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Monarchs of Sri Lanka Sunday Observer Jan 20, 2002

by Carol Aloysius

Venerable Mahinda Thera worshipped by King Devanampiyatissa at Mihinthale.

Sri Lanka's history is steeped in legends, especially the pre-historical period when there was little or no documentary evidence to prove the authenticity of what many of us believe to be ' facts',so that the task of sifting fact from myth poses a daunting task to anyone writing on the 2500 year old history of this country.

Take the arrival of Vijaya in Sri Lanka for example.

That historic event which changed the course of Lanka's history is surrounded by legends which have come to be accepted as 'facts'. So too are many events that took place even after history became documented during the reign of latter day kings and queens.

It is probably for this reason that few writers have attempted to take on the challenge of writing a historical account of the 2500 year old unbroken line of monarchs of Sri Lanka dating from the time of Vijaya to the colonial times when Sri Lanka came under the rule of the British monarch.

One writer has now taken on himself this Herculean task. His self appointed task was not only extremely difficult since he had to gather his information from several different sources, it was often frustrating and time consuming to say the least, he says.

King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha and his Cabinet of Ministers

Not surprising thus that author H. M. Mervyn Herath admits in the preface to his book 'Monarchs of Sri Lanka' that," In some cases it has been like looking for two grains of wheat hidden in two bushels of chaff". He also admits that his account is neither an exhaustive study or a hundred percent factually correct. Still, in spite of such shortcomings,it is a brave effort which deserves to be commended.

Herath is writing mainly for those Sri Lankans living abroad who know little of Sri Lankan history. Considering that most of these ex-patriots have little time to spare for "reading at leisure", he attempts to encapsule our 2,500 years of monarchical rule into a hundred pages of a slender, well illustrated book which carries on its crimson cover an outline of the map of Sri Lanka with the throne of the last king of Kandy prominently displayed in the centre.

The fact that he is writing for ex-patriots however does not make it less interesting and fascinating to those of us who have grown up on a diet of Lankan history during our school days and the abundance of little known anecdotes and details he has managed to pack into his descriptions of each of the monarchs he has written about makes his book absorbing reading to young and old alike.

Colourful anecdotes abound and it is clear the author has an eye for detail that arrests the reader's attention. How many of us for example are familiar with Prince Vijayabahu's ancestry, or are aware that he had a grandmother (Suppa Devi) who was kidnapped by a bandit

nicknamed 'Lion' and lived in a cavern with her two children, a boy and a girl until they finally escaped and were rescued by the king who made her his queen? Is it fact or fiction that Sinha Bahu (Vijaya's father) married his own sister when he became king? We all know that Sinha Bahu banished his rebel son Vijaya to Lanka.

But do we know the details of the manner in which the king banished his son Vijaya and his 700 followers? According to Herath who does not say where he got such details, when the king decided to banish Vijaya and his friends, he had their heads shaven leaving only a single strand at the back of their heads uncut, and put them aboard a rudderless ship.

Combat between Dutugemunu and Elara 

Vijaya and his followers reached Lanka and planted a flag with a Lion symbol at Tambapanni. Equally interesting is the legend that surrounds the birth of Pandukabhaya, grandson of the second king of Lanka, King Panduvasdeva.

When Ummadh Citta, the only daughter of the king was born it had been predicted that her son would destroy his uncles and she was thus put into solitary confinement with a single maid as her companion.

She nevertheless managed to get herself pregnant with a child by Prince Deega Gamini a ruler in a neighbouring state and was later married to him. When their child Pandukabhaya was born, in order to save him from being killed by his uncles, she spirited him to a safe place in Ruhuna and placed on her bed a baby girl instead. Pandukabhaya ascended the throne after killing all his uncles, as predicted by the fortune teller, and went on to establish the city of Anuradhapura, reigning for over seventy years.

The book in many ways is an eye opener to its readers, if only because it reveals so many little known details of the lives and reign of our past monarchs.

