Rewriting ‘His’tory; a need of a feminist approach to Sri Lankan history

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

 “The female warrior knows how to fight without violence. She knows when not to raise her sword, but instead hold up her heart. Her shield is not a defence against others but a shelter for all.”

– Riitta Klint

As we celebrated Women’s Day on 8 March, it seems as if the world has suddenly realised it is important to talk about women and their rights. There are free giveaways and offers; there are functions and discussions held to ‘celebrate’ womanhood. Women-centric matters are discussed; solutions are presented and yes, implemented too. But how practical are we? 

As long as a woman does not feel safe and respected in our society, in every aspect of her life, yes, in every aspect, humanity remains threatened and dishonoured; because women’s issues are issues of all human beings. Reviewing our society in depth, it is evident that many things are not so correct with regards to the honour and safety of women. Although we have laws, policies and ethics that do emphasise on safeguarding the honour, safety and betterment of women, at the most pragmatic level, there still lie so many unsolved and unaddressed issues. This is mainly due to the great regressive and backward thinking of the masses; in other words, male chauvinistic attitudes towards women. 

As we celebrate womanhood this month, Ceylon Today’s Heritage page will focus on why we should celebrate womanhood of the past and focus on a feminist approach to heritage studies. This is an attempt to meet our great grandmothers, whose names we do not know, but whose lives have shaped ours and whose struggles have impacted ours today. The stories of these women are not recorded in detail in our chronicles, as they were supposed to be veiled in the darkness; anonymous and unknown. 

Yet, we cannot ignore their immense contribution towards our culture and civilisation. If not for them, no celebrated warrior nor great architect or engineer would have ever existed; if not for their sacrifices and silent battles, the story of mankind would have been different. She is a mother, a wife, a daughter, a lover; she is a queen. 

Feminism and heritage studies in Sri Lanka

Rarely has the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka been studied from a feminist perspective. The roles of women of our past are not clearly known yet. As Dr. Lorna Dewaraja writes in the preface of Prof. Indrani Munasinghe’s book, Parani Lakdiva Kanthava, although there have been many studies and publications about the socio-cultural aspects of ancient Sri Lanka by university professors and academics, this information is limited only to a page or even less than that. And that too is all about marriage rituals and women’s clothes. 

According to Dr. Dewaraja, such observations are entirely from a male’s perspective. She further states that in most of our ancient literature women are portrayed as objects of pleasure, beautiful damsels playing and romancing in ponds or balconies. This is once again from a male’s perspective and even today the entertainment industry portrays women as such. 

However, studying the past culture of Sri Lanka we encounter female warriors who fought actual battles on the battlefield, queens who ruled fiercely and ruthlessly as some chroniclers would portray them, bhikkhunis who travelled across geographical borders to far lands such as China, authors and poetesses such as the ones who composed the Dipavamsa and who wrote on the Sigiriya mirror wall. 

Seeing beyond Kuveni…

In our folklore and known history, women are mostly portrayed as the damsel in distress. The tale of Kuveni, although we never know if she was a historical figure or not, symbolises the damsel in distress, how it is expected in a male dominant society. The tale we know of Kuveni was not composed by a woman and it was not composed to tell the agonies of a woman who was exploited. The role we see as Kuveni is what exactly society today expects from a woman; being submissive and veiled. The tale could symbolise the rise of patriarchy and the demise of the mother goddess worshiping cult that once existed or of a hypothetical matriarchic society. 

Some scholars suggest that the tale of Kuveni, similarly to the tales of Chithra and Viharamaha Devi, echoes the essence of Greek mythology. It is a known fact that ancient Greece was severely patriarchic and women were oppressed and secluded. This ancient culture believed that women were only to marry, bear children and take care of the house, and were also considered shameful and deceitful. These ideas are evident in the early tales of local Pali chronicles. In some of these early texts, which very closely remind us of Greek mythology, women are portrayed as demonesses who will destroy the life of the pious male protagonist. 

In the tale of Kuveni, she is described as a shape-shifting, three-breasted demoness. When she was to be the bride of the male protagonist, the tale describes her as beautiful and blissfully young. Once she was wronged by her husband and she curses him, where she is described as a demoness, ugly, dark skinned, and with a glass tongue. Her curse is symbolised through a fierce leopard. This tale reminds us about the tale of Kali, the dark-skinned goddess of Hindu mythology. She is often depicted with a lion or a tiger, and with a fierce appearance. Kali is often depicted as slaying the human headed buffalo demon, Mahisa.  

