Wise Daughter of Gamarala
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“If you take myth and folklore, and these things that speak in symbols, they can be interpreted in so many ways that although the actual image is clear enough, the interpretation is infinitely blurred, a sort of enormous rainbow of every possible colour you could imagine.”
– Diana Wynne Jones
Gamarala in folklore...
Stories about Gamarala are very popular in Sri Lankan folklore. Usually portrayed as a farmer, Gamarala is an ordinary villager. He leads a simple life with his wife in his small mud-thatched house. In some tales he has children. He farms in a paddy field or a chena. In most of the Gamarala stories he falls victim as he is usually dull-witted and senseless. It is not only humans who fool him but also animals such as Jackals. Through the character of Gamarala it is represented as an average Sinhalese villager, whose lifestyle is simple and whose world is narrow. He is not corrupted by the outside world.
The tale we present to you today, is another tale about a Gamarala and how he was saved by his daughter. Another interesting characteristic of these tales is that usually the Gamahamine or the Gamarala’s wife is portrayed as a smart woman. In this tale, he has a daughter and she is not only sharp but also wise. Usually in many Sri Lankan folk stories the lead male character is somewhat backward, senseless or dull-witted while the female characters (sometimes it is a human or a yakshi or deity) and the animals are smarter and quick-witted.
This tale is known as the Gamarala and his Daughter and is included in the collection of Village Folktales of Ceylon by Henry Parker volume II. In his collection this story is titled, The Gamarala’s Girl. This is a folktale of the North Western province of Sri Lanka. Yet, there are other stories from other parts of the island with similar plots and characters which we can see in this story.
The setup of this story is a typical Sri Lankan dry zone village. The sesame chena, paddy fields, people visiting the dobi (washerman) when a girl attains age, and both men and women working in the paddy fields; are typical lifestyles and environments of a traditional Sri Lankan village.
The Gamarala’s Daughter
There once lived a king who would send letters with riddles into neighbouring lands. These riddles should be sorted and explained by those who receive them. They were not easy to solve. Those who receive the letter of riddle must come to see the king the next day and solve the riddle. As they are usually difficult and cannot be solved, the king would behead them. In this way he has beheaded seven men in seven villages.
One day, the Gamarala of a nearby village also received a letter from the king. He was the eighth to receive the king’s riddles. He opened and read it. It was a riddle that he could not understand nor solve. The Gamarala knew what his fate would be. He feared for his life and about the fate of his darling daughter after his death.
This Gamarala was a farmer and he lived with his daughter. She was beautiful and smart. The day when Gamarala received the letter, the daughter was in the paddy field. Returning home, she saw his father crying heavily.
“Ane! Father, why are you crying?”
The Gamarala replies,
“Do you know that I received a letter today?”
“A letter? From who was it father?”
“It is from the king, the king who beheaded seven men,” answered the Gamarala.
“Those who were unable to solve the king’s riddles were killed. I have to go meet the king tomorrow, as I am the eighth. Seven men couldn’t explain the king’s letters. How would I? When I am unable to solve the letter, the king will behead me. You will be all by yourself once I am gone. That is why I am crying.”
“Where is that letter father?” asked the girl.
The girl read the letter and she understood what it was about. She then explained it to her father and told him how to answer the king the next day when he asked about the riddle.
The Gamarala memorised the answers just as his daughter explained to him.
The next morning, fresh and confident, the Gamarala went to meet the king. He presented the letter he received. The King asked the questions which seven men were unable to answer and Gamarala answered the king, just as his daughter taught him the night before.
The king was not expecting this at all. He was surprised. He asked the Gamarala,
“Who taught you this?”
Out of fear the Gamarala said,
“Your Highness, my daughter...She explained to me the answers…”
The king who was not happy that the Gamarala solved his riddles, and has to be spared without beheading, said to the Gamarala,
“I shall come to your place tomorrow to marry your daughter.”
The Gamarala was shivering.
“You go home now and do the preparations for tomorrow. Build inner sheds and outer sheds. Milk the oxen, leave it to curdle, and express oil from sand. Make sure all these tasks are fulfilled without any flaw by the time we come.”
Hearing this, the Gamarala was once again worried. He was restless and couldn’t understand how to perform the work the king asked him to fulfil.
The daughter was in the field, pounding paddy. Once she returned home, with rice that she had pounded, she saw her father worried, scared, and crying. He was digging holes to fix posts.
“Ane! Father, why are you crying today also? What happened?” she asked.
The Gamarala answered, “Aiyo, my daughter, I have lost hopes! The king is coming here tomorrow, to marry you and take you with him. So, the king asked me to build inner sheds and outer sheds, milk the oxen, leave it to curdle, and express oil from sand, and to make sure all those tasks are fulfilled without any flaws by the time he comes. Now, how can I do all these things? This is why I am crying.”
“Father, this is nothing to worry about. Let me handle this. You build the inner sheds and outer sheds. I’ll take care of the rest,” answered the daughter.
Following the daughter’s words, Gamarala built the inner sheds and outer sheds.
The next day, when the king was supposed to come to take the girl, she along with a friend, went to the road to meet the king. She took a bundle of cloth with her. She was near a sesame chena beside the road. It was near this chena that the girl met the King.
Seeing the two girls standing near the chena, the King’s ministers told the king,
“The girl who is coming in front is Gamarala’s daughter.”
Seeing and recognising her, the King asked,
“Where are you going girl?”
The witty and sharp girl replied,
“We are going to the Dobi’s house (waterman’s house), because our father has attained age (as happens to women).”
“Well, girl, how would a man attain age (as it would happen to women)? How is it possible?” asked the King.
Taking her chance, the girl replied,
“Yes, indeed, your highness. You have told our father to build inner sheds and outer sheds, milk the oxen, leave it to curdle, and express oil from sand. How are those possible to do? Likewise, indeed, a man attaining age (as it would happen to women) is possible.”
The girl’s answer pleased the King. He plucked a sesame flower from the sesame chena and showed it to the girl, and asked,
“Girl, where is oil in this sesame flower?”
“Oh King, when your mother conceived where were you?” the girl replied in a question.
At this instance, the King descended from the horse back and placed the girl upon the horse. The king also got back on the horse and rode off to his palace. The other girl went back to Gamarala’s house and told him what happened.
On the following day, the King sent his ministers to Gamarala’s house. He was summoned to the palace. After the King married the Gamarala’s daughter, she stayed in the palace and the Gamarala also stayed in the palace.
Saved by his daughter…
If not for his sharp daughter, the Gamarala would have been beheaded by the king on the first day. The girl’s intelligence saved her father’s life and was able to impress the King and conquer his ego.
This tale does not reveal to us what was the riddle or what the king wanted the men to explain and why he sent letters in such a way. However, there are some local folktales and folk poems about similar stories in which a prince, king or a raksha who is under a spell would look for someone who is capable of solving a riddle in order to break the spell. In such tales, a sharp village girl would come up and solve the riddle using her intelligence and eventually break the spell.
This story reminds us of Beauty and the Beast which is believed to have been created some 4000 years ago. The female character that saved the life of his father from being a prisoner of the beast is similar to the character of Gamarala’s daughter. Both are fearless, smart, and sharp village girls.
“The more stories I study, the more I begin to suspect that there is only one story, and that we are, all of us, engaged in telling it.”
– J. Aleksandr Wootton,
Her Unwelcome Inheritance