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Legends of Lanka - Vijaya

Visitors to Sri Lanka quickly learn that the lion holds an important place in the culture of the inhabitants. This is because the creature is a central figure in the country’s myth of origin. Indeed, the “Sinha” in “Sinhalese” means lion. So here’s the fascinating myth of the Lion race in detail, with its surprising beginning, gory middle and hopeful end – although in truth it remains unfinished . . .

Sri Lanka is rich in heritage, culturally diverse and has a history which has as many surprises as one of our own unique curries. There are many tales and legends about Sri Lanka and its past, some believable and some not so. Any tale of Sri Lanka must, as the King of Hearts said to Alice, begin at the beginning. And that means Vijaya.

Who was Vijaya? And why is he so important in Sri Lanka’s history? To answer these questions, we must visit India, for Vijaya’s tale begins there, with his grandmother, Princess Suppadevi of the Kingdom of Vanga. When Suppadevi was born, the royal astrologers predicted that her union would be with the lion, the king of beasts. Fearing such a scandal, the king tried to prevent it from happening by locking her up. This turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy because Suppadevi escaped from the palace and joined a caravan travelling to the kingdom of Magadha. The caravan was attacked en route by a lion. This is where things get a bit complicated or rather mythical. Some say it was a band of robbers and that their leader was called Sinha or the Lion because he was strong and fierce. Others say that it was an actual lion.

The Lion (or lion) took a fancy to Suppadevi and their union resulted in twins – a boy and a girl – who were named Sinhabahu and Sinhaseevali. As the children grew up they began to question their mother about the world outside, since the lion kept them locked up by covering the cave mouth with a boulder whenever he went out. So Suppadevi told them who she was and how she’d come to be with the lion.

By the time he was sixteen, Sinhabahu had grown as strong as his father and he decided to escape from the cave with his mother and sister by lifting the boulder covering the mouth. This they did day while the Lion was out hunting. The story probably would have ended there if the Lion had not gone mad with grief at losing his family. He began visiting border villages in search of his beloved wife and children. The villagers were frightened by the Lion and came to the king, Suppadevi’s father, asking him to do something the creature.

The king sent out a proclamation saying that whoever killed the lion would receive a thousand pieces of gold. Sinhabahu wanted to come forward but his mother restrained him. Since none took up the task, the king sent out a second proclamation with two thousand pieces of gold and again Sinhabahu was stopped by his mother. The third time, when the reward had gone up to three thousand gold pieces, Sinhabahu simply took up the quest without telling his mother.

Sinhabahu was brought to his grandfather, who promised the young man his kingdom if he would rid it of the Lion. Knowing where the Lion would be, Sinhabahu returned to the cave where they’d lived. The Lion, upon seeing his beloved son, rushed forward to embrace him.  Sinhabahu, though, shot him dead with an arrow through the heart. By the time Sinhabahu returned to Vanga the king had died and the ministers were wondering what to do since there were no heirs. When they learnt that Sinhabahu was the grandson of the king, they asked him to be their ruler. He, however, went to found a kingdom of his own named Sinhapura, marrying his sister to consolidate the royal line. He had thirty-two sons by her, the eldest of whom was named Vijaya.

Vijaya, unfortunately, was a problem child. He drew other miscreants to himself like a magnet and his arrogance led him to get into all sorts of mischief and acts of violence. The people of the kingdom had had enough and complained to the king. Sinhabahu spoke to his son but Vijaya turned a deaf ear. Finally, the king decided to expel him and 700 of his followers from the kingdom. They had half their heads shaved and were put on a ship with their wives and children and were sent away from Sinhapura.

They eventually landed in Sri Lanka, some believe in the area known as Puttalam. This led to the island acquiring a new name, for the seasick adventurers had to crawl initially, and discovered that the palms of their hands were covered with a copper-coloured soil. So they called their new home Tamba-panni or “copper-palmed.” The presence of copper-coloured clay on the beaches of Puttalam adds credence to the belief that this was Vijaya’s landing place. So do the ruins at Kandukuli-malai, some 16 kilometres from Puttalam, where Vijaya is said to have had his capital, called Tammana Nuwara.

The original name of this place was Magul Totamuna or “port of marriage,” because it was here, soon after Vijaya’s arrival, that he married a local princess of the Yakkha tribe, called Kuveni. They had met under extraordinary circumstances. Yakkhas, it was believed, could transform themselves at will. One day, a Yakkha in the form of a bitch appeared to Vijaya and his followers. Thinking that where there were dogs there must be humans, especially the females they needed to found their race, they chased after it.

The bitch led the men to a forest. Waiting for them was another Yakkha, the beautiful temptress Kuveni, who was sitting by a pond. One by one Vijaya’s followers tried their charms on her, only to be pitched into the pond, where they were magically ensnared. Vijaya, though, was protected by a magic thread, and so he was able to grab Kuveni’s hair and threatened to cut off her head. Kuveni, being the temptress that she was, immediately offered to release the men, and changing herself back to the age of 16, seduced Vijaya in a conveniently located bed, which, luckily for the lovers, was shielded from prying eyes by a tent.

Despite these supposedly romantic beginnings, the truth is that the rise of the Sinhalese civilization began in bloodshed and treachery. Vijaya insisted on certain pre-nuptial conditions - that Kuveni give him a kingdom, even if it meant betraying her own people. This she did, and Vijaya then massacred them at their capital Sri Vastipura. Thereafter he was crowned the first king of Lanka. Kuveni’s treachery led her nowhere because she had not been able to give Vijaya a son and heir, only two daughters. Her husband therefore asked her to leave. Kuveni was distraught, but nothing would make Vijaya change his mind.  So she wandered back to the forest.

Significantly, many places near Tammana Nuwara have been immortalized by the Vijaya-Kuveni legend. On the Puttalam -Kurunegala road there is a rocky outcrop called Tonigala or “rock of lamentation,” which gets its name from the belief that it was here that Kuveni was betrayed by Vijaya. Further down the same road there is a village called Vilakatupotha or “vale of tears,” which commemorates the spot where Kuveni tarried on her journey to the peak known as Yakdessa-gala, from which she plunged to her death, imploring the gods to avenge the wrong down to her by Vijaya.

Vijaya’s subsequent marriages failed to produce an heir but his fledging kingdom passed peacefully to a nephew, Panduwasa. Relatives began swarming into the new colony, bringing with them their retinues and parcelling out the whole island among themselves. Life as we now know it in Sri Lanka had just begun.
Copyright © 2005-2008 Fahim Farook