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From Devundera to Dedigama

It is difficult to imagine that Dedigama once had a paramount ruler and was the administrative capital of the country in the 14th century.

A mile or two to your right from Nelundeniya, as you drive towards Kandy, there is little evidence today in this sleepy village of the Sri Vibhutiya this once splendid city is said to have had, according to the Tisara Sandesaya, the oldest of our sandesa poems.

Again, we have no Alakeswara around to contest my elevation of Dedigama to the administrative capital of a


Map of ancient Ceylon

 paramount ruler of the island when about the same time he was building the fortress of the Sri Jayavadanapura to outwit the predatory attacks of those fief holders in Jaffna, who styled themselves the Arya Chakravartis and not Dravida Chakravartis.

Truth to say the 14th century was a pretty confusing period in our history with a third kingdom, and a Bhuveneka Bahu as its head, was attempting to run the country from Gampala.

The Tisara Sandesaya itself makes it clear that these were troubled times. For the author of the poem, an unidentified monk from Matara, was using a swan to fly a message in the form of a poem, all the way from the southern tip of the island in Devundera, to Dedigama, praying to the god Upulvan to safeguard the king and his ministers from the treachery of his enemies who were plotting to overthrow him.

Perhaps he needed such a reassurance. Though nothing in detail is still known about the shadowy events of this time, there was a good deal of intrigue going on. The astute Alakeswara did not like what the kinglet of Dedigama, Parakrama Bahu V, was up to. For reasons not too clear he seemed to have been in the way of his plans and had to be got rid of. And he did it in the most amazing way.

It appears that at this time in the country’s most confusing period, the kinglet with the most clout was the Aryachakravarti in the North. He had on the land side swept down to Matale and was almost a stone’s throw from Gampala.

On the seaside he had command over all the western ports from Chilaw, Wattala right up to Panadura. Soon he could get complete control over the country’s economy. It was in anticipation of all this that Alakeswara built his solid fortress in Kotte. How solid such a fort could be may be described in the words of Codrington:

A central tower of four storeys was surrounded by two concentric stockades, between which lay a ditch twenty to thirty cubits wide, strewn with thorns and spikes. This ditch was some 700 feet round.

Beyond the outer stockade lay another similar ditch, and beyond this a row of spikes and a thorn fence with a deeper ditch outside. The whole was surrounded by an outer space cleared in the forest.

The approaches were defended by concealed pits dug in the paths, commanded by archers in ambush. In the attack on this fortress...stones were hurled from engines, of reed fired and thrown among the enemy, and of fire darts. Permanent fortifications (such as Kotte) were to be found only in the case of cities. (A Short History of Ceylon).

Meanwhile, Gampala with the backing of Raigama (in effect Alakeswara) was intriguing with the Aryachakravarti to rid Dedigama of Parakrama Bahu V. If you are reminded of similar unholy alliances being arranged today you are not far wrong.

How it all happened is not spelt out in any history book, but the evidence that the Aryachakravarti left behind of his Dedigama invasion was a stone inscription in Tamil in the heart of the Sinhala stronghold, eight or nine miles away from the capital.

The Kotagama stone, as it is known, has remained a mystery, intriguing our epigraphists just as much as the trilingual stone in Galle.

Here is this very poetic (too poetic in fact as a memorial of conquest) inscription left on the Kotagama stone as translated from the Tamil by the Indian government epigraphist, with some explanatory words in brackets:

The innocent women-folk of Anuresa (term used for any Sinhala capital) who did not submit to Aryan of Singainagar of foaming and resounding waters exhibiting drops of water in (shed tears from) their lance shaped eyes and spread their forehead-marks on their beautiful braceleted lotus like hands (erased them in their token of widowhood).

Having succeeded with his first move Alakeswara turned to his second. He threw the gauntlet into the Aryachakravarti camp by hanging his tax collectors sent by Aryachakavarti to gather the tax from the hill country (the pay off for ousting the kinglet from Dedigama). Aryachakravarti did not take this lightly. He planned a simultaneous attack on several fronts both in the hills as well as in several places on the western coast.

However, the men who Alakeswara had trained in guerilla fighting did their jobs splendidly and Aryachakravarti was totally routed and his ships off the Panadura coast were left in flames. It was not only a rout but also a slap in the face of the Vijayanagar imperialists who had by then taken over the reins from the Pandyan king and the funding of the fief holder in the North for his Lankan adventure.

