The Ramayana is not part of the mainstream Sinhala religious and cultural tradition in Sri Lanka, because Buddhism has been the religion of the majority of Sinhalas for long. But ancient Sinhala works like Rajavaliya and Ravanavaliya identify Ravana as a Sinhala king and extol him as a great one.
In modern Sri Lanka, there has been a movement to revive Ravana as a cult figure, who represents Sinhala or Sri Lankan nationalism because he was among the first in the island’s history to have resisted an alien/Indian invader. Ravana’s ten heads represent the ten crowns he wore as a result of his being the sovereign of ten countries.
Scholar Arisen Ahubudhu is the current representative of the ultra nationalistic Hela movement founded by the renowned Sinhala litterateur, the Late Munidasa Kumaratunga. The Hela movement has been urging the Sinhalas to go back to their roots shunning Indian, Hinduistic and other alien influences.
In his book Sakvithi Ravana (first published in 1988) Ahubudhu says that Ravana reigned over Sri Lanka from 2554 to 2517 BC. He quotes Ravanavaliya to say that Ravana belonged to the “Sun race” as Ra signifies the sun and vana signifies generation.
Ravana’s ten heads represent the ten crowns he wore as a result of his being the sovereign of ten countries. Ravana’s ancestors ruled over what is now the Polonnaruwa district in North Central Sri Lanka, the name Polonnaruwa being a derivative of the word Pulasthi, the name of the dynasty to which Ravana belonged. Ravana, however, ruled over the entire island and many places beyond.
Ahubudhu trashes the Ramayana story that Rama invaded Sri Lanka because Ravana had kidnapped Sita. According to the author, Ravana’s step brother Vibhishana, had invited Rama to invade Sri Lanka because he was wanting to oust Ravana from the kingship of the island.
“When considering the fact that Sita’s chastity was proved, this can be taken as a story concocted by Yuwaraja Vibhishana in order to discredit Ravana in the eyes of his people and take advantage thereof,” he says.
According to Prof Buddhadasa Hewavitharana, the Sinhalas disapproved of Vibhishana’s conduct. In popular lore, the area to which he belonged to (Kalutara North, near Colombo) came to be known as the land of the Desha Shatru (betrayer of the country).
Sinhala lore has it that Sri Lanka under the scholarly Ravana saw great advancements in science and medicine. The pushpaka vimana or the aeroplane which he flew, was no figment of imagination, they believe. Ravana holds a high position even as a physician and there exists, to this day, seven books on medicine in his name.
According to Munidasa Kumaratunga, Ravana’s medical works Nadi Pariksha, Arka Prakashata, Uddisa Chiktsaya, Oddiya Chikitsa, Kumara Tantraya and Vatina Prakaranaya were originally written in Sinhala and translated into Sanskrit.
Even Indian lore extols Ravana as a Shiva Bhakta and as the composer of the Shivathandawa Stotra. He was a musician, who had fashioned his own stringed instrument called Ravana Vina.
“The Ramayana may not be in the mainstream of the Sinhala religious culture.But it is very much a part of Sinhala folk lore,” says Prof Hewavitharana.
“As children were told stories from the Ramayana to illustrate ideas of good and bad, the moral and immoral.”
There are places in Sri Lanka which are still identified with the Ramayana, like the Sita Eliya in Nuwara Eliya district, where there is a temple dedicated to Sita on the banks of a mountain stream. As per local legend, this was the place where Sita was confined by Ravana.
Then there is a hill called Ravana Elle, which was supposedly the headquarters of Ravana.
There is a temple for Vibhishana in Dondra in south Sri Lanka, even though he is derided for supporting the invader Rama and letting down his brother Ravana. Sita, Bharata and Lakshman are popular Sinhala names. But strangely enough, no Sinhala is ever named Rama!
Opposition from Buddhist purists
But Buddhist religious leaders have always had problems with the Ramayana, as indeed, with other aspects of the local religious life which have a Hindu or Indian origin. When in the 15 century, Vishnu and Shiva worship was gaining popularity in Sri Lanka among the Buddhists, the Buddhist purists campaigned against it.
Prof KNO Dharmadasa, the Editor of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia, points to a 15th century writer who ridiculed the Ramayana in his poems. The poet asked why Rama the God could not hop across to Sri Lanka like Hanuman did, and had to get a bridge constructed. “Could a God’s power be so small in this world?” he wondered.