Folk tales of Sri Lanka – Part 3 Tragic Tale of Giri Devi

Folk tales of Sri Lanka – Part 3 Tragic Tale of Giri Devi – By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

“Everyone creates realities based on their own personal beliefs. These beliefs are so powerful that they can create [expansive or entrapping] realities over and over.”

– Hope Bradford, Beneficial Law of Attraction: The Manifestation Teachings

Folk tales are a valuable part of Sri Lanka’s intangible cultural heritage. Hence folklorists consider them to be a national heritage. They are the life of people’s consciousness that has been flowing for centuries, across generations and across geographical borders. Folklore is all about people’s beliefs, rituals and traditional folk knowledge. They were one of the modes of communication and entertainment of the past when there were no electronic or print media available. Also, these folk tales were all about the political hierarchy and moral order of the past society of the locals. They also hint about the inter-cultural connections that existed and the harmony between many cultures, as some of our folk tales are similar to those in parts of Northern India (Punjab and Kashmir), Eastern India (Bengal), the Middle East and parts of Central Asia. This is the result of ancient trade routes and religious travellers. 

Reading these folk tales are fun, entertaining and at the same time educational. Sri Lankan folk tales are a glimpse into traditional Sinhalese village life and the island’s culture and history. Out of the many folk tales, tales of Gamarala and tales of Narihami (known as the Golden-jackal) are the most common and widely known ones. Ceylon Today Heritage presented two lesser-known tales of Gamarala in our last segments. 

Tales about dark human traits

Among the lesser-known local folk tales of Sri Lanka, tales about supernatural beings, deities and demons are not commonly known by the masses. Many of the locally-venerated or feared deities, demons and other mythological creatures have interesting origin stories. Some of them are tragic, gruesome and fearsome, which symbolises deep dark human traits. 

These tales are not merely about mythological or divine creatures but also tales about you and me. These tales are about the many tragedies of society and how social injustice, prolonged pain and suffering could give birth to more injustice, making it a never ending vicious cycle. These tales are also about the never-ending battle between good and bad, dharma and adharma, justice and injustice and the power game in which you and I are all a part of. 

Giri Kumari or the Princess of the Mountain

In today’s segment of Sri Lanka’s folk tales, we will present to you the catastrophic and tragic tale of Giri Devi or the Goddess of the Mountain. It is the tragic story of a woman who was wronged, molested, and had to pay with her life for the sins of others. The suffering, shame and trauma made her take her own life. The folk tale has done justice to her by reincarnating her as a goddess while the perpetrator was reincarnated as a demon who still dwells out there in hunger and greed and who has to obey mightier gods and serve humans when commanded to do so. He is Gara Yaka – one of the most known and feared demons of local folklore. 

Giri Kumari becomes Giri Devi

There was once a king and queen in the kingdom of Danthapura in India. The king was Singha and his Queen was Hansawathi. Queen Hansawathi gave birth to a baby boy. He was named Prince Dala. At his birth, pundits said that he would one day bring disgrace to the family and would molest his own sister. 

After some time, Queen Hansawathi gave birth to a second child. This time it was a daughter. She was as beautiful as a lotus. Fearing the warning of the pundits, the king and queen hid the new born princess in a cave situated on a mountain, deep inside a forest. She had her own maids and security. Since she lived in a cave on a mountain she was called the Princess of the Mountain or Giri Devi. She grew up into an extraordinary beauty. 

Soon stories about her beauty were spread across the kingdom and Prince Dala also heard of them. According to some versions of the folk tale, he learnt about her through the princess’s redinanda, while some tales say that he learnt about her through the princess’s kiriamma. All these stories Dala heard were about the princess’s extraordinary beauty and grace. 

Tempted by these tales Dala wanted to see his sister. But the king would not allow him. He made a plan to deceive his parents. In the guise of going hunting he went into the forest where the princess lived. According to some versions Dala said that he was sick and would not recover unless he was fed a cup of porridge by his sister. Giving in to Dala’s adamant stand, the king and queen allowed Dala to see his sister.

After Dala met his sister, he was mesmerised by her beauty. Out of lust, being unable to control himself, he fulfilled his lustful desire by molesting the princess. According to some variations of this tale, the princess was not aware of who Dala was. Hence she fell in love with the young prince. Later realising who he was, driven out of anger, sorrow and shame, she hanged herself and ended her life. Some tales say that the princess was pregnant when she died hence her anger and vengeance were at the extreme. People believe that she was born as a goddess and some believe she was born as a yakshi. 

Hearing the unfortunate fate of Giri Devi, the king ordered Dala to be punished. However, some versions of the folk tale say that Dala too killed himself and was born as a demon – the Gara Yaka. 

Yellow flower that killed her

Another version of this tale we heard goes like this: 

When Dala visited the princess, he stuck his sword on the ground, and it touched some yam growing under-ground.  Subsequently, they cut off some fruits using the same sword and the yam juice was mixed with fruits they consumed. This aroused erotic feelings in both of them. After getting back to their senses, they both realised what happened and out of shame committed suicide. The yam that caused all this chaos was called naga maru ala or the ‘yam that killed the sister’. After death they both were reincarnated as gods or demons. 

However, the popular folk tale around naga maru ala is different. 

According to folklore, a sister and a brother were walking across a jungle during a time of famine. Food and water was scarce. The sister dug a hole in the ground and drank some water. As a result her erotic feelings were aroused. To control his sister’s inappropriate behaviour the brother killed her, out of anger and shame. He later learned that the water she drank was mixed with the juice of a yam that grew underground when it was cut. 

This yam was called naga maru ala in the local language which is the commonly known daffodil orchid (Ipsea speciosa), a rare wild orchid (a ground orchid) which bears a bright yellow flower of a sweet scent. The extract of this plant is used as an ingredient to make aphrodisiacs in local medicine. 

This flower was portrayed in a 75 cent local stamp. 

“The forest rose like a dream

From the mind of Chaos’s lonely daughter

And the sun fell heavy and thick

To warm the blood of a world

Not quite ready to live

But so tired of its own imagination”

– Tamara Rendell, Mystical Tides

Giri Devi in folk culture

In local folk belief Giri Devi was worshipped in the ancient Rajarata area, especially among farming communities in Anuradhapura. Although this ritual does not exist anymore, it is said that there once was a baliya performed to evoke the blessings of Giri Devi by local farmers. The Giri Devi baliya was a ritual performed to procure rain and protect the crops.

The Kohomba Yak Kankariya, which is performed to overcome Kuveni’s curse to Vijaya and his male descendants, pays homage to twelve avatars of Giri Devi. 

As Prince Dala molested his own sister which means he could stoop so low, in local folk beliefs, it is said that Gara Yaka (a reincarnation of Dala) could destroy any obstacle or illness that falls upon humans. That is why at the end of any vina karma or yathu karma (local folk belief rituals) Gara Yaka is invited to demolish all obstacles (dos). 

Later additions

Later scholars and folklorists have attempted to extend the tale of Giri Devi and Gara Yaka by adding more characters and incidents to it. In some of those tales, Sakra and Senasuru are added into the tale and Giri Devi was given in marriage to Gara Yaka, the very person who was the cause of her unfortunate tragic fate.

Although local villagers have done justice to the dead princess by venerating her as a fearsome yet benevolent deity, some modern scholars and later additions have retouched the original folk tale with their patriarchal and chauvinistic mindset. 

“A demoness is what men call a goddess they cannot control.”

– Rin Chupeco, The Never Tilting World

Original story published on

Uncategorized, Gara yaka, Giri Devi, Naga maru ala, Sri Lankan folk tales, Sri Lankan folklore