Origin and development of Passion Play in Sri Lanka

The season of Lent has once again dawned upon us and for most Catholics it is the liturgical season they cherish most, due to its appeal as the most grace-filled event in the story of our salvation.

The Passion of Our Lord takes center stage throughout the Lenten season and meditations on the Way of the Cross, also known as the Stations of the Cross, are conducted in every parish as a para-liturgical service or as individual pious exercise, with pilgrims flocking to Calvary sites in large groups to engage in such religious exercises. While elaborate passion plays depicting the condemnation, trial, suffering, and ultimate crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ have been popular in many European countries, one such play stands out as that where most are deeply moved by the experience. Yes, I’m referring to the world’s most famous Oberammergau Passion Play, which hits the stage every 10 years with a massive cast of over 2,000 villagers in Oberammergau Germany.

In Sri Lanka, the Passion Play tradition has also had a checkered history. The Pitipana Passion Play and other similar plays in Maggona, Diyalagoda, Payagala, Kalamulla, Wadduwa, Duwa in Negombo and Moratuwa are among the most famous in Sri Lanka. We also know some films like The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson and Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli, where the Passion of the Christ is represented by professional actors playing many roles in the scenes related to the event.

Where does all this come from? What are the origins of the Passion Play tradition around the world and how has it evolved over the centuries in Sri Lanka? Were these plays performed by live actors, statues or puppet images? Why were living actors not allowed to play these roles until fairly recent times?

All of this and more information surrounding the mysteries of the Passion Play tradition is no longer a mystery, thanks to an excellent and fiery research study by a scholarly Catholic priest from Sri Lanka in his second doctoral dissertation, submitted to the Sri Jayewardenepura University. , which is now published as “The Origin and Development of Passion Play Tradition in Sri Lanka”. The thesis is a comparative study of the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany and the Boralessa Passion Play staged by Lawrence Perera (1923) in Sri Lanka, and traces the historical development of the Passion Play traditions in both abroad and in Sri Lanka.

Obviously, extensive research, including visits to Oberammergau in Germany and careful examination of relevant manuscripts and personal interviews, was conducted in this study by the Rev. Dr. Fr. Anthony Fernandopulle, who is no stranger to the history and literature readership in Sri Lanka. Pr. Fernandopulle’s first famous doctoral thesis is “A Critical Study of the Works of Fr. Jacome Gonsalves (1676 – 1742)” at the University of London, which won the State Literary Award in 2018.

Prof. Fernandopulle is currently Rector of St. Nicholas International College, Colombo, Pastor of St. John Dal Bastone Church, Thalangma, Battaramulla, Secretary of St. Joseph Vaz National Secretariat and Board Member of National Encyclopedia in Sri Lanka. The writer recalls with great nostalgia the pioneering effort of Dr. Fernandopulle, in staging a passion play similar to the Oberammergau passion play named “Alokayano” (the giver of light) supported by a cast of more than 200 parishioners from Kotte, on the sprawling playing field of St. Thomas College, behind the parish church, during his term as pastor in 2015.

This writer was blessed to have starred as Peter the Apostle, alongside award-winning actress Veena Jayakody as Mary Magdalene and popular actor Jihan Srikanth Appuhamy as Jesus Christ . As the executive producer of Alokayano, Fr. Fernandopulle’s own research study would undoubtedly have contributed significantly to its resounding success.

In the first chapter of this book, Fr. Fernandopulle sets the stage for the discourse by exploring the evolution of Sinhalese dramatic traditions and the Christian contribution to Sinhalese drama, including the Catholic influence on them in its early formats. These include Nativity pieces depicting the birth of Jesus Christ and Passion pieces depicting the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. The second chapter discusses the various passion play traditions in Sri Lanka and traces their roots in Christianity during the colonial era by juxtaposing the history of Christianity under the Padroado. The contributions of St. Joseph Vaz and Fr. Jacome Gonsalves, both missionaries from Goa; their brief life stories and their influences on the traditions of passion games and pasan songs are also highlighted in this chapter.

Chapter three deals with the general structure and content of early passion plays, which were staged especially during Holy Week and Good Fridays. The chapter provides a brief explanation of the final events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem commemorated on Palm Sunday until his body was laid in the tomb on Holy Saturday.

Through these events, the study explores some of the salient factors that were incorporated into the passion plays such as power struggle and conflict, extravagant love and exemplary service, and finally, Endurance of the Cross. .

The fourth chapter is a comparative study between the Passion Play of Oberammergau (see article below) and the Passion Play of Boralessa by K. Lawrence Perera. A brief history of the miracle of Oberammergau after the Black Death pandemic and the wish made by the villagers is also inspiring. Staging the Passion Play every 10 years is the fulfillment of their vow of gratitude to God for delivering them from the Black Death pandemic.

The chapter ends with briefs on some of the popular passion games in Sri Lanka. Overall the book is very interesting and makes one wonder how much our missionaries have worked over the centuries to preserve the Christian faith in Sri Lanka by overcoming all odds and how much we owe to these passion play traditions which maintain the flame of faith burning in our hearts. even to this day.

The official book launch will take place on April 5, 2022 at 6:30 p.m. at the Parish Hall, St. John Dal Bastone Church, Thalangma, Battaramulla, in the presence of His Lordships Rt. Rev. Dr. Winston Fernando, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, Rt. Rev. Dr. Maxwell Silva, Rt. Dr. JD Anthony and Rt. Rev. Dr. Anton Ranjith Pillainayagam, Auxiliary Bishops of Colombo. The guest speaker will be Professor Mudiyanse Dissanayake, Director of Aesthetic University of Colombo. The book is published by S. Godage and Brothers (Pvt) Ltd.

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