The events connected with the Passion, the death and resurrection of Christ, have been enacted and dramatised all over the world. Sri Lanka too has a popular form of drama on the death and resurrection of Christ known in Sinhala as ‘Pasku’, performed on Good Friday in some Catholic churches along the Western coast. The history of the Passion play goes back to the Portuguese period.
Duwa is a tiny island adjacent to Negombo, where inhabitants are Catholics and fishermen by profession. Duwa retains a charming mix of blue washed doors and Yemeni Arabic style colourful windows adorned with golden ball fencing and traditional colonial style tiled terracotta roofs. These fishermen have been performing the popular Duwa Passion Play on Good Friday for centuries.
With its supposed 400 year history, the Duwa Passion Play is the oldest and best-known Catholic pageant in Sri Lanka. In its original form the play was enacted with statues, but a new script using actors for most of the cast was introduced in the 1940’s. Over 250 actors from the village of Duwa perform this play, which offers a spiritual and cultural experience to the large crowds who gather to view the event.
The famous golden statue of Christ used in the Duwa Passion Play has a fascinating history. The image stands as a firm testament to the fishermen’s devotion to the religion. In the 19th century, some fisher folk in Duwa had sailed to South India in their catamarans to buy dry fish, nets and other fishing apparatus. Among them were three brothers Juvam, Domingo, and Peduru, who had come to know of Jokeenu Maistri, the great sculptor in Cochin.
In consultation with the elders of Duwa, they requested Jokeenu Maistri to make a statue of Christ for the Duwa Passion Play. In the season of Lent in 1838, a group from Duwa went to Cochin to bring back the statue of Christ. As the paint on the statue had not dried, Jokeenu Maistri had advised them against removing the statue immediately. However, the south west monsoon was about to set in and as sailing back would have been difficult, they brought the statue to Duwa.
The people of Duwa welcomed the statue of Christ with pomp and ceremony. However, when they opened the casket, to their dismay they found the paint smudged and the statue mildewed. They were disappointed that they could not perform the Duwa Passion Play the following year (1839) with the new statue.
The elders wanted to get Jokeenu Maistri to Duwa to repaint the statue. Being too old, Jokeenu Maistri sent his most senior pupil for the purpose. The pupil re-painted the statue with a mixture of gold, and as a result the statue has a special gold tint not found in other statues of Christ. The magnificent statue of Christ in Duwa attracted more and more people to the Duwa Passion Play.
The Duwa Passion Play was always organised by the lay custodians of the statue of Christ. However, it was never a secular drama but a spiritual exercise performed in collaboration with the parish priest of the church of Our Lady of Good Voyages in Duwa.