The King as Rainmaker

The King as Rain-Maker

By J.B. Disanayaka

Chapter Seven from Water in Culture: The Sri Lankan Heritage (Colombo: Ministry of Environment & Parliamentary Affairs, 1992) pp. 51-56

Indian concepts of kingship attribute divine powers to the king: the king was the God on earth. One of the powers he was endowed with was the power to cause rain. A righteous king, in particular, could cause rain in due season. The Buddhists saw a direct link between rain and the king, for they always wished,

de:vo: vassatu ka:le:na

sassa sampatti he:tu ca 

pi:to: bhavatu lo:ko: ca 

ra:ja: bhavatu dhammiko:

May there be rain in due season 

May the crops be bountiful 

May the king be righteous 

And may the country become prosperous!

How did the king make rain? By means of both imitative and contagious magic.

In imitative magic the rites and rituals performed resemble the result desired. Contagious magic uses some object that has some contact with whatever one wishes to influence. These objects derive their magical power by being parts of a whole that has been endowed with such magic.

In imitative magic the king imitated the gods in heaven, the de:va-lo:ka. The lord of de:va-lo:ka was Indra in Hindu mythology and Shakra or Sakka in Buddhist mythology. In Buddhist literature, he was also given the name De:va-Indra or De:ve:ndra, the lord of the gods.

The king, on the other hand, was the lord of the human world, the nara-lo:ka. Hence he was given the name Nara-Indra or Nare:ndra,meaning the Indra of the humans.

Godakumbura speaks of two ideals of kingship: “In ancient India” writes Godakumbura, “and countries which were under the Indian influence there were two ideals of kingship: one of Pabbataraja and the other of Bodhi-raja” (14.102)

Pabbata-ra:ja, as the name indicates, is the king of the pabbata, Mountain or Rock. Bo:dhi-ra:ja is the king of the Bodhi, the sacred tree of the Buddhists. With the introduction of Buddhism to the island, the ideal of Bodhi-raja gained popularity over the ideal of Pabbata-raja,which was the one found in pre-Buddhist Sri Lanka.

Continues Godakumbura:

“It is evident that the pre-Buddhist Sinhalese kings of early Anuradhapura associated themselves with the mountain of Mihintale. After Mahinda’s visit and Sanghamitta’s subsequent arrival, the Sinhalese king’s chief interest centered round the Bodhi tree” (14.102)

Pabbata-raja made the mountain or rock his centre of ritual worship. The mountain at Mihintale, known in pre-Buddhist times as Missaka pabbata, and the rock at Sigiriya were two of the main centres where pabbata-raja kings held their festivals, involving both rain-making and fertility. “The charming plateau of Ambattala on the Missaka mountain would have been considered an excellent site which nature had provided for rites of fertility, and would have been chosen as a spot worthy of the gods, and to imitate them in their celestial abodes” (14.99).

Bodhi-raja kings, on the other hand, made the bodhi tree their centre of ritual and worship. “The establishment of the sacred bodhi tree at Anuradhapura became very significant in Sinhalese kingship. In the Sinhalese kingdom, the bodhi became the main centre of ritual, at least until the arrival of the sacred tooth relic about six centuries later.” The powers of the bodhi in producing rain will be discussed in a separate chapter.

The king,—the God on earth—imitated the words and deeds of the gods in order to fulfill his duties by his people. “The king of a people” writes Godakumbura, “or a ruler of a community was expected to be responsible for rain in due season. If rains failed it was the king who was blamed. The king in order to maintain his position and power had to convince his subjects that he had the ability to produce rain” (14.102)

The Sinhalese king’s sympathetic magic took the form of a procession (perahaera) held in the Sinhala month of Aesala, which marks the height of drought. Aesala perahaera is an annual event that takes place even today in several Buddhist temples, the most important one being at the temple of the Sacred Tooth at Kandy, the last capital of the Sinhalese kingdom. “Whether connected with the cult of the gods or the worship of the Buddha the Aesala festivals were rainmaking ceremonies” (14.109). The symbolic relationship between the Aesala perahaera and the deeds of gods in producing rain is remarkable. According to Hindu mythology, Indra’s association with water centres round the story in which lie slew Vritra the dragon, who had encompassed the rivers. “Indra slew the dragon, a giant titan that had been couching on the mountains in the limbless shape of a cloud serpent, holding the waters of heaven captive in its belly. The god flung his thunderbolt into the midst of the ungainly coils; the monster shattered like a stack of withered rushes. The waters burst free and streamed in ribbons across the land, to circulate once more through the body of the world” (32.3).

