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DateLine Wednesday, 26 September 2007

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Dascon, are you sacrificing your life for me?

ROMANCE: The young man seemed very modest, self-effacing and respectful to the seniors. When I was introduced to him by the editor of a newspaper now defunct or gone into temporary oblivion the small made youth gave me his best smile. What name, I asked in my superior hauteur.

"Dascon" he answered.

Dascon! A familiar name. The particular poetic piece came rolling onto my mind, whose melody is sure to get lost in this translation. So I just repeat this line, "Dascon, mage namata jeevithe denavada? (Dascon, are you sacrificing your life for me?)

It was an international romance of the 18th Century involving three countries: France, South India and Sri Lanka. The lover was Pedro De Gascon, son of a team of French men who landed in the island during the reign of Rajasinghe II.

The king had a penchant for strange animals and strange humans too. The white hue, the ruddy coloured hair, the peculiar mannerisms attracted him. They were not allowed to get back.

Some played hide and seek among the lofty hills of the mountainous kande till they could escape, some married and settled down here taking on Menikes of a high and low breeds as bed mates. The king favoured some and gave them rather high posts in the kingdom.

Adventurous era

Rajasinghe II ruled between the years 1632 to 1687. The French team led by De La Nerolle in that adventurous era when every major European race was hunting for Asian territory, seems to have come rather late during his reign.

De La Nerolle (whose own progeny, the Lanerolles are doing very well here still especially in the literary arena) had been rather aggressive, riding his horse into the interior of the city, a practice that was taboo and hence was imprisoned along with his retinue.

But the king was an unpredictable character and a few months later De La Nerolle and Gascon had not only been given high posts but provided many a convenience. De La Nerolle married a Sinhala Menike of noble birth while Gascon married a Mestico female or a Meriggna, of mixed Portuguese and Sinhala descent.

So the husband was a French Calvinist and wife was a Roman catholic who kept open house for the Konkani Brahmin Catholic priests like Fr. Joseph Vaaz. How do I know all this? Young Dascon and his sister working in the UN office in Colombo maintain a file about the Gascon or Dascon progeny and it was handed to me for perusal.

I do not vouch for the veracity of the direct descent for details of the intervening period are missing. More than four centuries have effluxed since the advent of that French team.

Pleasant appearance

To go back to Gascon who was the groom of De La Nerolle, he was made Aspanthi Muhandiram by the king, impressed by his pleasant appearance and subdued ways. Incidentally the youth I met looks the same. Not presumptious, very quiet.

He seems to care the least whether I accept the facts or not. The file - maintaining has become a hobby for the siblings hailing from Kandy, now living in Colombo to earn their bread and butter.

A son and daughter were born to Gascon and the Mestico lady. The son soon became proficient in many languages. He learnt Portuguese from his mother and Fr. Vaaz, Sinhala from Suriyagoda Thera and picked up Dutch. In fact according to the contents in the file, a Dutch governor, Hendrick De Bevere, in his memories mentions meeting this son, Pedro De Gascon on a visit to the capital in Kandy and talking to him.

Since his father was French Bevere had spoken to him in French but the boy answered in gestures displaying ignorance of his father's language. But he was fluent in his Dutch.

This boy was one day to end his life at the age of 40 years, having played the role of the Most Romantic and shall we say, the Most Foolish lover in our royal court history. It is a fascinating tale and we will begin from the beginning. Rajasinghe II having earned the sobriquet of "the Most despotic ruler in the world" passed away in 1687, a few years after the arrival of the French team.

Then began the reign of his son Vimala Dharma Surya II who ruled from 1687 to 1707. The birth and growth of young Gascon would have taken place during this reign. His childhood had been spent in the royal court as a friend of the ruling king's son who was to be crowned in 1707 as Vira Parakrama Narendrasinghe, incidentally our last Sinhala king.

The prince inclined to associate foreigners like Gascon, and the Konkani fathers had earned displeasure of the native chieftains and an insurrection was being planned to crown one Pattiye Bandara on the reigning king's demise.

Gascon played his role well and led the defensive party after discovering the plot and in return he was made the Maha Adikaram of the Kandyan Court by a grateful young king who however did not mend his ways.

He earned the title "Sellam Nirindu" or the Playboy King especially after he left the traditional royal palaces of Maha Nuwara and Hanguranketha and resided at a new palace at Kundasale to frolic on the Mahaweli beaches in the evenings and go hunting in the forest groves around.

Clandestine affair

He was very indiscreet too when he allowed Fr. Joseph Vaaz to gift him a book titled "Buddha Prathyakshaya" criticising Buddhism and at a court ceremony too. Fr. Vaaz had begun building a church in Kandy and residential facilities were provided to him both by the king and Gascon's sister. (Today the two young Dascons are Buddhists).

Gascon himself was always in and out of the Court and with the amour the French are famous for developing a clandestine affair with the queen.

Of course, the king had many queens but one can deduce that this was the main queen, Premilla Devi due to the fuss made when she fell ill. A Bali ceremony was to be performed and an effigy of the queen was being made probably as the performer or the Bali Adura has to touch the different parts of the patient while performing the Yaga Homa. This was Her Majesty the queen and he could not touch her. So a likeness was being made.

Gascon was parading around in the court and saw the effigy, the naked body of the queen. The birthmark on the thigh was missing and to perfect the replica he suggested inserting it. The man working on the replica promptly obeyed for after all it was the Maha Adikaram's order. The king next visited the place and naturally all hell broke loose (The husband, they say, is the last to know). How did Gascon know the location of the birthmark?

Gascon was executed along with his tutor Suriyagoda Thera. Dr. Lorna Devaraja, author of "The Kandyan kingdom" however is of the view that this was a political murder initiated by Sinhala chieftains jealous of the growing influence of foreigners in the Court and the pervasion of another religion considered alien.

Poetic exchanges

Did the poetic exchanges as Gascon was being led to the execution site actually take place? Not likely. Vira Parakrama Narendrasinghe goes down to history as the first king to wed a Malabar princess.

Would Premilla Devi, a Malabar female own this Sinhala proficiency to recite these Hitiwana Kavi (instant poetry) especially in a time of such catastrophe when her lover foolishly divulged knowledge of her intimate body to men making her effigy? Where had all the wisdom of the Maha Adikaram fled? He was also an author and a poet having put out many books, all mostly erotic.

One, however, was a panegyric to his friend the king and named Sri Namaya. Among other books were Nokkadu Malaya (book of complaints) that had been written as an appeal to his boss cum friend, the king, to save him from death but the book is said to have got into the hands of his enemies and never submitted.

Though Gascon enjoyed a long standing love affair with the queen, he would have been a married man. Otherwise there can be no progeny, now working in newspapers offices and the UN. Incidentally many descendants of Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe, our last king, had worked as journalists in both Madras and Lake House Colombo.

Another issue is how is it that the unfaithful queen never got punished? Though her French lover was killed she went French free. So may be Dr. Lorna Devaraja is correct in her analysis and there was much more than this mere romance.

However they say there is no smoke without fire and the story of this sweetly piquant romance of the 18th Century in the Kandyan highlands still continues to fire imaginations and even provide themes for plays and films.



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