Sinhalese War Poems and the Portuguese

Rohini Paranavitana … a reprint of an article from Jorge Flores (ed.) Re-exploring the links. History and Constructed History=ies between Portugal and Sri Lanka, Wiesbaden, Harassowitz Verlag , 2007, pp. 49-62.

Sri Lankan classical literature enriched with Buddhist thought did not promote any war or violence up to about the 16th century. Even though war is involved in these writings, the classical writers took the North Indian legendary war as a model. The European model of war was experienced in Sri Lanka only after the arrival of the Portuguese on the island. It was quite a new experience to the Sinhala king and his army to retaliate against Europeans as invaders. The Portuguese engaged in ruthless war with a nation which had a great poetic tradition that made use of this new experience to generate a new area of literary expression within the tradition, referred to as “war poems”.


Sri Lanka has a recorded history of more than two thousand years. There it is mentioned that the kings of Sri Lanka had fought many battles to expel foreign invaders and to restore peace in the country. The history of warfare on the island goes back to the time of King Vijaya, 5th century BCE[1]. However, there are no traces of Sinhalese poems written entirely on the theme of war until the time the Portuguese entered into the system of political, commercial and military involvements in the country, which in turn created tensions and conflicts between the two.

The Sinhalese Hatan Kavya, or “war poems”, were composed for the purpose of extolling the virtues of the heroic kings and celebrating their victories in the battles they fought. The subject matter of these compositions was chosen by the composer himself to emphasize his hero as the central figure. The contemporary political situation was reflected as a major theme in these war poems. Some of the poets who composed war poems served as soldiers in various battles and recorded their experiences on the battlefield in a very memorable manner. The majority expressed their disgust, disenchantment, anger and horror at the war. The war poems are therefore not only of literary importance, but they also carry very rich information relating to contemporary history and society. They are usually not appreciated as poems of high poetical value, but the information contained in them is of great importance.

It is recorded in the annals that there was a separate department which conducted interactive poetry sessions in the royal palaces in Sri Lanka (kavikara maduva, assembly of poets) where the participant poets composed panegyric poems and recited them aloud in the presence of the king, occasionally competing against each other with the objective of entertaining and pleasing him. Many of them sang eulogies to the king, praising his valor, prowess and martial capacity by describing the wars he fought. This situation paved the way for the composition of war poems, apparently in the 16th century.

In this article, I will focus my attention on “war poems” that were composed during the 16’h and 17’h centuries in Sri Lanka and which describe the interactions between the Portuguese and the Sinhalese in battle. The sample works utilized in the present discussion comprise five Sinhala War Poems, namely, Sitavaka Hatana[2] (War of Sitavaka), Kustantinu Hatana[3](War of Constantino), Parangi Hatana[4] (War of the Portuguese), Maha Hatana[5] (The Great War) and Rajasiha Hatana[6] (The War of Rajasingha).

The oldest of these war poems is Sitavaka Hatana, composed by Attanhari Abhaya Alahapperuma (1585). It deals with the battles of two kings of Sitavaka who fought against Vidiye Bandara, the son-in-law of King Bhuvanekabahu (r. 1521-1551) of Kotte, and with the Portuguese. The poem contains 1120 verses narrating a chain of battles which took place in the southwestern lowlands during the 16th century between the kings of Sitavaka, Vidiye Bandara and the Portuguese. The author Attanhari Abhaya Alahappemma, as mentioned in the poem itself, served as one of the militiamen under Rajasingha I (r. 1581-1593) of Sitavaka[7]. The poet starts his narration in the lime of King Dharma Parakramabahu IX (r. I489-15I3), who reigned in the kingdom of Kotte when the Portuguese arrived at the Port of Colombo (Kolontota). The Portuguese negotiated with the king of Kotte and the king acceded to their desire for peaceful trade on the island. Dharma Parakramabahu was succeeded by Vijayabahu VI (r. 1513-1521), who became the king of Kotte. When Vijayabahu proposed to appoint his stepson as the heir to the throne by excluding his own sons, he created turmoil in the royal family and the sons turned to the kingdom of Kandy for assistance in overcoming the problem. Having obtained assistance from Kandy, they advanced to the capital Kotte with an anny and plundered the treasures of the palace. In the same night the king was put to death on the orders of his own sons. As a result, the kingdom of Kotte was divided in 1521 into three principalities, namely Kotte, Sitavaka and Raigama, shared by the three brothers.

