The role of Berava exorcists in Sorcery
Sunday Observer Sep 5 2004
Berava are an equivalent Sinhalese caste of Tamil Paraiyar. Their
original function was categorized as drum or tom, tom beaters,
usefully in ritual contexts. Etymologically the Sinhalese word Bera
is derived from Tamil Parai. It is plausible that Berava are
descendants of a service caste imported from South India by early Sri
Lanka settlers to fulfill certain ritual roles.
BRUCE KAPFERER. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997, 333
pages + bibliography, glossary, and index, $65.00, $27.50 (pbk.).
Bruce Kapferer's new book, The Feast of the sorcerer: Practices of
consciousness and power, is both an engaging essay on the nature of
sorcery as a human practice and a comprehensive ethnography of one
Sri Lankan exorcism ritual, the Suniyama. Building upon field work
dating back to the 1970s, Kapferer incorporates the concerns of his
earlier monographs, A celebration of demons (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1983) and Legends of people, myths of state
(Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), to examine
the nature of sorcery both as an anthropological category and as a
fundamental human practice.
While the presentation of the Suniyama is meant to raise concerns
about the Western academic category of sorcery, Kapferer seems to be
driven by two, not always tightly connected, desires: to present the
Suniyama and to thoroughly problematize the notion of sorcery.
Kapferer sees the Suniyama, an exorcism and healing ritual, as
revealing one way in which humans construct reality and face the
difficulty of existence. Long a critical ritual in Sri Lanka, the
Suniyama has gained importance with the accelerating urbanization of
the last decades. Kapferer indicates the Suniyama's importance by
noting that the Berava exorcists, who make up the bulk of his
informants, view this ritual as the keystone to their own work. At
its essence, the Suniyama heals by severing the tie that binds a
victim to an act of sorcery. While this removes the affliction from
the victim, it also restores his or her relationship to the community
at large by diverting the violence of the sorcery without engaging in
a cycle of retribution.
Kapferer's presentation of the Suniyama is clear but not without
several problems. He discusses the context of the ritual's enactment
and nicely ties issues of class, modernity, and the nation into his
discussion. His exhaustive account of one enactment of the rite
however, leads to some confusion as to the possibility of variation
within the practices and what implication certain varieties may have.
In addition, while Kapferer notes that the Suniyama is not the only
important exorcism in Sri Lanka, he does not provide a clear
indication of where the Suniyama fits into the complex of Sri Lankan
sorcery practices. Finally, there is an odd discreteness to
Kapferer's discussion of the Suniyama; the discussion of the rite in
Chapters 2-5 is surprisingly divorced from the discussion of sorcery
in general found in the other chapters. This seems contradictory to
his earlier statements about the need to discuss sorcery practices as
embedded in particular social locations.
Nevertheless, it is in the chapters where Kapferer examines the
category of sorcery as a human practice that The feast of the
sorcerer has relevance for non-students of Sri Lankan ritual.
Anthropological discussions of sorcery have largely been bogged down
in the quagmire of whether or not "sorcery" is rational. Kapferer
seeks to avoid this type of discussion by looking at sorcery as one
of a number of practices through which humans construct, experience,
and understand reality. In other words, sorcery is part and parcel of
the "fundamental paradox" that "human beings must create the social
and political realities on which their existence depends" (p. 60).
Kapferer argues that sorcery is "primarily about" the "crises that
human beings must daily confront in personal, social, and political
actualities" (p. 303). Thus, his discussion of sorcery takes two very
different approaches: existential and social. In the first, Kapferer
uses the language of phenomenology and existentialism to explain the
logic and dynamics of sorcery practices for individuals. Sorcery, for
example, is one fashion by which humans deal with existential terror.
This discussion is largely about the role sorcery plays in an
individual gaining consciousness of itself in the world. Much of what
Kapferer has to say about these issues is worthwhile; his language,
however, does not always serve him well. Statements about
the "radical upsurge of the human being-in-the-world" (p. 258) have a
nice ring to them but they are not particularly precise. More
problematic is the fact that his use of existentialist language
results in a universalizing of Sri Lankans' sorcery experiences.
These experiences certainly have relevance for other people and
cultures, but the use of existentialist language separates "sorcery"
from Sri Lanka to an extent that seems contradictory to Kapferer's
His analysis of sorcery is more fruitful, however, in the discussion
of power. In particular, utilizing Deleuze and Guattari's theory
of "modalities of power," Kapferer explores the relationship between
sorcery, the nation and nationalism, the state, and ethnic conflict.
The power of sorcery can be seen' as the power of the "war machine,"
i.e., it is transgressive and "flattening," as opposed to the power
of the state, which draws boundaries and creates hierarchies.
Different from the discussion of consciousness, the discussion of
power remains embedded in the Sri Lankan context, and is much
stronger for it.
Ultimately, Kapferer's second monograph on ritual in Sri Lanka
helpfully takes sorcery away from moribund academic debates. While
there are some other small concerns - such as a lack of nuance in
describing the place of Buddhism in these sorcery practices - The
feast of the sorcerer offers scholars interested in sorcery several
new directions to explore.
Thomas Borchert University of Chicago
Subject: Sri Lankan slaves in Dutch Cape colony ?
In Sri Lankan history books there is no mention of enslavement of Sri
Lankans to work in the Dutch Cape Colony ? Any references out there ?