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Bintanne Deviyo
the Lion King of the Kanda-Uda-Rata

- Island


By J. Sarath Edirisinghe

December 6, 2010, marks the 323rd death anniversary of one of the most outstanding patriots of the Sinhala nation – Rajasimha II of the Kandyan kingdom. There is no other monarch whose character has been variously described as that of a despotic tyrant and in the same breath, as that of a saviour of the Sinhala nation.

A fearless soldier as a teen, Rajasimha devoted his entire active life to safeguarding the independence of the Kandyan kingdom and to expel the interloping Portuguese and the Dutch from the island. To the Sinhala people he was ‘Bintanne Deviyo’ or ‘Rasin Deviyo’. Even the cinnamon peelers of the low country, subservient to the Dutch, unhesitatingly moved in to the Kandyan Kingdom when Rajasimha so commanded, showing that they still considered him their king.

But to the Portuguese, Dutch and to some of his English captives, he was a blood thirsty despot whose hands were eternally stained with the blood of his enemies and of his innocent subjects. At a time that could be described as turbulent and desperate, with conspiracies and assassination plots as everyday events there was also a group of disgruntled Kandyan aristocrats who relentlessly tried to usurp his throne. Some of the information that led to label him as a tyrant was heavily based on Robert Knox’s narration, the English captive, who never saw or met him and took great pains to avoid meeting the king even when summoned. Similarly the report of Ambanwela Rala, describing him as a scoundrel who raped mothers and their young daughters, submitted to the Dutch, was obviously tailored to please them and to escape from punishment.

Another major grouse was that the king failed to hold the traditional ‘Dalada perahera’. These accusations were sweet music to the Dutch who were hell bent on deceiving the king by omitting an important clause in the Dutch translation of the original treaty that was in Portuguese; a language the king was fluent in. Knox who vouched that he was narrating events that actually happened erred badly when he stated that Rajasimha murdered his only son. Knox also states that the King had an incestuous relationship with his own daughter who subsequently died. Knox had the decency of correcting himself at a later date when he heard that Rajasimha’s son, whom he thought was murdered, actually was the king of Kandy after the King’s death. He heard the real news from Captain Cornelius Blickeland and William Hubbard, two of his fellow captives, years after escaping from the Kandyan kingdom.

Both Knox and Ambanwela Rala had an axe to grind with Rajasimha and are responsible for the distorted image of this great patriot. The blatant perpetuation of Rajasimha’s tarnished image continued up to present times. Even in Knox’s own ‘Historical Relation’ he makes contradictory remarks that absolve Rajasimha of being an insensitive cruel tyrant. The king’s religious tolerance, strict codes of conduct among palace officials, intolerance of sexual misbehaviours and the weeklong mourning of the death of his favourite sister are a few of these. Rajasimha also pardoned the surviving 33 Portuguese soldiers after the infamous Gannoruwa battle. It is also recorded that Ambanwela Rala who became a prosperous coconut planter in Kollupitiya returned to the king in later years.

Both Knox and Ambanvela Rala tried to give the impression that the rebellion of Nilambe was a national uprising. It is known that when the King, escaping the rebellion, entered Meda Mahanuwara, the people there were unaware of a plot against the King. According to Lorna Deveraja, an authority of the Kandyan kingdom of the period, Rajasimha was not the unmitigated tyrant that he is depicted by Knox and Ambanvela Rala. The other indigenous sources, both Sinhala and Pali, refer to the king as a brave warrior and a venerated monarch. He had great personal charm and endearing qualities that helped him to win over Europeans who served him in his army loyally.

She goes on to say that Jean de Lacombe, a Frenchman in the service of the VOC, had recorded that several French officers who came in de la Hayes’s fleet, begged permission to stay in Kandy to serve Rajasimha. It is known that the King was a vegetarian and according to the Dutch, never took hasty decisions or was swayed by emotions.

At the time of his birth the customs of the Kandyan court were almost purely Portuguese in nature. There were Franciscan friars as well as captive Portuguese in the palace who were involved in the day to day running of the palace complex. It was traditional for Kandyan monarchs to retire to a safe house away from the city whenever they were threatened by foreigners. In 1612, Kusumasana Devi or Dona Catherina, widow of Wimaladharmasuriya the 1st who was married to Senerath (1604 – 1635), was in Alut Nuwara – Mahiyangana in Bintanne, when Rajasimha was born. The location of the birth place of Rajasimha as Alut Nuwara, Mahiyangana is attested by Knox and is also mentioned in the last book of Mahavamsa. Kandy was attacked by the Portuguese twice in September 1611 and in March 1612. Kusumasana Devi’s journey to Alut Nuwara and the birth of Rajasimha are described in Mahawamsa (Chapter 96, Wilhelm Gieger) as, ‘Senerath fleeing Potuguese after securing the sacred tooth relic in Dumbara, took movable goods and the sons of the former king and the admirable Mahesi (Kusumasana Devi) excellent by wealth and virtue who was pregnant. He took her carefully in a litter and betook himself to while in this town. The Queen bore him, under a favourable constellation a splendid son’.