Mayadunne (r. 1521-1581), the most ambitious of the three, became the ruler of Sitavaka and built upon the site a full-fledged city with all the necessary buildings such as palaces, assembly halls, dressing pavilions, hot water baths, arsenals, parking shelters for palanquins, houses for the queens, stables for elephants and horses, warehouses, kitchens, etc[8]. Mayadunne fully hoped to succeed to his brother’s throne in the kingdom of Kotte. However, Bhuvanekabahu considered his grandson to be the heir to the throne. At this juncture, Mayadunne realized that ascending to the throne would not be easy. King Bhuvanekabahu observed that so long as Mayadunne was influenced by his ambitious aspirations, the chances of his grandson Dharmapala wearing the crown would be very remote. Therefore, considering the power exercised by the king of Portugal in the East, Bhuvanekabahu decided to place the infant Prince under the protection of the king of Portugal. Bhuvanekabahu was shot dead by a Portuguese soldier[9] while at his palace at Kelaniya. The poet places complete responsibility for the vast damage done by the Portuguese on the king, which we could assume as the attitude of the common folk at that time[10]. After the death of Bhuvanekabahu, Prince Dhannapala was proclaimed as the king of Kotte and was baptized as Dom João Dharmapala. The inhabitants of the kingdom of Kotte realized that they were no longer safe under an alien king and fled to Sitavaka, having no faith in a king who had embraced Christianity. They were welcomed by Mayadunne to his territor[11]. Mayadunne proclaimed himself the king of Kotte and was presented as the protector of the nation and defender of the faith.

Having been informed of this situation, an armed fleet was sent from Goa to invade Sitavaka. Mayadunne fled to Deraniyagala. The Portuguese army looted the city, grabbed all its treasures and dispatched them to Goa[12]. Steps were then taken to eliminate the powers of Vidiye Bandara, who was viewed by the Portuguese as a threat to their undisputed control over Dom João Dharmapala. He was imprisoned by the Portuguese, but later his wife was resourceful enough to arrange for his escape from prison. Vidiye Bandara later established his headquarters at the town of Pelenda. He did not recognize Mayadunne as the legitimate ruler of Kotte, but considered himself as regent on behalf of his son Dharmapala. Vidiye Bandara’s efforts to acquire Sitavaka ended in defeat at the battle at Attapitiya[13] and he was chased from Seven Korale to Puttalam by the Sitavaka army. With his plight and ultimate death in Jaffna, Sitavaka emerged as the largest and strongest kingdom on the island. The Portuguese once again sent forces to seize Matara, the major town in the southern province. A strong force under the Commanders Wikramasinghe, Alahapperuma and Katutota Amarakon was sent to drive out the Kotte forces led by Mananpedi Mudali. The forces of Sitavaka were successful in defeating the Kotte army. Mayadunne was delighted by this victory and crowned his son Rajasingha as the king of Sitavaka. After some time, Mayadunne passed away at the age of seventy[14]. Hearing this, the Portuguese forces marched towards Sitavaka, where they were defeated by Rajasingha at the battle of Mulleriyava. This is the event which concluded Sitavaka Hatana.

Kustantinu Hatana – “the War of Constantino” – is a eulogy written in elegant and spirited verse for the Portuguese General Constantino de Sá de Noronha (1618-1620, 1623-1630), and which describes his bravery in the wars waged and won against the Sinhala leader, Antonio Barreto, and against a prince named Mayadunne. The poet is not known but was evidently a contemporaiy writer who was a partisan both of the Portuguese and of King of Kandy, Scnerat (r. 1604-1635). The contents of the poem deal with the period after the death of Rajasingha I in 1592, as well as the campaigns of Constantino in 1617. The poem describes in 189 verses a lengthy campaign organized for one single war, which took place at Maddegamnuvara. The Portuguese army in this war consisted of numerous Indian soldiers who marched from Colombo to Meddegamnuvara, passing many places en route. The poet praises Constantino de Sá and condemns Antonio Barreto as an ungrateful person. He begins the poem with the adoration of Jesus Christ as God, Jesus the Virgin’s Son and the Virgin Mary. The poet does not appear to be a follower of one religion. He narrates the incidents to explain how Sri Lanka became a province of Portugal after the death of King Rajasingha I. Then he proceeds to relate the arrival of the General Constantino de Sá, the discussions he had with his officials and the preparations for the war. The most interesting part is the march from Colombo to Meddegarnnuvara via Malvana, Sitavaka, Saparapura and some other well-known places, which are described in detail. The poet praises the General, and places much faith in him by describing the defeat of the Sinhalese army and the leader Antonio Barreto.

