Vibhishana, the Rakshasa king of Western Province

A fading veneration shielded with unsolved mysteries

In 1909, Henry Parker states in his book Ancient Ceylon that, “the four Guardian Gods (Hatara Waram Deviyo) of Ceylon are, Saman ‘Divya Raja’, in the east; Skanda, in the south; Vishnu, in the west – he is said to have delegated his powers to Vibhishana, the Rakshasa king of Ceylon, who is now treated as a god in the Western Province – and Ayiyanar (called also by Low-Country Sinhalese Boksal), in the north.”

According to Parker Vishnu has given his powers to the Rakshasa king Vibhishana. Vibhishana, the name itself hints of his local roots and the nature of this god.

Veneration of the dead, an age old tradition of the Sinhalese

It is interesting to study the nature of these local gods as each and everyone has a distinguish quality related to their origin. As we have presented in the previous articles, Saman was a local ruler who was incarnate as a god after his death. Mahasen at Kataragama was also a powerful local ruler and was incarnate as a god after his death. Unlike these two, Upulvan was always portrayed as a deity and little is known about his birth as a human. It is not an uncommon practice among the Sinhalese to venerate the dead by personifying them as a deity. The large number of local gods consists of a collection of such deities who were once rulers, powerful villagers or noble men. This practice has its roots in the pre-Buddhists religion of the island. This is one reason that we still do offerings and prayers to our ancestors and dead relatives. Buddhism added value to these pre-Buddhist practices as well as a new meaning to them.

Vibhishana as the god in the Western province

The fourth guardian god Vibhishana, according to folklore, was once a Rakshasa king. He is also known as the younger brother of Ravana and Kuwera. Although Saman, Mahasen and Upulvan are portrayed as Buddhists, Vibhishana is not known to be a Buddhist. His roots can be traced back to the pre-historic times of Sri Lanka. However, Vibhishana is not mentioned among the list of deities venerated during King Pandukabhaya’s time.

His name first appears in the Lankathilaka inscription of the 14th century as one of the four guardian gods of Sri Lanka. Also the 14th century book Nikaya Sangrahaya mentions his name as a guardian god. According to ancient records, there was a splendid Vibhishana devale in Kotte, while it was the capital of Sri Lanka, during the 15th century.

Vibhishana is often mentioned in Sandesha kavyas as a guardian god as well as a god of childbirth. He is also known to be the god of the West, and his abode is at Kelaniya. Kelaniya is known to be an ancient Naga kingdom. According to folklore Vibhishana’s mother was a Naga princess and his father was Pulasti rishi. He is the half-brother of Kuwera, Ravana and Kumbakarna. Kuwera is also venerated as a deity as well as a Mahayana bodhisattva. He is considered as a Disha palaka deity in certain Buddhist schools.

Betraying his own brother

Legend says that during the Rama- Ravana war, Vibhishana supported Rama, against his own brother. After the war, victorious Rama crowned Vibhishana as the king of Sri Lanka at Kelaniya. Since then Kelaniya has been the centre of his power.

A lesser known folklore 

There is a lesser known folklore among rural communities in the North central province and Vanniya area, that King Dhathusena’s son Mugala is Vibhishana. Once Kashayapa was crowned as the king, Mugalan fled to India. He returned back to Sri Lanka with a foreign army. It is said that he had demon-looking eyes (a stare) and once he returned to Sri Lanka with a powerful foreign army, he was titled by the locals as Vibhishana or the terrible one.

A name of an unknown meaning

Based on folklore, the origin of Vibhishana is clearly local. Eminent scholar Arisen Ahubudu questions the source of the name Vibhishana. He raises suspicions stating that Vibhishana could not be the original Sinhala name as it is the name mentioned in Ramayana. He further states that Vibhishana means, terror or the terrible one. But, Vibhishana is not known to be a deity of malevolent nature.

In his writings he states that Vibhishana was converted from the hela word Vi-Bihi-Son, which means, the out lawed son, as he was the one who was responsible for the demise of the mighty Ravana and his kingdom.

Another suggestion could be that as he is of a Raksha origin, and as he is always shown in dark skin and fangs, he was called as the terrible one, or Vibhishana.


Statues of Vibhishana can be seen in many temples and devalas. He is shown in dark skin, mostly a greenish black or a mundane greyish blue. The distinctive feature of his statues are the two fangs shown from the two sides of the mouth. This reminds us of his Raksha origin. There is a wall painting of Vibhishana inside the Kelaniya temple image house that belongs to the late 18th or early 19th century. Also there is a statue of him carved by Solias Mendis during 1932 – 1946 outside the Kelaniya Vibhishana devale wall.

Kelaniya Vibhishana Devale and perahera

Kelaniya temple is one of the major Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka. It is known to be a holy place where Buddha once visited. The ruler during this time is known as king Maniakkita. If the local folklore are to be taken seriously, then the Vibhishana devale must have been there during the time of Maniakkitha. Yet, little is known about the antiquity of this devale.

