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Sri Lanka: Superstitions
Omens still predict both good and evil in Sinhalese society
 
 
Bathing on Sundays is said to spoil the bather’s appearance; bathing on Monday improves it; Tuesday - brings on disease, and Wednesday riches; Thursday - creates quarrels and if one bathes on Fridays his children will die; Saturday is deemed to be the most suitable day for bathing and is said to bring happiness. To face east or west while taking meals is supposed to bring good luck; money transactions held on full moon days bring ill luck.
 
© by M. B. Dassanayake
 
Sinhalese – still a superstitious society

Ours is still a superstitious society and the commonest kind of superstitions prevailing among the Sinhalese are those which deal with omens, which they regard as prognostications, of both good and evil.

Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays are classed as unlucky, but for journeys Thursdays are the best unless they happen to be astrologically unfavourable. The best omen for a person setting out on a journey is for him to meet anyone carrying a pot of water, milk or white flowers first. But it is unlucky to meet those with shaven heads or with their hair (konde ) loose, as a sign of mourning, or those with great physical defects or a woman carrying a pot or ‘chattie’. It is also considered unlucky for a person to stumble against something or to be interrogated as to his destination at the outset of the journey.

Tradition

Bathing on Sundays is said to spoil the bather’s appearance; bathing on Monday improves it; Tuesday - brings on disease, and Wednesday riches; Thursday - creates quarrels and if one bathes on Fridays his children will die; Saturday is deemed to be the most suitable day for bathing and is said to bring happiness. To face east or west while taking meals is supposed to bring good luck; money transactions held on full moon days bring ill luck.

Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays are bad for visiting, and July is considered to be an unlucky month for weddings just as May is in England. Talking of weddings, there is a strange ancient custom followed still in "bringing home the bride" - the bride is obliged to walk in front of her husband, always keeping in his sight; the traditional reason given for this is that once a bridegroom who had walked in front had had his bride carried off from behind him before he was aware of it, and the newly made husband is not very eager for history to repeat itself in his case at least.

Good News

If a crow flies through a house, it is a sign that an inmate of the house will have to leave it soon. The cawing of a crow from the house-top is the harbinger of good news; and the arrival of visitors is portended by the cawing of a crow in the front of the house, or by a cat washing itself on the doorstep. If one’s right nostril smarts it is a sign that a near relation is speaking well of him, but if it is the left nostril, it is very much the other way about.

The unaccountable smell of burnt flesh or the howling of dogs at night is said to be due to presence of evil spirits not far away. If this is repeated for several nights in succession, together with cat concerts and the hooting of owls, a very great calamity is certain to overtake the whole neighbourhood generally.

A special and quaint vocabulary is used by Buddhists when on pilgrimage lest they should commit themselves by using words unpleasant to the gods. So also when referring to small-pox, the Sinhalese name for which is ‘vasuriya’, it is invariably spoken of, in the presence of one suffering from it, as ‘Maha-lede’ or ‘great sickness’. For the same reason certain villages sacred to gods or demons are never referred to by their true names.

The tamarind tree is sacred to the chief of the devils and its exhalation at night is said to be fatal, although at daytime its shade is cooler then that of any other tree. There are also certain fruits like those of the ‘Dummela’ and ‘kekiri’ plants and certain yams like ‘habarala’ which are of a sweet taste, but if their names are pronounced by the eater himself or by any other person in the eater’s hearing, they will turn bitter in his mouth.

Dread

The ‘lori’ is supposed to call devils to a house by its cry and is looked upon with great dread, for a man who touches it will become lean and skinny like it; and to find a ‘lori’ staring at you or waking up in the morning is said to be a very great ill omen. Long lines of black ants infesting a house also portend misfortune. The screech of a lizard when anything is about to be done must be regarded as an emphatic ‘don’t’. A man who gets scratched by the hind foot of a mouse deer will develop leprosy, while the stings of seven hornets are supposed to be fatal. It is believed that the bird ‘kirala’ hatches its eggs lying on its back lest the sky should fall. On full moon days leopards are said to be very ferocious, and lunatics and epileptics are all the more so on these days.

Snakes are said to come out of their jungles during the south-west monsoon but they should not be killed on Tuesdays and Fridays. A man who gets bitten by a water-snake is said to be immuned to the bite of any other snake. As this snake is not poisonous people are glad to get bitten by it than otherwise. After the ‘wel-gerandiya’ has bitten a man it is supposed to tie itself in a knot around the trunk of a neighbouring tree and remain in this position till its victim dies. To defeat this purpose the man so bitten is carried like a corpse in front of the snake, which, thinking the victim to be dead, unties itself, and so the spell is broken and the man recovers. Angry at being thus cheated it goes up on to the roof of a house and waits for an opportunity to take revenge.

