Fulbright Scholar's photos explore Tamil ritual in Sri Lanka

Photographs by Sri Lankan photographer and filmmaker Waruni Anuruddhika are featured in two separate exhibitions at Cornell this month. The photos document the worship of the goddess Pattini by a marginalized community of Tamils living in a cemetery 30 miles from Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.

Anuruddhika, a Fulbright Scholar with Cornell's South Asia Program, is working on a book of photographs on the subject. 

A 14-photo exhibition at the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, on the first floor of Uris Hall, is called "Pattini: A Photographic Journey through the Ritualistic Worship of Goddess Pattini." Two of the images are reproduced below. 

An additional 15 photos, all portraits, are being shown in 413 Willard Straight Hall under the title "Look at Me." 

Waruni’s short films, Sea is Our Life, Victoria Home, and Children of Cemetery Dwellers, have garnered international recognition. Her feature-length documentary, Gifts and Visions, looks at human tissue donation in Sri Lanka. 


A small shrine bears the symbol of a deity on the compound of a graveyard shrine dedicated to Goddess Pattini. 


The inner shrine features Goddess Pattini surrounded by other deities worshipped by the community.


Artist's statement

Rituals and their performance are a vital human process. Religious ritual is important in many societies, as it provides them with a sense of security, mental stability, and a rational for a daily life. This photographic exhibition is a visual representation of the ritual process, and the different modes of worship by a marginalized Tamil community in Veyangoda, Sri Lanka. The exhibition aims to bring forward the frozen moments of a Pattini ritual that is celebrated by the community. The marginalized community is quite unique at it resides in a graveyard which is located 53 km away from Colombo!

The photography in this exhibition captures the frozen moments within the Pattini ritual process. The photos also reveal the embedded tensions in the ritual process. These tensions emerge as a result of an attempt to achieve two contradictory objectives: The ritual practices of their own Tamil culture, and the adaptation of these practices to attract the majority of other Tamil and Sinhala ethnic groups to recognize their presence within the broader community. For the marginalized Tamils, the Pattini Parade is not only a religious ritual, but also a method to gain recognition within the mainstream for their ethnic and social identity.

This marginalization stems from their treatment by other high cast Tamil ethnic groups linked to their ancestral history. In part this is due the group being descendants of lower caste South Indian Tamils, as well as historical roles as exploited plantation workers. The social exclusion inflicted upon them by the neighboring Sinhala community reinforces the community’s ongoing marginalization. This social exclusion is enforced due their current labor activities such as garbage collection, and their current place of dwelling in the graveyard. In turn, members of the marginalized Tamil community intensify their ritual procedures in order to legitimize their presence and gain public recognition.

In all, the exhibition attempts to document and visualize the moments of this community’s social ethno history of Pattini ritual practices. The photographs do not elicit the history described above, but instead provide a link to the history of these people, as well as an archive of the making of history in the present, in a visual format.

This exhibition is a result of my ongoing work and my proposal 2017 Fulbright Award proposal to develop a photographic book about this community.

Journey through the frames and you will encounter the anecdotes about the use of the human body, colors, artefacts such as dresses and decorations, as well as the pain this community carries. The viewer will not feel the ritual process as it was, photographs will tell of ritual and the community’s stories…

– Waruni Anuruddhika