Creative collaboration with Walking Threads, an ongoing project involving scholars and practitioners Paola Esposito, Ragnhild Freng Dale, Valeria Lembo, Peter Loovers and Brian Schultis – and a yarn of golden thread
"Back in Napoli my colleague Nuwan had given me the phone number of his aunt. I should call Triyani as soon as I had arrived in Kandy, in the heart of Sri Lanka. So I did, and went to visit her in the outskirts of the town. In the middle of a spicy curry dinner with Triyani’s family, prepared by this joyous lady with incredibly blue eyes, I clearly heard the unmistakable sounds of kandyan drumming and the blowing of a seashell coming from nearby. - I had already witnessed some rather sad stage performances for tourists of this distinctive Sri Lankan music – but this was in a domestic setting, in which the performance was not being staged for tourists! Filled with excitement, I asked what this music meant, and Triyani casually answered that her neighbors were having a Buddhist ceremony at home – a “pirit”, as I found out much later doing some research on the internet. She jokingly asked if I wanted to go. Of course I did, and within seconds, probably taken by my overwhelming enthusiasm, we found ourselves running down the street to join the rite.
Greeting hastily some neighbors on the narrow alley leading to the courtyard, we slowed down our pace when we suddenly stepped into a patio with a curious constellation: On the other side, across the courtyard, was the main door through which people were entering and exiting busily. One half of the courtyard was covered with mostly women sitting and praying arduously on a big plastic sheet. On the other side, the men were sitting or standing by in a timid way. In the middle of it, there was a small octagonal palm leaf hut with big windows and Buddhist wheel patterns wattled on its walls. In front of it, a drummer played his instrument and another man blew repeatedly into a ritual conch shell. In a half-drunk state caused by either the local alcohol arrak consumed earlier at dinner or by the excitement of the new situation, I followed the invitation to sit down among the people praying on the floor.
From the whispered but friendly answers to my questions I learned that this night was special on the Buddhist calendar for being particularly propitious to conduct ceremonies for the protection of the house and its inhabitants. Only after some time I realized that inside the palm hut were twelve monks sitting around a table with some light food, sweets and flowers on it. When the drumming stopped, they started chanting mantras, accompanying themselves with simple drums and finger cymbals – they’d be doing this until the early morning hours, as I was told. Then a young boy started unrolling a reel of white thread. He first let it pass through the hands of all twelve monks, then handed it to a woman sitting next to the hut. She handed it to her neighbor, keeping hold of her portion of thread. Slowly the reel made its way towards me, finally connecting me with the people and the prayers passing through the thread. At last, after everybody was holding on to the thread, the reel was handed back to the monks, closing the circle.
I had learnt similar practices in the form of icebreaker activities at theatre workshops across Europe. In a group, standing or sitting in a circle, a long piece of thread is handed down from person to person, allowing each one to introduce herself or communicate a thought while passing the thread to the next person and finally connecting everybody in a big circle. I was surprised by the similar use of the thread in very different contexts and places (ritual and theatrical) in order to connect people. I imagined a theatre director back in the 70´s travelling across Sri Lanka, picking up this ritual and introducing it into her training program because of its symbolic power. The thread was handed down quite randomly, so in no time a kind of spider web formed, spreading all over the courtyard, which made it quite an agile exercise to cross it without tripping over. Everybody made sure the thread wouldn’t touch the floor, also you weren’t allowed to step over it but had to pass exclusively underneath. It seemed that obstructing the passage in this way had its own logic – every time you crouched uncomfortably on the floor you’d visibly submit to, emphasize and enforce the sacredness of the connection through the thread.
Needless to say, I became completely captivated by the unifying force of this symbolic ritual, feeling the same ecstasy I experienced many years ago in a candomblé ceremony in Brazil. Similarly, here everybody was dressed in white and it felt like entering a place without time, a kind of Hakim Bey’an Temporary Autonomous Zone. Apart of the intuitive role of transmitting the sacred mantras through the thread it also seemed to give me some responsibility of not dropping it to the floor and becoming a crucial connecting element in the chain. It definitely felt like home. To the people around me it seemed to make no difference that I most probably wasn’t of Buddhist faith, and they continuously shared the homemade banana sweets and tea that were distributed during the whole time. I literally had to be dragged out of the patio by Triyani and her husband who got visibly bored after some time."