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Sri Lanka, which boasts a 92% rate of literacy—the highest in South Asia

and among the highest in Asia—has a long storytelling tradition. What is

perhaps special about literature in this country is the extent to which the
oral tradition has complemented a vast body of literature spanning many
genres in written form. Given the powerful impetus that Buddhism had
and has on scholarship and literature in Sri Lanka, both prose and verse
in the country have drawn heavily from Buddhist parables. Even in the
oral tradition, complex philosophical concepts and ideas are illustrated
using stories from the Buddha’s life as well as the jathaka stories, i.e.
narratives of the past lives of Siddhartha Gauthama.
For these reasons, perhaps, Sri Lanka is blessed with a rich repository of
narratives and narrative styles in the written and oral traditions as well
as a population that is culturally ready to receive such narratives; it was
not the preserve of “writers” and “scholars.” There are numerous
examples where “literature” (especially in verse form), is depicted as an
integral part of communication and debate, embedded in rituals where
the focus was on dance or exorcism, with all vocations, particularly
agriculture, and even used to comment on social, cultural, religious,
ideological, economic, and political issues.
Naturally, earlier works in the Sri Lankan canon have been significantly
influenced by the styles prevalent in the rest of the Indian subcontinent,
but alongside these there has developed a considerable volume of
authentically “local” literary works reflecting on kings and significant
historical events as well as the lives of ordinary folk. This archive of work
holds innumerable potential for a very personal encounter with Sri
Lankan literature.
Tamil literature is similarly inspired by works from centuries past, but
has the added advantage of being able to draw from the literary
traditions of the South of India where the language is spoken too. The
literary history of Tamil writers in Sri Lanka is far less voluminous than
that of their Sinhala counterparts, due partly to a fractured historical
presence on the island and the absence of an equivalent temple-based
system of education, but the oral traditions cannot be said to be any less
The Five Great Epics are five large narrative Tamil epics according to
later Tamil literary tradition. They are
Cilappatikāram: As a literary work, Silappatikaram is held in high regard
by the Tamil people. It contains three chapters and a total of 5270 lines
of poetry. The epic revolves around Kannagi, who having lost her
husband to a miscarriage of justice at the court of the Pandyan Dynasty,
wreaks her revenge on his kingdom.
Regarded as one of the great works of Tamil literature, the
Silappathikaram is a poetic rendition with details of Tamil culture; its
varied religions; its town plans and city types; the mingling of different
people; and the arts of dance and music.
Silappatikaram has been dated to likely belong to the beginning of
Common era, although the author might have built upon a pre-existing
folklore to spin this tale. The story involves the three Tamil kingdoms of
the ancient era, which were ruled by the Chola, Pandyan and Chera
dynasties. Silappatikaram has many references to historical events and
personalities, although it has not been accepted as a reliable source of
history by many historians because of the inclusion of many exaggerated
events and achievements to the ancient Tamil kings.
Cīvaka Cintāmaṇṇ i, Valayapathi and Kuṇṇ ṭṇalakēci.[2] The first mention of
the Aimperumkappiyam (lit. Five large epics) occurs in Mayilainathar's
commentary of Nannūl. However, Mayilainathar does not mention their
titles. The titles are first mentioned in the late 18th–early 19th century
work Thiruthanikaiula. Earlier works like the 17th century poem Tamil
vidu thoothu mention the great epics as Panchkavyams.[3][4] Among
these, the last two, Valayapathi and Kuṇṇ ṭṇalakēci are not extant.[5]

These five epics were written over a period of 1st century CE to 10th
century CE and act as the historical evidence of social, religious, cultural
and academic life of people during the era they were created. Cīvaka
Cintāmaṇṇ i introduced long verses called virutha pa in Tamil literature,
[6] while Cilappatikāram used akaval meter (monologue), a style
adopted from Sangam literature.
Simon Navagaththegama’s The Hunter is a book that has been read in
Marxian, Freudian, and Buddhist terms and its amenability to multiple
interpretations speaks of its intricate crafting. It is a simple plot, focusing
on the relationship between a hunter and the Buddhist monk or bikkhu
whom he attends in a jungle retreat. The sparse dialogue is compensated
for by the subtle descriptions of the hunter’s engagement with the
surrounding jungle and its creatures.
Ariyawansa Ranaweera has an eye for the simple, those things we see but
rarely let our eyes dwell upon or find interesting enough to merit further
reflection. His forte is an ability to pick the ordinary and spin simple
reflection into it in a way that conjures images and invites meditation. In
“At the Supermarket,” the poet observes both the ingredients used in the
most humble of Sri Lankan cuisine— the flower of the plantain tree and
the seed of the jak tree—and the rich who purchase these items; it is a
sleight of hand that celebrates village life while making a comment on
the wealthy for whom the elements of that life are mere acquisitions.
The context for Kalaivaathy Kaleel’s story, “Rizana,” is socio-economic.
Rizana was an underage girl whose birth certificate was altered to
“qualify” her for a job in Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker, and who was
accused of murdering an infant. The case was controversial and, despite
international outrage, she was sentenced to death and executed. Rizana’s
case spawned much debate on a number of social and political issues
pertaining to poverty, foreign employment, corruption, and the efficiency
or lack thereof of diplomatic missions. There was also much discussion
on the “religious” prerogatives of Saudi/Islamic laws.
These selections, though short, provide a brief but wide-ranging glimpse
into the complexity of the religious and social underpinnings of Sri
Lankan literature.
Ru Freeman
Malinda Seneviratne

