Worship in Sri Lanka

The earliest custom I remember being taught was how to worship my grandparents. We would do this for them whenever we left their homes in Sri Lanka to fly back to Dubai after our school holidays. Writing the term ‘worship’ now, I see that we use a very heavy English word to describe a Sri Lankan practice that is an act of respect. But it doesn’t really convey the strong level of reverence and religious adoration implied.

To ‘worship’ was to get down on our hands and knees in front of them, as they stood. We would put our hands together (palm to palm) as if in prayer, and touch our closed hands to our foreheads, or to the bridge of our noses. Bowing our heads and hands to the floor, we’d touch their feet with the tips of our fingers and say “Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu”. My grandad would usually say, “Bless you, Putha” and sometimes we’d be touched on the backs of our heads with light fingers, before we rose and hugged and kissed them goodbye.

I can’t quite remember if my parents explained this custom fully, because I’m not sure what the origins of this gesture are, but I feel that it has strong Buddhist ties. “Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu” is how we usually end Buddhist chants, or ‘gatha’s,’ many of which are recited in set groups of verses.

When my mum, sister and I moved to Tasmania for our Australian citizenship, she made a really good go of trying to teach us our gathas. We would sit in front of her white statue of Lord Buddha in the living room and in a few months we had memorised all of the necessary words, which I’m glad I still remember today: a link to a culture I am otherwise distant from. I think “Sadhu” is a term that refers to Lord Buddha himself, but I’m not entirely sure, and it is a tricky item to try and clarify on Google.

I was never one for strong religious beliefs and practices, an attitude which was solidified when I based one of my final art projects in high school on Sri Lanka. In my research about Buddhism I learned that it wasn’t a religion and, more importantly, that Lord Buddha himself had requested no monuments be erected in his name after his death. I supposed he hoped the grounded and accessible nature of his philosophies wouldn’t get lost in religious fervour and ritual. Still, I understood the importance of getting down on my hands and knees for my grandparents. Religious or not, it it one of the strongest physical acts of respect I know that I have shared with few others. Ever compassionate, full of love and endlessly tolerant of the distance between all of us, if I was ever to bow for anyone, it would be them.

*putha: a term of endearment in Sinhalese