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Sunday, 13 June 2010





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Rise and fall of Seethawaka kingdom

The heritage of Seethawaka
Author: Philip Gunawardena
Visidunu Prakashakayo, Boralesgamuwa

At first I hesitated to review "The heritage of Seethawaka as its author Philip Gunawardena was more a socialist than a historian. He is well known as the Father of Marxism in Sri Lanka and the architect of the Paddy Lands Act.

After reading the book, however, I revised my views about Philip Gunawardena. He impressed me as a historian who could interpret history and challenge some of the popular theories. This is a critical comment on the Seethawaka kingdom and its two illustrious kings Mayadunne and Rajasinghe

The original book - Seethawaka Urumaya - has been translated into English by the former High Court Judge W. T. A. Leslie Fernando.

It has been carefully edited by Indrani Meegama leaving no room for inaccuracies and typographical errors.

History tells us that Seethawaka emerged as an independent kingdom in the 16th century. Its formidable rulers Mayadunne and Rajasinghe had the immense responsibility of facing the Portuguese who were gradually establishing their dominance in trade with the East. When the king of Kotte welcomed the Portuguese, Muslim traders were the first to protest against their presence. Unlike the Muslims, the Portuguese were armed traders who also propagaged Christianity through missionaries.

The policy of King Vijayabahu of Kotte regarding the succession to the throne and his attitude towards the Portuguese were resented by his three sons. Bhuvanekabahu, Raigam Bandara, and Mayadunne.

In 1521, the "Kotte kingdom was divided into three small areas: Kotte, Raigama, and Seethawaka. Mayadunne became the king of Seethawaka.

Historians in the past had depicted Mayadunne as a power-hungry ruler who instigated the killing of his brother - Bhuvanekabahu. However, the author disputes his view and says that there was no need for him to do so. In fact, even after crushing the rebellion of Prince Weerasuriya and General Manamperi, Mayadunne did not want to annex Kotte to his kingdom.

After defeating the Portuguese in the battle of Mulleriyawa, Mayadunne entrusted the kingdom to his son Tikiri Bandara who later became king Rajasingha, Mayadunne died in 1581 at the age of 83.

Both Mayadunne and his valiant son Rajasinghe had one definite aim: to rid the country of the Portuguese invaders.

At times, Mayadunne sought the support of Zamorin of Calicut to defeat the Portuguese. Rajasinghe too employed Sikhs to train his army. Although he could not drive the Portuguese away, he succeeded in annexing the Kandyan kingdom to Seethawaka.

When Rajasinghe died without leaving an heir, the downfall of Seethawaka began.

By 1592 the great Seethawaka kingdom was no longer in existence.

Although some of the views expressed by the author remain controversial, the book gives a graphic account of the Seethawaka kingdom and its rulers. As such, "The Heritage of Seethawaka" will remain a source book of history, serving students and teachers.

The Great Panadura Debate

The statue of Miggettuwatte Gunananda Thera in Panadura

During the dark era of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British colonial rule of our beloved motherland, the native Buddhists and Hindus were crushed between two grind stones, the brutal colonial masters and the Christian missionary workers, who virtually dominated the island with the blessings and encouragement of the rulers to accomplish their task of converting Buddhists and Hindus to Christianity.

The Portuguese invaders led by Don Lorenzo de Almeida arrived in Colombo on November 15, 1505 and having occupied the maritime provinces, soon began to propagate the Catholic faith with sword in one hand and the Bible in the other. The Portuguese invaders who had been described as the most cruel, inhuman and savage persecutors of Buddhism, were responsible for the destruction of Buddhist temples, historical monuments, monasteries, looting of valuable treasures and senseless killings.

Further the Buddhists were forced to change their traditional names and embrace to Catholic faith if they wished to obtain positions under their imperialist regime.

After the expulsion of the Portuguese by the Dutch in 1658, it became apparent that the prime motive of the new colonisers was to promote and propagate Protestant Christianity of the Dutch Reformed Church and at the same time to monopolise the much profitable spice and ivory trade.

This has been very clearly described in the book titled "Het Machtige Eyland Ceylon (The Great Island Ceylon) written by the Dutch missionary worker Philipus Baldaeus and published in Amsterdam in 1672.

The Dutch rulers enforced tough laws for the Buddhists and Hindus with regard to matrimony, education and employment. Buddhists who did not embrace Christianity were forbidden to take up any position or employment in the government or its agencies and no marriage was legally registered outside the church while baptism was made mandatory for the registration of birth. Parish School system introduced by the Dutch missionaries was seen instrumental in proselytising the non Christians. The awesome period of Dutch rule ended with the surrender of the territories to the British in 1796. The victorious forces under Sir Fredrck North (1798-1805) the first British governor of the territories soon sent a detachment to the Kandyan province to capture the last King of Ceylon, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1798-1832) and take possession of the entire Island. The British forces reached Senkadagala on February 18, 1815 and conquered the last stronghold of the nation and vested the island in the King of England, the Defender of the Faith.