This is a brief list of a few women who are mentioned in the history of Sri Lanka yet need to be studied further. As we never considered a feminist approach for history and heritage studies, these characters barely mentioned by male writers, are veiled in the darkness of the past.  

– In the story about Buddha’s visit to Mahiyangana, according to folklore, Saman’s sister Maha Loku Akka is mentioned as a local ruler and that she refused to embrace Buddhism although her brother did so. Her cult still exists

– In the account of Nagadeepa, the princess who owned the precious chair (it is interesting to know that this royal woman inherited the family heirlooms after the death of her father. This usually is a characteristic of a matriarchic society). She was the mother of Chulodhara. This chair was the reason the two kings declared war against each other

– The story of Kuveni, her maid Sisapati (the chronicler refers to her as a she-dog) and her daughter, who is known to be the founder of the Pulindas (modern day Veddas?)

– The tale of Chithra and the newborn girl child who was exchanged for Chithra’s son. The warrior woman, to whom the chronicle refers to as a demoness-mare, played a vital role in Pandukabhaya’s battle

These are only a few examples taken from local chronicles and folklore. The other named women and their contribution is vaguely mentioned in these texts. In contrast, our ancient inscriptions mention a notable amount of female names and information about them. Local folklore hides remnants of strong women who are often portrayed as she-devils. This is the most infuriating feature in most of the ancient texts and folklore; the damsel in distress portrayed as divinely beautiful with no voice of her own and submissive while the strong, independent woman is portrayed as ugly, rough and a demoness. 

Why interpret our ancient culture from a male’s perspective?  

Women have always been portrayed as objects of pleasure, except for a few instances and we still continue to do so. I will give you one example. Following these traditions, our modern historians confidently say that during ancient times local women walked around bare-chested. This confident conclusion is solely based on what they observe through ancient visual arts and literature, unable to accept or failing to understand that they are works of art. Furthermore, these observations and analysing has been done by male scholars. 

Well, isn’t it once again what the male’s mind is pleased to see women as? How practical is it to walk around bare-chested, considering the work an average woman has to do in a day, in a tropical country? Working in the fields (farming), doing household chores, travelling, taking care of the cattle, working in industries such as textile weaving, doing pottery and the coir industry? There were women who fought in battles too. Hence, how far from the reality is this conclusion?  

This is why we need a proper feminist approach to heritage studies in Sri Lanka. We rarely interpret the history and culture of Sri Lanka from a female’s perspective. I will state another example. The well known gorgeous ornament known to be found at Sigiriya is interpreted as an ear ornament; once again by male scholars. If you consider the weight of this ornament and the style it is impossible to be an earring. If one suggests a hook was attached to the part, and then worn as an earring, still the weight of it would have been impossible to bear, unless the woman would stand still, doing nothing. 

These examples may sound absurd; nevertheless the gist of it is, to emphasise the need of a feminist approach in local heritage studies and to stop interpreting the role of women in ancient Sri Lanka from a male’s perspective. A feminist approach in history and archaeology means re-reading our history from a woman’s perspective, understanding her role in shaping the history and culture of mankind, identifying and discovering female rulers, writers, philosophers, artists and so forth. It is important to do so as the history of mankind will always remain unstudied until we know what role ‘she’ actually played in it. 

It is not only about the past, but also the present. It is disheartening that no matter how great female scholars in the disciplines of history and archaeology we had, their immense contribution is rarely appreciated. It is also a known fact that this discipline is mainly male-dominant and male-centric. Despite the large number of female students studying archaeology at universities, their contribution towards the discipline in a greater scope is not that satisfactory. The situation is not as such only in the Sri Lankan context but true even internationally. 

The sexual harassment (verbal/written, physical and visual) women have to go through in the field of archaeology is a global challenge that keeps most female scholars from choosing field work limiting them to indoor work. This is due to the regressive and chauvinistic attitude males have towards women. This is the very reason we need a feminist approach to change the attitude of this male-centric, male dominant discipline and respect women. 

“Because sorry to say, women run the house. They run the family. They hold things up. I mean, it’s like you don’t ever see your Mom get sick because she handles everything. And it’s kind of amazing I think to show people just how strong women are.”

– Sophia Bush

Uncategorized, Feminist approach to archaeology, Sinhala queens, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, Sri Lankan women