The poem records the death of Rajasingha I and the firm foothold established by the Portuguese on the island. When the four Governors, or Uttamayo, had succeeded each other Antonio Barreto became a Christian and threw Sri Lanka into confusion. Later, when Kangara was creating troubles, Barreto presented himself to King Senerat at Senkadagala and offered his services. The king in turn offered him the Governorship of Uva and Tunkinda and he made Badulla his capital. From there he governed Vellassa, Panama and Madakalapuwa and Kandukada Kosgama, Vellavava and Etaravava. Later he organized attacks on Saparagamuwa, Denavaka Pasrata, Mantota, Kukula, Pas-yotna and created disorder there. Afterwards he turned against the king, who had given him his rank and power, and led an invasion of Kandy. The king and two princes escaped, but all the chief courtiers and guards were seized and impaled. This was followed by a plundering of the palace, which forced the king to quickly escape to the mountains with his family.

At this time a Prince named Mayadunne, who had been defeated by the army of Senerat, had taken refuge in the Soli land in South India. Barreto called him to Sri Lanka by sending letters and set him up as king. This event paved the way for a guerilla war against the adherents of Senerat. The Portuguese contacted Goa for help. Constantino de Sá, or Janaraju, literally “ruler of men”, perhaps a substitute for General, was then sent to restore order.

At this stage Constantino de Sá began a vigorous campaign against Barreto and his puppet king Mayadunne. He first advanced to Malvana, then to Menikkadavara, where Kapita Lanara (Captain Lanara) joined the army and proceeded to Mapitigama, Kananpella, Kaluvaggala, Kosgama, Bope forest. Puvakpitiya, and Sitavaka nuvara, where he stayed for thirteen days. Later he proceeded to Teppanava, Saparapuraya, Nivitigala, Madavalagama, Kohonpitiya, Samvana, Pollambure, Balangoda and Meddegamniivara. There they set fire to the city which Mayadunne had made his capital. The forces then proceeded to Lellopitiya, chasing Mayadunne’s troops. In this operation they took Antonio Barreto, 31 chiefs, and several others as captives. Upon the capture of Barreto, the Portuguese smashed his 32 teeth with blows to his mouth. The others were tied in pairs and taken to Constantino. The troops concluded the operation with great joy and received awards.

Parangi Hatana – “the War with the Portuguese” – is a collection of 214 panegyric verses composed in praise of Rajasingha II. The poem is composed mainly to eulogize the king for being victorious at the battles of Vallavaya and Gannoruva. This poem is the best out of the eulogies written to be sung in the presence of the king. The larger part of the poem utilizes poetic imagery to commend the martial and sexual capabilities of the king.

Maha Hatana – “the Great War” – spells out the battles between King Rajasingha II and the Portuguese. This poem consists of 155 verses, and is composed in a similar style to Kustantinu Hatana. While Kustantinu Hatana praises the Portuguese captain-general Constantino de Sá, this poem describes his defeat and death. The poet narrates the historical background of the events that compelled him to engage in various battles. As referred to in the poem itself, the author is a nobleman from the village of Kirimetiyava. The poet begins the poem by stating that he wishes to compose a collection of verses in praise of the King Rajasingha II, who was able to defeat and expel the Portuguese enemies from the island. He then describes the chain of events that occurred after the arrival of the Portuguese on the island and explains with disgust how the Portuguese deceived the king of Kotte with supplications in order to gaining a footing on the island. The poet very briefly narrates the historical events the Portuguese were involved in during the reigns of Rajasingha I and Vimaladharmasurya (r. 1591-1604) of Kandy. King Senerat, who was the father of the hero of Maha Hatana, is mentioned as a person devoted to Buddhism. The astrologers predicted that Prince Rajasingha would be a very powerful monarch and that he would rescue the country from the invading enemies. The prince would grow up and be crowned as the king of Kandy as Rajasingha II. It was during this time that the Portuguese General Constantino de Sá marched with a force of 20,000 soldiers to conquer the kingdom of Kandy. They confronted the Sinhalese army commanded by Rajasingha II at Vellavaya, where they were defeated badly. The poet explains how the Portuguese were destroyed with blows of the king’s sword and refers to the Portuguese army as a herd of cattle who were crushed like a heap of frogs[15]. After some time Constantino de Sá campaigned and advanced through Balana for a further battle, and his forces met the Sinhala army on the plain at Gannoruva. A fierce battle took place there. The Portuguese were destroyed and General Constantino de Sá was murdered.

