The cry of a gecko is bad luck. When you start off on a journey, you mustn’t turn back, even if you’ve forgotten something. Limes ward off the evil eye. So does a dot of soot on a baby’s forehead.
Myth and superstition play a huge role in Sri Lankan culture. Some of these superstitions stem from folk tales and religious beliefs, while others are borrowed from foreign cultures—especially given Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon)’s colonial past and popularity as a trading port.
In a country so rich in folklore, it’s no surprise that boothayas (evil spirits) and yakas (demons) are readily accepted and believed in. In most rural parts of Sri Lanka, it’s simply common sense to avoid eating oily food, especially fried meat, when walking alone at night because the smell is known to attract evil deities. Exorcisms are commonplace, as is carrying out hooniyam (witchcraft) against your enemies.
When I was writing my novel, My Sweet Girl, I had always planned for a part of it to be set in Sri Lanka, where I had grown up whispering many of these folktales myself. And when the story called for a ghost, I knew that none other than my favorite—Mohini—would do.
Keeping all this in mind, I’d like to introduce you to some of Sri Lanka’s local ghost stories, including Mohini herself. As you can see from this list, the folklore varies from evil spirits to haunted locations, but these are just a handful of the country’s legends and tales.
You are driving down a deserted, rural road late at night. There are no streetlights, so you are grateful for the full moon. Suddenly, a woman appears on the side of the road. She is wearing white, with her black hair cascading down her back, and appears to be in great distress. You pull over to see if you can help her. She makes her way towards you and as she gets closer, you can see she’s holding a baby in her arms.
“Help me, please,” she cries. “Are you going that way?” She points in the direction you were driving, and you nod. How could you ever abandon a woman with a baby by the side of the road in the middle of the night?
She climbs into the passenger seat, still cradling her child in her arms and you glance at her briefly as you pull back on to the road. That’s when you realize that her eyes are red. That’s when you see that it isn’t a baby that she’s holding.
If evil sprits in Sri Lanka were to ever enter a popularity contest, Vana Mohini, or Mohini for short, is sure to win. Dressed completely in white with long black hair fluttering in the breeze and always carrying a baby, she’s known to hail down solitary travelers, usually men, to ask for help. This is where the stories diverge—some claim that she asks the men to hold the baby for a moment, and the men who peer into the bundle die instantly. Others claim that she comes close enough for the men to look into her eyes, after which she disappears and the men are driven to madness, often dying within a week. A few others claim she gets into the passenger seat of the car and causes a horrific crash. Some even believe that the briefest of glances at Mohini result in instant and painful death. Whichever the version, there is only one end for those unlucky enough to stop at night for Mohini.
With a name literally meaning “delusion,” Mohini appears to have roots in Hindu mythology. With a reputation as a Femme Fatale, she was the only female avatar of the god Vishnu. She was known to drive her lovers to madness, pushing them towards their ultimate death. Early accounts of Mohini in Sri Lanka portray her as an evil forest fairy, but the legend evolved over time, describing her as a demon preying on lone men traveling at night.
Despite her reputation for killing those who come in to contact with her, almost everyone knows a “lucky traveler” who was smart enough not to stop for this solitary woman in white, thereby narrowly escaping her clutches.
You don’t think it’s a good idea to take the short cut through a graveyard, but it’s late and your family is waiting for you at home. “What’s the worst that could happen?” you think, as you make your way through the cemetery.
You are first greeted by the smell of the beast—rotting flesh and decay. You stop, wondering whether it’s too late for you to turn back, or whether you should try to make it through.
That’s when you see him. He’s tall. Taller than any living thing you have ever laid eyes on. He walks backwards, because his head—the head of a bear—is the wrong way around. He’s frothing at the mouth and delighted that his hunt for human flesh was fruitful this night.
But you are fast. Dropping your flashlight you race through the graveyard and manage, with the grace of all the gods, to find your way home. You are safe, you think, trembling.
But the trembling never stops. Soon, the illness takes you completely. You speak in the language of the demons. Your eyes roll back into your head. You have the mark of the beast on your chest. Your family tries to perform an exorcism but it’s too late. No one ever truly escapes Maha Sona.
In the Sinhala language, the name Maha Sona translates to “the great grave,” but he’s often known as the “the greatest demon.” Certainly the most feared of evil spirits in Sri Lanka, he is rumored to lurk at cemeteries and burial sites.
Maha Sona was originally known to be the fierce warrior Ritigala Jayasena, who lived during the reign of the famous King Dutugamunu. Jayasena was said to have offended Gotaimbara, one of the Ten Giant Warriors of the king, in a drunken argument. Agreeing to a bare-hands dual, Jayasena was decapitated by his challenger, who moved his body to a graveyard. Taking pity on him, a graveyard deity attempted to help Jayasena by attaching the head of a bear onto his body, but ultimately fixed the animal’s head on backwards.
