Saturday Magazine
Remembering Sinhala folk songs of a by gone era

By Godwin Witane

In olden times Sinhala villagers when they toiled in the paddy field, worked in plumbago mines, rowed boats, drove bullock carts, especially in the nights had a sweet song on their lips. They were capable of expressing their ideas, thoughts and feelings in the loveliest poetry to be found in the Sinhala language, which were spontaneous feelings arising in simple minds. They sang their way into our hearts.

Our sweetest songs are those that speak of sad thoughts. It was sorrow that produced great poetry. The voice of the unknown poet, they are just a memory now, a dying culture. In modern times with the introduction of television, cassette player and radio these songs and Siv Pada have come out of place, become unpopular and gone into limbo. The carters’ songs are one of the richest sources of Sinhala poetry. At the beginning of the 20th century, before the arrival of the motor lorry and motor car the bullock cart reigned supreme in order of transport of both men and goods. The carter breaks the stillness of the night with his melodious song dispelling the loneliness of the night and also avoiding falling asleep he went into rupturous singing while the cool night atmosphere reverberated with his lovely Siv Pada. The carter who transfers his suffering into song and music of the night in bitter loneliness clearly testify to his simplicity of character of the times. These songs conveyed in the simplest language handed down by our forefathers lightens the lonely dark hours of the carter. They morally belong to the oral tradition wedded to the simple life of the villager. One common song is the one in which the carter bares his mind in sympathy for the bulls that have to climb the lofty Haputale Hill with a fully loaded cart. He regrets his failure to give them some respite at the cattle pound in Katukele. He expresses his belief in Karma according to Buddhist teaching where it teaches that one has to atone in this world for the sins committed in a previous birth.

Tandale denna depole dakkanawa,

Katukele Gaale nolihaa vada denawaa,

Haputale kanda dekalaa bada danawaa,

Pau kala gono edapan Haputale yanawa.

The carter’s life is a difficult one often travelling both day and night. To ease the strain and also to avoid falling asleep he went into rupturous singing and the cool night breeze helped to soothe his aching vocal chords.

Although the cart and the bull are seldom seen on our roads now the songs of the carter are still fresh in our memory. The famous lyricist and songster Maxi Jayaweera has revived the carters’ song bringing forth the affinity that existed between the carter and his bull which earned him his living. This emotional song enhances our inborn sympathy and compassion for the exploited animal, the bull. The song arouses most sentimental feelings and is soul enlivening. The first lines of the song run thus:

Beri bara kare thiyang, depayata vaaru arang,

Ape bada kata purawanawaa,

Rae seepada kiyamin, seethalayata gehemin,

Haputale kanda naginawaa.

Having eulogised the bull and thanked it for the service it renders the owner, the carter makes a solemn promise to his animal, his bread winner, that when in old age it is unable to draw the cart anymore he would never sacrifice it to the butcher so that its flesh be enjoyed by man.

Umbata waaru nethi venakota, umba naaki wee yankota,

Mama umbata viweka denawaa,

Umbe mus minissunta, kawadawath nodenna,

Mama umbata porondu venawaa.

The chena cultivator when he went to his watch hut in the chena to protect his crop from wild animals, he had ample leisure to put his thoughts and emotions into words composed into songs called Siv Pada. In his lonely hut words came to him from the depth of his heart exposing his feelings as anxiety, hope and sometimes disappointments at the failure of his crop due to wanton damage caused by wild animals or when expected rain did not come in time, he lamented his fate blaming even the rain gods. Sometimes fellow cultivators sing ‘Pel Kavi’ in competition with one another while being engaged in vigil in their individual huts that are distant apart.

Pera kaale thenuu pelpatha diraala,

Ema kaale bendapu veta gon kadaala,

Pelpathe goyam reka reka balaala,

Nidi mathe kiyami siv pada tanaala.

The hut I constructed then is now dilapidated. Even the fence I constructed at the time was destroyed by cattle, While I keep watch over the paddy from my hut, I fall asleep in the night singing siv pada composed by me. The reply from the other companion in the other hut ran as follows:

Sooriya udaa wanathuru pini bevilla,

Paaruwa padina thuru saagare selavilla,

Maaruwa bala balaa sita yata kerakilla,

Kariya kerenakan kageth rewatilla.