The poet is sympathetic to the Portuguese, defeated at Gannoruwa, and says that “these murdered Portuguese were the people who used to sleep in comfortable beds in splendid mansions in Portugal but here they lay dead even without any shelter[16] The heads of the enemies were cut off and heaped up like king coconuts[17]. The whole plain of Gannoruva was like an altar of human sacrifice. The poet narrates how the king negotiated with the Dutch for the expulsion of the Portuguese until their capture of Colombo. The king sent an envoy named Galtembuve to Batavia with a memorandum requesting assistance to expel the Portuguese from the island[18] As a result an armada of sixteen ships landed in Galle with 12,000 soldiers on board. With the assistance of the Dutch, the king gradually captured all the Portuguese fortresses, including those at Galle, Sabaragamuva, Denavaka, Malvana, Menikkadavara, Trincomalee, Kottiyar, Jaffna and Negombo. He finally took Colombo after a siege of about four months.

The poet seems to be very familiar with contemporary events. Nevertheless, he is incorrect with the information given about the king of Kotte, who flourished at the time of the landing of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka. The poet mentions Vijayabahu as the king of Kotte at the time of the Portuguese arrival. According to all the historical sources, Vijayabahu ascended to the throne in 1513 after the demise of King Dharma Parakramabahu IX (r. 1489-1513)[19]. This poem would have been composed just after the Dutch capture of Colombo (1656), as the author does not mention any further events relating to Rajasingha and the VOC.

Rajasiha Hatana, “the War of Rajasingha”, is the longest of the war poems composed to praise the Warrior-King Rajasingha II. It gives a full account of the battles he fought and won. It contains 449 verses written in a ballad form somewhat similar to the style of Sitavaka Hatana. The poet begins the text with a description of the city of Senkadagala (Kandy) and moves on to describe the invasion of the Portuguese troops of the kingdom of Kandy, having raised a fortress at Balana. The desperate king Senerat fled to Mahiyanganaya where his queen gave birth to a prince. The king then consulted astrologers who predicted that the prince would become a powerful monarch. As a result of the royal infant’s cosmic power the enemies too fled from Balana. The poet gives an account of the martial training and education of the prince.

After the completion of his training and education. King Senerat bequeathed his kingdom in equal shares to the three sons and made prince Rajasingha the king of Kandy, while Vijayapala received Konarata Matale and Kumarasingha received Uva Tunkindarata. For the first time, the young Rajasingha experienced a severe battle with Portuguese troops at Randeniwela, of which the poet gives a very elaborate. The king defeated the troops of Constantino de Sá without much effort and was honoured with the title Rajasingha, which means “Lion King”. Rajasingha’s father Senarat died in 1635 and Sá reorganized his troops to invade Kandy again. Both parties began their campaigns and enlisted as many soldiers as they could, extending their reach to very remote areas such as Anuradhapura, Matara and Kottiyarama. Many volunteer warriors from all over the island rallied around Rajasingha to destroy the common enemy. There was a serious decrease in the number of Portuguese troops after the battle of Randeniwela. They were reinforced with extra soldiers brought down from Kaveri, Karnataka and Bengal in India[20]. The Portuguese subsequently advanced to Gannoruva where a fierce battle took place. The massacre of the enemy is described in detail with eulogies to the victorious king.

