Danister Perera

Hela Weda Mahima: The Glory of Indigenous Medicine in Sri Lanka


Medicine of Sri Lanka (Hela Wedakama) is an ancient wisdom tradition of
healthcare and healing practices inherited by cultural heritage unique to
native people. Indigenous medical knowledge and practices dispersed throughout
the country are culture-bound repository of ancestral wisdom prevailed through
generations. HELA WEDA MAHIMA is a sector-specific ICH production that presents
most of ICH elements pertaining to livelihoods and craftsmanship associated
with indigenous medical sector. Therefore selection of captions and stories
should be very authentic and genuine to represent the heritage of culture and
traditional identities of indigenous medicine in Sri Lanka. 

Beth nela ganima (Auspicious harvesting of medicine) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Behet Sakaseema (Preparation of Medicines)

Preparing medicinal herbs before initiate the process of manufacturing is an important practice. 

Traditional method of harvesting from medicinal trees is an art that preserves healing properties embedded in green pharmacy. The worshipping and respecting medicinal trees is a practice generally accepted as a cultural norm. It claims that natural healing properties are preserved throughout the process of manufacturing. Harvesting medicinal plants from natural habitats with preservation of their medicinal properties is an age-old practice that performed by the healer himself.

Auspicious uprooting of medicine (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Indigenous medical practitioners respect nature’s healing properties embedded in the plants with the blessings of divine forces dwelling in the trees. They believe that harvesting of such parts from a plant should be done after performing a special ritual. This ritual claims to gain the permission from the deities dwelling in tree.

Beth therima (Ritualistic sorting of medicine) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Sorting medicinal raw materials is a very important process in medicinal preparations and in treatment centers run by indigenous medical practitioners.

It is sometimes done by patients as a part of their healing ritual. The special method of selecting and sorting medicine by the patients would better effect to them by touching the same medicine before applying.

Beth kepima (Chopping medicinal materials) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Processing raw materials is an integral part of quality medicinal preparations like decoctions, oils, powders, pastes, pills, and other concoctions. According to traditional belief system when this is done manually medicines will be bearing better efficacy. Therefore all the traditional practitioners prefer to do all processing manually to preserve the natural qualities.

Beth varam ganima (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Practitioners believe that they should get the permission from divine forces before initiate preparing medicine and they offer oblations for the sake of protection and better efficacy of the medicine. For this ritual they select an auspicious day and a time for offering the oblations with special recitations. These kinds of ICH practices significantly show the connection of nature with culture.

Bahirava tatu (Ritual structure for oblations) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Behet Arassa Kirima (Protection of Medicine)

Ritual practices and offering votives for protecting medicines from demonic forces are performed in traditional way to get the maximum outcome of the medicine. 

Beth arassa kirima (Ritual protection of medicine) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Practitioners perform rituals to protect the medicinal preparations from malicious or demonic forces. They recite mantras and pirith to create positive energy and attract benefactor divine forces to protect the medicine. It is believed that the chanting pirith and reciting mantras will be providing healing powers too. Reciting pirith is a traditional cultural heritage of Buddhist society and indigenous medical lore has incorporated same etho into healing practices.

Beth pe kirima (Ritual submission of medicine) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Rituals in medicinal preparations are believed to increase the potent of the medicine and will have a supra-natural effect. They perform a ritual on the night before the roots of a medicinal tree are removed to get the permission of the deity abiding in that tree. This ritual symbolizes the cultural value system that supports the conservation of natural resources through propagating the divine healing power of nature as a living entity.

Bhahirava poojava (Ritual for earthly guardians) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Some medicinal oils with supra-medical uses under the influence of malicious forces should be prepared with special ritualistic oblations to protect the oil from bad spirits and enhance its healing power. It is an overnight ritual to install the divine powers upon the site of manufacturing to safeguard the medicine. The ritual is performed by the practitioner assisted by his pupils or family members who should be observed special routines mannered according to restrictions and taboos.

Bahirava tatu (Ritual structure for oblations) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

The structures made for oblations offered to Bahirava demon who is perceived as the protector of earthly treasures.

These structures are crafted from tender leaves of coconut and banana stem with traditional designs prescribed in ancestral wisdom inherited by generations.

The mantras and ritual process are traditionally passed from the previous generation. The structures are made according to the designs prescribed in traditional craftsmanship arts. All these are freshly made and kept only for one night.

Malpela (Ritual structure for blessings) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Shanti Karma (Healing Rituals)

Healing rituals are an essential part of the indigenous medical practice that support the healing process of chronic or incurable cases by avoiding malicious effects of supernatural forces. 


Structures made up of tender coconut leaves and decorated with coconut inflorescent and flowers to attract the divine beings for blessings.

The uniqueness of this offering is to make this in fresh form and keep it only one and half days. Also this has no images kept inside and only a lamp with incense sticks and flowers are offered to an unnamed deity. This can be performed with or without assistance of a practitioner at any auspicious event.

