© 2023 Dr Margaret Sheppard

Deities Hierarchy Ceremonies Sakra Guardians Twelve Deities


This hierarchy changes over time and different writers provide different hierarchies.  Lord Buddha ALWAYS heads the hierarchy and all other Deities are positioned well below him. His authority is secured through the delegation of warrants to the other supernatural beings including Deities in the Hierarchy. Images of Lord Buddha - gigantic statues, sculptures, cave paintings and sculpture etc  are found all over Sri Lanka on mountain top Temples, cave Temples Some are very ancient others date from modern times.

Lord Buddha

The Lord of the Deities:  Sakkra

The Four Guardian Deities:

Vishnu - (Although Vishnu is originally a Hindu Deity, the Buddhists have adopted him as a Buddhist Deity often referring to him as Uppalavanna).  He is the ruler of the West.

Saman - ruler of the Hill Country and the North

Kataragama (Hindu name is Skanda), - ruler of the South

Vibhishana or Natha - ruler of the East

The Twelve Deities:  

According to Wirz (p. 136-154) there are believed to be Twelve Deities who dwell in the lowest heaven, the "chatur maharajika". It is from there, they occasionally come to the earth and punish people who are guilty of  offences, with illness or misfortune.

The first  three in the list are the ones mainly attributed with spreading diseases, especially in the form of epidemics and plagues, among mankind in order to afflict and punish them for their transgressions. They are:

Devol -  whose  main temple is at Sinnigama  near Hikkaduwa

Pattini - whose main temple is Navaguna 15 miles from Colombo on the Kandy Road

Kataragama -whose main temple is at Kataragama which is named after him

Natha -  whose main temple is near Kandy

Saman - guardian of the hill country, main temple at Ratnapura

Bibisana (or Vibisana), - Kelaniya Temple near Colombo airport

Ganpathi - Ganesh is the Hindu name

Gini-Kurumbara, and Vahala are not full Deities as they are half demon (yakku-deviyo)


Dadimunda, also a yakku-deviyo - the Chief of the demons

Mahavishnu,  - Vishnu -  His main temple is at Dondra

Isvara or Shiva

Beings Half way between Deities and Demons :

Devol, Suniyam(Hanamun), Dadimunda

Village Deities :

E.g. Madua Bandara, Laksmi

Human Beings


Rakse demons :

Naga   powerful inhuman beings mostly living in water. They may like to gain merit undertaking good acts in order to be reborn  higher in the Hierarchy. Some have Deity-like powers. Typically they appear as snakes (naga).

Yakku demons :

E.g. Mahasona, Riri-yakka, Sanni-yakka. -Cruel and ugly beings with little respect for the Five Precepts of Buddhism. (Some demons do follow Buddhist teachings.) Typically demons  have fearful misshapen, dark bodies. They eat many foods forbidden by strict Buddhists e.g. meat, fish, eggs & oily meals.(These are the types of offerings made to them in Tovil Ceremonies to bribe them to release their human victims).

Earth Spirits


Hungry ghosts - Preta - Beings who sinned in their past life, now they stay without foods, clothes, a body or house.They can haunt their previous homes troubling the occupants and causing them troubles and bad dreams or disturb their sleep.

Bahirawa - are also ghosts but only dwell  in certain areas & protect that area as their own. They trouble humans when they try to reside in that area. If this is diagnosed as the problem a special  Bahirawa puja must be made to gain their permission to move into the Bahirawa’s area

Jungle Spirits

Asura -
Inhuman beings that have same power as Deities, but do not respect the Precepts or virtuous people. Sometimes play jokes causing troubles to good people and sometime fight with the Deities. They either live in or near the ocean.

Mara - Inhuman beings that have great power and control over all living beings tempting them to to lust, ill-will and ignorance. They trouble good people in human world and help bad people.

Perhaps the most dangerous of the Deities is Devol because it is he who is responsible for most of the more serious life threatening epidemics and venereal diseases. Pattini afflicts people with less serious epidemics such as small pox, scarlet fever or mumps. Kataragama is the cause of slighter illnesses  such as fever, headaches, abscesses, and ulcers. Isvara can cause ailments of the limbs e.g. rheumatism, general aches and pains, and diseases of the skin.

Gigantic statues of Lord Buddha overlooking the surrounding countryside. Typically these are illuminated at night, shining out over the surrounding countryside.

Buddha in cave temple

Temple panel painting

Lord Buddha with monks

Buduruwagala -rock of Buddhist sculptures

Temple paintings of Lord Buddha. On the left Buddha overcoming the demons, On the right preaching to monks . N.B the Deities in the background.

Deities behind Buddhist monks

Ancient sculpture

There is common agreement that there are Four Guardian Deities and some of these are included in the Twelve Deities. Those who have moved nearer to the state of Nirvana in which Lord Buddha is situated are less involved in human affairs than those who are not so close to achieving it.  Natha who is believed to be the next Buddha after Gautama Buddha, is the least involved in human affairs as are other Deities also positioned closer to this state.

Usually only three Deities are believed to be the cause of troubles and illnesses. They are Devol-deviyo,  Pattini, and Kataragama. These are the main Deities who are invoked and need to be placated when a problem is diagnosed as caused by a Deity. They have been assigned lesser Deities and demons who inflict punishments on their behalf when humans have transgressed. However at ceremonies addressed to the Deities, all are invited and acknowledged during the entertainment and offerings.

This following list is only a simplified version and is in descending order. (Many of the Deities have been adopted from Hindu Deities but renamed in Sri Lanka):

Some perceive  Buddhist practices under three broad headings. The first two categories are associated with lay Buddhist activities while the third, is associated with rituals adapted from folk religions. Deity and Demon rituals are a  mixture of Buddhism and an earlier pre-Buddhist Folk Religion.