Under the tamarind tree

Sri Lanka seems always to have been associated with sorcery, the supernatural and the downright strange. One early account claimed that the island's inhabitants were a race of magicians, another that the island was full of devils; the modern researcher Patrick Harrigan claims that there are oral traditions that tell of hidden portals through which those with extraordinary mental powers can travel to distant places, even other worlds and dimensions. He believes that Carl Jung, who experienced a famous near-death experience in 1944, during a dream in which he appears to have been in orbit above Sri Lanka, passed through such a gateway.

'White' and 'black' magic were an essential component of Sri Lanka's society long before the introduction of Buddhism in the third century BC, yet their importance has continued since, even though Buddhist philosophy does not encourage superstition. Such contradictions are rife among Sinhalese Buddhists – for example a Buddhist vihara often incorporates a Hindu kovil and Vishnu is worshipped as the protector of Buddhism –and magic and similar arts have become sanctioned to satisfy the social needs and rituals of the rural population.

There are four types of magic in Sri Lanka. Productive magic is associated with the accumulation of wealth. Protective magic combats demons that threaten the women and children of a household. Destructive magic – the black kind – is generally used by one neighbour against another, among relatives or between business partners. Personal magic is the ability to perform a conscious or unconscious act due to an inherent evil disposition. The belief in each of these forms of magic remains intense in all layers of society. Despite the influence of science and the increase in knowledge generally, many educated people deny a belief in magic and yet wear a charmed thread on their wrists. Others will stress that they do not know how a particular form of 'magic' works, but do know through personal experience that it does. Thus magic lingers.

Many Sri Lankans today, Sinhalese especially, believe that life is filled with danger from demons (yakkas) and other evil forces (vas) that cause illness, misfortune or death. When someone has a lingering sickness, a complex exorcism, healing ceremony or devil dance (thovil) is performed, characterised by the wearing of devil masks (yak vesmahunu) – designed to be hypnotising and terrifying – that symbolise certain diseases. During the ceremony, which also incorporates Buddhist aspects and often involves the whole village, the relevant demons are summoned, offered tribute and requested to leave the patient alone.

Soon after my arrival in Sri Lanka many years ago, I learnt much about mundane superstition from my assistant, and how his life was determined by unseen evil forces and the manifestation of particular events. Within barely minutes of starting his employment, while cleaning my bedroom, he ran to me, shouting: 'Bed is facing where the sun rises! That is very bad fortune! When people die, the body is placed that way.' Later, having shifted the bed 90 degrees despite my protestations, he began to sweep the lawn, but then looked up and saw a tamarind tree. 'Siyambala [tamarind] is bad tree to have in garden!' he told me. 'It is the home of the chief of the yakkas – do not go near it!' He explained further that 'poison water', actually weak carbonic acid exhaled from the tree, 'falls and kills people sleeping below.'

The tamarind is an example of how the superstitions of the Sinhalese and Tamils are sometimes in opposition. Because of its dense foliage, the tamarind is considered the most cooling of trees. Thus, in the past, the Tamils of the Jaffna peninsula always tried to locate their houses underneath such a tree. With the innocence of a griffin (also a newcomer to the Subcontinent), I decided that, rather than relate the Jaffna story, it would be appropriate to try to undermine my assistant's superstitious faith through direct experience, to enlighten him concerning causal determinism.

One night, with the aid of cushions, a cassette player, psychedelic music and some beer, I stayed under the tree, oblivious to the pleadings of my assistant to vacate the spot immediately. I experienced no devils, but did feel what seemed like a mist – the acid exhalation – falling from above. My assistant was tense for a week, expecting the worse, but then began to look sheepish and, finally, conveniently solved the problem of my survival and ensured the lack of any flaw in his belief by announcing with satisfaction: 'I know why you did not die! You are British! You are from a different world!'

Naya among the Naga

Superstition regarding animals can be innocent enough. If a crow flies through a house, it is a sign that a member of the household will soon have to reluctantly depart, but if a crow caws from the house-top it is a harbinger of good news. With some species, however, superstitious belief leads to disastrous ecological consequences. For instance, the Horton Plains slender loris (Loris tardigradus nycticeboides) almost went extinct primarily due to its large and intense eyes, which were considered good for charms and love-potions, and which were extracted by burning the creatures alive until their eyeballs burst. Fortunately, living examples of this small primate were discovered again in 2010.

Superstition regarding the cobra is of an entirely different nature, and history. It appears that a piratical tribe called the Naga, who worshipped the cobra (commonly known as naya) as a symbol of destructive power, inhabited the northern coast of the island from the sixth century BC to the third century AD. So prominent were they that the country became known as Nagadipa, the 'Island of Serpents', and the other inhabitants developed a belief that the Naga themselves were cobras endowed with supernatural powers by which they could metamorphose themselves into human beings at will. (There is a similar story in the Mahabharata, of course.) This story could certainly have been strengthened due to the tribe's tendency to wear a head-covering in the shape of a hydra-headed cobra.