Regaining lost rights

The Kandyan Convention signed on March 2, 1815, between Governor Robert Brownrigg and the Adigars, Dissaves and the Principal Chiefs of the Kandyan Province stated: That the religion of the Boodhoo professed by the chiefs and the inhabitants of the province is declared inviolable and its rites, ministers and places of worship are to be maintained and protected."

Subsequently the British colonial rulers fully violated the most significant clauses 5 of the convention. The infringement of the treaty and betrayal of the Sinhalese, incited the Maha Sangha, national leaders, the patriotic inhabitants to revolt against the regime to regain the lost rights of the Buddhists.

However, the national uprising of 1818 was brutally suppressed by the British forces by burning and destroying paddy fields, cattle, plantations, property and dwellings of the chiefs and peasants and slaughtering thousands of innocent inhabitants including Buddhist monks. Patriotism and Buddhism are but inseperable.

Western imperialists always turned their eyes longingly to the Asian countries to build a strong Christian empire. A chapel of the Wesleyan mission was set up in Panadura in the early part of the nineteenth century.

With the encouragement and assistance from the colonial government the missionaries enjoyed absolute freedom to propagate Christianity by opening schools throughout the country for the missionary workers envisaged that the most effective way to convert Buddhists and Hindus is through the Church based schools.

Buddhist children attending Christian schools were taught Bible lessons which were alien to Buddhism. Many pupils eventually embraced Christianity in later life. During the peak of Christian domination and the oppression of Buddhists, Reverend David de Silva, a clergyman attached to the Wesleyan Chapel Panadura, in the Vicinity of the historic Galkanda Vihare (present Rankoth Vihare) made an adverse statement against the teachings of the Buddha at a lecture held in the chapel on June 12, 1873.

His allegations and arguments were refuted by Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera at a meeting held at the Galkande Vihare on June 19, 1873. In the meantime Ven. Gunananda, the incumbent of the Deepaduththaramaya in Kotahena, fought an undaunted battle against the missionary workers, held more than four thousand public discourses throughout the country to educate the public and safeguard the Buddhists from the foreign and local missionary groups.

He had taken part in many verbal battles with the missionary workers at Waragoda, Udanwita, Gampola and Orugodawatta.

The enraged Protestant missions in the end challenged Ven. Gunananda Thera to hold an open debate to establish the truth of the faith. The learned monk accepted the challenge, and the historical debate was fixed for the 26th and 28th August in 1873 at Dombagahawatta coconut grove in Panadura, owned by the great philanthropist P. Jeramias Dias.

The sole speaker for the Buddhist delegation was Ven. Migettuwatte (Mohottiwatte) Gunananda Thera, supported by Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera, Ven. Weligama Sumangala Nayaka Thero, Venerable Panadura Gunarathana Thera, Venerable Waskaduwe Sri Subuti Thera and a few other learned monks, while the speakers for the joint protestant delegation were Rev. David de Silva of the Wesleyan mission and Rev. F. S. Sirimanne, a Catechist of the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.) assisted by a host of foreign and local theologians.


A Police force of fourteen men and one inspector was on duty at the premises to maintain law and order. An estimated crowd of ten thousand people from Panadura and the neighbouring villages of Pasdun korale and Raigam korale, including one hundred Buddhist monks were present. The crucial debate commenced at the appointed time of eight in the morning of Tuesday,August 26, 1873 and ended at five in the evening of August 28. After two days of vigorous battle Ven. Gunananda Thera delivered the closing speech on the 28th evening and refuted the malicious charges made against the teachings of the Buddha and thereby won the day for the Buddhists. It is worthwhile quoting here a few statements made by Christian clergyman before and after the great debate.

"James de Alwis, Sinhala scholar, lawyer and theologian had said in 1850 that "before the end of that century Buddhism would disappear from Ceylon". Rev. W.J. Nobel, a British missionary worker of the Methodist mission had said in 1937, that it is only by evangelism that it can live and grow, and that is fully understood. The church is strong enough to go and win Ceylon for Christ."

"The task of the Church in Ceylon will not be finished till the remaining ninety percent of the population who are not Christians are converted" Rev. Lakdas de Mel, Assistant Bishop of the Anglican Church in Ceylon - 1952. Robert Knox (1660-1680) English sailor captured and held a prisoner in Ceylon was of the opinion that "the Sinhalese people could never be conquered as long as the Buddhist monks survive".

