Witty Man and Silly Devil
Part V By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“Why do mythological heroes of past civilisations have a thousand faces? Is it because each one of us takes a heroic journey of self-discovery?” – Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls A glimpse into Sri Lankan folk tales was a journey we began to give you an opportunity to experience and enjoy local folk tales. We presented to you some of the lesser-known tales that portray Sri Lankan rural life and typical village landscape. Some of the tales were about mythical beings and incidents woven around them. Unfortunately, these tales are fading away from the consciousness of locals. Many do not know these tales. Also, the masses look down upon these tales thinking they are boring or of no use.
However, in the leading universities in the western world, social science research centres and social science professors are conducting research about our folk tales as they have realised the value of these tales of wisdom. As we have already told in our previous segments, these local folk tales are like tiny stores of local knowledge including medicine, agriculture, animal sciences, botany, geography, human psychology, and so on. They talk about social issues, injustice, and taboos. Most importantly these tales have a moral in them. They were not merely for entertainment but were a mode of communication and also a mode of transmitting knowledge among many. These are an aspect of Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage and could be considered as a national heritage. The fading away of them is a cause of concern.
I can eat a devil
Among the many folk tales of Sri Lanka, tales about yakas or devil are common. yakas are supernatural beings that could be malevolent and sometimes benevolent. In most of these folk tales Yakas are portrayed as somewhat silly and humorous in nature. They are also beings that serve humans or other mightier divine beings. Although yakas are known to have powers, they are considered lower beings to humans. The tale we present to you today is a light, funny tale of two yakas and a villager. As usual the villager is an innocent farmer who minds his own business while a yaka interferes with his life. This is also a story that has an interesting moral. Those who act with the intention of harming others, eventually end up harming themselves. The tale also portrays interesting traits of local village life. So, now let us enjoy this tale of A Man and Two Yakas. This is the background story of the Sinhalese saying, yakek kanna badagini, which means, I am so hungry that I can eat a devil.
In a beautiful village there lived a farmer with his wife. He was a courageous man and his wife was supportive. One day this farmer cleared the land to cultivate a chena. He had no one to help him in the field that day as his wife was busy with household chores. He went further inside the jungle to clear the land. He reached a place where there was a large tree. Before cutting this large tree, the man performed a local ritual in order to request any deity who might be dwelling in the tree to leave it. While he was doing so, a yaka who was dwelling in the tree heard the kannalwwa. Fearing that he might lose his dwell, this yaka appeared in front of the farmer. “Ane swamini (Oh lord), please do not cut this tree, my abode. I have nowhere else to live. Please do not cultivate a chena by destroying my abode.” The man was surprised.
This was not something he was expecting. A mighty yaka pleading in front of him. “Oh lord, I will serve you every day by bringing you everything you need such as rice, coconut, and other food as a favour if you leave my abode.” The yaka was on his knees. The man said, “Fine then. I will not cut this tree as it is your abode,” and he went home. That evening the yaka visited the man. He brought rice, coconut, vegetables, and fruits as he had promised. This continued for a long period. The farmer was now wealthy and happy as the yaka would provide him with all his needs. One day, this yaka was visiting the farmer. His arms were loaded with two heavy bags. On his way, he met another yaka, an old friend of his.
This second yaka asked the first one, “Ado, where are you taking all these things? You do not eat them!” Then the first yaka replied, “There was this man who came to cut my tree. He is a farmer. When I pleaded with him not to cut my tree, he agreed to it and went away. In return, I promised to give him food and all the goods he needs.” The second yaka was annoyed by this. He did not approve what had happened to his friend. He said, “Listen bolawu, only for today you go and give these things. I will kill this man tomorrow. You don't worry.” Then the first yaka agreed upon this, went to the farmer and gave the goods. The next day, the farmer went out of the house for some work. While he was away, the second yaka who wanted to kill this man, entered the house. He quickly crept under the bed and hid there.
Under this bed, they had the habit of storing certain dry food items and fruits. That day the wife had plucked a pineapple and kept it under the bed. The farmer returned home tired and hungry. He sat on this bed and told the wife that he is hungry. “Bola, I am so hungry that I can eat a yaka!” The yaka who was hiding under the bed was slightly alarmed to hear this. The wife said, “Under the bed,” she meant the pineapple. But yaka did not know there was a pineapple. He was puzzled about what was going to happen. The man took the knife from the shelf and went near the bed.
He bent down to take the pineapple. The anxious yaka, not seeing the pineapple, thought that the man was going to kill and eat him. He was shivering. He pleaded, “Ane swamini, please do not eat me. Spare my life. Every month I will bring you whatever you want. I will serve you.” The farmer was shocked but was witty enough to understand what may have happened. So, he said, “Yes, fine then.” The yaka ran away. He went to meet his friend yaka. He said, “I went to free you from that man. But I was caught and he tried to eat me. Now both of us are in the same plight!” Now the farmer had two yakas serving him. His wealth grew and he led a happy life afterwards.
Similar tales across the land and the globe This simple tale is entertaining. The man is a witty man and his luck strikes, strangely at the most unexpected times. The story is set up in a typical local village where people lived by farming. Also, villagers had a habit of performing certain rituals before cutting large trees as it is a local belief that supernatural beings dwell in them. So, before cutting them they make sure that the tree is not the abode of anyone. The story of King Dutugemunu and Swarnamali, the tree goddess is a similar one.
The king named the Stupa Swarnamali, remembering her forever. This was to keep a promise. Another tale which reminds of this is the tale of Aladdin, where he meets a genie who was living inside a lamp. The genie helps Aladdin. There is a similar folk tale in Bengal in which a man who was scared by an evil yet silly spirit, was cheated by the witty man. The man shows the spirit’s own reflection through a small mirror and tells that it is another mighty malevolent spirit that the man has imprisoned. The silly spirit believes the man and serves him out of fear. The man becomes very rich. A second spirit comes to save his friend, but falls into the trap of the man. At the end the man ends up with two spirits serving him.
A little tribute to Henry
Parker Although there are books published in Sinhala language about local folk tales, some scholars say that none of them can be considered as complete scholarly work apart from for the collection by Henry Parker. He collected local folk tales by visiting villages all over the island. He analysed and compared them with folk tales of the region including Punjab, Kashmir, Nepal or Tamil Nadu. Later he published his large collection of folk tales in three volumes as Village Folk tales of Ceylon. Let this be a tribute to the great effort of Parker for his genuine work to preserve our folk tales.
The need to preserve these
tales Although we Sri Lankans are moving away from our roots, in the western world, the local folk cultures are being preserved as national heritage. There are many resources that can be easily accessed if one wants to study them. There are folk museums and folk-art centres that are actually research centres; not merely buildings or few artefacts that are all covered with dust, as it is in Sri Lanka. We also would like to urge the authorities and scholars to take measures to preserve our folk tales before they are completely forgotten. In today’s digital era it is much easier to preserve these tales in digital form. Preserving is not sufficient unless research is done. Therefore, universities and research institutes should deeply study these tales and introduce the subject ‘folklore studies’ as a social science subject and to install folklore research centres that actually conduct serious research.
A glimpse into folk tales of Sri Lanka series ends here today. We hope that you enjoyed the journey into far away local villages, meeting villagers, witnessing the tale of Giri Devi, and riding flying horses just as we did. “If you read fairy tales carefully, you’ll notice they are mostly about people who aren’t heroes. They don’t have special powers, or gifts. Often, they are despised as stupid, they are bullied, beaten up, robbed, and starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes.” – Amanda Craig, In a Dark Wood