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A Sri Lankan diplomatic success story in the 18th century

by P.G. Karunasiri - Daily News May 16 2003

In 1752, a unique event happened in Sri Lanka. This was destined to play a vital role in Sri Lankan history, especially with regard to Buddhism and could be considered as an unprecedented event involving an extraordinary co-operation.

The parties which involved in this event were (1) a European Christian power, (2) a powerful Buddhist Monarch in South-East Asia and, (3) A Dravidian-born Buddhist king and two dynamic and erudite Buddhist monks supported by tens of thousands of Buddhist devotees. The interaction of all these parties resulted in bringing back the past glory of Buddhism and the organisation of the Sangha in Sri Lanka.

The Christian power referred earlier, is the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which was enjoying a sort of monopoly in trading activities in the coastal areas of Sri Lanka. The Buddhist monarch mentioned above was King of Siam. The Dravidian-born Buddhist King was King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe whose reign could be considered as the golden era of the Kandyan period. The two dynamic priests were Ven. Welivita Sri Saranankara who was pivotal in organising and being the prime force which brought together the political powers of the day. The other Buddhist monk was Ven. Upali Thera of Siam who was assigned by the Siamese monarch to visit Sri Lanka with a group of other monks to restore the Buddhist Sangha Order in this country.

It is appropriate at this juncture to evaluate the plight of Buddhism in that period. The onslaught of Buddhism by Seethawaka Rajasinghe on the advice of Aritta Keevendu Perumal, was staved-off by King Wimaladharmasuriya of Kandy. The subsequent Kandyan Kings gave the appropriate place to Buddhism. Some kings were very pious, while some were indifferent. The English captive, Robert Knox (1681) gives some background on Buddhism and mentions about 'Therunnanses" and 'Ganinnanses" in Buddhist temples. However, we must note that Knox being a Sea Captain's son, did not show analytical capacity in many of his "accounts". It is also noted that he moved only with lowest social order of the Kandyan society during 19 years of captivity.

The reign of King Narendrasinghe (1707-1739) caused near-disaster for Buddhism in the Kandyan Kingdom. Known as the playboy king (Sellam Nirindu), he appointed Frenchman Gascon, as his Chief Minister and stayed frolicking in the beautiful palace he built overlooking the Mahaveli River at Kundasale The number of Buddhist monks were on the decline and there were senior monks to give higher ordination to Samaneras.

It is under this pathetic background that King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe (1747-1781) made preparations to send a group of Sinhalese envoys to Siam, initiated by Ven. Weliwita Saranankara - requesting assistance to obtain senior monks.

It is worthwhile at this juncture to describe how the Siamese accorded high hospitality to our envoys. We are very fortunate to have a lengthy account written by one of the envoys who accompanied others to Siam. He narrates vividly and in much detail, events that happened from the very beginning when the Kandyan envoys left the capital city of Mahanuwara with a large entourage of sixty persons. These included the five envoys, their servants, soldiers, musicians, one astrologer, one physician and cooks. The royal letter written in the Pali language by Ven. Saranankara, was taken from the palace in Kandy and a large procession went along with the letter on elephant back, giving it full honours. The procession reached Trincomalee 10 days later and was placed in the Dutch ship at the auspicious time.

The Sinhalese envoy, Wilbagedera Herath Mudaliyar, who wrote the narration, had meticulously recorded the happening on their way to the royal capital of Authiya. It took three months for them to reach Malacca and passing along the seacoast of Cambodia, they reached Siam in the year 1750. Wilbagedera's account gives a first-hand narration of the respect and honour given to the Sri Lankan delegation by the Siamese King. A procession of boats numbering 32 in total were assigned to carry the Sri Lankan envoys and their retinue.

On the third day, according to Wilbagedera's account, the Siamese officers came with hundreds of boats to carry the Royal letter and the envoys. This large procession of boats went along the river to the accompaniment of loud music and at the second palace, it was received by the Crown Prince and Ministers. The Sri Lankan envoys were given a resting place when they reached Authiya, awaiting the Royal audience on the following day. He also mentions that three officers from the Palace visited the envoys beforehand and explained them the protocol procedures, what to talk and what not to talk and also how to present the Royal letter to His Majesty.

According tot he description of Wilbagedera, on the day that the envoys were to present themselves before the king, they were taken in 16 boats up to the gateway of the Palace, from there they were taken in horse-drawn carriages up to the inner rampart. From, there, they were accorded a Guard of Honour consisting of Regiments, thousands in number, armed with helmets, rifles and other armour.

