Lanka's Ancient Lifestyles

Thus have we heard


Myths and Legends

 

The lifestyles of ancient Lanka are inextricably interwoven with her myths and legends, her culture and religions, her economic pursuits and her eco-systems. But examining each in isolation will not give even a glimpse of the whole. The implication of a myth may range across culture and economic pursuits or vice versa. One may have given rise to the other. The sum of the parts do not amount to the sum of the whole.


From ancient times, Lankans have lived in harmony with nature, putting back into the soil what they took out, practising hena or shifting plot cultivation. Incorporating collective rituals and other cooperative practices, their lifestyles imply a deep respect for nature and the knowledge that their ritual cooperation with each other is the metaphor of their cooperation with nature herself. Lanka's oral traditions dating back 20'000 years convey an intricate labyrinth of knowledge demanding a delicate sense of balance and tremendous moral fortitude.


Every villager bore the moral responsibility of the village on his shoulders through the devices of ritual vows. Keeping your word to the gods, ensured that they kept their word to you too; enjoining the villagers to participatory management of resources and integral allocation of resources on a caste delineated basis. The modern application of a system of caste is offensive to say the least, but the system as practised in ancient times was one of shared mutual responsibilities and was not simply an elitist class exploiting underlings. 


For example a greater allocation of food was made for manual workers than for others.


Central to the Yaksha Gothra families' beliefs is the Kande Yakka (Spirit of the Mountain) alias Gale Deviya (Hill god) who is widely associated with Kande Kumara, the eternally young divinity of Kataragama. The people believe that Kande Yakka is their protector and guide who, "shows his friends the best paths to follow through life"[1]. However they are also aware that he can be terrible if provoked. 


A similar deity is worshipped in South India, and the Kataragama god is said to be the selfsame Murugan or Skanda. Landing on the south east coast of Lanka, the Tamil speaking Wanniya'I Attho say that he taught them, "...the names of things, trees and animals, and how we should make offerings and dance to him when going into the jungle to hunt, and at other times. He told us everything we know."2


The Wanniya'I Attho of the interior say that, Gale Yakka came from over the seas and appeared on Kokkagala hill and Omungala hill, from where he proceeded to Kataragama. The hills of his first sighting are still the sites of ritualistic dances performed in his honour. He eloped with a Wanniya'I Attho girl Valli Amma, who had been left guarding a hena after he had first approached her in various disguises. 


A ritual enactment of the god's visits to Valli Amma make an important part of the annual Kataragama festival to this day. The Wanniya'I Attho ceremoniously waylay the procession accompanying the god to Valli Amma's residence and it is only after the god's high priest has paid tribute to the Wanniya'I Attho, is the procession allowed to continue.


Lanka's ancients saw a three fold universe. There were the heavens, the world of man and the world of the spirits (Yakkas). There existed a covenant between these three worlds, a sacred trust that celebrated their co-dependence. The surest way of interacting with the gods was to make a vow in the name of the god and then to honour that vow.


Culture & Religion


Every village had its own god and was a nucleus kingdom of itself. The first god Mahasammata - personified as the 'first king' of Puranagama Lanka, was in fact the great (maha-) agreement (sammata). This maybe said to be the 'Common Consensus of the islands' inhabitants that articulated laws, ensured justice, and moved whole mountains through the power of an integral, holistic world view shared by the wisest sage and the village fool. The fool in effect, defined the limits of the community s collective understanding. 


The king fulfilled a ritual role of expressing and representing what everyone already understood and respected, and his particular personality was subordinate to the covenant between heaven and earth that had to be personified in him; or else his life was forfeit.