In striking contrast a complimentary remark had been made by Professor T. W. Rhyss David (1843-1932) University College London. "There is no record known to me in the whole of the long history of Buddhism throughout the many centuries where His followers for such lengthened periods of any persecution by the Buddhists of the followers of any faith".

Ten years after the debate the Buddhist Defence Committee was inaugurated at a meeting held on January 28, 1884 at the Vidyodaya Pirivena in Maligakande with the objective of safeguarding the interest of the Buddhists.

Muhandiran A. P. Dharma Gunawardana, Don Carolis Hewavitharana, H. A. Fernando, Carolis Pujitha Gunawardana were elected as the office-bearers of the committee while Colonel Henry Steele Olcott served as an honorary member. Subsequently a sub committee comprising Ven. Miggettuwatte Gunananda Thera, Ven. Hikkaduwa Sri Sumangala Thera, Don Carolis Hewavitharana, A.P. Dharma Gunawardana, William de Abrew, Carolis Pujitha Gunawardana, Charles A. de Silva, N. S. Fernando, Peter de Abrew and William Fernando was set up to look into the possibility of designing a prestigious symbol of identity for the Buddhists. The blue, yellow, red, white and orange coloured flag designed by Carolis Pujitha Gunawardana was unanimously accepted by the committee as the most appropriate symbol of identity of the Buddhists.

Public holiday

Through the mediation of the Buddhist Defence Committee, the British colonial government was urged to restore the Vesak Poya holiday enjoyed by Buddhists since the time of King Devanampiyatissa until it was abolished by the Dutch in 1770. The British rulers were compelled to accede to the demand and as a result Vesak Poya was declared a public holiday from April 28, 1885 and the Sinhala and Hindu New Year day too was declared a public holiday on March 27,1885.

Ven. Miggettuwatte Gunananda Thera hoisted the five coloured Buddhist flag for the first time in Ceylon on the Vesak Poya day of April 28, 1885 at the Deepaduththaramaya Temple in Kotahena. The flag was also hoisted at the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare, Hunupitiya Gangaramaya, Vidyodaya Pirivena and at the headquarters of the Buddhist Theosophical Society in Colombo.

Meanwhile Anagarika Dharmapala, the saviour of Buddha Gaya Temple had the honour and privilege of hoisting the Buddhist flag at the Buddha Gaya temple on the Esala Full Moon Day in 1891.

At the assembly of the World Buddhist Council held in Kandy on May 25, 1950, one hundred and twenty nine foreign delegates representing twenty-nine countries agreed to the proposal moved by Dr. G. P. Malalasekara to accept the Lankan Buddhist flag as the symbol of world Buddhist brotherhood.

The impact of the Panadura debate was so effective that Col. Henry Steele Olcott, Madam Blavetsky, Anagarika Dharmapala and many other dignitaries visited this historical site in Panadura, the stronghold of Buddhism.

It is almost 137 years since the world renowned debate was held but no steps had been taken to develop and protect this heritage site. Statesmen, politicians, national leaders and Buddhist institutions have not paid due attention presumably due to lack of knowledge or unawareness of the significance of the great Panadura debate.

To lessen the disappointment, the Department of Public Trustee in collaboration with the Panadura Bhauddha Maha Sanagamaya and the present owner of the block of land donated by Mrs. P. Roslind Rodrigo, daughter of P. Jeramias Dias have taken steps to erect a memorial hall to commemorate the noble event and pay homage to Ven. Gunananda Thera.

The project is expected to be completed to coincide with the 2600 year of Samma Sambuddthawa Jayanthi in 2011, two thousand six hundred years after the attainment of Enlightenment of Gautama Buddha.

The Buddhathwa Jayanthi Secretariat established under the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Moral Uplift has identified a twenty point action plan to be implemented in view of the Jayanthi celebrations and under the proposed plan priority has been given to the restoration of neglected heritage sites.

The Panadura Bhauddha Maha Sangamaya appeals to the authorities of the Jayanthi Secretariat to pay attention to this worthy cause and extend co-operation to fulfil the noble task.

Buddhist philanthropists, individuals and institutions willing to share in this meritorious act may send their financial contributions, big or small to the Public Trustee, Dept. of Public Trustee, 2, Bullers Lane, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7 or remit to Account Number 2323296 (Gunananda Fund) maintained by the Public Trustee at Bank of Ceylon, Independent Square Branch, Colombo 7.

(The writer is the President of the Panadura Bauddha Maha Sangamaya.)


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