Sri Lanka probably seems like a little teardrop island off the coast of the enormous cultural and economic giant, India. But Sri Lanka itself is incredibly diverse; religiously, culturally, and ethnically. Before leaving, I recognized that I needed to do work in languages to study Hinduism. I had taken Tamil before going to Sri Lanka because of my South Asian studies major and I knew I wanted to take advantage of the three-week independent study to look at Hindu practices in the north. I went to Sri Lanka already knowing that I was going to further pursue fluency in the Tamil language and study to Hinduism during my independent study.
Tamil — the language of Tamil Nadu, India, communities in the North of Sri Lanka, and tea plantation communities in the middle of the country — is one of the most spoken languages in the world. But everyone in the ISLE program had to learn Sinhala over the first few weeks of the semester so that we could talk to people in Kandy, where we were staying for the majority of the semester. Most Sri Lankans are super encouraging about practicing language skills, so it’s really easy to improve your ability in the four month semester. Also, everyone who works at ISLE as well as the host families will encourage you to speak Sinhala with them, so it’s a fun environment to get better at the language. Most of my classmates had no language background in Sinhala or Tamil, but since the first four weeks are spent in intensive Sinhala language classes, we all got really good at Sinhala.
My host Amma (mother) was amazing with helping me get better at both Tamil and Sinhala and she also brought me to Friday prayers at the Hindu temple near us almost every week. The background I had in both languages and the ability to connect with people was one of the things I valued most about the language study portion of the program. Most Sri Lankans speak at least some English– and will try to speak in it, but I found that I made much stronger connections with people that I met by at least attempting to speak with them in Sinhala or Tamil because it shows genuine interest in their culture and customs, and it separated the ISLE students from the hordes of tourists.
On the other hand, I can talk a little more in-depth about Hinduism in Sri Lanka because it’s my focus of study in America. Sri Lankan Hinduism is almost exclusively Shaivite, or Shiva worshiping, making it unique from India, which has a mix between Vishnu worshipers and Shiva worshipers. Tamil people adore the god Murugan, one of Shiva’s two sons, and he is often referred to as the Tamil god. Hindu temples are elaborate, brightly colored, and loud. A Hindu puja usually consists of music from drums and a large oboe-like instrument called the nadeswaram to invoke the gods, chanting mantras in Sanskrit, aarti, where a candle lamp is used is circulated around the deity; and then prasadam, which is where you’ll probably receive some small amount of food to eat that was offered to the gods for them to eat. When you go to Hindu temples, you will receive ashes, kungkumam, a red powder, and sandalwood paste, all to put on your forehead and neck.
The chance to participate in so many religious activities—the ISLE staff took us to numerous mosques and Christian churches as well— was really enriching, and I learned a lot about the ways that people practice their own religions. Sri Lankans tend to be pretty religious, so there is a temple of some kind on nearly every corner; and where there isn’t a temple, there’s a shrine to Ganesh, Lord Buddha, Jesus, or Murugan. People go to temple almost every day, and most homes will likely have a shrine in it that the family prays to on specific days or every day. I learned a lot from praying to my host family’s shrine and their Hindu practices, from washing my feet, head, and mouth before I prayed, to the rules that they followed for their specific kind of vegetarianism.
Learning in the Community
While in Sri Lanka, I was lucky to have the chance to participate in the rituals surrounding Skanda Sashti, which is a festival commemorating Skanda defeating the demon Suran Padman. It consists of a thirteen day fast or thirteen days of strict veganism, concluded by a reenactment of their divine battle at the Hindu temple. After the rituals and festivities, we all went to the community center and sat on the floor and ate off banana leaves. The food was really good, and I got the chance to interact with a lot of the students at the university that I wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t gone to the festival.
For my independent study, I got to research non Brahmanic (Brahmans are Hindu priests) Hinduism and how people have employed religion as a way to cope in the aftermath of the civil war. It was one of the most rewarding—albeit incredibly difficult—experiences I’ve ever had. I had the chance to do fieldwork in the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil (Kovil is the Tamil word for a Hindu temple) and a small Nagapooshani Amman (Amman is a goddess) Kovil, and because I had Tamil language background from classes back at the ISLE center, I found that I didn’t need a translator. It was awesome to be able to converse with people in their own language rather than in English or through an intermediary. One of the most important things about doing fieldwork is being able to connect with the community that you live in, and through knowledge of language and religion, I really felt I was part of my Sri Lankan community while abroad.
Maire White is a South Asian Studies major at the College of the Holy Cross who studied abroad on the ISLE Program in Kandy, Sri Lanka during the fall of 2018.