Dutch Colonial texts and the diary of Spilbergen (1602) who stopped by at Alut Nuwara – Mahiyangana bear testimony to the grandeur of the seventeenth century ‘New City’ that had broad streets, trade stalls and a large palace. In later years, as the King, Rajasimha was their Bintanne Deviyo.

As Maha Astana, the heir to the throne, Rajasimha’s childhood was spent in the palace in the city of Kandy. Ribeiro (1622- 1693) mentions that the princesses and the princes (Wimaladharmasuriya’s and Senerath’s) were taught reading and writing of the Latin tongue, Portuguese, music and horsemanship. The princes were well skilled in these pursuits as well as in the humanities. He further states that the royal children always treated the Portuguese as brothers making minute inquiries as to their customs and adopting those that seemed good to them. It is also known that the royal children were also taught mathematics, a smattering of Italian and composing verse. Rajasimha was fluent in the Portuguese tongue both in speech and writing. Spilbergen left two Dutch musicians, during his uncle’s reign, in the Kandyan palace from whom Rajasimha’s step sisters and brothers learnt Western music. His fluency in the Portuguese language and the familiarity with the manners and customs of many European people made him quite at ease with foreign ambassadors and conduct discussions without intermediaries or interpreters.

It must have been a trying environment for the young children of the royal courts growing up in the Buddhist faith while everything around them looked and sounded Portuguese. One can only feel the tension and the dilemma faced by the young Rajasimha whose mother was clinging to the Catholic faith and spoke Portuguese while his father, the rightful custodian of the tooth relic, was a Buddhist monk before coming to the Kandyan throne. By this time Kusumasana Devi’s eldest son by Wimaladharmasuriya was dead under mysterious circumstances. It is possible that young Rajasimha heard the rumours implicating his father. The tragic death of his mother while he was a still a baby and the influence of Prince of Uva (Kuruwita Rala) and Marcelis Boschower (Senerath’s confidante), would have drawn the young prince to the intrigues of statecraft at a tender age.

Senarath, eager to make way for Maha Astana (young Rajasimha) to ascend the Kandyan throne, established the principalities of Uva and Matale for his nephews Kumarasinghe and Vijepala (Maha Astana’s half brothers). As a young prince he was fearless and possessed the same determination as his father and uncle to annihilate the Portuguese. He emulated his namesake Rajasimha I of Sitavaka, who was happy and contended only when he was in the battlefield. Although his reign as Rajasimha II is generally accepted to have begun in 1635, Senerath is known to have devolved the powers of the state to Maha Astana around 1629.

As a young prince of eighteen, and being groomed to take the Kandyan throne, Rajasimha took part in the battle of Randeniwela. The Kandyan forces received a huge boost when large numbers of the Portuguese army under Don Cosmo defected and fought with the King’s army. During this battle the notorious Portuguese Captain General Constantino de Saa met his match and yielded to his creator. The battle of Randeniwela will be engraved in golden letters in the history of this island’s struggle against foreign usurpers. It was also the beginning of the end of Portuguese power in the island. The last battle the Portuguese fought in the island which was also the last battle the Kandyans fought, was one at Gannoruwa. The heroic Sinhala forces led by Rajasimha and Vijepala, the prince of Matale, decimated the Portuguese army including the Captain General Diogo de Mello close to the present court complex on the William Gopallawa Mawatha, in Gatambe. Thousands died in the battle with only 33 survivors. The tender nature of the King’s character is highlighted by his granting life to these 30 prisoners. That was also the last battle in the history of this island where a king himself led the troops.

The king who was resident in Nilambe before the rebellion, for health reasons retired to Hanguranketa, leaving the Mahesi, a Madura princess and his sister in the palace in Kandy. The whereabouts of the crown prince was kept a secret and as Knox indicated, was believed to have died soon after the Nilambe rebellion. The palace complex in Hanguranketa was extensive with a protective clay wall around it. Exquisite design and decorations are described by Knox. There were pavilions to watch games, horse shows and elephant games. The artificial lake had ornamental fish that the king used to watch and feed. The hobbies and diversions he entertained during his youth were maintained despite unsettled conditions of the kingdom. His zoo was replete with black leopards, white deer, spotted elephants, ducks, geese, and a number of priced stallions. He was an excellent rider and used to appear on horseback during peace time. As he grew older he amused himself by watching his priced stallions being groomed. He had a collection of guns richly inlaid with gold and silver. His personal attendants and palace officials were youths of high birth, Portuguese, Dutch and Englishmen, Moors as well as Kaffirs, the latter being guards of his bed chamber.

