Maha Sona – the demon of graveyards

In her account of the Tsunami of December 2004 on the coast of Sri Lanka, Sunali Deraniyagala describes the first moments after she had almost drowned and was seperated from her family in the deluge:

“I heard voices. Distant at first, then close. It was a group of men, shouting to each other in Sinhala. They couldn’t see me, or me them. One of them said, “Muhuda goda gahala. Mahasona avilla.” The ocean has flooded. Mahasona is here. Mahasona. I knew the word, but what was he saying? I had last heard that word when I was a child and our nanny told us stories about ghouls and demons. Mahasona, he is the demon of graveyards. Even in my complete bewilderment, I understood. Something dreadful had happened, there was death everywhere, that’s what the man was shouting about.”

According to a Wikipedia article, “Maha Sona or Maha Sohona (Sinhala: මහ සෝනා, මහ සොහොනා) is a central demon in Sinhalese folklore, who is said to haunt afterlife. The name Maha Sona means ” the greatest demon” or “god or demon of the cemetery” in the Sinhala language. It is the most feared god or demon in Sri Lanka. Originally a giant who had been defeated and decapitated in a duel by another giant named Gotaimbara (lived in the 1st century BC), Maha Sonaa has had his head replaced with that of a bear or tiger. He is believed to kill people by crushing their shoulders and also by afflicting illnesses. Traditional exorcism rituals are performed to repel the demon in such cases.”

image from a video on:

Maha Sona seems not to be connected to the sea, to water or to extreme weather. However, the same Wikipedia article also notes that the very group of people who were traditionally called upon to perform these exorcism rituals in Sri Lanka were also the ones most severly hit by the Tsunami: “Exorcists are of a particular caste, the Berawayas, of whom the majority perished in the Boxing Day Tsunami.”

I am not sure, how accurate this is, but I find it noteworthy, that the Tsunami in Deraniyagalas account did not only turn the landscape into a graveyard, haunted by Maha Sona, but also destroyed the tradition of exorcising the demon.

Exorcisms also play a major role in the aftermaths of the 2011 tsunami in the rural society of Tohoku, as reported by Richard L. Parry. (See my post on his book.)

Reconciliation and the ocean, Sonali Deraniyagala.

In her book published in 2013, Sri Lanka born academic and writer Deraniyagala describes her experiences as a flood victim in the Tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean, refered to in English speaking countries as “Boxing Day Tsunami”. Much of the book is devoted to her struggles dealing with the loss of several family members, particularly her two sons and her husband. In one of the final chapters, the narator comes back to the coast of Sri Lanka. While being on a whale watching tour on a small boat out at sea, she eventually finds peace and comfort. The year is 2011: seven years after the events and just some days after the second major tsunami event in the 21. Century, the Tsunami off the Tohoku coast in Japan on March 11. This is an excerpt from the book:

“The men working on the boat tell us they haven’t sighted whales in this sea for some days now. Not since the tsunami in Japan, they say, and they wonder if these creatures were disturbed by it. It is five days now since the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. And I’ve not been able to keep away from those television images. As much as they horrify me, I want to see the meanness of that black water as it crumples whole cities in its path. So this is what got us, I thought, when I saw waves leaping over seawalls in Japan. This is what I was churning in. I never saw the scale of it then. This same ocean. Staring at me now all blue and innocent. How it turned.”

“Where were these whales when the sea came for us? I wonder. Were they in this same ocean? Did they feel a strangeness then? Another whale who was in the distance has come closer now. I hear a loud, low bellow as it exhales. Now the whale inhales. Resounding in this vastness I hear a doleful sigh.”

“These blue whales are unreal and baffling, yet surrounded by them I settle awhile. Somehow on this boat I can rest with my disbelief about what happened, and with the impossible truth of my loss, which I have to compress often and misshape, just so I can bear it—so I can cook or teach or floss my teeth. Maybe the majesty of these creatures loosens my heart so I can hold it whole.”

In this passage, the whales take on the role of ambassadors or links between the two distant coasts and the two distant events, the tsunamis of 2004 and 2011, but also between the ocean and the Woman on the boat. Without any false placation, she is even more aware of the dangers of the sea, she is reconciled with the sea and her own impaired identity.

The whole book is available for free online.

Sunken Lanka

From an article by Patrick Harrigan in the Colombo Sunday Times in 1989:

“One example of a recurrent storytelling motif that appears and re-appears under various guises is that of characters or even whole kingdoms that are said to be ‘sunken‘ or gone ‘underground’ and which may periodically re-surface only to disappear again. Such stories are known the world over, or course, but in Lanka they have been developed into a fine art.

The ‘original’ Lanka is said to be mostly submerged, like an iceberg. In remote antiquity, we are told, Lanka or Lemuria as some call it was a continent that was home to brilliant civilization of exceptional spiritual vitality, but which later catastrophically sank beneath the waters except for the small portion that is Sri Lanka today.

Ptolemy of Alexandria, the 2nd Century AD ‘Father of Modern Geography’, and other ancient geographers consistently reckoned Lanka or Taprobane of their time as being many times greater than the island known to geographers today. Was it really so, or was Taprobane larger only in the imagination of those who saw it or heard of it?”

see full article here.