This is the feat that is enacted on Earth, the king taking the place of Indra. In the Aesala perahaera,the king parades the streets, accompanied by elephants and music. “At the height of the procession” writes Godakunibina, “the king accompanied by his ministers, officers, leading citizens an(] the pretty ladies of the kingdom joined the perahaera, himself riding in his golden chariot drawn by eight white horses. This is in imitation of Indra going about in procession in heaven, in his heavenly chariot, Vaijayantha, accompanied by hosts of gods and goddesses. The elephants accompanying theperahaera represent the clouds, and the drums and music, the noise of thunder and water” (14.122).

Two of the main elements in the structure of the perahaera are the two rites known as kaphitavi:ma (kap-planting) and diya-kaepi:ma (water-cutting). Both emphasize the imitative aspect of the phenomenon. In the rite known as kap-planting, which marks the beginning of the perahaera, a piece of wood referred to as kap is set up in the premises of the temple. This symbolizes the thunderbolt which Indra carries.

The grand finale of the ritual is the rite known as water-cut ting, which symbolizes the release of the waters by Indra after slaying the serpent who guards it. Seneviratne describes how this rite is performed at the termination of the Kandy Aesala perahaera.

“Me four devale perahaeras, with their kapuralas or ritual priests, now proceed to the Getambe ferry for the diyakapima rnangalle or the water cutting ceremony. The four kapuralas walk into the river each accompanied by four attendants bearing swords and water pitchers. just at dawn, the kapuralas strike the water with these words while the attendants empty the water that had been collected the previous year, and fill the pitchers afresh from the very point at which the blade of their swords struck the water” (2 8d. 70).

In the Kandy perahaera the Buddha’s Tooth relic, which is by itself a sacred relic that has power to produce rain, is taken in procession to enhance the magical power of the ritual.

Buddhists claim that even today it rains or drizzles as the water-cutting ceremony comes to an end. Sinhala folklore abounds in instances that substantiate this claim. The re-enactment of the heavenly deed on the earth may be summerized thus:

                                      Heaven                                   Earth

venue                              deva-loka.                               nara-loka

                                       (world of gods)                       (world of humans)

actor                               Indra                                       king

                                       (Deva-indra)                           (Nara-Indra)

attendants                        cloud                                       elephants

                                       thunder                                    drums, music

finale                               slaying of serpent                     cutting of water

                                       release of water                       rain

By re-enacting this heavenly deed on earth, the king took upon himself the royal duty of producing rain in due season for the good of his people.

Another mode of producing rain that the Sinhalese king used was the performance of satya-kriya: theAct of Truth. An act of truth is a resolution that a king makes that by the power of his righteous life he could achieve whatever he desired. The Mahavamsa narrates how King Sirisanghabodhi (247-9 AD) performed such an act to produce rain:

“Then the king knew that the people of the island were oppressed by drought and, with his mind shaken by compassion, lay himself on the ground of the Great Thupa, having made this resolution, “Unless I am raised by the water that would rain, I shall never rise even if I am to die here”. When the lord of the earth lay down thus, it rained immediately reviving the great earth of the entire island of Lanka. Even then he did not rise as he was not floating in water. Then the ministers blocked the pipes of the water-outlets. Then the righteous king, floating in water, rose. Thus did he dispel, through compassion, the fear of a drought in the island” (19. ch. 36, v 74-79)

Another fine example of popular rain magic employed by the state machinery is recorded in the Mahavamsa, in its account of King Upatissa (365-406 AD).

