Pattini (originally named Kannaki) was a humble Indian girl from the city of Madurai who married a certain Kovalan, an errant spouse with a weakness for dancing girls. Despite Pattini’s considerable charms, the feckless Kovalan abandoned his wife and bankrupted himself in pursuit of one particular amour until, ashamed and penniless, he returned to Pattini to beg forgiveness. The pliable Pattini welcomed him back without even a word of reproach and handed over her last possession, a golden ankle bracelet, for him to sell. The unfortunate Kovalan did so, but was promptly accused of stealing the bracelet by the king’s goldsmith and executed. The distraught Pattini, legend states, descended upon the royal palace, tore off one of her breasts, caused the king to drop dead and then reduced his palace to ashes before being taken up into the heavens as a goddess.

Pattini’s cult was originally introduced to Sri Lanka by King Gajabahu in the second century BC, but enjoyed its heyday during the Kandyan era, when the kingdom’s Hindu rulers revived her cult and built her Kandy temple. Pattini is now revered as the ideal of the chaste and devoted wife: pregnant women come here to pray for a safe delivery (rather inexplicably, since Pattini was childless), while she is also thought to protect against infectious diseases such as chicken-pox, smallpox and measles.

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