The Localist

Superstitious, Supernatural, Stupendous Sri Lanka

Sometimes I feel the supreme leader of the average Sri Lankan household is the tiny gecko that’s lurking behind your front door. Yes you read it right! It’s that gecko who decides to screech just as you are about to embark on a journey or perform an important task, signifying your imminent failure and sometimes saving you from that inevitable doom. The same gecko may sometimes have the audacity to jump at you, only so that you run and check the annual litha (a kind of Sri Lankan calendar`) to see what the future has in store for you depending on which part of your body the gecko lands. Sometimes it indicates wealth, at other times ill health or much worse.

Superstition, astrology (saasthara), voodoo (hooniyan), remedies (kema) and innumerable stories of demon possessions (yaka vahila) are so interwoven into Sri Lankan culture that sometimes I feel like I am walking down the isle of some giant supernatural department store, trying out bits and pieces of traditional wisdom that the elders try to impart upon me while at other times refusing to succumb to the absurdity of it all.

Before a child is born, it’s not customary to have a baby shower or even talk about a future involving that child, as it is thought to bring bad luck. Baby clothes therefore are only stitched halfway, and completed only once the baby is born. Newborn babies are adorned with a black dot on their forehead or black bangles to ward off the evil eye. They are given a pendant known as the panchayudei (five weapons) that has the picture of a sword, bow, arrow, spear and shield to protect them. Who knew Sri Lankan babies could be so badass! Their time of birth is then taken to an astrologer who produces a birth chart and provides the parents with a syllable from which the baby’s name is supposed to begin. So many baby related rituals such as ran kiri kata gama (dipping a piece of gold in milk before it touches a baby’s lips for the first time) or akuru kiyavima (reading for the first time) are done at auspicious times derived from astrology.

Astrologers seem to occupy a pivotal role in the decision making process of most Sri Lankans. Whether it’s a politician deciding to take office, a student heading out for exams, cricketers coming out to play or a couple deciding to get married, the astrologer determines the best time of day and in some cases, even the outcome of the task at hand. While astrology involves numerical calculations based on planetary positions, certain times and days of the week are regarded as inauspicious. The rahu kalaya, for instance is a time each day when one should avoid performing important activity. Tuesdays are another ‘no-no’ when people avoid performing funerals or in some cases even bathing.

Speaking of bathing, there is a whole range of superstitions tied to this practice. While bathing on some days of the week brings beauty, good luck and success, bathing on other days results in loss of friendships, ill health and general bad luck. When a girl reaches puberty, she is locked up in a room with no male visitors and allowed to eat only certain kinds of food until the bathing ceremony takes place at an auspicious time. Young girls are advised not to eat oily foods, bathe and then walk around with loose hair as the devil known as the kalu kumaraya (black prince) will possess you. Devils abide in all sorts of places in Sri Lanka: some in cemeteries, others in lakes, sometimes in trees and even in three way traffic junctions! (thun man handiya)

Sri Lankans have the ability to cast an evil eye (es vaha) by looking at someone, cause the downfall of another by saying something evil (kata vaha), perform voodoo using your nails and hair (which is why you shouldn’t leave the remains of that mani-pedi lying around!) or even give you a stomach ache by looking at you eating something with a salivating mouth! Now don’t you laugh at this as the superstition goes that laughing too much in a day is bound to make you cry soon! This superpower extends into the animal realm, where the ulama wail, a rooster call after morning or a cat’s constant howl signifies a death, while the crow cawing or a cat washing its face indicates arrival of visitors. There is also strength in numbers, as seeing one mayna bird brings bad luck while two means you will meet the person you are to marry within that year.

Marriage has a whole lot of superstitions tied to it. Sometimes horoscope match is a must. At other times the bridal dress colour signifies luck. White for the wedding, red for the homecoming, wear all those prescribed jewelry, ensure no married people are taken as bridesmaids and make sure you leave your wedding at the correct time and perform all those wedding rituals exactly the way they’ve been done for hundreds of years. Why you ask? Because altering any of it causes extreme bad luck that’s why!

Even the direction from which you witness a superstition indicates a level of luck. Meeting someone in front of you with a shaved head first thing in the morning brings bad luck. Scratching your left and right palms bring financial loss and gain respectively. The west, in general is considered an unlucky direction, which is why houses are rarely built with their front door facing the west. Corpses at funerals are kept facing the west and hence, if you are alive and well, you better not sleep facing the west (hint: check your smartphone compass app tonight before you hit the pillow).

Some superstitions date back centuries while others have only recently emerged. Es waha, for instance has gone virtual with some people believing that posting happy selfies and photos of newborn babies on facebook will evoke the evil eye and subsequently bring misfortune on them. Recent political events have resulted in some people also believing that eating hoppers (aappa) with your friend will cause that friend to turn on you the next day, while the presence of a certain political figure at a cricket match will result in Sri Lanka losing the match for sure. As I write these final words on Sri Lankans politics, a gecko is screeching somewhere in this room asking me to stop (hopefully not indicating my impending doom) from which I take my cue to conclude this piece.

Acknowledgments: A big thank you to all my friends that contributed to compiling this superstitions list: may your lives be free from es waha and kata waha!





One Response to Superstitious, Supernatural, Stupendous Sri Lanka

  1. amanda479 says:

    remember u were also a sri lankan baby!!!


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