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The Cobra Dance - The Dance of Gara

This family based Pattini tovil was similar to the community village Pattini Tovils except that at the end there was a masked dance - a cobra dance or the Dance of Gara. The dancer danced like a cobra and wore a cobra mask. After dancing around the Performance Area especially in front of the Shrine structures, he danced out of the Performance Area  and climbed a “ladder” made of 2 tree trunks “planted” in the ground. Cross branches had been secured to these trunks to form rungs and were steadied by an assistant and the Clairvoyant. This structure had been erected in front of the house. From the top Gara (Cobra) exchanged jokes with the drummer to the amusement of all those audience members  left at 7 am in the morning.

According to Obeysekere many Sinhala ceremonies include this Dance of Gara. For example when the rice does not grow well, when cows do not produce milk, for sicknesses etc especially those attributed to an evil wisher who has directed problems onto the afflicted.  Gara is the demon who banishes problems such as minor witchcraft caused by the mouth -, tongue and evil eye, inadvertent breaking of taboos, or  incorrect observance of rituals.When this dance is performed as part of a Gammaduwa, Gara is  believed to be removing these types of problems from the family and their immediate environment in return for his appropriate offerings.

Legend of Gara

The legend of this  Gara demon is outlined by Wirz (p. 128-132):

Gara’s parents were a King and Queen in Northern India. His birth was overdue -  a “10 month baby”, and he was very “advanced” in early development. His human name was Dala Kumara. The King called the astrologers to draw up his horoscope and they foretold that he was destined to have an incestuous lust for his sister (yet to be born). To avert this, the King sent his son away to be brought up and live at the court of his brother. The Queen later gave birth to a daughter who grew up to be very beautiful and be greatly admired. Her name was Giri Devi. When she was old enough a suitable marriage was arranged for her.

The King invited his brother to the wedding but warned him to keep the invitation secret from his son, Dala Kumara. However the son heard about the wedding from one of the palace servants. He was very angry not to be invited as he desired to meet the sister he had never seen. In his fury he turned up at the wedding demanding to see his sister whom the father had hidden away from him. He created so much havoc by  eating all the food and frightening the guests in his fury, that eventually the King had to relent.

Dala Kumara, on seeing his sister, immediately fell in love with her kidnapping her from the wedding, and escaping with her into the Jungle where they subsisted  on wild fruits and berries. She eventually managed to escape while he was sleeping, but she became hopelessly lost in the Jungle. Starving, exhausted and terrified she eventually hanged herself with jungle vines from the tree under which she had collapsed.

In the meantime, when her brother had awoken and found her missing, he searched  everywhere for her. He came at last to the “Wishing Tree” and meeting place of the Deities. He furiously demanded from the assembled Deities as to where where he could find his sister. The Deities were frightened by his terrible displays of violence and rage and violent shaking of the tree. His already protruding eye teeth grew longer and longer into long white tusks. Eventually the Deity Sakra, told him that he would find his sister back in the Jungle.

Dala Kumara returned to the Jungle and searched again where he eventually found her decomposing body hanging from the tree. He was distraught at the sight. He uprooted trees and killed and destroyed everything and everyone he encountered.

Eventually he met Pattini who was also afraid of him. He addressed her as his sister and begged her for food. She gave him what she had but he was still not satisfied as he was very greedy. They then agreed that if he would stop killing people he could become a demon, subsequently called Gara. The deities gave him a warrant to inflict problems on humans on conditions he agreed to remove these problems if he was presented with appropriate offerings. He finally agreed to these terms and Pattini advised him to request Vessamunu-rajjuruvo to give him followers. He was awarded twelve females and twelve male assistants to help him inflict troubles on humans!

He danced in front of the Shrine and the family who were seated on a mat at the edge of the Performance Area. His movements  emulate those of a cobra. As he “twirls” the “tresses”  as he dances, he is  blessing the family and the audience and wiping away the problems.

First Cobra (Gara) danced in front of the Offering Basket placed on a chair in front of the Shrine.Then in front of the Shrine

Cobra (Gara) danced out of Performance Area and climbed the  structure that had been erected in the yard . This is traditionally formed from two jackfruit trees  with “rungs” in between. Gara then swings to and fro on the structure.

This structure was supported by Assistants while Gara swings back and forth. Swinging is Gara’s favourite movement.

As he dances, he sings songs about what he is doing (from Text 31-2 of the Pattini Texts). Gara (Cobra) then proceeded to exchange jokes with the drummer to the great amusement of the audience. The drummer had followed Gara out of the Performance Area beating out Gara’s special rhythm as Gara danced out to the “swing”.

The “swing represents the Wishing Tree under which Gara threatened the Deities and where he eventually agreed to the terms they set him i.e. he could inflict problems on humans but must not kill them and must remove the problems when he was offered the appropriate offerings.

The Dance of Gara is a masked dance. The mask has  a demonic face with bulging eyes, three cobra heads, round disks edged with lotus for ears, a protuberant nose and long tusks. The coconut “edging” represents a “tiara” which denotes his royal birth - the son of a King.  From his earlobes hang coconut hair “tresses”. More of the tresses hang down the back of Gara’s neck to below his waist. As he dances he holds these tresses in his hands, waving them around and over the audience.

Twirling the “tresses” clasped in his hands as he dances.

At the end of this performance Gara returned to the Performance Area. There was more interchange with the drummer and dancing to his  special drumbeat. Then he greeted the family and the audience. The family gave him offerings of money and then he collected (into his hands”) more offerings from the rest of the audience - small coins and small denomination notes.

You Tube Video Links

Devol Madua Part 10 Dance of Gara -Cobra Dance


Extracts from the Pattini Text for the Gara Dance


(For a fuller account and analysis see  Obeysekere P.173-180)

“For the auspicious wedding overflowing with bounteous blessings

Pattini Devi arrives together with the Tusk Prince

With a mace that shakes the Sakvalas

Pattini arrives for Prince Skanda’s wedding

Dressed beautifully, decked with ornaments and a new waist cloth

She tries on a necklace worth a thousand gold pieces

There will be great dishonour as a result of this wedding

Invite and bring along Dala Rajah, the King

That day the goddess Pattini was all set to depart

Sister said Skanda, there is no strategem I know to stop this calamity

She cast her divine eye to see who would help

Lo! She immediately gave him a guise to arrive.

From the time he was born Gara used to dance thus

A Gara demon arrives and causes illness, among these noble folk

At the time the lovely cattle are being herded

Offerings for the Gara demons are given at eventime…..

….To please the mind of the Gara Demon

We give him demonic offerings to gobble up

Many spans wide in both length and breadth

Is this broad food basket made of banana bark….”