Communities across Sri Lanka get together to honour the epic heroine in times of war and peace.

March is particularly sacred to the devotees who flock to the Kannaki Amman temples in Sri Lanka’s Northern Peninsula. The auspicious days of Panguni thingal or ‘Mondays in March’ will end in mid-April but, for her people, this Amman will always have something to offer. They tell the curious anthropologist and the photographer that “she epitomises karpu (chastity or faithfulness), vidamuyarchi (perseverance) and needhi (justice). This sets her apart from the rest (of the ammans). These are qualities we have held onto, that have given us nambikkai (hope) throughout the years of war.”

Sharni Jayawardena and Malathi de Alwis are fascinated by this goddess and have spent years observing and recording the ways in which she is honoured across Sri Lanka. In late February, with support from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, Sharni and Malathi staged an exhibition in Colombo and simultaneously launched an ambitious trilingual website (www.invokingthegoddess.lk). In the coming months the exhibition will tour Batticaloa and Jaffna with events planned in New Delhi and New York as well. While Pattini-Kannaki has been the focus of scholarly interest before, the duo are among the first to explore how faith in the goddess has manifested in Sri Lanka both during and after the conflict.

Dating back to around the 5 century CE, the Tamil epic Silappatikaram is often considered the nearest thing India has to a great epic in a language other than Sanskrit. Its heroine Kannaki spent most of her life as a married woman in solitude, abandoned by Kovalan, her adulterous husband. When he does eventually return to her, Kovalan is impoverished and disillusioned with his mistress. Kannaki welcomes the prodigal back. The couple decide they will sell her gold anklets and begin a new life together. This happy ending is thwarted when Kovalan is wrongly accused of stealing the queen’s anklet and executed. What happens next may explain why, though Kannaki is revered for her chastity, her devotees seldom name their daughters after her. In her rage, she tears out her left breast and flings it at Madurai, calling down fire and destruction that will level the city and leave it a smouldering heap.

In his translation, Silappatikaram: The Tale of an Anklet, R. Parthasarathy says: “Kannaki represents the ancient Tamil belief in a divine mechanism of retributive justice to those whom human law fails to protect.”

Elsewhere on the island, Sinhala Buddhists welcome her into their home as Pattini, for most part unaware that she is a deity they share with the Tamil Hindu community. To them she is a fellow traveller on the path to enlightenment — and Buddhahood — and someone they can identify with. She is also the only female deity to claim a place of honour in the Theravada pantheon. Hailed as one of the four guardian deities of Sri Lanka, Pattini is the focus of night-long rituals and revelries in the gammaduwa or village hall. Colourful altars pay tribute — wreathed in incense, these bear offerings of fruit and flowers and are exquisitely bedecked in woven coconut fronds. Rituals are staged to banish diseases and retain the prosperity and fertility of village fields.

As the night deepens, there is less and less room for prudes. Ribaldry abounds: The dancers come out to keep company with the acrobats and the fire-eaters before the arrival of the kapu mahattaya, typically a prominent man in the community now ‘incarnated’ as goddess Pattini. Dressed in a sari, his arrival triggers the possession of devotees by the goddess. In towns such as Ambepussa, just 45 km northeast of Colombo, scenes from the Pantis Kolmura are also re-enacted — always by a cross-dressing, all-male cast.

This chauvinistic exclusion of women extends far beyond the stage. Sharni and Malathi were barred from witnessing many key events in the ritual cycle including the horn-pulling or an keliya (in Sinhala) ceremony. Even the few priestesses seldom have authority in shrines outside the ones they maintain in their own homes. “What does it mean for women today, in a post-feminist age, to find everything is controlled by male priests?” asks Malathi.

Access wasn’t their only challenge. The sheer diversity of narratives and rituals is dizzying. “Everyone has taken off from the Silappadikaram,” says Malathi, pointing to localised versions that incorporate caste distinctions or insert tales of sea battles into the story. Still, by chronicling these often-moving expressions of religious faith and local culture, the two women hope to give the two communities a glimpse of their shared heritage. “We wanted a space where both groups would read it and realise what they had in common.” In the end, it’s clear this ancient mother goddess still holds sway over modern Sri Lanka but could their shared belief be enough to unite her devotees?

Invoking the goddess will be on at the India International Centre, New Delhi, from May 10-22, 2014