The war poems contain a considerable amount of information about a wide variety of weapons used by both Portuguese and local armies. They ranged from primitive clubs to more modem cannons. As Sinhalese kings and their armies were involved in the struggle with the Portuguese for a considerable number of years, firearms and artillery were introduced and came to occupy arsenals on the island. Rajavaliya, a historical narrative written during the 17’li century and dealing with the Sinhalese kings from Vijaya to Vimaladharmasurya, refers to how the inhabitants of Colombo reacted to Portuguese guns. When the Portuguese landed at Colombo for the first time the residents informed the king of Kotte that “the noise of their cannon is louder than thunder when it bursts upon the rock yugandara, their cannon balls fly more than four miles and shatter fortresses of granite”[21]. This proves that the cannons were not yet known in Sri Lanka at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese. According to Queyroz, it was the Muslims who first used artillery on this island (when they attack Sitavaka army later used firearms when they attacked the Portuguese in Colombo[22]. It is quite clear that the Portuguese introduced the inhabitants of Sri Lanka to the use of gunpowder and firearms.

It is mentioned in Sitavaka Hatana and Kustantinu Hatana that the Portuguese brought shiploads of weapons from Goa, including kalatuvakku (cannon) [gingal or the grasshopper gun] handguns, spears, javelins, clubs of various sizes, grenade bombs, poisoned bombs, swords, bows and arrows. They brought not only the weapons but also transported army personnel of Indian origin, namely doluvara, vadakkara, urumisi, bankara, etc. and the victuals that were necessary, such as cattle and poultry, barrels of arrack, opium, and kansa[23]. The Sinhalese army used gingal tuvakku. However, they were very much familiar with the sword, spear and javelin. The Sitavaka army was equipped with well-trained wrestlers who belonged to famous wrestling traditions – sudavaliya and maaruvaliya[24]. Many soldiers were armed with pikes, clubs, and swords. The Sinhalese forces mostly consisted of peasants who served as part-time soldiers mobilized during war and supported by a simple system of logistics. Peasants were expected to maintain themselves in a state of armed readiness. When informed by the king, they rallied for war with their available weapons. They had their weapons manufactured by the village blacksmiths. The Sinhalese military strategy was to meet the challenge posed by the Europeans who were established in the coastal area. Though the Portuguese armed forces were powerful in weapons and trained soldiers, the local armies were able to weaken them in numerous ways, such as through guerrilla attacks[25] and by confronting them when they were retreating[26].

The Portuguese employed a large number of Sinhalese auxiliaries or lascarins, but all major Portuguese expeditions suffered from the desertion of their local lascarim forces. During the expedition in 1594, the Portuguese discovered a letter King Vimaladharmasuriya had written to the lascarim commander, referring to an impending betrayal of the Portuguese army. The Commander of the lascarins was murdered by the Portuguese and as a result the other lascarins deserted from the Portuguese and joined the Sinhalese army[27]. The Sinhalese kings played an active role in separating the lascarins wherever possible[28].

The war poems illustrate that the Portuguese forces contained a large number of non-Portuguese troops hired from India. The viceroy at Goa sent shiploads of soldiers to Sri Lanka to strengthen their forces, which consisted of men from various parts of India and their other possessions in south-east Asia, i.e. Kalingu, Telingu, Kannadi, Urumisi (Ormuz), Kongana (Konkani), Doluvara, Vadakkara, Mukkara, Patandi[29] (South India), Kavisi (Malay), Kabisi, Arabi (Arabs), Isbasi, Javaka (Java), Seena (China), Parasi[30] (Persian) Kavisikanu[31] Javibenkalo, Paravara, Marimeru, Kaberi and Mukkara[32].

The Sinhalese war poems provide graphic descriptions of some of the battles fought between the two armies. Sometimes the poets describe the Sinhalese grabbing Portuguese firearms and bashing them with their small butts, clubbing the enemies to death[33]. Kustantinu Hatana describes cutting the heads of the enemies, cutting off limbs and noses, stabbing enemies with their lances and pulling some of them to the side, sparing some lives with compassion, and tying up captives[34]. Even though poets used their imagination and poetic expressions to describe these events, they describe the common scenario of a contemporary battle. On some occasions the poets themselves were involved in the battle as militiamen. In this way they could describe the situation relying on their own experiences and feelings.

On their way to the battlefield, the troops sang eulogies extolling the king’s prowess and military expertise as a technique to keep morale at a high level and to inspire the courageous feelings of the troops. They also uttered slogans of challenge and scathing disparagement, expressing their anger against the enemies in words, i.e. miga bas, and vahasi bas.