Apart from the main devale at Kelaniya there are shrines dedicated to him in many Buddhist temples.

The perahera at Kelaniya is in the month of Duruthu, which is January. It is held in Duruthu to commemorate the Buddha’s first visit to Sri Lanka which occurred on a Duruthu full moon day.

The perahera festival consists of three stages while it commences with a series of religious sermons, followed by a pirith ceremony that lasts for a week. The perahers continues for three nights. Then all the usual rituals of a traditional perahera is followed which we have discussed in the previous articles. The entire perahera consists of the Udamaluwa perahera, Dhathu perahera, Pahatha maluwa perahera, Devale perahera and the Grant Randoli perahera.

A fading cult of veneration

It is evident that Vibhishana was at the peak of his popularity during the Kotte kingdom. However, Vibhishana’s popularity didn’t last for a long time as he was no longer considered as a guardian god during the Kandiyan kingdom. Local gods Saman, Vibhishana and Upulvan were removed from this list and Vishnu, Natha and Pattini were included. Pattini has its origins in Sothern India. She was once a beautiful virtuous woman, wronged by her husband, yet she remained loyal and loving to him. Therefore after her death she was venerated as a goddess of chastity and childbirth. It is a well-known fact that Vishnu is a Hindu god. Natha has its roots in Mahayana Bodhisattva veneration. The popular Mahayana Bodhisattva Avalokitheshwara-Natha became Natha deviyo. Pattini is also known to be a Bodhisattva, suggesting a Mahayana influence. Therefore it is clear that the hathara varam deviyo during the Kandyan kingdom is a fusion of Theravada, Mahayana, local gods and foreign gods.

Aiyanayaka and Pulleyar, the god of farmers

Henry Parker states in Ancient Ceylon that Ayiyanar (called also by Low-Country Sinhalese Boksal), is the guardian god in the north. It seems that this was a later addition since his name is not mentioned in the 14th century Lankathilaka inscription nor in any of the 15th century Sandesha kavyas. Yet, villagers in the Vanniya and North Western provinces, venerate Aiyanayaka as a powerful god. He is believed to be a forest deity. Farmers in these areas offers the first harvest to this god on the bank of the river following a set of religious rituals. It is clear that he is a god of the farmers. There is also a belief that the famous carving at Isurumuniya known as Man and the Horse could be a statue of Aiyanayaka. Moreover, farmers in these areas believe that Pulleyar and Aiyanayaka is the same god. Pulleyar is an elephant headed god, popularly known as Ganapati. Pulleyar, which is a term derived from the Pali word pillaka means young elephant.  It should be noted that Ganapati’s oldest known sculpture is found in Mihintale Kantaka chethiya. Ganapati or Pulleyar veneration seems to be an historical solution to the human-elephant conflict by local farmers.

A fusion of beliefs

The concept of four guardian gods of Sri Lanka changed from time to time depending on the popularity of veneration cults. The 14th century inscription of King Buwanekabahu IV is the first inscription that refers to the guardian deities of Sri Lanka. Therefore it is clear that it was after the demise of the Rajarata civilization, veneration of gods became popular. It is natural that the popularity of gods varies from time to time depending on the needs of the devotees. Deities such as Vedi devi, Kaala wela yaksha, Chithra raja yaksha, Pashchima rajini yakshi were venerated during the proto historic times of Sri Lanka and they are not being venerated at present. However, we cannot be sure if these deities were overlapped with gods who became popular later and if their identities were merged into the new ones.

Veneration of gods were not popular among the Sinhalese during the Anuradhapura kingdom. Gods such as Kataragama Mahasen, Saman, Uppalawanna, Vidhishana, Pattini rose to fame during the historic and medieval times. Later during the Polonnaruwa kingdom and later times, various cults and venerations of gods were spread in Sri Lanka. Kali, Visnu, Siva Parvati, Skandha and Ganesh were popular during Polonnaruwa. As the Sinhala kingdom was usurped by the Cholas, their cultural and religious influences were forced upon the Sinhalese. During the time of Damabadeniya and Kurunegala we can see a rise of various gods and goddesses cults. During Gampoala, Kotte and Kandy, veneration of Hindu gods were highly popular in Sri Lanka. Mahanaya Bodhisattva beliefs were also added into this. Deities such as Samanthabarda and Natha are results of Mahayana influences

Vibhishana and his consort

Vibhishana devale at Kelaniya

Vibhishana, the darker figure with fangs. (a mural at Kelaniya temple)

Carving at Isurumuniya

Painting of Ayyanayake

Uncategorized, Aiyyanayake, Ganapati, gods of Sri Lanka, kelaniya temple, local deities, perahera of Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan festivals, Sri Lankan gods, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, Vibhishana