The Warwick Gardens village kids came from every direction and asked me to dance and throwing caution to the wind I threw my hands in the air and joined in the revelry. One small girl who wanted her photo taken told me proudly “this is our kovil tea festival”, while the boys being boys asked for sweets and failing that sale ‘money’. As I clapped the kids hands and twisted and turned in all directions they joined in jumping for joy as they copied my steps, twirling and whirling like dervishes through the air.
The temple grounds were now full of the heady aroma of joss sticks mixed with wade being cooked in the temple shed just behind me. While the men stoked the firewood and stirred giant pots of sugar red rice, others hand made other goodies for the celebrations. It did not seem cold to me and yet the men were dressed for deep winter in woolly hats and thick coats, shivering from the hill country cold night air as they hand mix dhal, water and flour and pat them into dumpling shapes while it was still wet. They then left them to set on a giant saucepan lid before frying batches of 20 wades at a time in giant woks as gifts of thanks for a good tea harvest for the gods to feast on later.
The women started to appear from their long houses in their best dresses carrying trays of exotic home grown fruits, coconuts, flowers, lit only by a coconut oil lamp. They explain to me these are offerings of thanks to be given to the Amman mother temple on this auspicious day. An evening that marked the end of the tea harvest, and to celebrate the yearly abundance of Mother Nature.
The gods have arrived said one village elder and so it seems in peacock chariots and flying rats illustrated around the temple topiary bushes and carved statues. Inside the colourful temple with women on one side and men on the other I am welcomed and immediately anointed with three white stripes across my forehead and a red dot, or third eye on my head, a mark it seems of protection, cleansing and renewal. The white is made of holy ash and the red is originally made out of pollen from flowers in India. Inside the temple the barefoot and bare chested men are busy preparing for the auspicious time, which it seems will be 7.30pm, but like most things in Sri Lanka nothing was running to time and the times kept changing.
As I walked clock-wise around the decorated temple with garlands of flowers, small oil lamps, and girls behind the alter realigning their saris. The hill station boys continued with cooking as fast as they could, not easy when the gathering of mostly women and children had already exceeded a hundred and more were coming to enjoy the yearly celebrations.
Viji my village guide was busy behind the red curtain of the inner sanctum helping the temple elder in the preparation of the sacred puja. The temple priest Sinnathambi (means little brother) is 85 and the oldest and wisest man in the village having spent his entire life tea picking. I shook hands with him and many of the villagers exchanging bows and thank yous between calls for photos said eat this and try that. In many ways I felt like I was back in the heyday of the Plantation Raj. Finally at 10.30pm leaving the joyous crowd behind I headed back along the tea trails using the moonlight, and firefly’s to find my way home.
For other Warwick Garden festivals book:
January 15th – Thaipongal – Thanks giving for the sun with a procession or
September/October according to the full moon – Deepavali when incredible patterns are created on the streets and every house is lit by oil lamps.