Cobras, especially the light-coloured ones, are supposed to be incarnations of dead men, and now guarding hidden treasures, Bo-trees and Buddhist temples. If a cobra makes the home of a Sinhalese its dwelling, it is supposed to be a dead relative who is desirous of protecting the present inmates, re-born in this state. Consequently they are never killed but placated as much as possible by plates of milk placed at the mouths of their holes. If a cobra does not move off at the polite and respectful request of a man when its presence is inconvenient, it is caught by a noose at the end of a stick, put in a sack and thrown away in an unfrequented place, thus often causing the death of the inquisitive and unwary. The cobra is supposed to be of a benevolent character, as it would not bite a blind man, and would not bite at all unless provoked. As for its food, the cobra is said to eject from its mouth a luminous bluish stone which attracts the fireflies, upon which the watching snakes feed.

Sea snakes do not bite as a rule but if they do, sea water drunk three times is considered to be an effective cure. There is another kind called the ‘two headed snake’ whose tail resembles its, head so much that it is supposed to be able to move backwards or forwards and drink at either end. The ‘mapilas’ are believed always to move about in groups of seven, and when they enter a house they form a chain from the roof and the last one bites the sleeping victim as he lies in bed.

But by far the most vindictive of all is the ‘tic polonga’ which is said to live from two to three hundred years. It cannot see in daylight so it comes out only in the night. Before its death it develops a pair of wings and anyone who gets brushed by it during its flight through the air will die. At its death it is supposed to burst and bring forth centipedes, scorpions and poisonous spiders. Another kind of ‘polonga’ is said to be non-poisonous and does not bite but if it falls on one’s neck he will be bent double for the rest of his life.

Death

Death is indicated in several ways as for instance by the dog of the house digging the ground with its paw, by the screech of the black crane as it flies over the house, by the frequenting of the house by magpies or by a cry of that bird from the withered branch in front of the house. If a person while consulting a ‘vedarala’ about a person keeps on digging his toe into the ground or scratching his head, the patient will not recover. After death the body is placed facing towards the west, so that no one sleeps in that position; and a strict watch is kept in the death chamber lest evil spirits take permanent possession of the house. The dead are never buried or cremated on a Tuesday as such an action is said to have a fatal effect on the surviving members of the family.

In the Northern Provinces there are certain ruins, and nothing would induce the natives to remove any stone of them, as they are generally supposed to contain hidden treasures guarded by devils, who in the form of beetles sting all intruders, so much so that the people are even afraid to pass by them at night. Near Mullaittivu there is supposed to be a ruined temple, which cannot be found by anyone who looks for it, but if a man gets lost at night in the neighbouring jungle he suddenly comes upon the place and is entertained at the fairy temple by a priest, with food and lodging; but no food can be brought away as it turns into stone by the way.

Legend

The legends connected with certain places are not interesting. Matara is celebrated for its learning and Kalutara for the salubrity of its climate, so that there is a Sinhalese saying that ‘to be born at Kalutara and educated at Matara is the best fate a man can have’. Tumpane on the borders of the Central Province is noted for their simpletons, regarding whom there are several stories current. ‘there is one relating how a party while on a journey mistook sweet toddy, with which they were regaled at a house by the wayside, for water drawn from the well, and struck with the ‘excellence of the water’, they returned at night armed with pickaxes, spades, thick ropes and poles with which they meant to dig out the well and carry it home on their shoulders, but unfortunately when they had finished digging deep round the well, they were interrupted by the neighbours, who had been disturbed by the noise and had come out to find the cause.

The Siberia of ancient Sri Lanka is supposed to be Walapone, notorious for its arid climate and where political offenders are said to have been exiled. Sita Eliya, near Hakgala, is named after the beautiful consort of ‘Rama’, said to have been hidden here by her enticer ‘Ravana’, whose stronghold was at ‘Ravana Kotte’ near Hambantota. Another King while fleeing for his life in disguise was denied shelter at Wellagiriya by a man, who was afterwards condemned for his inhospitality and choked with sand, which was plentiful there - hence the name, ‘wella’ - sand, and ‘giriya’ - throat.

After his quarrel with his father and brother, Dutugemunu retired to Kotmale where he led the life of a common villager under an assumed name. Once he was entertained to a frugal meal of ‘alussal’ (rice broken up into a sort of pulp), he being somewhat hungry fell to rather hastily. This brought upon him the rebuke of the good woman of the house, who said "son, you should deal with your food as our Prince Gemunu would deal with the Tamils".

"And how is that, pray?" asked he,

"You should make small balls of the rice, place them around the plate to cool, and eat them one by one," said she.

"Yes, but how would Prince Gemunu fight the Tamils?" he inquired.

"Why ", she replied, "instead of trying to meet the combined forces of the enemy as our King is doing at present, he would subdue their strongholds one by one."

When Prince Gemunu came into his own again soon he followed this device of the country woman and so successfully crushed the forces of ‘Elala’. The woman, too, was not forgotten by ‘Gemunu’ but was suitably rewarded.
 

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