I know little about Yaksha, may be little more than you, but not much. I grew up in a 20th century Colombo misspoken as a tropical suburb of anal London, where long hair, zesty music and dancing provoked epithets of “Yaka!” and “Veddha!”
As we stiffly put on the bourgeois linens and lineaments of the white man’s narrow world view, we’d be spooked (especially at twilight, when we heard drums) about ‘devil dancing’ in the dark exurban moors beyond. Perhaps our unease echoed for the carpetbagger Vijaya who, as he lay down to betray Kuveni, heard the yakbera of her kin in the distance.
Yet little did we know of the nuance in the therapeutic traditions of thovil and huniyam, now recognised as creative expressions of community psychology (lacking patronage by corporate pharmaceutical pushers, hence still not ‘acceptable!’)
No healing function
Today’s ‘devil dances,’ evicted out of their healing function into the docile theatres of ‘modern dance,’ offer no panaceas to anyone other than merchant sponsors and related beneficiaries in Colombo.
As children, if we grew hair long, we were equated to the hirsute Veddhas, who were supposedly “more civilised than us,” knowing little that Veddhas were not just the reconnoitering units of all our armies of yore, but our closely related kinfolk, who took the brunt of the English genocides of 1818 and 1848.
Perhaps to physically distance the English army from local warriors, the colonial state demanded in 1906 that: “Army Volunteers in Ceylon … no longer wear a konday (tuft).” Which led the Ceylon National Review to sally: “We suppose it interferes with the defense of the Empire, still we can’t help wondering why.” Drums too were downgraded as the province of so-called lower castes.
Beyond such phobias of hair and drums, we learn that Kuveni, one of the earliest misapprehenders of a neighbourly foreign policy, was a Yakini, an adept weaver of textiles, whose industry was distracted by what the sea dragged in. And her children, who became the Veddhas, were protected by Kalu Kumara Yaka, our Dark Prince. But the most interesting anecdotes I hear about Yaksha relate to their skill in working iron.
Now the importance of the production of iron in Lanka, in our past, let alone for our future, is being increasingly recognised as a must for modernity – though intellectuals or policy makers may be the last to know it while the merchants who money them may not allow it. The working of iron and steel was an early art on this isle. The famed Damascene swords of the 9th century Knights of Syria were produced in Matale, and some say it was the organisation of steel production that brought down Raman envy on Ravana, as it was what wrought Kashyapa’s power in Sigiri.
History may be the history of states and the classes of feuding fools who ran them, but more importantly it is the history of the tools that built those states. Yet, it is not by using tools or making tools that a society is now measured, but by the making of the machines that make machines and tools. The Englishman Arthur presumably became king by pulling a sword out of a stone. This legend mystified not his machismo but his ability to organise miners of the metal to pull it out of the ground, and smiths to make the swords. The Yakadaya aka smith, usually a military chief, was the most important artisan in any village, hence the preponderance of the suffix -nayake, aka Na Yaka, aka Smith, in all cultures. Even Perera is from Ferrera. Iron. As is Fabrici and Lefevres. Even as Silva is from wood. People who physically developed the society.
It is the Lankan villages where iron and weapons were made that were repeatedly devastated by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English. In such ways, have we ‘forgotten’ how to make steel, and prioritised the mercantile compunctions that turn our finest steel workshops into gated real estate for the mistresses of merchants and politicians, just as we ‘forget’ what has kept our society going through this long scourge of colonial rule?
If the Roman symbol for war was iron and was worshipped as “Mars,” then October is indeed the month of iron, when the world’s humongous weapons’ dealers grab their trillions from public purses. It’s that Gregorian month of the Pentagon when the corporate media scares a lugubrious world with ‘foreign’ plots and other imminent ‘attacks,’ and then invades an African, Asian or American country without intercontinental aerial defences (now an indispensable tool of sovereignty), to install not democracy but NATOcracy.
Trick or Treat
No coincidence then that their October ends with “Halloween,” when white North Amerikan settlers go around scaring each other for fun, shaking their ‘loot’ bags, crying “Trick or Treat!” (‘Loot’, interestingly, is a Bengali word, which entered the English language after the English looting of Bengal in 1757. While ‘trick’ also refers to a prostitute’s client).
After the annual Halloween scare, and the huge Pentagon budget is passed, they celebrate “Thanksgiving,” presumably about how “Indians” taught starving fundamentalist ‘Pilgrims’ to grow corn and carve turkey. Those “Indians,” who were “Indian’ long before the ones next door became ‘Indian,” then retreated far from that dining table.
The day we can all give thanks is yet to come. Let us till then see how modern Yaksha should greet a broke NATO, slobbering, “Trick or treat!” at our door.