Social issues within ancient Sri Lankan folklore | Sunday Observer

Social issues within ancient Sri Lankan folklore

24 September, 2017

As the digital world moves Sri Lanka into a new realm of social development, I thought it prudent to explore some of the old folklore and superstition which has dominated native minds.

These mythical creatures have for decades induced fear in the minds of many, especially, in the rural areas.

The origin of the word fear- false expectation about reality, will itself show that most of what is feared in this context is really not true (some may agree to disagree). The reformist John Calvin once said, “The mind is a store for idolatry and superstition”.

Here are some of these so-called beings and a logical explanation to their origin in our conservative culture. Using this realm of fear the kattadiya (village exorcist) also made a living for decades, but is now losing “business”.

Perhaps, the most exalted “paranormal star” is the Kalu Kumaraya: black prince. He was supposed to be a sexually frenzied young prince who was punished by his father, and after his untimely death he roams about looking for beautiful young women. A sort of exotic incubus, he is able to seduce these women and have intercourse. During the climax of copulation he is supposed to slit their throats. Such a gruesome bloody death will surely frighten any woman. Centuries ago when our young women attained puberty it was a culturally significant moment for the family, and they would protect their beloved daughters from an assortment of would be lovers. Given the rural lifestyle with no electrified illumination (and oral contraceptives) spreading a scary myth of a wandering maniac black prince who did multiple tasks of a stalker, seducer and killer-was a novel way to keep these budding beauties safe and celibate.

So, for decades rural girls were kept secure avoiding going out at night alone or with friends, and teen pregnancies were under control. I might add, given the present increase in adultery, Kalu Kumaraya may be summoned to do a few midnight patrols and keep the young women safe! So within this myth we see the concern of ancient parents to protect their daughters.

Maha Sona

Fighting for stardom in the number 2 slot is that old soul Maha Sona. In this legend there was a bear hunter from Ritigala named Jayasena, who very boldly hunted alone. His friend in the royal realm was Gotaimbara.

One day, the suspicious Gotaimbara assumed that Jayasena was making advances towards his pretty wife. Engulfed by rage and confusion Gotaimbara is said to have used his skill of Angampora (ancient martial art) and fought Jayasena, decapitating his head.

A terrified nephew wanting to give his uncle a decent burial is said to have placed the head of a recently slain bear in the grave.

So, since then it is said Jayasena, now sporting the head of a wild bear was walking around the cemetery and hence the name sohon yaka (he could have auditioned for a role in the Disney movie Lion King)! Maha Sona also has the ability to transform into a black dog and stalk his victims as per legend (this explains why most folk don’t like black dogs as house pets).

Again, this myth was perhaps spread for two reasons, one to stop people going out at night (gamblers and drunkards) and the other to restrain grave robbers and other weird humans like those who practised necrophilia- the act of sex with dead bodies, which is disgusting.

There are folks in Western countries who indulge in this terrible form of gratification. From the realm of bears we move to the winged domain where the forest sky is pierced with the bloody scream of the Ulama, a devil bird. This story has such a plot it can vie for a present day Grammy Award. Long ago a man suspected his alluring wife to have been cheating on him. He was angry and in his violent rage murdered their infant son. He then proceeded to make a spicy curry of his child and serve it to the mother (who was returning from her alleged adultery).


The unsuspecting mother is said to have enjoyed the succulent tender meat and then looked for her baby. When she realized her husband’s dark deed she ran into the moonlit forest screaming until she died. Since then her distraught screams echo in our forest. Once again, we see the roots of married people cheating on each other. So the mythical creature Ulama was given publicity - as a warning to women (and men) not to have sexual affairs outside their marriage. At number three in this “fear factor” rating we see the Riri Yaka (gosh the name sounds like a tropical salad). This short worthy who has the face of a monkey is said to be complacent riding a wild pig and causes blood related illness. This may also explain the aversion to eating pork by many in Paradise Island (nothing like grilled pork chops with tobasco sauce).

During a work assignment at Ramboda, the old mildly intoxicated cook shared another myth originating from our salubrious hill country region. In this case a bearded man named Rodha Muni is said to wander the plantations between 12 noon and 1400 hours (2pm) talking to women who are walking alone. He asks them for a “beedi” (an unrefined village cigarette), obviously the women don’t smoke so they can’t oblige, and the infuriated old man pounces on them tearing their clothes!

Another super way to keep gossiping women at home in the mountains (notice the ghost visits during lunchtime, when the men are away at work). These myths are just a few which show the thinking of our ancestors (who also wisely built dams and glorious palaces). Although it does sound funny (and scary to others) within these village stories is a network of responsible adults caring and protecting their innocent community from sexual predators and thieves in the way they perceived right in that era. While I dismiss these myths I also believe that our present community has much to learn in terms of marriage, celibacy and modesty.

Digital advances and social media don’t make people culturally and religiously inclined.

According to David Robson (on BBC) he opined that almost three quarter of Americans believe in paranormal activity and ghosts.

It is said that during World War 2 Winston Churchill visited the White House, and while smoking a cigar had claimed to see the ghost of American President Abraham Lincoln! Visual illusion can confuse the brain. Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas states, ‘People look for answers in chaos ie - a sudden death, when we are in a state where we can’t gain control objectively and we will get it by perceiving structure around us that don’t exist’.

Where the presence of God exists there can be no darkness of any form. Let us not wait for mythical sources to instil moral goodness, may we as noble Sri Lankans set the right standards for the next generation.