Folk tales of Sri Lanka – Part 1 Gamarala of Lore

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

“Folklore used to be passed by word of mouth,  from one generation to the next; that’s what makes it folklore, as opposed to, say, history, which is written down and stored in an archive.”

– Jill Lepore

Folktales are not new to any one of us. Many of us grew up listening to them. In every part of the country there are folktales that are unique to geographical areas and to different communities. 

Historians believe that folktales originated as humans learned to communicate verbally. Hence, folktales were transmitted from generation to generation in an oral tradition. These were early forms of entertainment, and ways of transmitting traditional knowledge. Later, these tales were committed to be written, studied and preserved. 

Realising the importance of local folktales, we will take you on a novel journey starting from today; a journey in search of Sri Lanka’s rich culture of folktales. 

Folktales play a significant role in a country’s intangible cultural heritage. Therefore, the fading away of folktales are a reason for concern as they are an aspect of native culture. Rapidly changing socio-cultural trends of course challenge the existence of these folktales.

The most interesting characteristic of folktales is that they continue to evolve as they are transmitted via oral tradition. Therefore, one can even trace the history of folktales. To be a folktale it should be quite old and this is how one can differentiates between a folktale and mere gossip. Certain tales were committed to be written as Sinhalese learnt the art of writing. They were written on ola leaves. Religious stories and tales that recited historic events were written in this way. 

As such, many of our local folktales can be read and studied. Although extensive research has been conducted about folktales in many countries, it has not been so much in Sri Lanka. Henry Parker’s collection of local folktales published in three volumes as Village Folktales of Ceylon is one such great attempt to preserve our folk tales. 

Why are folktales important?

One may ask why folktales should be preserved or cherished and what benefit it has on society. These tales are a reflection of the country’s socio-cultural aspect. The values, beliefs, practices and norms of a society are reflected in this folklore. There also is traditional knowledge in these tales.

Most importantly folktales were a mode that connected people and kept society glued. It enhanced family ties, as adults would recite these tales to the young ones. These times of reciting tales were purely entertaining. They would sing a poem or two, and at times would even enact the story. 

Folktales for children

Learning folktales educates children on many things such as the society they live in, about people and the environment. In most folktales animals play a vital role and these animals represent goodness, courage and loyalty. These are virtues that a child must learn. Children also learn that if one follows the path of greed and evil the results are definitely going to be negative. 

Listening to tales improves patience, the ability to listen and understand, the ability to visualise things and greatly contributes towards the improvement of children’s skills and personality.

As these tales are about people or animals that go through many sufferings, hurdles in life and finally overcome them, children learn empathy, to understand and feel others’ pain. This also helps them to improve their tolerance level which is a must as they move forward in life. It also helps a child to be considerate about others. 

“Folklore is artistic communication in small groups.”

– Dan Ben-Amos

 Folktales of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is losing its traditional culture and values at a notable rapid speed. As many are moving away from their roots inevitably, local folktales are fading away from the consciousness of the masses. If you speak to the youth of today many would not know about local folktales. It is sad that many elders, grandparents and parents and surprisingly even school teachers also are unaware of local folktales. Hence, we will take you on a journey; to far away rural villages in the hill country, to the coastal villages and to the northern plains of the island, and you will learn local folktales. We shall also visit libraries in search of old records and of course the great collection by Henry Parker to read some of the lesser known village folktales. 

The many folktales of Sri Lanka can be categorised based on the communities these tales belong to. There are tales of the Govigama people (those who are involved in agriculture), tales of the Rodi people, or the Kinnara people and tales of the Durava and Karava people. There are also tales unique to the Veddah people. Also these tales can be categorised based on the plot, motifs, characters and so forth.  

Tales of Gamarala 

Out of all the folktales, the tales of Gamarala are the most famous ones. There would not be anyone who has not heard the tales of Gamarala. These light tales are entertaining and at the same time have a lesson to impart. The Gamarala is usually an ordinary Sinhalese villager, mostly a farmer. In some tales he has a Gamamahage and children. In most cases the Gamarala is portrayed as a witless person who acts imprudently. 

The first tale we will present to you today is a tale of Gamarala and a Dhoby (washerman). This tale has many variations; however it is known to be a tale among the Durava people living in the North Western province of the island. 

In the collection of Village Folktales of Ceylon Henry Parker includes this tale in Volume 1. 

The tale of the Gamarala and the Dhoby

One day the Gamarala and the Dhoby were clearing land to cultivate a chenna. While doing so they heard a jungle-cock crowing. 

Then the Gamarala said to the Dhoby,

“Go and catch that bird.”

“While I am away, will you do the chena work?’’ asked the Dhoby, and the Gamarala agreed to do so. 

By the time the Dhoby returned the crops were ripe. The Dhoby requested for his share of the harvest.

The Gamarala said, “I won’t give you any.”

Hearing this, the Dhoby initiated a lawsuit against the Gamarala’s unjust decision. 

On the day of the trial, the Dhoby borrowed a cloth from the Gamarala and wore it. When the trial was going on the Dhoby said, 

“See, now Gamarala will also say that I am wearing his clothes.”

The surprised Gamarala replied,

“Why bolang, if not mine, who else’s is that cloth you are wearing?”

“Oh see, did I not tell you? On this day of trial, why would I borrow clothes from him, and why, being a Dhoby, would I not have any clothes to wear?” questioned the Dhoby. 

Hearing the Dhoby’s ‘logical’ explanation, the judge said that the chenna should be divided into two halves between them.

The two continued to cultivate together. This time it was paddy. They cultivated rice. The agreement was that, whatever grew above the ground was for the Dhoby and whatever grew below the ground was for the Gamarala. Once the rice was ripened, the Dhoby received the paddy and Gamarala had nothing as nothing grew below the ground. 

Then the two cultivated onions. The agreement was changed. The Gamarala was supposed to get what would grow above the ground and the Dhoby would get what would grow below the ground. The Dhoby got the onions and the Gamarala got nothing. 

Then together they bought a buffalo bull. They agreed that the front part of the buffalo was for the Dhoby and the latter half for the Gamarala. 

Then they bought a buffalo cow. The front part of the cow was for the Gamarala and the latter half was for the Dhoby, was the agreement. Hence the calves were for the Dhoby. The Gamarala had nothing. 

Another day, the Gamarala decided to build a house and he started to collect timber. He cut Waewarana, Kaetakala, Milla and Kolon trees which are good timber suitable for house building. 

Imitating the Gamarala, the Doby also started to cut trees saying he was going to build a house. The timber he cut was Paepol, Eramudu and Murunga. These are not suitable for building a house. 

When the two were working, the Gamamahage (wife of the Gamarala) came towards them. Seeing her coming, the Dhoby read a text out of a Nakath potha. 

“If a house is built out of Waewarana, the result is diarrhoea. If it is Kaetakala, the result is a quarrel. If it is Milla, hanging. If a house is built out of Eramudu, it will attract purity, and a house of Paepol, land.”

 Gamamahage said to the Gamarala, “You have once again done something foolish. This timber will only attract illnesses and will bring bad luck for us. If we use the timber cut by the Dhoby, it will bring us luck.”

Convinced by the Gamamahage’s words, the Gamarala went to the Dhoby and asked him to give him the timber the Dhoby had cut and in return take the timber that the Gamarala had cut. Doing so, the Dhoby built a strong house while the Gamarala had nothing. 

 “Folklore is the perfect second skin. From under its hide, we can see all the shimmering, shadowy uncertainties of the world.”

– Jane Yolen

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Uncategorized, Sri Lankan folk tales, Sri Lankan folklore, SRI LANKAN HISTORY