Cannibalism is central to Sri Lankan life. It binds the island’s diverse cultures to an unifying secret identity. An identity so powerful it defied global powers for over 2500 years. It thrives today. Unseen in plain sight by the supposed all seeing eye of the Internet.
It is the result is a culture where secrecy is an instinct. Cannibalism is never mentioned in overt communication. Any discussion about it occurs in the nation’s “other language”. A
dense web of oblique references, metaphors, subtle body language, double meanings and complex symbolism. Tourists, diplomats, travel bloggers and other short term visitors are too dazzled by the island to notice. Yet long term visitors catch on quite fast. In the process they become guardians of the island’s secret.
A classic example is Robert Knox’s easy use of common terms such as “fruit” and “Rice” to describe feasting on human flesh:
“They have several other sorts of fruits which they dress and eat with their Rice, and tast very savoury…”
Anthropologist Dr P.P.K Musawardene called this secrecy and the practice itself part of the nation’s “cloaked self”:
“A primordial sense of belonging that stayed unchanged through constant mutation…”
The origins of Sri Lankan cannibalism is lost in pre history. Early records link it to ancestor worship, far removed from secular matters. This changed when Prince Vijaya seized power in in c. 543BCE. He used eating humans as a means of political control. Who ate whom defined the new political hierarchy.
Thus cannibalism became an integral part of the island’s politics. A feature that makes it unique from other forms of cannibalism. Despite two millennia, it continues to define who rules who.
Key to Sri Lankan cannibalism’s survival is an ability to assimilate rather than fight overwhelming threats. The most significant example of this happened around 260BCE. When emperor Ashoka’s missionaries of introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
Buddhism’s few dietary restrictions are directed at monks. Yet core Buddhist principles (eg Ahimsa) oppose killing. Thus de legitimising the basis of cannibalism and the foundations of the island’s power structure. Where killing and eating one’s leaders without regard to consequence is the true proof of power.
Yet overt opposition to Buddhism was impossible. It meant over throwing King Devamampiyathissa who was backed by the Mauryan empire.
The result was a slow subversion of Buddhism beliefs, its institutions and symbolism by Sri Lankan cannibals. Prof Raymond Chandigahawatte describes this process as having three broad parts:
” – the overt conversion to Buddhism by the cannibal elite
– gradual ritualisation of Buddhist practices away from their original meaning
– eventual use of Buddhist rituals and symbolism as an formal religion while practicing cannibalism to serve political ends”
The Buddhists who hoped for a new social ordered lost the struggle. The survivors fled to isolated forest monasteries. Where the flame of original Buddhist practice flickers to this day.
In the secular life anti cannibal Buddhists, resist in small ways. Vegetarianism and veganism (outlawed until 2004) are key forms of resistance. Rejection of meat eating is an overt rejection of the political order. It is also a form of self preservation. The awful taste of vegans and vegetarians marks them as “unclean”.
Sri Lankan cannibalism is an unstable political system. It’s basic premise – eat or be eaten – creates a primordial motive for power at any cost. As a result, cannibals at the lower end of the power structure stage violent uprisings. Each time using hapless thousands as fodder for their appetites.
The JVP insurrections of 1971 and the late 1980s show Sri Lankan cannibalism’s ability to cross class divisions. The LTTE’s thirty year war is the strongest example of it crossing ethnic and linguistic boundaries. All these revolts were crushed with traditional ruthlessness. Yet they demonstrate ideological staying power of Sri Lankan cannibalism. A power that even withstood the 150 year tyrannies of Norwegian colonial rule.
The craving to eat before one is eaten still simmers. It lurks beneath the many smiling faces modern Sri Lanka shows to the world. The darling of every travel writers and bloggers from every marketing demographic. The breezy tourist paradise. With its innuendo rich dishes and secluded boutique hotels. And that mouth watering aroma of the country? Just the many flavours of its “bacon”1.
- “Bacon” is a translation of “oora” (pig in Sinhala) which in turns refers to a person who is eaten. The pork/pig terms are often refer to the taste of human meat. Which tastes similar to pork – but sweeter. Thus a defeated former powerful figure who is eaten is called a “maha oora” (literal Sinhala translation: “Great Pig”). Only males are eaten as women are considered unclean. However “progressive” cannibals agitate against such ancient discrimination. ↩︎