Parakrama Bahu V had nothing else to do now but flee to the south. And there he took up residence with his queen at Lahugala. The remains of a palace, now popularly known as Vihara Mahadevi’s Maligawa, carrying an inscription has helped to identify the Dedigama king and his queen.

The queen was wife to both the Gampala and Dedigama rulers according to the polyandrous custom prevailing at that time. A more recent discovery of an inscription says that Parakrama Bahu V set sail from the south to Java with whom this Savulu dynasty, the latest, had intimate connections. But that story must await another day

Dedigama that entered history first as the preferred country residence of the Gampala kings went into a slow decline soon after these embarrassing moments in our history. But it need not fade altogether from our minds because it holds several momentous events of political and cultural importance some of which are seldom held up as the sri vibhutiya of our country.

First, only a few still know that this is the birth- place of the only king in this country who has earned the singular honour of being called The Great. Though the landmark that was erected by him to commemorate his birthplace is in the shape of a dagoba, an unfinished one at that, Parakrama Bahu The Great’s resting place has come to be called the kotavehera.

In fact it may not have been meant as a place of worship because hardly anyone visits it today or ever did for that purpose. Further, this great hero did not come as they usually do from either the Ruhuna or the Raja Rata but from the Maya Rata, maya signifying cunning and diplomacy, both of which he was master.

The memorial left by the great Parakrama Bahu deserves greater recognition today. The second event is how Dedigama comes to figure in the abduction and transport to China, of the ruler of Raigama, Veera Alagakkonara, from his capital in Kotte by the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho.

The evidence is now forthcoming that it was done with the assistance of another Parakrama Bahu, known to historians as the Dedigama Parakrama Bahu. In a struggle for power that reined at that time, China apparently had come to the rescue of Dedigama Parakrama Bahu who hailed from Senkadagala. He has now been identified as the monarch who paid tribute to China.

The third object of great interest that Dedigama holds for the visitor today is the work of a master craftsman, a hanging oil lamp in the shape of an elephant. It may not look a startling creation at first glance, but soon amazement dawns on you on seeing the subtlety of his skill in utilising the principles of hydraulics to create a perpetual lamp.

And in the process displaying also his wit in employing the function performed by living elephants in relieving urine, to feed the oil in similar fashion to the lamp, drop by drop.

The fourth of the objects of historical interest connected with Dedigama is the poetic message carried by the Swan to the monarch of Dedigama. Here the poet has given us a rare view of a royal court in full assembly with a relaxing monarch enjoying a musical session.

The assembly greets the monarch as he enters by standing up and the poet compares the folded palms of the audience, raised over the heads in a gesture of greeting, to the numerous lotus buds in a pool.

Next the pothay gura or the master of ceremonies, signals to a group standing behind a curtain. Then one by one the dancers tip toe to the sound of a band of variegated drums and pipes, some not seen today.

One dancer twirls in a manner so as to spread her garment like a parasol spread out which the poet immediately compares to none but the amorous Anangaya’s (Cupid’s) parasol itself.

After this joyous spectacle of watching the dancers, both male and female, the poet tells his messenger, now that the monarch is in a good mood, is the time for you to announce your presence and bless him that he may live long safeguarded by the gods from his enemies.

Not unnaturally this section of the poem is very enjoyable reading, with the poetic metres virtually keeping time with what is going on in the dance hall.

For a religieux, the poet has a good eye for beauty too, judging from the descriptions of places and people the swan messenger encounters on the way. Some of the imagery is very flamboyant of course, but that is a characteristic of eastern poetry of the Alankarist school.

The following verse should be of special interest because (1) it is a poet’s view of Wattala as it appeared then in contrast to the bustling suburb it is now and (2) the imagery, in a way, seems to me strangely enough closer to, at one time, a school of modern poetry in the West - the Imagists:

Wattala streets are like rivers

The waters made up by the glitter Of women’s eyes

The waves are

The streets’ horses.

The innumerable

Soldiery the rivers’ fish

Glide, oh swan! down these rivers

Like a silver ship admiring the spectacle

The city of Colombo is not far away either. What he sees there is probably what went on in this place, which was mostly a port of call and so a kind of haven for men sailing the Seven Seas.

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