Pooja vatti (Votive basket) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Pooja vatti (Votive basket)

Offering votive baskets is a practice to honor the deities so as to continuously receive their blessings such as healing diseases, good health, and property. This is rooted from Hindu tradition and modified with Buddhist ethos, which is widely accepted by both Hindu and Buddhist communities in Sri Lanka. The offerings are commonly done at the shrines dedicated for the major deities and the devotee should appear personally in such event.

The items included in the basket are kept on betel leaves and accompanied by a coconut.

Beth satta balima (Testing medicines) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

After the preparation is made correctly, the power of the medicine is tested through pendulum method. They believe that the oil is moving according the practitioner's wish clockwise or anticlockwise and it can predict the some questions asked about the patient's condition.

Dehi kepima (Lime cutting ritual) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Lime cutting, a healing ritual practice, is performed if the disease is not manageable only by medicine. Lime is considered as a sacred item that had been originated in heaven and gifted by divine beings to humans to be used in healing rituals. This rituals claims the expelling the evil-eye or evil-word or any other evil force that can cause health problems. Lime cutting is a commonly practiced healing ritual that is prescribed for the health problems caused by demonic forces too.

Yanathara (Taliman) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Wearing talismans bearing occult diagrams is a prescribed ritualistic therapy to eliminate the malicious effects of bad spirits. This is an age-old practice in indigenous medical lore to protect the patient from malicious effect of planets or any other demonic forces that can cause a incurable disease or aggravate the condition.

The practitioner has the skill of selecting the occult diagram that is suitable for particular disease condition and ritualistic votives to be performed as prescribed in ancient texts.

Beth mathirima (Reciting medicine) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Reciting a mantra intended for a specific disease before giving medicines to a patient is famed among indigenous practitioners curing chronic diseases that are under influence of demonic forces. Practitioners are capable of selecting specific ritual and mantras according to the patient's condition by going trough the horoscope. Also this kind of practice symbolizes the holistic approach of indigenous medicine that accepts the cosmic aspect of healing and curing diseases.

Devi dos harima (Avoiding divine curse by treating elephants) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Elephants are sacred animals. They are believed to have a power to avoid bad spirits. People give them foods and scroll under their belly to get their blessing. People also believe that stepping on elephant dung could help them avoid nightmares.

These tuskers are entitled and assigned to carry the sacred relics of temple in annual pageant performed in Kandy as a royal religious event in Kandy in month of August. The temple owns and cares some elephants within the premises.

Bodhi pooja (Ritual of sacred tree) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

School children attending a special ritual in Kelaniya temple. Bodhi Puja is a special votive performed for obtaining blessings from the sacred Bo tree in healing rituals.

Bodhi pooja (ritual of sacred tree) (2018) by Danister PereraICHCAP

The Bodhi Puja is a special kind of ritual performed for obtaining blessings for healing of chronic diseases and bedridden patients as well as patients who are in critical conditions with intensive care treatments. People believe that this scared tree has a power of blessing enriched with divine forces and cosmic energy that passed through the leaves.

Bodhi pooja (ritual of sacred tree) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

People practice watering the tree as well as offering other sacred things while hanging color flags on which the patient's name is written. If the disease is diagnosed as caused by a malicious effect of demonic force or bad planetary influence this kind of ritual is prescribed by healers as they believe that their treatment is more successful and effective with the blessings.

Baara oppu kirima (Votives) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Layman society believes in the protection of divine forces in curing chronic ailments. They offer devotion after attaining the desired healing of a patient.

Diyatarippu (Eye glasses) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Diyatarippu es kannadi (Traditional Eyeglass Craftsman)

A very old tradition of making eyeglasses with a special quartz called Diyataraippu which is a unique craftsmanship inherited by one family and should be urgently safeguarded. 

Diyatarippu (Eye glasses) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Making eye glasses with lens made up of quartz called Diyatharippu is a diminishing craft. It is preserved only by one family and, for obvious reasons, needs urgent safeguarding. Diyatharippu mineral is used as its raw material. This industry is not as popular as other crafts like brass or lace, but, like other craft industries, it also has a history as old as 14th century when Buwanekabahi IV, the first king of Gampola Kingdom, own a pair of Diyatharippu eye glasses.

Diyatarippu (Eye glasses) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

In the 14th century, spectacle lenses referred to as Diyatharippu made by hereditary workers in Uda Dumbara. This industry was started, it is said, during the time of Bhuwaneka Bahu IV (1344-1353).The most fascinating craftsman, Mr.Gunasoma in Kahambe, is an eighth generation craftsman (and probably the last) of the Diyatharippu paramparaawa—the first in the world to have made spectacles as it is claimed.

Diyatarippu (Eye glasses) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

The lenses are made with aquamarine gemstones belonging to the beryl variety called Diyatharippu. It is skillfully polished to suit the user’s andiriya (the status of the visual impairment based on age category) and said to be very cooling to the eye.

Es beth bandima (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Prathikara Krama (Treatment Methods)

There are various kinds of treatments methods that are inherited by different family lineages and delivered to the laymen society for their health and wellbeing. 

