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Sunday, 12 July 2015

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Musings:

A story of treachery from Colonial Ceylon

It is not clear as to who trapped whom - whether it was the British officer who made rounds on horseback to the South often, or the Viharadhipathy. Time period was the governorship of Brownrigg circling round the 1815 decade. The story has defied many a year, even centuries, and come down to us mocking all high principles if ever there were as against a mountain heap of dirty lucre and top posts and tithes, a smelly scourge that the know-alls say attract and distract many a human even now.

The two players in the game are or were a top British officer (some even conjecture that it was the governor himself) and a head of a renowned temple near Galle. One is bewildered as to how their friendship began, perhaps the White man got exhausted by the constant rides on horseback and welcomed some rest in the invitingly large and cosy temple. Perhaps it was the other way round, the high priest getting drawn to the gallant rider fast disappearing into the dust of the untarred dusty roads going on to nowhere.

Tea

However, one fine day they sat for tea and a chat in the portals of the huge Vihara in the unfolding of the dirty drama. Now an offer was made to the robed one, that is to translate the Bible into Sinhala. Excuse me, this story is what I have heard not read exactly, except in a RAS journal article penned by the versatile Dr. K D Paranavithana, if I remember correct.


General Sir Robert Brownrigg, 1st Baronet GCB (1759 27 April 1833) was a British statesman and soldier. Picture courtesy: Wikipedia

Translating non-Buddhist, especially X tian literature into Sinhala was nothing new nor novel, in the context of the sizzling religious fervor of the missionaries. The Dutch friars had even produced a press with local letters and many a X tian tract and pamphlet were being distributed so that finally the local misguided heathen would end up in heaven! In the Parish schools religion was the main subject and the Bible the main book. It is a wonder that any Buddhists were left along the coast, the fishermen themselves welcoming it as they were officially absolved of one of the five precepts now, Thou shalt not kill. However killing for the poor fish frisking in the ocean was assured.

Temple

But here was a new phenomenon, a Monk and a head of a large temple, further known for his erudition taking on the translation of the Bible. The writer however has never come across this particular translation. Perhaps it was never finished for the times were turbulent. Simmerings of unrest were everywhere ever since the conquest of Kandy followed by the famous or infamous Kandyan convention. Promises were already being broken. The first upheaval against British rule had got going and reached new heights naturally during the governorship of Brownrigg who considered Buddhism as nothing but a whole heap of superstitions and idolatrous worship.

It was his attitude that probably encouraged his top henchmen to rest in temples and indulge in translations conducive to the spread of Xtianity. The British were certainly less evangelical that their two predecessors, especially the Ferenghis who came to the East with the Bible in one hand and the bayonet in the other. Further, the later policies of the home govt. were yet to start, as those of encouraging its officers to study the religion and culture and history of the conquered lands which made a few like Rhys David even cross over. But Brownrigg and his henchmen were of a far different breed. Fidelity was forgotten when it came to promise of riches and land and high posts.

At what juncture the Dadella high priest changed from Bible translator to a bitter foe of the rebelling Sinhalas, his own countrymen is not recorded but soon he appeared in Sath Korale blazoning his sword or gun and beheading many a rebel. His prowess in battle is said to be equal to whatever prowess he owned in delivering Buddhist sermons to the village folk back home. He became one of the fiercest fighters not in the freedom fight but in the anti freedom fight, the governor encouraging him to the hilt.

Some try to defend the Dadella monk that he just could not say "No" to the governor once when requested to translate the bible. It could have even ended up in an execution. Further, being a literary person, he may have enjoyed the work rationalising that it was going to enrich local literature. Anyway finally he disrobed and converted, either the bible entrancing him or the prospects of many a material and mundane gain.

His name was naturally changed which I will not disclose here for the family still runs.

A huge mansion was gifted to him in the precincts of Aluthkade, the judiciary complex adjoining Hulftsdorp even then. The mansion is no more. Riches just poured on him and his sons were duly promoted.

Brownrigg was so proud of this chameleon that all his acts were publicized as examples to the other natives. It is said that news of his disrobing and taking on lay clothes found pride of place in Govt. publications.

Unpopular

Brownrigg himself became very unpopular later with Ceylon's "Freedom fighters" as demonstrated by the removal of the board, Brownrigg road from the metropolis's road posts. He is one of the two to be so expunged, the other being Torrington who shot down a monk along with Puran appu and Gongallegoda Banda in his fierce battle against the Mathale and Dambulla valley insurrection. As to the Dadella high priest there seems to have been no visible punishment except for his own mortification at shooting down heroic rebels fighting for the lost sovereignty of the uplands.

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