after the sorole. Aachcho laid the breakfast table before going to the church. She prepared a great variety of food: milk rice, kavum (oil cake), athiraha, kokis, bibikkan, fish curry, and several bunches of kolikuttu.

Church bells reminded us that we were in the middle of the church feast. When we went to the church, several women had already begun a prayer session led by the church sacristan. He with his soft voice led women in a full rosary and several hymns and prayers. Amma had told me that the sacristan had been interested in marrying her and had, in fact, sent a marriage proposal through his aunt. But my granduncle refused the request because he was unemployed.

After the prayers, Amma took me to the sacristan and introduced me to him. She was shy and did not look at his face. He, too, hesitated for a few seconds before talking to me. He wore an expensive collarless cream-coloured jacket with a light tweed cloth and a thick silver belt. He sported a ponytail, and his face was well-shaven, except for the moustache, which made him look majestic.

A visiting priest delivered a boring sermon that lasted about 30 minutes. Humidity inside the church became unbearable. Many men started conversations without listening to the sermon. Although women suffered more (with veils over their heads) than men, they bore the unpleasantness as good devotees. The feast service took about 90 minutes.

Brown paper bags with rice and fish were already laid on several tables in the church compound to distribute. Those who lined up to join the sorole got food parcels from the parish priest. People who got the food bags shared rice and fish with family members and friends. I got a mouthful of rice and a piece of fish from thaththa. I thought the food was stale, but I did not complain because such food was considered sacred.

Church bells rang again, informing the scouts of the sorole to get ready. They were dressed like ancient Portuguese soldiers, in colored costumes with large round headgear. They carried banners with emblems of various church associations. The parish priest brought the statue of St Joseph to the churchyard again. A carriage decorated with garlands, flower bouquets, and veils awaited the statute. Ten men were poised to pull it around the village. The priest installed the statue in the small casket on the carriage. He blessed it, collected the burning incense bowl from an altar boy, and offered scented fumes to the statue and the carriage.

The bandmaster and his group led the sorole. The procession stopped at each wayside altar in neighbourhoods, where small groups of residents waited for the sorole to pass and got a close glimpse of St Joseph’s statue. In some localities, residents lit firecrackers. Most devotees who were in the sorole dropped out of it, when it passed their homes. Those who could not attend the church in the morning, joined the sorole at various locations.

The traffic on the main road built up rapidly, and the police had to control vehicle movement. The church choir sang hymns non-stop, and loud loudspeakers broadcast them. After moving about one mile on the main road, the sorole turned to a by-road and went to the beach, where several fishermen garlanded the statue and lit firecrackers.

When the procession passed the fishermen’s huts, two middle-aged women began to sing and dance while cooking. They wore floral gowns and danced around a large pork pot on fire in front of their houses. The pork curry looked very dark but smelt fabulous. Several old women sang kaffirhinna (Portuguese songs). A woman started dancing around the pot of pork while holding the hem of her long gown in one hand and a large spoon in the other.

The procession returned to the church after passing fishermen’s huts on the beach. Soon after breakfast, thaththa served liquor, and from the kitchen, the children brought bites (snacks) for visitors. Nihal, Gamini, and I ate deviled pork, eggs slices, and cashew nuts as much as we could hold before serving the adults. Men’s voices got louder. Often, they argued on silly topics and got worked up in proportion to the arrack they had consumed.

Thaththa told Nihal to sing a song and Gamini (younger brother) to deliver a sermon or demonstrate how to play ‘China footing’ – a martial art form. I recited the poem that he had taught me – The Ice Cream Man. Lunch was served at three in the afternoon, and only a few visitors had waited for it. Aachcho was unhappy that only a few stayed. Those who had lunch left around 4pm, thanking Aachcho for her generosity and tasty food. She was happy, especially when Nihal declared that her food was delicious. We all clapped, and Aachcho could not hold back her laughter, and kissed Nihal.