Udappu fishing village, Chilaw District, Sri Lanka

Conserving Water and Water Rites in Udappuwa

Temple mural depicting Udappu women carrying water
Temple mural depicting Udappu women carrying water
Udappu girls and women bathing and washing their clothes
Udappu girls and women bathing and washing their clothes around a well.
dancer from Udappu
A dancer from Udappu relaxes in front of her hut.

Water has always been scarce, has been considered precious, and is vital to the very life in the tiny hamlets in Sri Lanka's Arid Zone. From times immemorial, water has been ritually conserved in these places. Water has been, is still, regarded as sacred, and waste of sweet water is abhorred.

At the Festival of Lanka, which culminated in a cultural exhibition at the Taj Samudra in Colombo early in December 1989, visitors were able to see the ritual "water dances" of the girl danseuses from Udappuwa, a village on the North West coast of Lanka. For them this "art form" is a natural sequence to their lifestyle. For thousands of years the people here have built their not inconsiderable culture on this element Nature has, for them, been niggardly with - and they have created their own religious cult practices in connection with their eternal plea to the gods for those vital little drops of water.

Udappuwa is known to many as one of those places also where a Fire Walking ceremony takes place annually in July-August, and which thousands of pilgrims and visitors come to see. But what is not so well known is that a form of water conservation, primitive no doubt, but very effective, has been taking place here for centuries in a system devised by the inhabitants of the village themselves.

Sweet water is, curiously enough, found all along the shore, though but yards away is the rolling salt-water ocean. This phenomenon is not remarkable to Udappuwa alone: sweet water is found all along the north western coast. We have all heard of the fresh water well that never runs dry in Putur in the peninsula itself.

The people of Udappuwa slowly, carefully painstakingly strain the water which oozes out of the sandy shore into their pots. It is a task the women of the village have traditionally done. The pots are no longer the heavy brass ones or even those made of clay but the light aluminium pots which the girls carry at their waists or balance on their heads sometimes three pots in one go.

Tall and graceful they go to the beach every afternoon where they carry out this task of straining the water for their use and have a good gossip together, as well! When it comes to bathing, so precious is the water that none of them bathe - or rather take die one butch from just one well: instead they go from well to well, completing the bath from seven wells as it were!

It is an age old custom bred from sheer necessity. Due to their care the water from the deep, underground, freshwater springs are never depleted. The folk-tales, of course, tell many stories of severe drought in ages past, and not so long ago either, but the precious seepage from the sand is a daily occurrence.

According to the village elders who remember the old stories, the island was a much bigger place in the past and erosion has taken place bringing the sea much closer to the land, eradicating large areas of supply of underground fresh water. The tube wells now dug in the village gives credence to the theory as sweet water is taken up from dark deeps in Mother Earth.

The girls of Udappuwa light their lamps at festive time, before the firewalking ceremonies begin, with sea water! Here is something for scientists to investigate: Are there traces of crude oil in this area? Some years ago a search for oil was made in the Manner area. They cook the ritual milk rice in clay pots over fires made with driftwood washed up on the beach - and always out there in the open air, on the sands where fires do not easily go out.

Udappuwa, according to ethnologists, is a village of purely Hindu Karava folk and the only one of the kind in the island. There are a few other settlements were these people live side by side with others in Munneswaram, Manampitiya and Pandirippu. Udappuwa,"...has kept its prescriptive culture and in the possession of the people are hereditary flags and emblems preserved in their temples and in the families of the elders -these may be seen in the preliminary rituals of the firewalking ceremony.

They have remained Hindu and keep the language and the customs of their original homeland... In their own tradition they claim to be descended from the refugees who scattered after their defeat in the great war between the Panduvas and the Kuruvas or Kunis related in the 'Mahabharata' and the festival is the enactment of the Hindu myth." (Udappuwa: Rankine).

At Udappuwa only the young girls are sent out to strain the fresh water from the soft sandy shore. Curiously, it is also young girl-children who are allowed to walk the fire. Once a girl marries she can no longer tread die red-hot coals. So mingling with the men and boys are small girls and slightly older ones at the annual firewalking ceremony.

Many of their rites and ritual dances were enacted at the "Festival of Lanka," which look place at the Taj Samudra Hotel in December 1989. The festival was organized by the Cultural Survival Trust of Sri Lanka. This is one of the many reasons tourists love to visit this place.

By Maureen Seneviratne