August 2016


King Sri wickrama rajasinghe: Sri Lanka's last monarch
August 2016




''The King’s Palace at Kandy'' by William Lyttleton (1819)

The history surrounding the end of Sri Lanka's monarchy, one of the world's most ancient, is of Shakespearean proportions. It concerns King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1798-1815), placed on the throne by a chief minister with ambitions of his own, manipulated into a war with the British he could never win, betrayed, deposed by his conquerors, and then exiled.


Words Richard Boyle


From 1739 to 1815, the Kingdom of Kandy was ruled by four kings of the Nayak Dynasty from Madurai, the capital of Tamil Nadu in southern India. This was due to the frequent marital alliances between Kandyan kings and Nayak princesses, because when one king died childless the brother of his Nayak queen succeeded the throne.


With the death in 1798 of the third king of the Kandy Nayak Dynasty, Sri Rajadhi Rajasinghe, a similar situation occurred. Although there was a stronger claim to the throne, Pilimatalawala, the first Adigar (equivalent of a prime minister), chose the late king's nephew, 18-year-old Prince Kannasamy, with plans to usurp the throne and start his own dynasty.


Thus the young Prince became King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe, an inexperienced teenager who would face numerous conspiracies and reign through a momentous and catastrophic period in Sri Lanka's history. It began when Pilimatalawala, in league with the British who ousted the Dutch from the coastal provinces just two years earlier in 1796, provoked Rajasinghe into acts of aggression to give the colonists a reason to invade the Kingdom of Kandy.


Thus on March 22, 1803, the British marched into Kandy to find no resistance, Rajasinghe having fled. Three months later Pilimatalawala eliminated the British garrison and restored Rajasinghe to the throne, but his subsequent plot to seize the crown was uncovered and as he had been pardoned for such treachery twice before, he was executed.


Pilimatalawala was replaced by his nephew, Ehelepola, an unwise decision on Rajasinghe's part as the new Adigar also plotted to overthrow his majesty. Ehelepola instigated a rebellion that was suppressed and fled to British-held territory. He failed to surrender as demanded by Rajasinghe, so he was dismissed and the king ordered the imprisonment and execution of his wife and children, which the king later insisted in his defence was under Kandyan Law.


It is unfortunate that Rajasinghe is invariably associated with this act, while much of his improvements to Kandy are forgotten. Most important was the creation of the Pattirippu, also known as The Octagon, a masterpiece of Kandyan architecture with an attractive roof at a steep gradient, at the Sri Dalada Maligawa, The Temple of the Tooth. In addition, Rajasinghe constructed a protective moat, Diya Agala, around the Dalada Maligawa.


The extensive paddy fields in front of the Dalada Maligawa were transformed by Rajasinghe into a attractive lake named Kiri Muhuda (Milky Ocean), thus enhancing the beauty of the city to this day. The lake is partially surrounded by an intricate wall called Walakulu Bamma (Cloud Wall) as it was built to look like floating clouds.


The wall is incomplete because Kandy was finally captured by the British on February 10, 1815, on the pretext of the seizure of British merchants. Rajasinghe was taken prisoner with Queen Venkata Rangammal Devi at the house of a minor headman. In remembrance there is a plaque that reads:


"Sri Wickrama Rajasingha captured here 18th February 1815". To reach this location, go to the town of Medamahanuwara east of Kandy, from where it is a 10-minute walk.


On March 2, 1815, Ceylon was ceded to the British under a treaty known as the Kandyan Convention, ending 2,357 years of monarchy. Four days later the deposed king - he was succeeded by Britain's George III - was taken by a secret route to Colombo, where he was detained in a cell that has been reconstructed in Fort for the benefit of those interested in the subject.


The Kingdom of Kandy at the elevated centre, the very heart of the Island, had developed an advanced civilization based on ethical and religious values. It had resisted the might of the Portuguese and Dutch empires. Even treachery was needed for the British to finally conquer this distinctive kingdom, which resulted in the state Lion flag, supposedly planted by Prince Vijaya circa 486BC, being lowered for the last time on March 2, 1815.


However, Rajasinghe's Lion flag - more specifically "a yellow lion passant holding a sword in its right paw on a red background" - was adopted (with later additional stripes to represent the Tamil and Muslim communities), as the flag of Independent Ceylon in 1948. Such is the extent of Rajasinghe's legacy.


On January 25, 1816, Rajasinghe and all his relations, dependents and even adherents sailed away from the Island for the last time aboard HMS Cornwallis to eventually arrive at the fort of Vellore, in Tamil Nadu, the state in which his forebears ruled. After 16 years of ignominious exile, Rajasinghe died from oedema (fluid retention) on January 30, 1832, aged 52. Outside Vellore on the banks of the Palar River is situated the tomb and memorial to Sri Lanka's last monarch called the Muthu Mandapam (Pearl Hall), a government-designated tourist site.


Rajasinghe's character was tainted by British propaganda; that he was a tyrant and being of Indian origin had no right to the throne. But Rajasinghe was a Buddhist and had considerable support from the Kandyan people. His problem was the alienation between him and his Adigars, his chiefs.


A young king maybe, but he witnessed the royal court as a child and quickly took control of the administration, which became fair and efficient. He showed aesthetic sensibility, often listening to music and supervising the artists who enlarged or decorated his city.

 

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    Portrait of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe at National Archives

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    Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe's golden throne, crown (left) and sword (right), National Museum

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    Portrait of Queen Consort Rangammal Devi by William Daniell (19th Century)

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    The distinctive signature of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe

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    ''Town and Lake of Kandy'' by Charles O'Brien (1864)

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    ''The Maligawa Temple, Kandy'' by Charles O’Brien (1864)

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    Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe’s reconstructed prison cell on original site in Fort, Colombo

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