Applying medicine to the toes for eye diseases is an exclusive technique in indigenous medical system and there are very few number of traditional families that have inherited this knowledge in Sri Lanka. This technique is not found in classical texts written by scholars but the esoteric connection between toe and the eyes are sometimes described in ancient tantric tradition. People consider this as a special healing ritual that gives a miracle result without touching the affected eye.

Nadi balima (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Diagnosis of diseases by pulse reading is a special practice unique to indigenous medical lore. Different family traditions imply different techniques for such diagnosis as inherited by ancestral wisdom through family lineages. The vital touch of physician is considered as a healing touch that minimize the social distance between practitioner and the patient who seeks the divine qualities from the practitioner.

Veda panduru betel (Offers for practitioners) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Physician-patient relationship is a cultural bond that keeps the spiritual harmony represented by betel leaves beyond the monetary values. Respecting and bowing to a physician is a form of recognizing the blessings of good health, as well as the spiritual values and qualities the healer has inherited from the ancestors of indigenous medical lore. In indigenous medical lore there is no monetary value given for the service rendered but the humanistic value is reputed.

Beth heppu (Medicinal caskets) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

 Veda puskola poth (Medical Palm-leaf Manuscripts)

Palm-leaf manuscripts are the literary sources of indigenous medicine and preserved in the custody of traditional practitioners. 

Different kinds of easy-to-carry medicine caskets with chambers and made out of different materials are used for storing pills and pastes. These caskets show the skills of traditional craftsmanship as well as cultural heritage of indigenous medical lore. The practice of storing medicine in these caskets is an evidence for the services rendered by the practitioners during their visits to the patients. The pills and pastes have diversified utility mixed with fresh medicine prepared from wild plants.

Puskola poth (Palm-leaf manuscripts at BMARI Library Collection) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Palm leaf manuscripts are the most valuable treasure of documented indigenous medical knowledge in written form. They are honored and venerated by the traditional communities as a sacred heritage. The documentary heritage embedded in the indigenous medical lore is mostly preserved in this treasure trove of palm-leaf manuscripts. Most of these manuscripts are found in temple libraries as well as in private custodies of traditional practitioners.

Bhesajjamanjusava (An ancient medical text) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Bhesajja Manjusavais the only medical text written in Pali language and recognized as a national documentary heritage under the UNESCO memory of the world program. This text belonged to 13th century AD and written by a monk named Atthadassi and prescribed for monastery life as the book does not contain chapters for treatments for women's and children's diesease. This book has more than 60 references from source books existed during that period.

Panhinda (Stylus) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Writing on palm leaf is an ancient art of documenting knowledge. Stylus is used for inscribing on the leaf and it is a traditional writing tool of palm-leaf manuscripts. Different kinds of stylus are used among traditional writers and the letters inscribed by this tool are preserved for millennia after blackening. Most of the ancient temples writing art is taught as a mandatory subject of monastery discipline.

Puskola poth (Palm-leaf manuscripts) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Most of the practitioners keep their private collection of palm leaf manuscripts. Those manuscripts are generally inherited; handwritten manuscripts are gifted by masters; and printed books used by the family elders. The palm-leaf manuscripts contain recipes belonged to the family lineage preserved by ancestors. The present generation dedicate for the conservation and continue the knowledge embedded in these sources.

Veda Gedara (Healing spaces) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Vedagedara (Practitioner's House)

Traditional houses of Indigenous medical practitioners are spaces full of healing forces and representing the family heritage descended from their ancestors. 

Veda Gedara (Physician's house) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Some houses belonging to well-known indigenous families are declared as national treasures by the Department of Archeology; they are protected by law. A house with such prestige and status reflects social class and the reputation of a family tradition. Family heritage and ancestral reputation are most important factor to show the glory of knowledge that they inherited from the previous generation as cultural symbol.

Veda Gedara (Healing spaces) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

A traditional house where indigenous medicine is practiced is highly renowned to the lay people. Most practitioners keep ancient furniture and family pictures showing ancestral lineage. They believe that a traditional house like this has a blessed atmosphere and is where ancestral spirits support the physician in the healing process. Also in Sri Lankan traditional culture is very much reputed by general laymen society as a symbol of ancestral identity.

Vedda (Indigenous people) (2017) by Danister PereraICHCAP

Indigenous people also inherit their own medical lore, which is now disappearing due to social transformation. Some of them occasionally visit the city temple and show their healing practices inherited from ancestors. Some laymen still believe that these indigenous people have good skill of healing with natural remedies.

Credits: Story

The steering committee of the Helaweda Mahima Project for all intellectual support

Dr. Danister L. Perera, Supervisor

Dr. W.G.N.S.Samanweera, Curator

Dr. Nadith Kodithuwakku, Dr. Chamil Karunarathna, Dr. Senaka Kodikara, Dr. Lahiru Herath, Mr. Kanishka for Photographic contributions

Ms. Boyoung Cha, Ms. Soyoung Min, International Information and Networking Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region under the auspices of UNESCO (ICHCAP)

Credits: All media
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