Half up the stairs leading up to the shrine room in the Dalada Maligawa is a reproduction of a famous painting. I have seen it so many times that I usually pass without looking at it properly. It’s a painting of a woman and a man — the woman with her hair in an elaborate top knot. I memorized her name at school, along with many other things I only half understood. Princess Hemamala who, along with her husband, is said to have brought the tooth relic to Sri Lanka, the relic hidden in her hair for protection.
When I was growing up, I remember hearing people say that it was unlucky for a woman to enter the Maligawa pattirippuwa (Octagon). I remember being vaguely aware of the story without thinking much about it.
It’s only now that it seems incongruous. The tooth relic was brought to Sri Lanka by a woman. If not for a woman the Maligawa itself would not exist since its purpose is to house the tooth relic. But it’s now believed (by some) that a woman in the Maligawa pattirippuwa brings bad luck. Why such a paradox? How did women become written as the villains in a story that they helped make?
There are other stories like that which I remembered while watching the play ‘Maya’, recently performed in Colombo. The play is told mainly through dance and mime, with minimal dialogue. It tells the story of a prince who sails across the sea to conquer a (mythical) island of ‘demon women’. Their queen is captured and all her subjects killed except for two — a young girl, Maya, and her teacher.
The play can be read to a certain extent as a retelling of the Wijeya Kuveni story. But in this version the women fight the prince — and win. And it is the prince who is the villain. It is a beautiful production and interesting for its retelling of a myth. It is something we need to do more of.
Kuveni, Hemamala, Vihara Maha Devi, Queen Anula. The women in our history and myths exist. But they seem to exist mostly as ‘bad’ temptress figures (Kuveni) or ‘good’ women praised for their obedience (Vihahara Maha Devi)
It’s at odds with what women actually do in Sri Lanka. Women have jobs, support themselves and their families, earn money, run businesses, and are heads of households though they seldom call themselves that. They are not passive. But our myths and history haven’t caught up.
Casting women in particular roles happens in histories everywhere. But we still accept these versions. When Hemamala played such an important role in Buddhist history, why are women considered bad luck? Do we have to accept that?
As cultures evolve they question and reinterpret their histories and myths. We instead seem to be moving in the opposite direction — increasingly venerating accepted versions of history, even to the point of ridiculousness. In the recent past ‘Vijayagrahanaya’ became a popular word with politicians. A MP recently created a fuss in Parliament about the naming of several newly discovered species of gecko after historical figures. “Our heroes are not geckos”, he is said to have proclaimed. “If you touch a gecko’s tail, it snaps. Our heroes are not like that.”
There seems to be an increasingly conservative movement back to the past, by politicians and priests. In this mythologized past men were warriors who fought and women knew their place. It’s good to remember though that politicians only spin stories for a receptive audience. Perhaps refuge in nostalgia is comforting when the present is uncertain. The past may be less confusing than trying to deal with a changing present.
In Greek mythology Achilles is usually considered the hero of the Trojan war. In ‘The Silence of the Girls’, a recent novel by Pat Barker, the story of the Iliad is narrated from the perspective of a Trojan woman who is captured by the Greeks. The title says a great deal. In wars and history the woman’s voice is often silent.
When we read history we are reading someone’s account. The Mahavansa was written by Buddhist priests who were men. That is not to detract from its value as a historical account. But it is not a truth set in stone. What did Vihara Maha Devi feel about being a passive sacrifice? Did she support the wars Dutu Gemunu fought? History isn’t just dates and names and there will never be a definitive account. But asking questions is a beginning.