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

stated aims.


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 ?