Myths and superstitions are a massive part of our rich Sri Lankan
culture. As such, there are a few popular beliefs which have unfailingly
been passed down many generations. Undoubtedly, things have
progressed in the 21st century and many of these myths have been
busted. Let’s explore a few below.

Playing the piano at night will bring snakes to your house

Many Sri Lankans seem to believe that after hearing the melodious tunes
of a piano after dark, the neighbourhood snakes will slither closer to your
house. While they are able to sense low-frequency airborne sounds
through vibrations, it is a known fact that snakes do not have external
ear openings and ear drums. Amongst the many noises and vibrations
traveling through the air at night, it is definitely not proven that a snake
will choose to follow the tunes of a lone piano. This belief has been
extended to other musical instruments as well. If beckoning snakes was
this easy, our Sri Lankan snake charmers would really go out of business.
So play the piano to your heart’s desire and don’t worry; that one Ed
Sheeran song isn’t going to endanger your family.

Increased chances of a Demonic Attack during Menstruation

Even in the advanced 21st century, the myths and superstition
surrounding menstruation are sky high in our culture. The most popular
and prevalent one states that women are very susceptible to demonic
attacks when on their period. This is supposedly linked to PMS
(Premenstrual Syndrome) and a change in a woman’s behaviour is linked
to demonic possession. Countless scientific research has busted this
myth, of course. Changes in hormonal activity produce very real
symptoms in women causing mood changes. Because of this myth,
women are advised not to visit temples or walk alone at night. Some are
even told to remain indoors the whole time. If this were true, then brace
yourselves, ladies: we’re all possessed. Sam and Dean from Supernatural
should be coming to save us any day now

The complexion of your baby can change with food intake

As bizarre as it sounds, many Sri Lankans believe that consuming certain
foods during pregnancy will help them give birth to fair babies, with light
coloured skin. It is important to note that the complexion of your baby is
determined by their genetic composition, primarily derived from the
mother and father of the child. True, certain foods will aid in giving birth
to a healthy baby with healthy skin. However, this is in no way connected
to the skin colour of your child. If this myth were true, we could evolve
into a lighter coloured race a few generations down the line and all
fairness cream companies would go bankrupt.

Repeating ‘Bloody Mary’ in front of your mirror will cause Mohini to

When growing up, we’ve all heard about the mysterious woman, Mohini.
Her tale has many different versions, yet most can agree on certain
factors: that she dresses in white, carries a baby, and is creepy as hell. A
popular myth was derived from this story: if you repeat ‘Bloody Mary’
three times in front of your bathroom mirror at night, preferably
amongst some ominous candles, she will appear in front of you. Oh, and
possibly kill you, of course. Many of our Sri Lankan girl sleepovers were
punctuated with the terror of summoning Mohini, which many actually
attempted to do. After countless generations of unsuccessful Mohini
missed calls, one would assume for myth to have died down. Yet, skeptic
or not, most Sri Lankans tremble at the mere idea of summoning her,
based on the slight possibility that it just may work.

Garden Snakes are not dangerous

Being a Sri Lankan, we have all come across snakes at some point in our
lives, most likely the Garden Snake, Rat Snake or most commonly known
as the ‘Garandiya’. After a possibly traumatic encounter with a garden
snake, you will hear others telling you not to worry, because ‘Garandiyas
are not dangerous. Nothing will happen’. And you have probably spent
your whole life believing this. Unfortunately, garden snakes are
descended from the most dangerous snake family in the world: the Black
Mamba. While they may not be poisonous, they can most definitely
infect you with a bite and kill you. The next time someone tells you to
relax because it’s just a garden snake, you now have every reason to freak
out and tell them it doesn’t matter: you don’t want to get bitten either
Many of these myths and superstitions have prevailed for generations
down the line. They are given such importance in our culture that we
may adhere to them even while knowing they hold not an ounce of truth.
Having been engrained in us, these beliefs will pass on to the next
generations as well, no matter how skeptic we may be. While we may
eventually start realizing the danger of a garden snake, the terror of
Mohini will most definitely prevail for years to come.