The golden landmark in the landscape of Sinhalese military adventure
- the defeat of the Portuguese at Gannoruva
A flotilla of nine Portuguese ships, under the captaincy of Lorenzo
de Almeida, marooned in the Indian seas, drifted accidentally first to
Galle, from where they reached Kolontota (Colombo) on 15th November,
1506 (not 1505 as generally believed). After the disastrous invasion by
the armies of Rajendra Choladeva I in 993 AC, the most ruthless and
destructive forces that ever polluted the shores of Sri Lanka, were the
In opening the very first chapter of his celebrated "An Account of
the Island of Ceylon", Vol. II, p.I, (1860), the versatile British
historian Sir Emerson Tennent, begins his book giving us a brief
introduction of the Portuguese in the following bold terms. "There is no
page in European colonisation more gloomy and repulsive than that which
recounts the proceedings of the Portuguese in Ceylon.
Astonished at the magnitude of their enterprises and the glory of
their discoveries and the conquest of India, the rapidity and the
success of which secured for Portugal an unprecedented renown, we are
ill-prepared to hear of the rapacity, bigotry and cruelty, which
characterised every stage of their progress in the East. They appeared
in the Indian seas in threefold character of merchants, missionaries and
Their ostensible motto was "amity commerce and religion," but their
expeditions consisted of soldiers as well as adventurers and included
friars and chaplain-major and their instructions were 'to begin by
preaching, but that failing to proceed to the decision of the sword."
Observing the opulence and the abundance of the Island's high quality
cinnamon and other rare spices, having craftily obtained a patch of land
from Colombo from the King of Kotte, the Portuguese planned eventually
to expand and seize the whole country, crush the national monarchy,
destroy the National Faith of Buddhism and subjugate the Nation to the
King of Portugal.
Occupying their foothold in Colombo with avaricious intention of
expansion, off and on, they surreptitiously intruded into Kandy, burnt
down the houses and the city including Buddhist shrines, but soon
retreated back to their posts avoiding inevitable repercussions.
The formidable warrior King Rajasingha II was now on the ancient
Sinhalese Throne in Kandy as lawful and paramount Monarch of Tri Sinhala
with his brother Prince Vijayapala at Matale/Uva.
All Sinhalese, in whatever part of the country they lived, always
looked upon the King of Kandy as the lawful Monarch of the Nation. Diogo
de Mello de Castro was recently appointed as Captain General of the
Portuguese army. When unirritated, the King maintained cordial relations
with the Portuguese.
He had even donated a handsome tusked elephant to a favourite
Portuguese trader, a curio dealer to the King by the name Antonio
Machado of Goa. But the avaricious de Mello robbed from him this
extraordinary royal gift.
The King being reported this matter, in order to avenge his foul act,
seized two handsome horses sent to Kandy by the Captain for sale. But
the King was reasonable enough to inform him that the two horses would
be restored if the more valuable elephant is given back.
Unmindful of his subordinate position, enraged, rejecting this,
coupled with his cherished ambition of invading Kandy and thereby
annexing the entire Nation to Portugal, he resorted to the extreme step.
Instructions were soon issued by him to his four Disavas to summon
his lascorins who were at Manikadavara. Provision of food and all
necessary material were gathered for the great siege. Mello himself
arrived at the camp on 19th March with the regiments of Colombo.
Though a great warrior, still sustaining patience and attempting to
avoid a mass scale blood-bath, Rajasingha, who could fluently speak,
read and write Portuguese, sent a letter to de Mello through a
Portuguese friar who was in Kandy for negotiations.
But so foolishly misunderstanding it grossly, ridiculing Rajasingha,
his reply was a brutal scoff - "The little black is frightened. We shall
drag him by the ears."
So saying, he equipped his vast army comprising of 700 Portuguese;
28000 Lascorins; a number of Tuppasis; Canerese; Bengalis; Kaffirs and
few treacherous local and also 250 choisest troops from Malacca.
The batallions were placed under the youthful and inexperienced
Fernao de Mendoca Furtado, Mello's nephew and son-in-law.
It included of course Padres 'skilled to pray to their God and sooth
them at the end.' Like a raging storm the Parangi armies, dashing
through Attapitiya quite unaware of the Sinhalese war tactics, entered
the empty Capital and as Father Queroz and Rev. Baldaeus disclose, they
burnt down the City together with its temples and the Royal Palace
buildings, but soon retreated back to Balana avoiding a quick attack.
Soon night fell, and the batallions being unable to cross Mahaweli
River, were compelled to halt. By this time they were thoroughly
exhausted, hungry and thirsty.
The King, well aware of the planned invasion of his Kingdom, having
been at Gale Nuvara, had already prepared to face the enemy.
Words being sent to his brother Prince Vijayapala, whom de Mello made
a vicious and futile attempt to set his ruling brother instigating him
to wrest for the Throne mustered all the patriotic soldiers from such
distant places like the North, North East, Magama in the South with the
two brothers meeting together with their respective armies at the Battle
The veteran Sinhalese woodmen, cut down trees and blocked all their
passages that the Portuguese terrorists got entrapped from every side.
The front line was so well defended using every military tactic, that
the enemy could not approach the river even to obtain water without risk
Driven to such severe plight and desperation, the Captain-General
despatched Fernao de Mendoca begging for an armistice surprisingly
forgetting that he not only arrogantly rejected the King's royal envoy
more than once for negotiations to avoid a foreseen blood-bath, but even
ridiculed him calling him 'A little black coward.'
But the King being quite used to their cunning tactics from his very
youth, paid no attention.
