All kings and all things Kandyan

(Courtesy of the Island)

In 1602, the year of the Dutch East India Company’s founding, Joris van Spilbergen reached the shores of Sri Lanka after setting sail from the seaport of Veere in Holland a year earlier. Tasked with opening up trade negotiations with the King of Kandy, Vimaladharmasuriya, Spilbergen bore with him a letter from the Prince of Orange, acknowledging their willingness to counter the Portuguese. Not for one moment underestimating the Portuguese presence in the island, though, they disembarked at Batticaloa, which fell under the jurisdiction of the Kandyan Court. They anchored off the coast on May 31.

From there, having proved that they were not of Portuguese extraction, they began their journey to the capital of the Sinhala Kingdom on July 6, after receiving word from the king. Taking 10 of their countrymen with him, Spilbergen’s entourage was flanked by elephants, palanquins, and every hour, gifts of fruits and vegetables and inquiries from messengers sent by the king. Among those gifts were flasks of wine: made, they learnt, from grapes in the country under the guidance of Jesuit priests. Paul E. Pieris tells us that they relished the wine, and even compared it favourably with the Portuguese variety.

A foreign envoy to the Court of Kandy in the 17th century would have to go through certain formalities before obtaining an audience with the king. Not even Spilbergen could spare his embassy from these protocols.

On the river crossing Kandy, they met Manuel Dias, a Portuguese Mudliyar in the king’s service. A thousand or so armed soldiers, some of them Turks, Moors, Kaffirs, and Portuguese, the rest Sinhalese, then accompanied them to a Rest House built in Western fashion. Hours later, in the afternoon, the king sent three saddled horses with a message that he was ready to receive the group. The rendezvous between the envoy and the monarch, as drawn by Dutch artists, depicts Vimaladharmasuriya as bulky, lanky, and powerful, yet friendly. This was the impression Spilbergen had of him too. What he didn’t realise at the time was how immensely cosmopolitan he was.

Vimaladharmasuriya had been consecrated as King of Kandy in 1591 under circumstances both peculiar and significant in the context of the country’s history. With his reign began the period of the last citadel of the Sinhalese kings. And yet, as scholars have identified, its first ruler was neither totally Sinhalese nor totally Buddhist. Having been baptised and brought up by Catholic missionaries, and christened Dom João of Austria, the man who would be king distinguished himself by his fencing skills, serving the Portuguese.

The pretender of Sitavaka, Rajasinghe, had executed his father years before. Taking on his earlier name of Konappu Bandara, he and a confidante of his called Salappu Bandara joined Don Juan Dharmapala’s campaigns against Rajasinghe. Later, in one of those campaigns, he entered the Kandyan highlands, where he reneged on his loyalties, proclaimed himself as a sovereign ruler, took on a new name, and embraced Buddhism.

Gananath Obeyesekere’s The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom, lucidly written and accessible, delves into this chapter in our country’s history. It is more than a prequel to his earlier published The Doomed King, which focuses on the last ruler of the kingdom, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe. Taking up several vantage points from the perspectives of its rulers, Obeyesekere’s latest work captures the contradictions which were very much a part of the cosmopolitanism of Sri Lanka’s last capital. He begins with Spilbergen’s expedition, the banquet Vimaladharmasuriya hosted for his entourage, and the encounters the latter had of his Court. What is striking is not the deeply entrenched cosmopolitanism, but how that cosmopolitanism evolved, changed, and faded away under its later rulers.

In The Doomed King Obeyesekere endeavoured to portray Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe as more schemed against than scheming, the victim of a conspiracy hatched by his own courtiers. His prose, at once pugnacious and polemical, remains as pugnacious and polemical as ever here. The problem with the compiler of Kandyan history, he implies, is not that there isn’t a lack of sources, but that there’s so much of them. The task of the compiler and historian, which Obeyesekere fulfils until the end, is to disentangle these and distinguish between the reality and the myth. That’s where the prose becomes so pivotal.

Among the more contemporary accounts of Kandyan history which the author critically assesses here are Lorna Dewaraja’s The Kandyan Kingdom, 1707-1760, C. E. Godakumbura’s Sinhalese Literature, S. N. Arasaratnam’s Ceylon and the Dutch, and even Paul E. Pieris’s celebrated Ceylon: The Portuguese Era and Sinhale and the Patriots. While mounting a thinly veiled yet highly impassioned defence of the Kandyan rulers, he counters the Portuguese, Dutch, and British accounts from then as well. The main issue with these, he concludes, is that they simplify an otherwise multifaceted, complex reality: the Kandyan Kingdom was neither as Sinhala Buddhist as the Pali Chronicles, which celebrated the Sinhala kings, made it out to be, nor opposed to Sinhala Buddhist values as the Portuguese and the Dutch, who found in the later Nayakkars a formidable foe, imagined it to be.

The Pali Chronicles which valorise the pre-Nayakkar rulers make almost no mention of their sensual pursuits. As Obeyesekere rightly points out, “erotic practices and popular temple dancing… were hardly the stuff of monastic interest.” And yet, they were very much a part of secular life, even in the Anuradhapura Period; no less an account than the Dalada Sirita tells us of Parakramabahu IV organising a harem, among other festivities, in honour of the Tooth Relic. Even Dutugemunu, the hero of the Mahavamsa, once “disported himself in the water the whole day together with the women of the harem.”

