Mirissa. Southern Province, Sri Lanka - November 2003
‘A young man sick,’ a Sri Lankan friend told me. ‘A fisherman and barracuda…’ He knocked his fists together as if a fish and fisherman had fought it out. ‘Now he afraid.’
I strained to listen the man’s broken English. The doctors apparently hadn’t cured the fisherman of his fear and so his family had scheduled a Devil Dance (thovil) to accomplish what the doctors couldn’t.
‘A real Devil Dance?’ I asked. I had seen hotel versions of the popular cultural shows with masks, fire, jingling ankle bells and lots of twirling around a stage. The real thing sounded a bit sinister. Black magic, perhaps.
‘You come, you see.’
There must have been 200 villages crowded between the road and the houses; some people sitting, some standing, will all eyes focused on a young man seated on a mat, slouched against the front of the house. He looked fevered, weak and barely able to open his eyes. He definitely needed help.
I doubted if the dancing and drum beating would help the sick boy, but if he believed in it and it removed his fear of confronting another barracuda, that was all that mattered.
Devil Dances begin at dusk and continue on to sunrise. Six dancers played to the crowd, sometimes taunting the drummers into a comical dialog. It was entertaining. There were no miracles cures, however. The boy still looked sick. It was creeping toward 2AM and my eyelids were closing fast when a shriek came from the house. I sat up, wide-awake. A woman, chased by two men and another shouting woman, ran out into the yard. A fight, I thought. My first reaction was to watch my back, protect myself. I was the only foreigner in a crowd of locals. I didn’t know the language and I certainly didn’t know what was going on.
But I was also a photographer and a writer, and my curiosity got the better of me. I pushed into the crowd. People surround the shrieking woman like bees around a hive. Collapsed on the ground, she barely had room to breathe. I stuck my camera into the hub of activity and started clicking.
People pulled her to her feet. There was a great debate among the Devil Dancers. It seemed as if she were in a trance. He body was limp. He eyes rolled into the back of her head.
I kept clicking the shutter, hoping for one good shot. I couldn’t help the woman and there was no sense in telling people to call a doctor – they had the Devil Dancers and those costumed men were going to take care of things. They moved into action, grabbed the woman by the hand and made her run around the devol maduwa, the devil house made of banana trees and strips of coconut leaves, in which the dancers changed their costumes. They also made her wiggle her thin hips through the legs of a chair, writhing through the dust in the four earthly directions. Afterward, her husband carried her limp body back into the house.
The dancers continued on with more fire, post of smoking incense, and a live chicken, which thankfully survived being twirled overhead. After that, everything seemed tame. Sometime near dawn, I dragged my weary soul back to my lodging, thinking that perhaps I might need the help of the Devil Dancers to get me rested--I was told later that the boy went back to fishing the next day and so perhaps a good Thovil just might do the job.
Part of the crowd at the boy's house.
The young fisherman being treated
by the Devil Dancers.
Lots of fire dancing happening.
Gymnastics with fire.
The crowd loved the dancers' antics.
All the while the drums were beating.
A chicken gets tied around the feet -
dancer twirls it around his head.
Notice the chicken on the ground. Still alive.
A woman comes screaming out of the
house and goes into a trance.
The crowd (and I) rushes in to look.
The dancers made the woman wiggle her thin hips
through the legs of a chair, writhing through
the dust in the four earthly directions.
Afterward, her husband carried her
limp body back into the house.
Plenty of fire that night!
Another dancer emerges from the devol maduwa.
Dancer touches the boy to work the magic.
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