Defeated enemies were depicted through fabulous descriptions using vituperative similes, such as “frogs entering the abode of serpents to meet their doom”, “fish that rush into the draw nets”[35]. The fragmentation of heads of the enemies is described as “heaps of king coconuts” and “as cutting down palmyra fruits”[36]. The lives of the defeated Sinhalese soldiers were saved, and they were sent as slaves to work under Sinhalese chieftains[37]. The author of Rajasiha Hatana reports a very live scene of the battlefield at Gannoruva, where the defeated Portuguese soldiers were brought with their legs tied up with chains like elephants while some of them rolled on the ground like hedgehogs[38]. In Sitavaka Hatana and Maha Hatana the terms Pratikal or Pratikanu are used when referring to the Portuguese while Kustantinu Hatana, Parangi Hatana and Rajasiha Hatana uses the term Parangi. Parangi is the Sinhala term derived from the word Firingee or Firangi, initially used to denote any European. But in this context it is used as a synonym for the Portuguese. In certain instances the Sinhala word is used to designate the disease of yaws. It was a popular belief among the locals that the Portuguese spread this disease. The people may have used this term at that time to express their dislike for the Portuguese.

The victorious troops were bestowed with various kinds of rewards according to the respective ranks they occupied on the battlefield. The chieftains who marshaled the troops in battle were granted villages for their maintenance[39]. The author of Sitavaka Hatana received the village Denavaka for his active participation in the battle of Mulleriyava[40]. In some instances titles were conferred with garlands of gold in appreciation for the slaying of thousands of enemies. The soldiers received various forms of wealth, including gold, silver and jewellery, and in certain instances elephants, horses and oxen for their voluntary service in the victory[41].

Once established in the maritime provinces, the Portuguese launched a very active missionary effort in Sri Lanka: in the 1540s a group of Franciscan friars arrived on the island and accessed the royal courts of Kotte and Kandy. The advent of Christianity resulted not merely in the spreading of a new religion, but came to embrace a broad spectrum of the converts’ daily activities and experiences. In the missionary schools the children were taught the Portuguese language and this education struck deep roots in the people. In fact, Portuguese was even spoken in the households of the Dutch, for there appears to have been a trilingual system of education practiced on the island. Sinhala, Tamil and Portuguese were taught side by side. During his childhood, King Rajasingha II was well-educated and trained to be a king not only through study of martial arts, but also through the study of languages such as Sinhala, Tamil, Sanskrit, Pali and Portuguese as well[42]. The Portuguese and Goan missionaries studied Sinhala in order to compile vocabularies in two vernacular languages, Sinhala and Tamil, for the purpose of spreading the tenets of Christianity.

The Portuguese influence on Sinhala language is apparent mainly in its vocabulary. This influence can still be seen in present day usage. There are some words of Portuguese origin which appear in the war poems as well; e. g. kappitta (captain), amarala (admiral), landesi (Dutch) Janarala (general), prathikal (Portuguese), Gove (Goa), visure (viceroy), padili (padre), olande (Holland), prathikaalo (Portuguese), (parangi) (Portuguese), kasaadu, (married people) soldadu (soldier), kadadaasi (paper), pidalgu (nobleman), andoru (a kind of palanquin), turampettu (trumpet), kappittamoru (senior captain), viskotu (biscuit), roospaan (roast bread), dosi (sweetmeat), prasku (small flask), barani (earthen vessel), arak (arrack), kuliccama (mattress), gurulettu (water jug), singoru (gentleman), gudam (warehouse), tuppahi (dubash/interpreters), purutukanu (Portuguese), yesus kristu (Jesus Christ), luvisbove (Lisbon), aabadakirittu, purutukal and saramela.

The aggravated political situation that prevailed in Sri Lanka during the 16th century was characterized by the fragmentation of the kingdom of Kotte, by conflict among rival factions for power, and by intensified Portuguese interference. The kings and the nobility engaged extensively in intricate political struggles for power. As such, it was impossible for them to devote any attention to maintaining and continuing state patronage of literary activities. The decline in scholarship too was a contributing factor in the production of literary works of high quality. The flame of the poetic tradition in Sinhala that had prevailed since the 10th century faded away due to lack of royal patronage during the period in which these “war poems” were composed. The language used in these works was colloquial. From the 13th century onwards Tamil was considered prestigious by the local society and the spoken idiom of Sinhala was largely influenced by Tamil. The interactions and influence of the Portuguese vis-á-vis locals enlarged the vocabularies of Sinhala and Tamil.