The Sri Lankan envoys had the good fortune of passing the Royal elephant stables, where they saw the white elephant who was draped in trappings set with precious stones and bands of gold around his tusks. passing these stables, they entered the Eastern-side gateway decorated with figures of lions and elephants. On either side of the gateway were six gold parasols set with rubies and blue sapphires.

Wilbagedera describes details of their presentation to the king who was seated like Sakra on his Golden Lion Throne which was radiating the brilliance of gemstones. His Majesty the King after the initial greetings announced that he would be honoured to send representatives of the Siam Maha Sangha to Sri Lanka in response to the Nobel request made by the Lord of the City of Srivardene (Kandy).

With this highest assurance, the Sinhala envoys were taken on Royal command to a place called Mahasambatkala, where they were provided with all the comforts and treated with respect. The food was served in silver trays and gold boxes.

After enjoying the hospitality and after visiting many holy temples, the envoys, their entourage and Siamese Monks, set sail for Sri Lanka on the year 1751. Wilbagedera gives a vivid account of their return voyage which encountered many natural disasters, storms etc.

Assessing the yeoman service done by Upali Maha Thera and thirty two other Siamese monks, we must note that they were a group of monks dedicated to serve Buddhism thousands of miles away from home. The result achieved by them was complete revitalisation of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It is reported that within six months, 480 were admitted as Samaneras. Nearly three years later, this figure rose up to 3,000 and through these efforts of Upali Maha Thera laid the foundation of the largest Chapter of Sangha Order in Sri Lanka.

Let us now delve briefly into the manner how the Dutch got involved in this noble venture.

In 1684, the Dutch were more conciliatory and accepted that the company did wrong in retaining Colombo and that the whole Island belonged to the King of Kandy. (Letter sent by Governor Lorenz Van Peil to King Rajasinghe, the Second).

However, these overtures were too little and too late. King Rajasinghe the Second, the Warrior King, passed away a few months later. It is recorded that the last instruction of the King to his son was to remain on friendly terms with the Dutch. We note as a general guide the other Kandyan Kings down the line more or less were basically following this advice, and the Dutch took the opportunity to keep the goodwill of the Kandyan Kings by sending Ambassadors and annual gifts, fulfilling the wishes of the king, while keeping their trade monopoly.

It is reported that the Dutch used to send expensive gifts annually to the King of Kandy depending on his requirements, and selecting the type of presents. For instance, the shrewd Dutch made it a point to send hair-wigs to the Kandyan playboy King Narendrasinghe who lost his hair prematurely. It is stated that the King appreciated the gift of hair-wigs rather than anything else.

We observe the Kandyan Kings making various requests from the Dutch, especially the assistance of using their naval vessels to bring down Buddhist monks from foreign countries. Two such requests were made during the time of King Wimaladharmasuriya the Second and King Wijayarajasinghe.

When the King of Kandy, Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe made the request for Dutch assistance, it was fortunate that the Governor of Colombo, Van Golensee, a liberal-minded Dutch representative, enthusiastically agreed to oblige. It was also fortunate that the same person was the Governor of Bathavia two years later, when the Sri Lankan Mission took their journey via Bathavia to Siam.

It should be noted at this point that the motive of the Dutch for giving passages in their ships may not be due to any endearment towards Buddhism. It seems that the Dutch assistance was given mainly due to political and protocol reasons to gain the goodwill of the king. Many times we see that this kind of assistance was given by the Dutch to requests made by the king.

Whether the requests made were for bringing down Nayakkar brides from Madurai or Buddhist monks from Authiya, it was the same to them and they obliged. Nevertheless, credit should be given to the Dutch for their assistance on this particular juncture when Buddhism was nearly being wiped out of the country.

This was proven by the fact that after the successful mission, King Kirithi Sri Rajasinghe despatched a special group of envoys to Colombo expressing his gratitude to the Dutch Governor for providing the much-valued mode of transport at this crucial moment.

The immense services initiated by King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe and Welivita Sri Saranankara Sangaraja deserves an extensive article written separately.

However, the writer's intention is to examine the interaction of three countries who joined together in co-operation to assist restoration of Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 18th century.

(The writer was the first Sri Lankan resident Ambassador in Holland (1982-1986) and the Additional secretary (Political Affairs) at the Foreign Ministry, at present. The opinions expressed in this article are personal.