Rain-makers: The Sacred Bodhi Tree

Śrī Mahabodhi
Buddhist pilgrims at Śrī Mahabodhi, Anuradhapura, the oldest documented tree in the world. It was brought from India as a sprig from the tree under which the Buddha was enlightened, ca. 530 BCE.

Part III

As a symbol of fertility the bodhi tree may have replaced the phallic worship of the Hindus. Godakumbura enumerates a number of factors which seem to assert the fertility aspect of this tree. "When we consider the history of the bodhi tree, we notice that from the very beginning of its recorded history it was attended by females... Emperor Asoka had sent it to Ceylon accompanied by the Theri Sanghamitta and Bhikkunis, making a total of twelve. Along with the large retinue that was sent to attend on the bodhi tree, Asoka also sent four royal maidens to pour water on the tree during the festivals that took place at the port. The bodhi tree was sprinkled with water by virgins of the Ksatriya, Vesya and Brahmana clans... At Anuradhapura, the duty of attending on the bodhi tree fell to the nuns, the order which was founded by Theri Sanghamitta." (14.105)

The four royal maidens who were appointed by the king to sprinkle water on the bodhi tree were called peraehara bisavu (Bath Maidens). The ‘Sinhala Bodhivamsaya' (The Chronicle of the Bodhi tree) describes in detail the institution of peraehara biso "Saying that four royal virgins should pour water on the Bodhi-tree with golden and silver pitchers, the king decked them with every kind of ornament and appointed them to the office of Peraharabiso. All four of these royal virgins entered the king's palace with great splendour. The position of the Peraharabiso maidens was somewhat like that of the Vestal Virgins in ancient Rome" (14.105)

The rite known as nanu mura mangalle (Bathing ceremony) held in relation to sacred objects is performed at the bodhi tree as well. It is a. ritual that has been instituted from the earliest times. A Sinhalese king of the fifth century AD, Dhatusena, is shown continuing this custom.

The chronicle Culavamsa states:

"For the bodhi tree of him (the Buddha) to whom was vouchsafed the highest enlightenment, he instituted a bathing festival like the bodhi tree festival instituted by Devanampiya Tissa. He set up there sixteen bath maidens of bronze and arranged for the adornment and consecration of the Prince of the Wise" (19.ch.38.v.55-56)

Today, however, this ritual is conducted not by maidens but by monks and laymen. Bodhi-pujas, offering of vows to the bodhi has become today extremely popular. The bodhi tree which makes rains fall, crops grow and blesses women with offspring is, thus, tended with care and veneration by the Sri Lankan Buddhists.

By J.B. Disanayaka
Chapter Eight from Water in Culture: The Sri Lankan Heritage (Colombo: Ministry of Environment & Parliamentary Affairs, 1992) pp. 57-60

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