Saman Deviyo as depicted at Kelaniya Vihara

Saman's Realm

by Richard Boyle

One of the four guardian deities believed to watch over Sri Lanka, god Saman is identified with Lakshman, the brother of Rama from the North Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. It will be remembered that in the Ramayana, Rama invades Lanka with his brother and an army of monkeys to rescue his consort, Sita, who has been kidnapped by Ravana, the monstrous king of the island. This tale, perhaps loosely based on some obscure historical event, has had a profound impact on the inhabitants of both Indian and Sri Lanka. Indeed, in the past especially, it has been taken as fact rather than legend.

So it is that Saman is said to have had sovereignty over the western and southern parts of the country - after the inevitable death of Ravana at Rama's hands - and greatly improved the justice of the land. From him Adam's Peak received its ancient name of Samanakande, "The Mountain of Saman." Furthermore, the millions of magnificent yellow butterflies that annually appear, and seem to converge in every direction upon the mountain, are called samanalayo.

Ratnapura provides the starting point for one of the pilgrim routes that ascends Adam's Peak. The pilgrimage occurs between December and May because these are the best months climatically to make the ascent. Although the Ratnapura route – which starts at Carney Estate, some 15 km from Ratanapura - is the most arduous it is the classical one, the so-called "Father's Path". Many visitors who wish to climb Adam's peak prefer the Ratnapura route for this reason. Visitors who wish to make the climb at other times of the year should be wary of adverse weather conditions.

Adam's Peak is, without doubt, the single most important geographic entity in Sri Lanka. Apart from being Sri Lanka's fifth highest (yet most dramatic) mountain, it is considered sacred by adherents to the island's four major religions. In addition, Adam's Peak has been the destination of many a notable wanderer since early history, including, it is believed, Alexander the Great. Quite a few of these visitors wrote of the mountain, so there are descriptions of it down the centuries that provide an excellent insight into its spiritual nature.

Being only 7,360 feet (2,243 metres) high, Adam's Peak is not very tall as mountains go. Yet as you approach it from certain angles it appears much higher. Such is its imposing location and angular shape that devotees of a proto-religion invested it with sacred power, perhaps because of the foot-like indentation at the summit and the phenomenon known as "The Shadow of the Peak." These early islanders therefore made it the residence of Saman.

It seems the mountain became a place of pilgrimage for people of many faiths in the 11th century. Buddhists began to refer to the mountain as Sri Pada ("The Sacred Footprint"), maintaining that Gautama Buddha himself visited it and left his footprint on the pinnacle boulder. Hindus called the peak Shivan Adi Patham ("The Creative Dance of Shiva"), as they felt that the footprint symbolized Lord Shiva's dance. Meanwhile Muslims evolved a belief that the depression marks Adam's expiation of his disobedience by standing there for an age on one foot. Sometime later, Roman Catholics asserted that the footprint is that of St. Thomas, the early Christian apostle who supposedly preached in South India.

One of the most interesting excursions to be made from Ratnapura is to the ancient Maha Saman Devale - a devale being a shrine dedicated to either a god of the Hindu pantheon or a local deity, which is usually situated within a Buddhist vihara or temple. This unique devale, only a short distance from Ratnapura, is of course dedicated to Saman. There is reason to believe that this spot has been the site of a devale from very ancient times, but it was formally built by King Parakramabahu II in the 13th century. It reached the height of its glory two centuries later, and was then captured by the Portuguese in the 1620s.

The strategic importance of the place led the Portuguese to convert it into a stronghold, and in the centre of the quadrangle they built a church, a portion of which is probably included in the existing devale. The temple, which has been restored, has an ornamental doorway and fine wall paintings. The remains of the fort lie alongside and on the temple wall is a sculpted Portuguese soldier.

Barbara Sansoni writes of the extraordinary atmosphere and architecture of the devale in Architecture of an Island (1999): "The Maha Saman Devale is very impressive – the grandest in size and setting of all the devales I have seen. Approached up long steps, flanked by dug out boats one either side (ready for the annual floods) one senses at once that one is entering a place of myths and legends and of fine style and historic importance . . . The devale compound is bound by a low, tiled and windowed, wall within which its space is ordered and emphasised by pavilion roofs, culminating in a three-tiered tower at one point, with two other deeply eaved shrine roofs for balance on the vast, flat quadrangle. The impression is of triangular weight airborne on carved pillars on a flat sandy expanse, glimpsed through ever changing frames as one walks through the cloisters."

An annual perahera (procession) associated with the devale is held in the month of Esala (July-August), and is among the largest in the country. Constance Gordon Cumming describes it thus in Two Happy Years in Ceylon (1892):

"From the temple of Saman Dewiyo, alias Rama, a much-venerated gilt bow and three arrows were solemnly brought forth. They are said to have been placed here by Rama himself after he had slain Rawana, the demon king of Lanka, who had carried off the beautiful Sita, wife of Rama. These precious relics were sprinkled with holy water preserved since the previous year, and placed in the mysterious ark. The four bearers who carried it were each robed in white, and had their mouth covered with a strip of white linen. Then the small Juggernath car was dragged out – rather a pretty object, only 12 feet high, with a crimson body on very large wheels, and forming a three-storeyed square pagoda, each storey having a white roof with bells at the corner. Amid much blowing of horns and shouting, the procession then formed in the moonlight, elephants bearing headmen who carried large honorific umbrellas above precious objects, devil-dancers with astounding head-masks going before the ark, and men on foot carrying more umbrellas."