Possession and (body) politics: The transformation of healing rituals in Sri Lanka

  • Eva Ambos


Yaktovil healing rituals in Sri Lanka are traditionally complex night-long performances with energetic dances and drumming, which often include possession. The ritual practitioners as well as the patients are usually Sinhalese Buddhists. The rituals are performed when the illness of a patient is linked to demonic interference. Drawing from fieldwork material, I will address two transformations of these healing rituals: one, which excludes possession and downscales the performances as such by reducing dancing and drumming, and one, which introduces new possession elements, translated from Tamil Hindu culture into a Sinhalese Buddhist idiom. The latter points to the integration of ecstatic priests and priestess who become possessed by deities into the yaktovil rituals, where possession is typically related to demons or ghosts.

In this paper, I will discuss these changes centred around possession firstly, by looking at the tension between ecstasy and discipline in the context of a body politics which favours the latter, and secondly, in linking them not only to class, but also to interethnic relations, namely between Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus. I will argue that the reasons for the transformations, while manifold, have to be considered against the background of a revitalized, modernist and nationalist Sinhalese Buddhism, which plays an important role in Sri Lankan politics.

Author Biography

Eva Ambos
How to Cite
Ambos, E. (2012). Possession and (body) politics: The transformation of healing rituals in Sri Lanka. The South Asianist Journal, 1(2). Retrieved from http://www.southasianist.ed.ac.uk/article/view/60
Session 8: Bodies in Transition?