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Bird lore in Lanka's culture

From time immemorial Sri Lankan villagers who usually made their living as farmers always came in direct contact with nature, especially wild animals, about whom there developed a large store of superstitious stories, sayings and beliefs some of which are also rich in humour. Most of the wild animals were friends of the villagers and a few were their foes.

Parrot

Owl

From their ancestry the Sri Lankan villagers were strong believers of the principle of transmigration and devil worship; and the beliefs and observations of the habits and special features of wild animals especially of the fauna of the country, increased immensely as a result of which many legends came into existence. Some of the bird lore which are still prevalent in far away villages in Sri Lanka are both interesting and humorous and some contain a tinge of philosophy.

The house sparrow (Ge kurulla) is a little lovable bird whose habits have been under close observation for quite a long time. Sri Lankan bird lore tells us how the black patch on the male bird's throat came into being. It tells us that a house under the eaves of which a pair of these birds had built their nest and was nursing their young ones caught fire. The female bird had run away in fright while the cock-bird had fought bravely to save its young one from the flames. In this brave act the male bird is said to have burnt its throat and the mark that testifies to the bravery and the paternal love of the bird still remains as a black patch on its throat.

The breeding of sparrows in houses is considered to bring good luck and to encourage the birds to build nests in human dwellings people place damaged old pots on their walls. There is yet another strong belief that if a sparrow builds a nest in a house and begins to rear its young in that building the owner would be blessed with children. It is also said that house sparrow eggs are used to charm objectionable tom-tom beating whereby the collapse of the instrument is caused.

The domestic fowl or hen (Kukula or Kikili) has been a household bird from time immemorial. A very common village saying connected with the domestic fowl is Kukula andalana kota negitinne (wake up when the cock crows).

Villagers believe that a white cock would bring happiness and luck and is, therefore, lovingly reared in homes and even in some temples. It is also a bird which has served the purpose of an alarm especially in ancient Sri Lanka. It is considered a good omen if a cock crows when one is to set out on an important journey.

House sparrow

The owl (Bakamuna) is considered as a very unlucky bird and there are several stories and beliefs about it. In the villages people believe that its hooting will bring about a sudden death to someone in the village. It is also said that some parts of its body are used in black magic or huniyan and that the bark of the tree taken off while the owl is on the tree and before it has finished screeching, is also used for charming purposes.

Devil bird

The devil bird (Ulama) named after its haunting cry, remains a mystery. Those living in the neighbourhood of thick jungles consider it to be a bird of terror and ill-omen and little children shiver at its spine-chilling cry. Many believe that the cry of the devil bird is such an ill-omen that it will be surely followed by a sudden death of someone. The parrot (Girava) of which there are several varieties in Sri Lanka, has been immortalised in the Jataka stories.

Some attribute the powers of speech of the parrots to a unique honour bestowed on them by the Buddha himself in a previous birth. The crow (Kaputa or Kaakka) is also a very common bird about which there are many beliefs and it features in several Sinhala folk tales. One strong belief is that a crow's cawing near a human dwelling announces the imminent arrival of some unexpected visitor.

The common babbler (Demalichcha) has perhaps got its name from the resemblance of a group of these birds to a band of noisy Tamils. The magpie robin known both as Polkichcha (coconut bird) as well as Pahan-Kichcha (Dawn bird) is observed to sing in the early morning and late evening. Usually it has a melodious voice and sometimes emits a low ominous sound as a result of which villagers have established it to be a bird of ill-omen.

Even town folk consider the magpie robin with a certain amount of horror mingled with superstition. This bird is believed to be an incarnation of Huniyan Yaka and its voice especially the ominous singing, is believed to announce bad news and is considered a message of misfortune and death. If this bird builds its nest in homes, villagers consider it the greatest misfortune and usually chase it away from the neighbourhood of their dwellings.

Maha Sohona

The black robin (Kalu Polkichcha) is believed to be an incarnation of a devil, Maha Sohona, and it is said that this bird's body is used by the villagers in the preparation of charms.

Magpie robin

Another bird, the Indian Koel (Koha) has earned the admiration of the villagers by its loud, musical voice. The paradise flycatcher popularly known as Gini Hora (fire thief), Kapu Hora (cotton thief) or Redi hora (cloth thief) is considered to be transmigrated representatives of human beings who have been dishonest and the colour (red or white) of the birds is believed to depict the colour of the articles that had been stolen.

The spotted dove (Kobeiya) is a bird whose somewhat mournful voice has attracted the attention of the Sinhala villagers from time immemorial. There is a widespread legend among them which accounts for the mournful voice of this bird.

It says this bird is the reincarnation of a wicked woman who had killed her own child and up to this day the bird goes round the world lamenting for her dead son. The pond heron (Koka) or the night heron (Kana Koka) is known for its cry at night which is believed to be an ill-omen and that if the bird cries while in flight over a house it is a sure warning that death will come soon to an inmate of the house. There are many Sinhala sayings about the Koka too.

It is interesting to recall that some of the well-known Sinhala poems are written in the form of messages or Sandesayas which the poets imagined to entrust to some bird to deliver safely.

The following are some of these popular Sandesayas, most of which begin with a rich poetic description of the bird entrusted with the delivery of the message. Mayura Sandesaya (Peacok's message), Selalihini Sandesaya (Grackle's message), Paravi Sandesaya (Pigeon's message), Tisara Sandesaya (Swan's Message), Savul Sandesaya (Cock's message) and Gira Sandesaya (Parrot's message).

 

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