Cursing the Old-Fashioned Way
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“All people who enter this tomb who will make evil against this tomb and destroy it, may the crocodile be against them in water and snakes against them on land. May the hippopotamus be against them in water, the scorpion on land.”
— Archaeologist and Egyptologist Dr.Zahi Hawas in his book Valley of the Golden Mummies say that the tombs of the builders of the Great Pyramid of Giza included this warning, or rather, curse
Would you dare enter a place with such a warning?
Today when we talk about curses it reminds us of Egypt, old folklore, fairy tales, and Disney movies. Most of us know that those who disturb the sleep of the pharaoh are to be doomed, as they will be cursed. We have heard stories about those who enter or even witness the opening of ancient tombs and mess with mummies facing mysterious illnesses or accidents that lead to untimely deaths.
Although later studies reveal that these incidents are mere coincidences and have nothing to do with an actual curse of that sort, such rumours were given birth because there are curses written in ancient inscriptions in Egypt. Even after thousands of years, still, these curses in ancient inscriptions are actually pretty disturbing and can create horror in the minds of those who enter the tomb, making them feel guilty and scared at the same time.
If this is for us who live in a totally different religious and cultural background from the times that these were written, imagine what fear those curses must have caused in the minds of those who lived thousands of years ago, who actually believed in those gods and their powers? These curses were to instil fear and stop people from looting the tombs. It was to protect the tombs and their riches. Archaeologists believe this was a sort of primitive security system.
In India too there are inscriptions cursing those who misuse temple properties. Similarly, such curses were written in inscriptions in Sri Lanka as well with the intention of protecting the properties of temples. Many may not have heard much about curses in Sri Lankan inscriptions. However, archaeologist, Prof. T.G. Kulatunga has done extensive research on this subject and published books on this interesting topic. Today as Ceylon Today Heritage takes you on an intriguing journey, we shall use Prof. Kulatunga’s research findings as our guide.
What is a curse?
A curse is verse or prose said to evoke misfortune upon a person. Usually, curses are said out of hatred, anger, hurt, and vengeance. Curses are associated with black magic, evil spirits, and supernatural powers. Truth or not, still, in the 21st century, people of all religious faiths believe in such things. Thousands of years ago, approximately starting from the 8th century CE, our ancestors who believed in the power of curses used them to protect temple properties.
Curses in inscriptions in Sri Lanka (Sinhala and Tamil)
According to Prof. Kulatunga, the first curse inscribed in an inscription in Sri Lanka belongs to the 8th century CE. This inscription is known as the Garandigala inscription and belongs to the time of King Kasyapa III (732 - 738 CE) of Anuradhapura. This curse says that those who misuse the temple property shall never have rice to eat and shall be born as dogs and crows in the next life. To understand why such curses were written, we need to understand the religious, social, and political background of that particular society.
What was the social and cultural background?
As Prof. Kulatunga explains, this first curse inscription was written during a time of notable South Indian influence in Sri Lanka. Prof. Kulatunga says that King Kasyapa III spent many years in South India and arrived in Sri Lanka with a South Indian army and that he spent his time among the Brahmins of South India. With the support of this army, he became the king of Anuradhapura. Kasyapa III was the son of Manavamma, who had great political and social ties with the Pallavas. According to political history, it is clear that the Sinhala – Pallava alliance was at its peak during the 8th and 9th centuries. This could be the reason behind these curses in ancient inscriptions. Usually, the inscriptions of Sri Lanka echo Buddhist thinking, which is the foundation of the Sri Lankan civilisation.
However, tides of various other beliefs influencing the island’s culture were inevitable. Hence, the curses that can be seen in Sri Lankan inscriptions display opposing ideas to Buddhist thinking about loving compassion and kindness (metta and karuna). These are about cursing a person to be doomed, to rot in hell, to be born as a dog or crow, or to starve. In Buddhist teachings, it is taught to spread loving compassion (metta) to all seen and unseen living beings, near or far. Hence, it is clear that these curses are quite in contrast to the consciousness of Buddhist thinking.
Wasn’t the law sufficient to protect them?
As Prof. Kulatunga would explain, ancient Sri Lanka had a strong judicial system which is evident through inscriptional information. He says that despite having such a strong judicial system, one reason that such curses were required to protect the places would have been as the law must have not been practiced well and that monks may have disliked participating in judicial procedures with lay people.
Why did people steal temple property?
But why would people steal or misuse the property of temples? Weren’t they scared of the law? Well, as we have stated above, there might have been instances that the law was not in practice actively and sufficiently. Then, the second question arises; why would Buddhists or Hindus steal from temples? Prof. Kulatunga explains this in his book. He says that due to foreign invasions and civil unrest there were times when people were going through hard times. It was not only people but also rulers who looted temples.