Legend has it that Maha Sona kills those who visit his graveyard by crushing their shoulders, but many also believe that because of his grotesque form, those who encounter Maha Sona are often terrified to the point of falling ill. In these cases, exorcisms are performed to rid the possessed of his evil.
Maha Sona is rumored to not just haunt graveyards but also large rocks and hills and junctions where three roads meet. He is also known to be chief to thirty thousand demons, who spread diseases such as cholera and dysentery.
You and your beloved decide to hike to the gorgeous Lover’s Leap, a cascading waterfall nestled among the tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya.
“Don’t stay near the waterfall after sunset,” the locals warn, and you laugh at the charm of rural Sri Lanka. The walk is beautiful, so you and your beloved decide to climb to the very top of the precipice—after all, the views from the top are known to be glorious. You happily take photographs and have a little picnic, eventually admiring the majestic sunset.
That’s when you hear it—a call for help.
“It’s coming from down there,” your beloved says, moving to the edge of the cliff.
“Be careful,” you say, reaching for their hand, but you are transfixed also. Together, you inch closer and closer to where the rocks and water give way to the steep drop below. Closer and closer… until you feel a sharp tug and lose your footing.
Your camera will be found the next day, and the locals who look through the photographs will notice the ghosts of past lovers, standing at the edge of the waterfall, waiting for you to move closer so that you can join them too.
More tragic than terrifying, Lover’s Leap is a waterfall located in Sri Lanka’s hill country. Legend has it that two unnamed lovers—a commoner and a prince—were forbidden by their families to marry. Deciding that they would rather die than spend their lives apart, they leapt off the precipice at sunset. Over time, many more couples who were not allowed to be together have followed suit, killing themselves by jumping off the edge of this famous waterfall.
Some believe that it’s desperation that lead those couples to their demise, but others believe that the restless souls of the first couple lure lovers to their deaths.
Locals claim they can hear the screams of a couple at night, followed by a splash, and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who would walk past the waterfall after sunset.
Mount Lavinia Hotel
Against the gentle crashing of the Indian Ocean, you can hear her music, and her cries, on a quiet night at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. She isn’t there to haunt you, but to search for the lover who abandoned her many years ago— leaving this beautiful monument in his stead. But she didn’t want a city, or a hotel named after her. All she wanted was for her love to come back.
When Sir Thomas Maitland was appointed the second Governor of British Ceylon in 1805, he acquired land at Galkissa and decided to construct his personal residence there. At his welcome party, he saw the beautiful Lovina Aponsuwa, whose father was the head of the dancing troupe performing that day, and fell madly in love.
Legend has it that the governor had constructed a secret tunnel that lead from his wine cellar to Lovina’s house, so she could visit him undetected. When King George III recalled Sir Thomas back to Europe to take up the post as the Governor of Malta, Lovina was said to be so heartbroken that she threw herself into the sea while her lover sailed away.
Before Sir Thomas left Ceylon, he requested that his residence be named Mount Lavinia, after his love, and this was granted by the British government. Now, all of Galkissa is known as Mount Lavinia, and Sir Thomas’ residence has been converted into the five star Mount Lavinia Hotel. A statue of Lovina is displayed prominently in the middle of a water fountain at the entrance of the hotel, and some even say that they can the sounds of dance music wafting through the hotel on a quiet night.
Goni Billa (Sack Man)
You’ve done it again. You knocked over the day’s milk bottle when you were playing, and now no one gets milk in their tea. Your baby brother starts to cry, and you father won’t have anything to drink after a long day’s work.
You run to the back of the garden and hide, hoping that no one will notice you are missing. That’s when you hear it—the tap, tap, tap of his cane. His quiet whistling.
“Come out, come out wherever you are,” he calls, his voice high-pitched and sickly sweet.
You cower against the back of a tree. You’d never believed the stories the older children had whispered, but now Goni Billa is coming for you.
All goes quiet and you think you are safe. You hold your breath to be sure. You count to a hundred. Finally, gathering all your courage, you peer out from behind the tree.
Relief washes over you as you realize that you’re alone, and start to make your way back inside. That’s when he swoops in from behind you, dropping a sack over your head that falls all the way down to your ankles. He picks you up and carries you away to where you’ll never see your family again.
“Goni Billa will come and take you away if you’re being naughty” is a common phrase used by parents in Sri Lanka. The local version of a boogeyman told to scare misbehaving children into submission, Goni Billa is portrayed in many cultures as the Sack Man. In fact, Goni Billa loosely translates to “sack kidnapper.”
He’s given this name because of the large gunny sack he carries, which he smothers children with before taking them away from their families. There are variants of the Sack Man found all over the world, and the legend’s popularity in Latin countries suggests that this folktale made its way to Sri Lanka when it was colonized by Portugal.