“In the time of this king, the Island was vexed by the ills of a famine and a plague. The benevolent (King) who was as a light for the darkness of sin, asked the bhikkhus: ‘Did not the great Saga (Buddha) when the world was visited by such evils as famine and the like, provide some kind of help for the world?’ They pointed to the origin of the Gangarohana-Sutta on such an occasion. When he heard this he made an image wholly of gold of the departed Buddha, laid the stone alms bowl of the Master (filled) with water in the hollow of its hands and placed this his figure on a great chariot. He took upon himself and duties of a moral life and made the people also take them on themselves, he instituted a great almsgiving and established security (of life) for all living creatures. Then after he had adorned the town (so that it was) comely as the world of the gods, he descended surrounded by all the bhikkhus dwelling in the Island, to the principal street. Then the bhikkhus who gathered there reciting the Ratana-Sutta and pouring out water, walked about the street, not far from the royal palace, near the wall, round which they walked with their right side towards it in the three watches of the night. When morning dawned a great cloud poured rain on the earth and all who had suffered from disease, held refreshed, high festival. But the Lord of men decreed: ‘When there shall be on the Island an evil such as famine, plague or the like, thus shall it be done’ ( 37. v. 189-198)

In the official ritual, one finds incorporated many of the rain-making rites: filling vessels with water, reciting of the Ratana-Sutta, pouring out water on the streets, and the king and the people observing precepts leading to a moral life.

The belief that the righteous king could control rain was held by the Hindus as well as by the Buddhists. King Elara, who reigned for forty years at Anuradhapura in the first century BC, was a Hindu who came to this country from South India. Though a foreigner, he commanded the respect of the Sinhalese Buddhists, because of his righteousness. Even the Buddhist monk who compiled the Mahavamsa did not fail to record the fact that Elara was a righteous king who could and did control rain. It is said that Elara had, at the head of his bed, a bell hung up with a long rope so that it could be rung by those who desired justice.

“An old woman” narrates the Mahavamsa, “spread out some rice to dry it in the sun. It rained out of season and dampened the rice. Taking the rice, she went and rang the bell. Hearing of the unseasonal rain, lie sent her away and undertook a fast in order to dispense justice to her, thinking “When the king observes justice, seasonal rain might be obtained. The oblation-receiving deity, being overwhelmed by the king’s power of penance, went to the four great guardian gods and informed about it. They took him to Sakka and informed him. Sakka summoned Paijunna and counseled him rain in due season. The oblation-receiving deity informed the king of it. Henceforth, in his kingdom, it did not rain during the day. It rained once a week during the middle watch of the night. Even the small cisterns all over were full” ( 2 1. v 2 7-33)

The king’s role as the Rain-maker is further enhanced by his use of the epithets, Megha-vanna (Rain-cloud-hued) and Sila Megha (Rock Rain-cloud). Sinhala records use Me-van. According to Mahavamsa, Gothabhaya (249-62 AD) was also called Megha-vanna-Abhaya, and he is perhaps the first Sinhalese king to use this epithet.

His grandson was Siri Megha-vanna (301-28 AD), whose reign coincides with tile arrival of the sacred Tooth relic of the Buddha. Sinhala records refer to him as Kit-Siri-Mevan, implying that his personal name was Kit (Skt. Kirti; Pali. Kitti). About two and a half centuries laterKitti Siri megha II (Sin. Kuda Kit Siri Mevan) ascended the throne.

Siri Megha Vanna seems to have been replaced later by Sila Megha Vanna (Sin. Sala-Mevan). According to the ‘Chronological Table of Ceylon Kings’ compiled by Don Martino De Zilva Wickremasinghe (published in Epigraphia Zeylanica, Vol. 1. III, Part I), the following kings used the epithet Sila-Megha or Sala Mevan.

Pali records                                   Sinhala records                 Reign

Sila-kala                                       Sala-mevan                       518-31 A.D.

Sila Megha-vanna                         Sala-mevan                       619-28

Aggabodhi VI                               Akbo Sala-mevan             718-24

Mahinda II                                    Sala-mevan Mihindu          777-97

Mahinda III

(Dhammika Sila Megha)                                                        801-41

Sena I                                           Sala Me-van Sen              833-53

Udaya I                                        Uda Abha Sala-mevan      887-98

Kassapa V                                    Sala Meyvan Abahay        914-23

Dappula. V                                   Buddas Abahay Sala         924-35

                                                     mevan Dapula.

Sena V                                         Sala-mevan raja                972-82