There are such examples recorded in the Mahavamsa. The Mahavamsa says that certain kings and princes and their ministers had looted the riches of temples. During long years of civil unrest, the economy of the country gravely declined. According to the Mahavamsa in such times rulers looted the temple of the tooth relic, stole gold statues, broke open stupas and looted the riches. Foreign armies of these kings had no respect towards Buddhist temples and they looted them. People were suffering from poverty.
During these times, the law and Buddhist thinking of karuna and metta would not have been sufficient to protect the temples. Hence, it was a need to look for another option to do so. According to Buddhist literature, it is a belief that those who destroy or steal temple property are committing a grave sin and will obtain horrible bad karma. This thought or idea was developed further into spooky curses.
Indian influence could be the major reason for these curses. As we have explained above, considering the time period in which these inscriptions were written it could be considered that the South Indian political and cultural influence that Sri Lanka had was the reason such an idea was provoked in the mind of the islanders. Centuries before inscriptions with curses were written in Sri Lanka, such inscriptions were written in India.
As Prof. Kulatunga explains, in these inscriptions there are some curses saying that those who misuse temple property would be burdened with the sin of killing a cow, a brahmin, or the sin of committing the five great sins. In later inscriptions, these curses become graver. They said that those who misused temple property would be born as a kalasarpa (a venomous black cobra) inside a dry tree trunk in the Vindya forest where there is no water. Another similar curse is that such a person will be born as a worm in a garbage heap or that he or she will rot in hell till the Kalpa is over.
What are the curses in inscriptions in Sri Lanka (Sinhala and Tamil)?
- Will be born as dogs and crows – Moragoda pillar inscription (10th century)
- Will have to eat from the plate where crows are being fed – Naranbadda inscription (13th century)
- Will never get rice to eat – Garangigala inscription (8th century)
- Will be born in the eight great hells – Kottange inscription - II
- Will be born in hell – Katagamuwa inscription
- Will not be born during the time of Maitriya Buddha – Eppawala inscription
- Even though Maitriya Buddha will walk in front of your house, you will not be able to raise your hands to worship and pay homage to the Buddha – Kaludiyapokuna inscription (9th century)
- Will be born as a pretas – Oruwala sannasa and Salava inscription
- Will be born to poverty – Waharakgoda inscription
- The sin of killing all the fish in the sea-coast will befall upon you – Waharakgoda inscription
- The sin of killing goats in Mahathiththa will befall upon you – Anuradhapura citadel inscription and Kataragama pilla inscription
- All the sins committed by all citizens of the island will befall upon you – Anuradhapura citadel inscription
- The sin of slaughtering cows on the banks of the Ganges will befall upon you – Thirukkovil Tamil inscription
- The sin of splitting and warming up on the fire of the sacred Bo tree will befall upon you – Hingule Vihara donation documents
- Will be stung by cobras – Kirindagama Tamil inscription (12th century)
- Never be born on land – Kirindagama Tamil inscription (12th century)
- The sin of setting on fire at Kashi, Rameshwaram, and Kataragama befall upon you
- The sin of committing the five great sins befall upon you – Munneswaram Siva Devala inscription (15th century)
- Will be born in castes such as Matanga, Chandala or Rodi – Naranbadda inscription
- Will be born as a worm in a garbage heap – Mihintale Plinth course inscription
- Will be cursed to become blue flies – Katagamuwa slab inscriptions (12th century)
How did a curse prevent people from damaging temples?
Although people may not fear the law, they fear the unseen. Buddhists and Hindus believe and fear karma. They believe, especially Buddhists, that if you commit a bad deed you will have to pay for it. Studying these curses, it is clear that they directly and ruthlessly address the subconscious of Buddhists and Hindus (the Sinhalese and Tamils living in Sri Lanka). To be born as a dog, crow, snake, or in hell, is not a pleasant thought to a Buddhist. According to Buddhist thinking, these births are the result of bad karma and they suffer a lot for many years.
For Buddhists and Hindus, killing cows is a grave sin (killing any living being is a sin for a Buddhist; hence there are curses about killing fish and goats). For Hindus, places such as Kashi, Rameshwaram, and Kataragama, and for Buddhists, the Sacred Bo Tree are among some of the most holy and sacred places and objects. Setting fire to these places is an unimaginable sin for believers.
Therefore, such curses must have caused great distress to those who believed in karma. For those who don’t believe in karma, still, such dangerous wishes and vengeful words must have definitely caused a fear of the unknown and unseen. It must have been something similar to what we feel when we read Egyptian curses today. However, it is also said that such curses affect the subconscious of the guilty and make it hard to get rid of the fear and guilt, which eventually leads to a form of self-destruction. This is why there are many incidents where those who destroy temples in search of riches finally end up with strange illnesses and mental disorders.
(Information courtesy Curses Found in Sinhalese and Tamil Inscriptions in Sri Lanka by Prof. T.G.Kulatunga and special thanks to Prof. Kulatunga)