After the demise or assimilation (no one is quite sure which) of the Naga, elements of their cobra connections were incorporated in local Buddhism as well as in more general folklore and superstition. For instance, cobras became associated with the incarnations of dead people, who in their new, ophidian lives, guarded hidden treasure, Buddhist temples, Bo-trees and the like. Naga stones were set up by the side of baths, ponds and tank sluices to protect and to bless the waters. The cobra king is represented surmounted by a fan of seven hoods above which is a chattra, or royal umbrella.

Although cobras often frequent the vicinity of human habitation, the belief that members of the species living thus are relatives reborn as guardians has meant that they are rarely killed but instead placated. However, if a cobra does not depart when politely requested to do so, it is usually caught, placed in a sack and thrown away at an isolated spot – often into a river. As J W Bennett remarks in Ceylon and its Capabilities (1843), 'If Buddhists object to kill the Naya, from religious motives or superstitious veneration, they nevertheless think it no sin to send it upon an aquatic excursion, with no means of escape.' In addition, this practice has led to countless deaths of those who could not resist the temptation to open the sacks.

Less earthly, an absolute belief in astrology, especially horoscopes, remains widespread among both Sinhalese and Tamils, and so continues to promote uncritical thinking. 'No people ever were, or can be more devoted to this delusive art,' John Davy remarked in An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821). A horoscope is invariably cast when a child is born, to be consulted at important junctures in later life. This is a practice in which the belief that the planets control fate and determine personality leads to denial of free will, and even compounds an existing denial of free will: arranged marriages are only fixed after the couple's horoscopes have been compared to assess compatibility.

Important ceremonies and rituals, public as well as private, tend to be timed to the minute based on the prognostications of an astrologer. Government business and political activity are not immune to astrological interpretation. After the parliamentary elections of December 2001, the date set by President Chandrika Kumaratunga for the opening of the new parliamentary session was apparently advanced by a day, as it was considered more auspicious for the new government. Indeed, Sri Lankan politicians today remain so convinced regarding the efficacy of such divination that many have a personal astrologer to decide on auspicious timings at which to begin various political activities. President Mahinda Rajapakse has affirmed he is a believer, informing foreign reporters in 2009 that he consults his chosen astrologer for guidance on the timing of speeches and travel. However, political astrology is certainly not unique to Sri Lanka or Southasia.

It is the general belief in pseudoscience among the voters that makes the politicians respond more than otherwise they might have done. In 2009, astrologer Chandrasiri Bandara, who has his own weekly television show, told an opposition meeting that the prime minister would take over as president and the opposition leader would become prime minister. He was arrested and questioned by the Criminal Investigations Department 'to investigate the basis of his prediction', as a police spokesperson stated in Orwellian fashion. 'The Sri Lankan government arrested and imprisoned me, but they could not imprison Saturn,' quipped Bandara after his release. His prediction didn't materialise, of course, nor did that regarding Sri Lanka and the cricket World Cup.

Listen to Lizard Lady

An outside perspective is provided by a British traveller named Mim Scala in Diary of a Teddy Boy: A memoir of the long Sixties (2000), which features several episodes of Sri Lankan magic ritual and superstition. While staying at Hikkaduwa, which during the 1960s had just become a surfer and acid-head paradise, two geckoes fell from the ceiling, one on Scala's head. When he inquired whether there was any folklore on such matters – a common belief is that if you hear a gecko making its click-click sound, you should discontinue what you were doing – he was urged to visit 'the Lizard Lady'.

Scala relates that when he visited the lady's shack, where copra and charcoal burned in a clay pot, she asked many questions about his experience. 'Then she took a ball of coloured yarn, and tied several loops of it around my index finger. Finally she tied a knot and burned off the loose ends. 'You must be very careful,' she said. 'You are in grave danger. You must not go in the sea until this ring falls off your finger.''

Scala, his thread firmly in place, resisted swimming. But one day, while sitting on the beach, a surfer fell off his board and shouted 'Cramp!' Scala ran down the beach, swam to the surfer and supported him. Then they hit a rip tide. 'Suddenly I had a flashback to the old lady,' he writes. 'Oh shit! I raised my hand to look at my finger. No yarn. I can't say how relieved I was.' They were eventually taken by the tide back to shore. 'We walked back down the beach to retrieve our things. Lying in the sand among my possessions was the tiny piece of coloured thread.'

On another occasion, Scala found his radio missing. He went again to see the Lizard Lady, who sat him outside her hut while she brought out her pot of fire. 'She sat in front of me and burned incense and assorted dry leaves. A small crowd gathered to watch. After half an hour she told me to go to the hotel and wait for my radio.' By the time he arrived, the radio had already been abandoned on his veranda. Although superstitious Sri Lankans would view this as an affirmation of the woman's magical powers, the hotel owner explained more rationally: 'The old lady can cast terrible spells. When word reached the thief's ears that she was putting a spell on whoever stole your radio, the culprit couldn't put it back fast enough. Who needs the police when we have superstition and wisdom?'

~ Richard Boyle is a contributing editor to this magazine.

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