The Palm Sunday, 28th March, 1638, the holy day for them dawned and
the Portuguese resuming, made a fresh advance. One of the history's most
fierce battles was fought here by the King's valiant forces in the thick
jungles of Gannoruva. It raged so terrific, the alarmed luggage bearers
threw away the provisions they carried up with immense difficulty
through terrain, slopes and slippery hills in thick forest.
Most of the details of this famous battle had been mentioned by
Portuguese historians and even noted by Baldaeus and Knox, and it
deservingly led also a Sinhalese eye-witness poet to compile what we
know to be the most spirited piece of epic poem, the "Parangi Hatana" -
the Portuguese Battle.
A portion goes - "The palm leaves which they bore, the copper vessels
in which their rice was cooked, their powder, the loads of butter and of
chickens which many a cooly carried on his shoulder, all are cast away
in their deadly panic fear.
Their bread and biscuits, boxes filled with sweet things, flasks and
jars of maddening arrack, rice bags by the thousands, all manner of food
and drink - all are thrown aside and trampled under foot.
Fierce was the fight as painfully they dragged their steps along, and
in their terror they said, 'it is enough if we escape with our lives and
they scattered in flight. ..... Brandishing his golden sword, flashing
with thousand rays and raising his pearl-bespangled banner hard by, our
King, that full moon of goodness, gave order not to let a man escape...
Like the roar of ten Thousand thunderbolts the cannons bellowed forth at
once, shattering heaven and earth and the mountain tops, for our gallant
Bombardiers delayed not to crush the pride of the foe who had come to
war... And we rushed into their midst... Thus like the Full Moon in the
midst of Stars, King Rajasingha with his royal brother and the courtier
train did end the war. Destroying the host of Portugal, but sparing the
Padres with the blacks and the double-natured Thuppasis (the locals who
fought for them) for mercy's sake."
With the beat of drums, at the commencement, when the King's order
was announced for the Sinhalese to join the National Army avoiding
slaughter, they deserted the alien Portuguese and fought with the
Sinhalese to defeat the common enemy.
The entire Portuguese army was resolutely crushed and annihilated,
and their heads were gathered to a ghastily pile like coconuts at the
feet of the warrior King, who skilfully led his powerful armies to a
thrilling triumph and saved the Sinhalese Kingdom from the subjugation
to a alien European Power.
His victory was decisive, for, by any misfortune, if Rajasingha lost
this battle, Sri Lanka would have lost her independent sovereignty and
become a colony of then an aggressive nation like Portugal.
The Sinhalese soldiers were merciful enough to selectively spare the
lives of the priests and another thirty three Portuguese, few Kaffirs
The pile of corpses was so enormous and scattered, despite every
effort taken, the very body of the Captain General Diogo de Mello
serving a second term as Captain and who boasted with pride that
Rajasingha would be dragged by his ears, could not be traced. Only his
sword was recovered and given to the King, which he donated to the newly
arrived Dutch Admiral Adam Van Westerwold as a trophy. King Rajasingha,
when on his way to the battle field, the cross bar of his Palanquin
suddenly snapped and the King had to alight.
On inquiry, he was informed that he was passing the Dodanvala Devala
without paying obeisance. The King made a vow that if he wins the battle
he will offer the golden headdress - the toppi halavva to the Devala.
After his victory, the grateful Monarch performed his vow by
reverentially offering his headdress (illustrated here) and also the
This golden headdress was preserved in the shrine from 1638 to 1904,
when J. Penry Lewis, the then Government Agent of the Central Province
persuaded the authorities to loan it to the Kandy Museum for public
The consequent tragedy was that it was stolen from the Museum in 1960
and melted down by two Island Reconvicted Criminals by the names Thegis
Singho and Keertipala, both of whom were sentenced to 14 years rigorous
imprisonment by the Supreme Court which heard the case as a special
With King Rajasingha as warrior, this historical battle is a
conspicuous landmark in the annals of Sinhalese military adventure that
swept away an aggressive expanding European power for the first time
from the Eastern hemisphere, eventually leading to the expulsion of the
Portuguese out of the shores of Sri Lanka in 1658 AC, never to cast
their expeditionary evil eyes on this little Island.
It is well-known that the Sinhalese soldiers beside the bow and arrow
used the sword as the chief weapon at the battle field. But how strange
that though we possess a variety of Sinhalese military weapons now
preserved in the Kandy and Colombo National Museums, despite that there
ought to have been thousands of such swords, particularly used in
numerous Kandyan wars, not one appears to have survived the onslaught of
time with any story of specific identity, except the one that is
illustrated here in this article.
This historic sword had been treasured among the antiquities
collection of a late reputed Basnayaka Nilame of Dodanvala Devala as a
heirloom as a weapon used at the Gannoruva Battle of which we are
concerned here. Its full length is 62.02 cm and with carved horn handle,
it is yet in good condition.
Its value lies in the fact that with Rajasingha's golden headdress
already lost, this sword is the only Sinhalese weapon of a specific
identity known to exist associated with this famous battle, which is the
last great glorious triumphal military achievement of the Sinhalese.
There is no doubt that most of these military weapons, which were of
no anticipated further use, were melted down for manufacture of useful
agricultural implements at a later time.
28th March 2008, marks the uncommemorated but 370th anniversary of
Sri Lanka's most heroic and last battle ever fought by the valiant
armies of King Rajasingha II, which reminds us the triumphal proceedings
of the famous Gannoruva battle of 1638 AC.
This battle not only saved the nation from being permanently annexed
to Portugal, but also proved the superior prowess of the Sinhalese
The writer, the former curator of the Kandy National Museum,
discusses here briefly an account of this battle, and also of a bare
historic sword and the golden headdress associated with this event.