The story of Dutugemunu is familiar to us all. But many may not be aware that he married the daughter of a rebel chieftain who continued to pay tributes to the Tamil King Elara. Ran Etana, the chieftain's daughter who went against her father's wishes,joined Dutugemnunu, personally leading an army of stalwart youths and maidens to help him conquer Elara. Nor would many be aware of the fate that befell their son Saliya, who married a beautiful maiden of the scavenger caste( Chandala) and thereby disqualified himself from inheriting the throne, according to Herath..

Despite his limited source material, Herath's account of Lanka's monarchs is dramatic, colourful and full of suspense. Here is an example that reads like a tale straight out of a modern day Western film.

It revolves around the reign of King Valagambahu 1 during whose reign the second great invasion too place. King Valagambahu was compelled to flee with his pregnant Queen Anula, his own natural child Mahanaga and his Queen Soma Devi.

Herath states,"As there was a possibility of the chariot they were travelling in being overtaken by the enemy and the king being captured, Queen Soma Devi taking the king's crown and cloak jumped down from the chariot saying, "I give my life for my king and country. Go to Ruhuna my Lord, rally your people and great victory will be yours". She escaped into the jungle and the enemy seeing the red cloak and golden crown glistening in the moonlight pursued the queen while the king sped safely to the capital city in the south.

Sri Lanka had many queens in her monarch studded history. But which one of them was particularly notorious? Queen Anula without a shred of doubt, if you go by Herath's account of her rule. He re-enacts for us the following gruesome details of her exploits."

Cora Naga, son of Valagambahu, was killed with poisoned food by his consort Anula .....After his death, Kudatissa made himself king and took Anula as his queen. Anula then developed a passion for Siva the senior gate porter at the king's palace. She thus poisoned the king and ascended the throne as the First Queen of Lanka with the palace porter as her consort."

Not content with this, Herath writes, she later poisoned Siva and lived with an Indian carpenter Vatuka, and subsequently with two other low caste men, Darubhatissa a firewood carrier and a palace priest Neeliya - all of whom she poisoned till she finally ended up governing the country alone."

It was left to Kuttakanna, the second son of Cula Mahatissa to rid the country of such an ignominious sovereign by burning her alive", he states. So revolted was Kuttakanna by the heinous acts of Queen Anula that he refused to live in the palace which he believed she had ' polluted' and instead built a new palace and resided there.

Queen Lilavathi in contrast was perhaps the most successful and peace loving queen who reigned over Lanka. So efficient was her reign, that the widow of King Parakramabahu, who commanded the respect and admiration of her people and in whose reign there was a revival of art and literature, could easily go into the present day book of Records as perhaps the only queen to ascend the throne three times in a period of 14 years.

Sri Lanka also had at least one king who deserves to go down in history as the king who ruled for the shortest period of time; one day. He was Veerabahu 1 who was killed the same day as he was installed as king by his commander-in-chief, on the grounds that he was a son not equal to his father!

The author concludes his account of the long line of monarchs in Lanka with a graphic description of the capture of King Sri Vikrama Rajasingha who was taken prisoner with his Queen Venkta Rangamal in 1815. On 2nd March 1815 Lanka was ceded to the British under a treaty called the Kandyan Convention.

"With Sri Vikrama RajasinVgha ended not only the last vestige of national freedom, but also a civilisation based on an entire and unique ethico-religious social philosophy ......The Lion flag which King Vijaya had planted in 544 B.C. was finally hauled down, according to the author.

The king was taken to Colombo on March 6 1815 where he remained until January 24 1816, when he and all his relations, dependents and adherents were transferred to India, first to Madras and finally to the fort of Vellore in which place Sri Vikrama Rajasinha died of dropsy on January 30 1832 aged 52 years. The ex king's body was cremated and ashes floated down the river".

For the benefit of his readers, the writer concludes by giving a brief update on those who governed and ruled Lanka from the time its long line of monarchs ended, using mostly photographs of these leaders with captions.