September 2018

Kotte – The Kingdom Within the City
September 2018

A stunning bird's eye view of the city of Kotte
Menaka Aravinda

The Kingdom of Kotte has etched an unforgettable legacy of power, architecture, classical literature and Sri Lankan spirit. Amidst the everyday rush of life, the saga of Kotte lingers even today within the vestiges of ancient palaces, temples and ramparts.

Words: Gayathri Kothalawala and Darrshini Parthepan
Photography: Vishwathan Tharmakulasigham, Anuradha Perera and Geeth Viduranga

First fortified by Nissankamalla Alagakkonara as a battle encampment in the 14th century, the sovereignty of Kotte over the entire island was established by King Parakramabahu VI. In the early 15th century, the Kingdom of Kotte, was the seat of power in Sri Lanka. Encouraged by the stability of King Parakramabahu VI's reign, this era came to be known as the Golden Age of Classical Sinhalese Literature. After division over the throne and the subsequent invasions of the colonisers, the supremacy of the Kotte Kingdom faded amidst the emergence of the Kingdoms of Sitawaka and Kandy. However, the legacy of this realm echoes on quietly.

Centuries on, the Kotte Kingdom, now named Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, has become the island's legislative capital, while also morphing into a suburban precinct in the bustling city of Colombo. Amongst modern structures, remnants that reflect the rich heritage of the kingdom remain hidden, waiting to be discovered and explored.

Outer and Inner moats
Nissankamalla Alagakkonara or Alakeshwara, a Minister of King Vikramabahu III of the Gampola Kingdom fortified Kotte in the 1350s during battles against the Kings of Jaffna. To strengthen the defences of the fortress, he had built the outer water moat apart from the inner moat. Built parallel to the inner moat, the outer moat follows the ground contour and topography, and varies in depth and width as per the terrain.

Also built by Nissankamalla Alagakkonara, the ramparts are considered to be yet another architectural marvel of the Kotte Kingdom. Constructed with 26-inch by 16-inch kabok stones, the ramparts reached a height of eight feet and a width of 35 feet. Their remnants are however only six to eight feet in width today; a far cry from the initial great bastions that encircled the city.

Palace of Alakeshwara
The remnants within this ancient site present a mystery for historians, who debate whether the enduring vestiges once belonged to the Palace of Alakeshwara or whether they mark his final resting place. There are two foundations built with kabok (clay-iron stone); now crowned by soft grassy knolls. The discovery of a water filter, grinding stone and other ancient domestic utensils, seems to further validate claims that this may have once been the residence of a nobleman.

Kotte Tunnel
As it was a fortress, tunnels played an important role in Kotte. The remnants of a tunnel system believed to have connected up to Colombo are located within the grounds of Kotte Ananda Sastralaya. Due to the distinctive appearance of the tunnel system, some believe they maybe remnants of a stupa.

Kotte Sapumal Bandara Dadimunda Maha Devalaya
Built in 1415 by King Parakramabahu VI, the devalaya pays homage to the guardian deity of Kotte, Sapumal Bandara Dadimunda. Legend has it that Prince Sapumal, the adopted son of the King, had appealed to the deity for divine blessings before heading north to settle a dispute in Jaffna. Even today, devotees continue to pay homage.

The ruins of Vehera kanda
In Beddegana, there are two dome-shaped brick structures atop a terrace. They are believed to be stupas, and a raised platform in the northern section of the Vehera Kanda site is assumed to have once housed an Image House. However, another theory suggests this is the site of a devalaya (shrine) dedicated to god Kataragama. There are also beliefs that the structures maybe the tombs of King Parakramabahu VI and his wife.

Sacred Na Tree
At the Sri Jayawardenapura Maha Vidyalaya is a Na Tree believed to be centuries old. It was under the shade of this tree that the eminent scholar and polyglot Ven Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula Thero penned the Salalihini Sandeshaya. Nearby is the stately Lambrick Hall built in distinctive colonial style.

Kotte Gal Ambalama
The Gal Ambalama (stone wayside resting place) at Pittakotte junction is believed to have been built to offer shelter to those travelling to Kotte. Dating back to the 15th century, the Gal Ambalama has endured the test of time and continues to serve as a place of rest.

Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya
Built under the patronage of King Parakramabahu VI for the Sangha, the original Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya was destroyed by the colonisers. Within the temple grounds are stone pillars, great monoliths that once provided shelter to the Sacred Tooth Relic of Buddha. In honour of the Relic, the temple continues to hold that annual Dalada Perahera. The Image House of the Viharaya is noted for its vibrant murals in Kandyan style. These stunning works of art depict Jathaka Katha relating to the previous lives of the Buddha.

E W Perera Memorial Museum
The former residence of late E W Perera, a renowned lawyer and philanthropist known as the Lion of Kotte, has been converted to a memorial museum. Within, ancient artefacts are preserved and visitors can discover information about the Kotte Era.