The falling of the dew lasts only until the rising of the sun. The stirring of the water in the sea lasts as long as the padda boat moves. It is so long as they achieve their ends that one deceives another. When composing songs one is always contemptuous with genuine experience behind them. They unlock their minds breaking out into appropriate song to relieve their minds from agony of their lonely nights. These old primitive impromptive musical songs mercifully still linger to attract us in their simplicity but how much longer?

The following song in one way expresses one’s sentiments and also the environment such as the description of local scenes in using ordinary language. The bond and affinity that exists between the members of a rural family and their feelings for each other is vividly described in the following songs

Appuchcha apey gedera kitula vagey,

Amma eh kitule peni vaagai,

Akka eh kitule mala vaagei,

Para amma maussa kola vagei.

The father is compared to the kitul tree in their garden probably by the younger daughter in the family. The mother is compared to the treakle obtained from the tree sweet and pleasing. She describes the elder sister’s flowing hair to the kitul flower with its bunch of hanging trails. She seems to desist the step-mother and compares her to the leaves of a jungle creeper which if applied on the skin would produce irritation.

When engaged in harvesting a matured paddy crop the harvesters do so singing wonderful songs that come to their lips quite naturally and with ease.

Sinduth sive padai thena thena inda kiyana,

Binduth dahadiyai nalalee thora novena,

Pera kale paven Galkooru ugulana,

Landuth hondha ruwai hene Madu nelana.

We sing siv pada as we rest here and there. All the time little drops of perspiration appear on our foreheads without end. We have to sweat while we pluck Galkooru plants because of the sins committed by us in our past births. But the damsel who plucks Madu leaves at the hena is very beautiful. The following song describes a conversation between a young man and a woman whose daughter he wishes to marry.

Nende numbey duwa denawada Buk masata,

Kaasi mudal netha baeno mata denna.

Kaasi motada gaha kolanam hondai mata,

Eabawa kiyaapan nende maamata.

Aunty will you give your daughter in marriage to me during the month of Buk? The mother replies that she has no money to give as dowry. The young man says money is not a problem if a property with a plantation is given. Please inform the uncle about my request.

The padda boatmen who plied their boats along the now abandoned Negombo-Puttalam canal and also on the several rivers in the island like Kelaniganga, Ginganga, Kaluganga and Nilwalaganga sang sones while they rowed their boats along the waters at night. This singing no doubt helped to lighten their burden and drudgery. The love songs of the boatmen are similar to those of the carters but the work in the mines underground being more risky and tiresome the songs of the minors relate much more the suffering they undergo.

Kalutara gange mama besala naanakota,

Surangana liyak aawai mage peramunata,

Karae thibuna muthu depote lassanata,

Aran yenta situnai angulen gamata.

When I was bathing in the Kalutara river, a beautiful maid came before me. When I saw the dazzling two strings of pearls on her neck, I felt like taking her to my village in the angula. Sometimes as in the songs of the carter and the farmer, there is an evident mixture of thoughts.

Kelani gange diya netha Mahaweli gangata,

Kalutara gange diya geluwe netha Kelaniyata,

Kisima landek aalaya nokeruwe mata

Dukak nethuwa sepathak melowe netha.

The waters of the Kelani ganga never mixed with the Mahaweli waters. The water of Kaluganga never flowed into the Kelani river. No maid ever expressed her love to me. Was there ever love without sorrow in this world? Most men cradle into poetry what they suffer alone.

Some of the poetry of the past worth reading and appreciate today were composed by Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero during the early 16th Century. Although Sri Lanka is a tiny island it is inhabited by a towering nation. Here is a well known folk poem from Guttila Kaavya oft quoted to show one’s feelings and ingratitude of man.

Kopamana guna kalath,

Dudano novethi yahapath,

Kiri diyen deviyath,

Anguru sudu vana bawek nam neth.

However, much you help a vicious man he will never reform himself to be a good man, as much as charcoal washed in milk will never turn white. From the Selalihini Sandeshaya, the poet used purely decorative language in describing the beauty of the maidens in the city of Kelaniya.

Sisiwana uwana inga sunga gatha heki mitina,

Nisi pullulukala riya saka ura tisara thana,

Disinu liyew ruusiriyuth mepurangana,

Esi piya helena pamanin novethi devangana.

He compares the faces of the maidens to moon’s orb, their hips to cart wheels and breasts to swans in far fletched similies. In assessing the wealth of Folk Siv Pada and Poetry one could easily say that it is the mature wisdom of the poets that is vividly displayed in them.