cabbages, kings and things : Charting the genealogy of a famous rebel family
by Padma Edirisinghe - Daily
News Sat March 1 2003
Once in a way it is good to look back and
ponder on one's past actions including the foolish and the immature adventures
indulged in. On a leisurely day I browsed through some of my published articles
and was surprised that a few years ago I had traced back genealogies with gusto
in the Daily News.
The families I had researched on were not
limited to the upper echelons of society. I had even obliged an unemployed a
youth who came with (what seemed to be authentic) documents to prove the family
affinity to Sembap Perumal which he said the Tamil equivalent of Prince
Sapumal. I wonder whether the royal affiliations thus publicized enabled him to
get a job or whether he is still filling the ranks of Lanka's unemployed despite
the royal antecedents.
More recently I was given an assignment
of writing some "profiles" (not by DN) but the space allotted
was so limited that I felt it was almost a case of dishonoring well-known
celebrities who had dedicated their whole life to a worthy cause.
So I did not care to pursue the
assignment. One such celebrity "dishonored" by a brief narrative was
our female cinema idol, Sumitra Peries, nee Gunewardena. I stressed on the
"nee", because some are unaware that this female who has now reached
the top rungs in the arena of cinema production, belongs to the famous
Gunewardena rebel clan of Boralugoda. Sumitra plus her equally famous husband
Lester were humble enough to tell me that they had read with much interest my
genealogy accounts. In fact Sumitra had gone out of the way (when I phoned that
I was coming to meet her) to get me material on the Gunewardena family
history which incidentally a grand-niece of her in the United States had
collected through family relations back home for a project on "the
student's ancestral history'". Such projects in our country exist only in
foolish brains like mine.
Sumitra Peries told me, "The matter
may interest you". To make up for dishonoring her as well as to get
rid of my scratching urge to dabble with genealogies and also afford an
interesting historical dimension to a famous family saga I intended writing
The traced family history goes back to
the reign of king Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe, (1747- 781) He was the second
Nayakkar king and adopted the same practice of Sinhalisation by taking on a
Sinhala name and embracing Buddhism. Not only did he embrace Buddhism but goes
down to history as one of the main royal benefactors of Buddhism. In fact the
defunct Upasampada was revived due to his endeavors and many were the
temples put up by him all over the country. But then as now there were rebels or
a clan who thought differently.
They were not going to be duped by faked
ones but wanted an authentic one on the throne, a true Sinhala Buddhist king. So
a rebellion erupted that ended unsuccessfully since the oncoming coup d'etat was
disclosed to the king by a faithful minister. The punishments seem to have been
mild for the king was crafty, only a few were put to death while a famous
prelate said to be involved was almost unpunished but many were banished to the
To this category belonged the progenitor
of the Gunewardena family who was banished to Mawalgama near Mahiyangama around
1750. Mahiyangama is in the present Sabaragamuwa province and the family
took root there. However this area being rather in the proximity of the Western
province displayed signs of the social transformations that took place in the
Portuguese and Dutch periods. In fact the village Mahiyangama is sited very
close to Malwana, the citadel of Portuguese captains as Azavedo who according to
legends of the area threw the Sinhalese who refused to be converted to Roman
Catholicism to be devoured by the crocodiles swarming in the Kelani Ganga
picturesque elbow bend by the captain's Maligawa (which ruins are still said to
Thus the first three in this family line
carry the names, Don Sabanis Rupesinghe, Don Abanis Rupesinghe and Don Bastian
Rupesinghe. It is Don Brumpy Ranasinghe who gets conferred with the name
Gunewardena in 1880. Son Don Jakolis Ranasinghe Gunewardena becomes a
village headman in the Samanabedda area. Now we come to the beginning of the
20th century. The emergence of the Boralugoda Gunewardena family belongs to more
recent and known history.
It was one of the first Lankan families
to toe a completely different political line by adopting Socialist ideologies.
The Boralugoda estate to which the family trekked later and settled down finally
became the breeding ground for many a rebel Gunewardena, the most famous among
whom was Phillip Gunewardena, Sumitra's father's brother. Sumitra too can be
considered a revolutionary or one who chose to tread a different path from the
average Lankan woman.
Life's vicissitudes she took up as
challenges. Her mother's death while she was still a young girl just ruptured
the smooth flow of her life. Then came her elder brother Gamini's disappearance.
He had fled the country unable to bear the family tragedy.
Refusing to sink Sumitra traced her
brother's whereabouts and found him ultimately in Naples, Italy living in a
yacht with a painter and his wife. Sumitra withdrew all her savings, joined them
and thus began the travels up and down the Mediterenean and its border countries
the myriad scenes and peoples way of life enthralling the artistically inclined
The marine adventures resulted in many
documentary films and the life led, according to Sumitra was the most
adventurous phase of her life but the aiya was getting worried about the nangi
and had her admitted to a school of Drama in Inech, Paris. Here she met Lester
who had come over from Sri Lanka with his highly acclaimed 'Rekhava'. No
immediate romance followed. In fact he turned her guide and had her next enrolled
in the London School of Film Technique where Sumitra obtained her Diploma in
However as this is not a Story of Sumitra
Peries's glorious career no more will be said of it. But the bold spirit, the
way of looking at issues differently, the innovative way of handling and
approaching situations seems to run through the family transcending centuries.
Scores would have been the rebellious men who dreamed of placing on the throne a
pure Sinhala Buddhist way back in the 1750s when king Kirthi Sri had just
ascended the Sinhala throne.
But I have not met any descendants of theirs. It was almost by accident I met one single descendent who also happened to belong the glitterati world of cinema to which she entered by sheer brashness of will that marks the famous Boralugoda Gunewardena family.