The absence of such references to the pre-Nayakkar rulers of Kandy has led to two assumptions today: either that these rulers were Sinhala Buddhist, or, on the evidence that some of them indulged in what must to a prudish mind be un-Sinhala, un-Buddhist activities, that their frolicking distracted them from their role as protectors of the faith. Obeyesekere unequivocally debunks both these views.

The author engages in a defence of Narendrasinghe, widely perceived to be a playful king (or sellam rajjuruwa). Not unlike A. H. Mirando’s defence of Rajasinghe I and critique of the widely prevalent view of that king’s anti-Buddhist personality, Obeyesekere conjures up a counter-narrative. Much of Narendrasinghe’s image as a playful ruler, he suggests, comes from a distortion of the very word sellam. While it did include “erotic enticements, mostly by dancing women accompanied by drumming and singing”, this was hardly peculiar to the ruler of Kandy. Indeed, “sellam” embraced music, poetry, and the arts too, and the heroic pose of the king, as celebrated by poets, did not necessarily exclude these material exploits. One can quote Cameron Dokey here: “for surely a king is first a man.”

There’s no doubt that the freewheeling spirit of these monarchs, so scandalising that after the 19th century, under the influence of Protestant Buddhism, it was sidelined if not excised by nationalist historians, endeared them to European diplomats. Indeed, it helped them to acquaint with European and Western customs.

One recalls Vimaladharmasuriya’s aside on the question of faith with the Dutch: he pointed to the city and declared that “all this has God given me.” Receding briefly in the reigns of Senarat and Vimaladharmasuriya II, by the time of Narendrasinghe this cosmopolitan streak starts to crop up again. In the interregnum between these monarchs, moreover, we have the colourful figure of Rajasinghe II, who collects, as Paul E. Pieris once wrote, “a perfect menagerie of the various European races which visited his dominions.”

Even Senarat’s reign is not free from this tendency; it is during his time that a Dutch envoy is appointed as a nobleman in Negombo: Marcellus de Bochouwer, or Meegamu Rala. It is also during his time that many of these European races start to marry local women, “enhancing the complexion of many a fair Kandyan.” Not just Robert Knox, but also De Lanerolle, figures in as key witnesses to his successor’s more complex polity. One can’t unconditionally accept them, of course, but many of their insights into the kingdom have survived.

Given the evidence, Obeyesekere seems quite justified in his assertion that much of our understanding of the Kandyan Kingdom stems from “a three-way antagonistic discourse” between the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Sinhalese, which picked up after the Nayakkars moved in. The conflict between the kingdom’s ideal of “Tri Sinhale” – “the three parts of the Sinhala land” – and the reality of European presence had brought in missionaries, envoys, musicians, and military officers from various parts of the world to the highland territories. When the Dutch annexed the Maritime Provinces, Portuguese missionaries found an ally of sorts in the king, who let them peach and convert. Right until the last Sinhala ruler of the territory, Narendrasinghe, Catholic priests coexisted with Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. With Narendrasinghe’s demise, the situation changed drastically.

Here the author departs considerably from scholars, historians, and compilers who see in the enthronement of the Nayakkars a turnaround in the Kandyan polity. While not denying the veracity of their views, Obeyesekere argues that the demonization of the Nayakkars as not just un-Buddhist but also anti-Buddhist was mostly the doing of Dutch officials hostile to them; he cites two Dutch governors, Jan Schreuder and the more militant Baron van Eck, as they plan out and mount campaigns to annexe the highland territories.

Meanwhile, conscious of their foreignness in a Buddhist polity, the Nayakkars from the reign of Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe begin to compel not only envoys absorbed into the kingdom like De Lanerolle, but also Catholic priests like Jacome Gonçalves (“a more problematic figure”), to leave the territory. What replaced the cosmopolitanism of the earlier rulers, most historians conclude from that, was a Dravidised territory.

While this thesis is accepted by most, Obeyesekere rejects it. He posits two reasons for his refutation: one, that the Nayakkar influence in the Kandyan Court preceded the arrival of the Nayakkar kings, and two, that Dravidisation was nothing new to the Sinhala polity. It is true, as historians have pointed out, that the Pali Chronicles accepted them as Sinhala rulers owing to their disavowal of their “false beliefs” – recalling the Mahavamsa’s valorisation of Elara despite his “false beliefs” – and it is also true that Western observers, not mindful enough of how race operated in the upcountry, failed to see how Telugus from North India could be incorporated as Sinhala monarchs.

But the reality was far more complex than this, and it is to Obeyesekere’s credit that, in his chapters on Muslim presence in the Kandyan territories, the demonization of the Nayakkars by militant Dutch Governors, and the reordering of “the cosmic city” in line with the rules and symbols of kinship by Kirti Sri Rajasinghe, he acknowledges it throughout his study. It was here that British designs on the island began to materialise as well; under the last two kings, these designs reached their logical end, culminating in the deterioration of relations between the ruler and his Chief Ministers. That is where the narrative of The Doomed King takes over, and where this work, a fine if not original prequel to it, ends

By Uditha Devapriya



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