Kuveni and the Yaksa

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Opening of the Vilpattu sanctuary has brought the Kuveni legend back to us, and we find even a place called 'Kuveni Nuwara' near Tabbova.

Despite the myth of the Mahavamsa, most of us believe that Kuveni was real, just as much as Ravana was real. We believe they lived in our country long ago. A leading authority of our culture and our language, Dr. Harischandra Wijayatunga, has published a new book about Kuveni, 'Yakku saha Kuveniya, the betrayal by Kuveni and the annihilation of the Yaksa'.

Bertrand Russell once said, "As a rule, the invaders were less civilized than the people whom they conquered" (The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, P. 46). That is the thought that came to my mind as I read Dr. Wijayatunga's comments about the decline of the Yaksa which happened from the time of the arrival of Vijaya and his group.

Kuveni and her people of the Yaksa society were comparatively highly civilized than some ethnic groups on the mainland. Dr. Wijayatunga commences his introduction by identifying the Yaksa as a group with their own cultural identity, widespread throughout the island. They were engaged in agriculture and international trade. At the time of the first visit of the Buddha to Mahiyangana, the Yaksa had an annual festival. There is evidence that they had a good knowledge of mathematics, iron smelting, ship building and navigation, textile manufacture and also music and arts.

He quotes from the Kohomba Yakkama or Kohomba Kankariya, that Kuveni was the daughter of the Yaksa king Bimba and queen Chandrika. A political organization with a king as the head of state means a highly advanced society of that period. The city of Bimba has been identified as a place where the present day Bimba Raja Maha Viharaya is located.

Tammanna was a busy sea port, which was managed by princess Kuveni. She would have been familiar with the import export trade, cargo handling and also able to communicate with the foreign traders. She was able to recognize Vijaya as a Kshatriya prince. She would have met many traders belonging to the Vaishya clan. Cotton textiles would have been one export commodity, which too had been manufactured near the port, under Kuveni's supervision. The Yaksa would have been a peaceful people, to be able to carry on international trade, not at all the cannibalistic barbarians that come to our mind with the word Yaksa.

If the story of the imprisonment of the 700 men who came with Vijaya is accepted, then Tammanna had a prison which could accommodate 700 prisoners and also a judicial system in place, argues Dr. Wijayatunga.

The origin of the name Tammanna, according to Dr. Wijayatunga could have been from the tree 'Tammanna', (Mischodon zeylanicus Thwaites, family Euphorbiaceae). The term 'Tambapanni' could be a mistranslation into Pali. The plant, endemic to Sri Lanka and South India, is also known as 'Damana' in Sinhala and 'Thampanai' in Tamil, because it is believed to provide protection from serpents.

One interesting fact mentioned in this book is that the two children of Kuveni and Vijaya were named Jeevahatte and Dipella, (quoting from Vamsattapakasini). Sisapathi is the name given to Kuveni's assistant in the Mahavamsa. The name means one who lowers the head in subjugation, which could have been intended to humiliate her and Kuveni. Kuveni is also referred to as a bitch, or that she changed herself into a bitch when she met Vijaya. This could be a legend that was started by her own people in anger and disgust about her treachery in helping a foreign invader to destroy their culture and civilization.

Wijayatunga quotes from 'Hela Maha Yakkama' by G. Ranganath, that Kuveni insisted on Vijaya to swear seven times that he would make her his wife, because she knew a Kshatriya could not be trusted, unlike the Yaksha who were a most honourable people who always kept their word. But Vijaya did not keep his word, once he gained control of the country. The first ever freedom struggle in this country would then have been started by the Yaksa in Sri Lanka, after this, but unfortunately, most of their leaders had been murdered and their wealth plundered, which resulted in the failure of their struggle.

There is a myth that the Veddas are descendants of Kuveni and her people. Since a tribe of Veddas had been living in Lanka alongside the Yaksa, Naga and the Pulinda, the Vedda clan was not founded by Jeevahatta and Dipella (or Disala). Dr. Wijayatunga calls the Veddas the true 'Bhumiputra' of this country, who have retained their identity till now, while we are unable to trace the descendants of the Yaksa and Naga today.

In his book 'Kuveni nam Vu Yak Landa', A. Suddhahami presents a similar view that our chroniclers used derogatory names for the rightful countrymen of Lanka. He says, the name Kuveni or Kuvanna could have been created by our chroniclers by adding the prefix 'Ku', to 'vanna' or 'veni' to mean ugly or of a lower caste. In the same manner the brothers of Kuveni were named 'Kudahedaya', 'Mahahedaya' and 'Datpoottuva'. He also argues that if Kuveni was an evil creature with supernatural powers, she would not have left Vijaya's home with her two children so meekly.

We may not be able to find archaeological evidence to confirm the story of Vijaya and Kuveni, but we already know of civilized settlements around the country, at least one thousand years before the arrival of Vijaya. We have found human settlements, burial sites, iron smelting sites and ritual sites, which someday could be identified as belonging to the Yaksa or Naga people who lived here long before the Aryan language speaking tribes moved in.

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