His upbringing in an atmosphere of religious harmony made him tolerant to all religions. Knowing the close relationships that the feuding aristocrats had with the Buddhist clergy, he was careful not to meddle too much in temple affairs. However, there was a thriving Buddhist college of Bhikkhus that included his uncle to oversee these affairs in Hanguranketa. Towards the latter part of his life the Dutch treated the king with respect as recommended by Van Goens. This was mainly to get the detained prisoners released. Successive embassies bringing gifts in the form of curious animals failed to receive an audience with the king.

The year before the great king’s demise, the Dutch company offered to surrender some the possessions taken from the Sinhalese. The salt levayas of the south and some korales were among them. Pyl, in a personal letter to the king, admitted it was wrong for the Hollanders to retain Colombo. He indicated that the whole island belonged to the King and they were there merely to defend the island on the King’s behalf. In fact Pyl called himself the ‘King’s faithful and humble Governor’ and called Colombo as the ’King’s imperial and invincible castle’.

The Dutch believed that the aging King had no successor and thought it was safer to be on good terms with him. They also believed that the King was addicted to opium or alcohol. But Rajasimha in spite of his age and failing health maintained his dignity and self respect to the last .According to P.E.Pieris, the King remained clear- headed to the end. He summoned the Council of his Ministers at Hanguranketa and led a gentle-faced young man whom he introduced to the bewildered audience as Prince Maha Astana, his son. The prince was believed to have been murdered by the King himself after the Nilambe rebellion, an event rumoured to have been publicized by the King. It said that the Ministers believed the ailing King only when the mighty Bintanne Deviyo prostrated at the feet of the young prince swearing allegiance.

How the Dutch received the news of the King’s death and the memorial celebrations are vividly described in ‘Ceylon and the Hollanders’ (PE.Pieris). "..A memorial celebration followed on the 23rd (December 1687) with all the funeral pomp so dear to the heart of the Teuton. Long lines of Lascarins, companies of soldiers, and sailors with arms reversed and trailing pikes, each preceded by a field-piece dragged by slaves, and the Governors guard in armour, went in front of the trumpets and kettledrums which were on horseback. The great standard of the King, smaller standards, his personal banner, led horses covered with black velvet, gilt spurs, gauntlets, dagger, helmet, coat of mail, etc. came next.

They were succeeded by a coach drawn by six led horses, all hung with the king’s device of the Red Lion on a gold ground, the horse of State, herald in armour, the Sword of Sovereignty, the crown and the sceptre; these last were carried on cushions by noblemen, guarded by halberdiers and accompanied by lighted flambeaux. Next came the governor, his train of six ells in length borne by a page, with the Sinhalese ambassador by his side. The Political Council, the ministers, the Council of Justice and other officials followed, with the Burghers and domestics bringing up the rear. The long procession wended its way to the church, where the insignia remained on a table till evening, when they were removed, under three volleys of musketry and a royal salute from all the guns in the city and the fort, back to the governor’s house with same marks of distinction. After this demonstration of respect to the memory of the King, whose death filled them with relief the weary officers were regaled with spirits and wine, and allowed to return to their homes.

According to Pieris, Rajasimha was cremated in the Adahana Maluwa. A dagoba was constructed where his ashes were interred. This and the other structures were looted and destroyed by the British when the Matale railway line was built. It is not clear whether the actual cremation took place in Hanguranketa or at the Asgiriya Adahana Maluwa. There is recorded evidence to state that a monument in memory of Rajasimha II was in existence in the Asgiriya Adahana Maluwa in the early part of the twentieth century and it was looted and vandalized by the British involved in the building of the Matale railway line. It has also been reported that the cremation took place in Hanguranketa and the site with a monument depicting a reclining lion was vandalized in recent times in the name of development.

December 6, 2010, marks the 323rd death anniversary of this great patriot whose life was dedicated to expel the foreign usurpers from the island home of the Sinhalese. There is no other King in the long history of this island whose personality and character have been so blatantly damaged and discredited as those of Rajasimha’s. When history is re-written some day, may he be exonerated and reinstated among the great patriots of this land.