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DateLine Sunday, 23 March 2008





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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 Portuguese.

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 pirates.

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 ground.

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 of life.

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 and Canerese.

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 Royal Palanquin.

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 exhibition.

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 case.

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 armies.

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.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Ceylinco Banyan Villas

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