Thursday, January 9, 2020

Amaradevi (Feminist Folktales 2.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: Cambodia and Sri Lanka

The story

Cambodian version: Princess Amaradevi is courted by four ministers, but she chooses her own husband, a wise and noble man named Mahoseth. The four ministers frame the husband, accusing him of conspiring to assassinate the king. Mahoseth flees into exile. The moment he is gone, the four ministers begin courting Amaradevi, who sees through their plots immediately. She invites them to visit her for four consecutive dates, then has hes servants build a clever trap. When the ministers arrive, they are left alone in a room with a lot of jewelry spilled on the table. The moment they steal a piece, a trap door opens up and they are dropped into a pit filled with sticky substances. Amaradevi reveals the plot to the king, and her husband's name is cleared.

Sri Lankan version: Noble pandit Maha Bosat travels in incognito as a tailor, and encounters a girl on the road. They take a liking to each other, so he gives her a signal, which she interprets well and responds with a signal of her own. They start talking, and Maha Bosat asks her a series of questions, which she answers in riddles. He understands her meaning, and they are mutually impressed by the other's intellect, so they get married. Four other pandits steal jewels from the king's treasury, and frame Maha Bosat for the theft, forcing him into exile. All four of them try to court Amaradevi, who in turn has each one of them caught and bound. She presents evidence to the king to clear her husband's name, and they live happily ever after.

What makes it a feminist folktale?

(Sharra Frank)
First off, Amaradevi lives in a happy and equal relationship of her own choosing. In the world of folktales, where princesses are often handed out as gifts or marry as a thanks for rescue, it is refreshing to meet a female protagonist who makes sure she chooses a man worthy of her. I especially like the beginning of the Sri Lankan version, which is basically a "Clever maiden and her suitors" type tale (ATU 876), ecept here the suitor understands her hidden meaning, and doesn't have to ask. They know they are meant for each other because they communicate well on multiple levels - words, signals, meanings.
Second, Amaradevi is hella smart. According to the Cambodian version she "had been educated not only in music, painting, and the fine art of poetry, but also in government, law, the sciences, and engineering." (Side note: the Kama Sutra lists mining and carpentry among the skills of a good wife. Mmmm, sexy.) She doesn't only see through the four ministers, but also designs the trap to catch them. This supposes a good deal of practical skill and knowledge, and also empathy in knowing what kind of men they are like, and how they can be trapped by their own weakness.
Third, it is important to mention Amaradevi's good relationship with the other female characters. In the Cambodian version she works together with her most loyal maid to trick the ministers, and they even spring the trap together. In the Sri Lankan version she finds out about the ministers' plot because she stops to chat with the servant girl they sent to her, asks her questions, gets to know her, and accidentally finds out. This story lacks all kinds of female jealousy and competition, which is very refreshing, because, frankly, female friendships are so rare in folklore they are almost nonexistent.

Real Cambodian Princess
Norodom Buppha Devi
Fourth, on the topic of jealousy and competition: this story has a very important message about the difference between healthy and toxic masculinity. The four ministers think that in order to get Amaradevi, all they need to do is get rid of her husband. Raise your hand if you are a woman, and you have used "I have a boyfriend" as a way of getting rid of a creep before, just to be told "but he is not here, is he?" (for higher level douchery: "and I have a girlfriend, so what?"). Here we have a smart, educated, confident princess, who chose her own husband, and the four idiots still think that if they get rid of him, she will just fall into their lap. This is textbook toxic masculinity: "there is clearly nothing wrong with me, so she would clearly be dating me if she wasn't with that guy" (or if there is no that guy, then it's clearly her fault for being a ****, and this is when things usually get violent). Unlike Mahoseth, the four ministers do not see Amaradevi as an independent, equal partner, but rather as an object that can be obtained once her "owner" is out of the way. They can't even imagine her making her own decision. This rhymes well with the fact that they can also not keep their hands off the unguarded jewelry. This is why Mahoseth ends up on the throne, and the ministers end up in the cesspit.

Things to consider

In the Sri Lankan version Maha Bosath puts Amaradevi through various tests - among them, he sends two men with a pile of money to try to seduce her, to "test her faithfulness." While it has its symbolic meaning in a traditional story (to make it explicit that Amaradevi is loyal in her relationship), testing one's faithfulness by tricks in real life is manipulative, and honestly I think the story works without it just fine.


The Cambodian version comes from the Gatiloke, a Buddhist teaching tale tradition written down in the 19th century. The Sri Lankan version is from the Ummagga Jataka, a 14th century Sinhalese collection of Jataka tales; Maha Bosat is one of the earlier avatars of the Buddha.

Kathleen Ragan: Fearless girls, wise women, and beloved sisters (W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.)
Muriel Paskin Carrison: Cambodian folk stories from the Gatiloke (Tuttle Publishing, 2011.)
Suzee Leong: Asian folk tales and legends (MPH Group Publishing, 2015.)
T. B. Yatawara: Ummagga Jataka (Luzac & Co. 1898.)


Amara means 'eternal' or 'immortal', and Devi means 'goddess.' Even in her name, Amaradevi is special.

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