The poets who composed war poems were not scholars who had a good command of poetic language. Their purpose was not to entertain the reader by producing aesthetic delight, but to report the events and heroic deeds of the participants in battles. Therefore, the contemporary colloquial idiom played a major role in these works. As these poems are laudatory descriptions of heroes there is hardly any originality in the poems. They are characterized by a variety of metres and a language full of sound effects, most probably used to harmonize with the musical instruments that were used in recitations. The sound effects and exaggerations have overshadowed the poems’ aesthetic value, which has almost faded away. Nevertheless, they have conveyed valuable information which the poets themselves experienced and gathered from people who had first hand knowledge of the campaigns. Specifically, the poems offer place names, the names of commanders and chieftains, the routes of the campaigns and the strategies adopted by the forces. The poems describe historical events pertaining to the Portuguese interactions with Sri Lanka, describing these events sometimes truthfully, sometimes fancifully. Regardless, the poems are of great value to researchers of the Portuguese Period of the history of Sri Lanka, as they express the local point of view and describe their resistance movement.

***  ***

* Rohini Paranavitana is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Colombo.


[1] Mahavamsa, ed. and trans. Wilhelm Geiger (Colombo, 1950).

[2] Sitavaka Hatana, ed. Rohini Paranavitana (Colombo, 1999).

[3] Kustantinu Hatana, ed. S. G. Perera and M. E. Fernando (Colombo, 1932).

[4] Parangi Hatana, ed. T. S. Hemakumara (Colombo, 1963).

[5] Maha Hatana, ed. T. S. Hemakumara (Colombo, 1964).

[6] Rajasiha Hatana, ed. Ellepola H. M. Somaratne (Kandy, 1966).

[7] Sitavaka Hatana, vs. 1071, 1117.

[8]  Ibid., vs. 137-139.

[9]  Ibid., v. 349.

[10] Ibid., vs. 350-352.

[11]Ibid vs. 371-374.

[12]Ibid., vs. 520, 521.

[13] Ibid., vs. 767-829.

[14] Ibid., v. 1007.

[15] Maha Hatana, v. 60.

[16] Ibid., v. 102.

[17] Ibid., vs. 98.

[18] Ibid, vs. 117, 120.

[19] For a discussion, cf. appendix 2 of Chandra R. de Silva’s “Portugal and Sri Lanka: Recent Trends in Historiography”, in this volume.

[20] Rajasiha Hatana, v. 232.

[21] Rajavaliya, ed. A. V. Suraweera (Colombo, 1976).

[22] Fernão de Queyroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, ed. and trans. S. G. Perera (Colombo, 1930).

[23] Sitavaka Hatana, vs. 359-364.

[24] Ibid., v. 1053.

[25] Ibid, vs. 1056-1059.

[26] Maha Hatana, vs. 56, 57.

[27] Rajavaliya, p. 235.

[28] Sitavaka Hatana, vs. 361, 1107.

[29] Kustantinu Hatana, v. 96.

[30] Parangi Hatana, v. 174.

[31] Rajasiha Hatana, vs. 232, 373.

[32] Ibid., vs. 232, 373, 385, 386, 395, 433.

[33] Rajasiha Hatana, vs. 391, 392, 393.

[34] Kustantinu Hatana, vs. 172, 173.

[35] Ibid.,v. 170.

[36] Sitavaka Hatana, v. 1065.

[37] Ibid., v. 1108.

[38] Rajasiha Hatana, vs. 394, 397.

[39] Ibid., v. 409-415.

[40] Sitavaka Hatana, v. 1115.

[41][41] Ibid.,v. 1112.

[42] .Rajasiha Hatana, v. 52.


Filed under atrocities, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, disparagement, economic processes, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, political demonstrations, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, power politics, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, vengeance, violence of language, war reportage, world events & processes

2 responses to “Sinhalese War Poems and the Portuguese

  1. Ms.MiLan LinRodrigo

    Interesting Analysis. Can I post it in Facebook?

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