Modernist Fundamentalism: Missing the Force of Walk, Talk and Majesty in Sinhaladom

Michael Roberts

Asanga Welikala edited an important book entitled The Republic at Forty in 2012 in which I participated (CPA, 2012). Both Welikala and Roshan de Silva-Wijeyeratne have formidable curriculum-vitae behind them. Their recent intervention in criticism of the Rajapaksa state today[1] also happens to rely heavily on SJ Tambiah’s work on the mandala state,[2] a topic which also informed my concept of the “Asokan Persona,” which is developed within four chapters in my book Exploring Confrontation (1994).

By happenchance, directed in part by this work in the past, my recent presentation to a Korean academic outfit on “Democratization in Sri Lanka”[3] has brought past practices of homage to absolute kings into conjunction with modern positioning by placing the following illustrations in juxtaposition.

Homage to Rajasinha  II of Sihale at Kandy depicted in Konx 1692 as reproduced in De Silva & Beumer 1988: 361

Homage to  President Rajapaksa and  …. [below]  the pirivaraagena at Mullaitivu in 2009

President Rajapaksa as Majesty

The homage and lordliness represented in such recapitulations must be supplemented by attention to (a) the implications and purposes of such superordination/subordination in the pre-capitalist era of the 16th,, 17th and 18th centuries and (b) noting that the Dutch rulers on the coast thought it politic to identify themselves as “His Majesty’s guardians on the coast’ and to mark their homage to the ruler of Sihale in his capital at Kandy via annual embassies bearing gifts. The ambassadorial envoys knelt before the Majesty in this act of däkuma.[4]

Dutch däkuma before the King of Kandy c. 1785 — from Brandes in the Rijks Museum

Aah! Däkuma. The glossary rendering goes thus: “däkuma, däkum (pl): literally “seeing” or “appearance,” an act of obeisance or homage involving gifts to a superior that could be of greater or lesser elaboration. In certain contexts, it signified subservience and thus the lordship of the superordinate party, thus a form of political authority.”[5]

These patterns of superordination/subordination – that is homage could be serried: from tenant-to-local village chieftain; chieftain to regional lord; lord to little king; and little king to the King of Sihale. The gift from subordinates could be a mere bulat hurulla –a sheaf of betel leaves. The weight and value were not in the gift, but in its meaning: the acceptance of the superior lord’s superior political standing. The bulat hurulla as gift proclaimed subordination, homage.[6]

It should be recalled that in the literature on the 16th to 18th centuries there are references to vanni rajavaru, vanni nirindu or vanni ranno – some of them being explicitly Vädda kings or chieftains. The kingly title did not denote total autonomy. Homage was rendered annually to the King of Sīhalē at Sitawaka or at Mahanuvara (Kandy). Indeed, some Vädda rajavaru had significant roles in the annual Asala Perahära, the act of world regeneration designed to sustain the kingdom. That is, tributary overlordship and homage to the king were integral to world renewal.

My findings in this field are of such relevance that an extensive quotation is called for.

The general tendency among historians has been to assume that these outlying chieftaincies strove for autonomy and were fissiparous units. This is far too one-sided a speculation. There are glimpses of allegiances to the King of Kandy that did not arise from force exercised by the latter. The evidence is indirect and emanates from incidents during the massive war of liberation against the British that developed in the years 1817-18 in many parts of the former Kingdom of Kandy.  This was a struggle to restore the status quo ante and was therefore oriented towards a restoration of kingship, namely, a king of the Sinhalese. As such, a pretender king provided a focus for rebel loyalty.

This king selected the shrine of Kataragama as his springboard and surrounded himself with a body of Väddā archers (P E Pieris 1995c: 277-80). Among those who joined the rebel forces one found (a) Kivulēgedara Mohottāla of Wālapana, a headman of Väddā lineage, (b) several headmen in the distant Vanni areas of Bintänna and Wellassa and (c) KumārasinhaUnnähē of Nuvarakalāviya. These expressions of allegiance to the old order from such outlying localities is (sic) suggestive because British rule could not have had a severe material impact on such places in the course of two years. In other words, they suggest that the chieftains and headmen of the Vanni, the epitome of fissiparous principalities in the imagination of modern scholars, remained attached to the idea of Sinhala kingship.

In summary, therefore, one can say that the King of Kandy-as-Sinhalē inherited a pattern of rulership over distant territories in which powerful local chieftains, or little kings, acknowledged his cakravarti status as Trisinhaleśvara by either occasional or regular acts of homage. These acts were usually rites of däkum involving gift-giving (paňduru, paňduru pākkudam, kappan) or abject words of excuse for the failure to do so. Such practices were saturated with political meaning. On occasions the cakravarti of Kandy wielded the big stick against dilatory little kings. Thus, Rājādhi Rājasinha (1782-98) fined Rāja Vanniyā of Puttalama and Kumāra Vanniyā of Munnēssara for non-payment of tribute and even imprisoned the latter for nine years (DGB de Silva 1996: 182).

This is just one theme in my work on Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period 1590s to 1815 which appeared in 2004. Asanga & Roshan clearly have the same modernist misapprehension of the capacities for travel on foot across country displayed by people in pre-modern times that were displayed by the historian colleagues whom I addressed in that book. So, let me elaborate on this dimension of life in pre-modern times.

Walking the Country and Talking the Country in Medieval Times

When indulging on the research that led to People Inbetween (1989) I went through the diary maintained in the 1840s by a British lady Mrs Darby-Griffiths with a toothcomb. In some entries she described her journey by cart to Kandy. Lo and behold, there were Sri Lankan men and women whom she passed who were walking to Kandy. It is evident that these local people spent the night at ambalamas on the way. That is why Sinhala Consciousness devoted space to photographs of ambalamas and the historical data on the topic that I could muster.

This included a revelatory observation from Robert Knox in the 17th century:

At their leisure when their affairs permit, they commonly meet at places built for strangers and way-faring men to lodge in, in their language called Amblomb, where they sit chewing Betel, …, discoursing concerning the Affairs at Court, between the King and great Men; and what Employment the People of the City are busied about. For as it is the chief of their business to serve the King, so the chief of their discourse is concerning such matters. Also they talk of their own affairs, about Catel and Husbandry, Laws and Government of their Countrey[7]

As I noted on this occasion, such evidence suggests that the ambalama was second only to the temple as a site of cultural production and transmission till the late nineteenth century.[8]

  Panavitiya ambalama today

Again, some Sinhala and Tamil people of yesteryear went on extended pilgrimages and pada yatra on occasions – pilgrimages to sacred sites that generated merit. This meant that they walked the walk and talked the walk. One garnered knowledge of history and place during such journeys. One’s mind expanded. Insularity would have been challenged, albeit not eliminated. Besides that, there were rajakāriya duties for the able-bodied men. This meant travelling and assembling for war in defence of the realm. The 1540s to 1640s were replete with warring in the Sitawaka and Kandyan times as the Sinhala people confronted the Portuguese armies and the Dutch. I have no information on how the fighting personnel were fed and supported during such campaigns, but one can conclude that the journeys sustained a widening of knowledge and an engagement with places beyond a fighting man’s home terrain.

Our mechanised modernity can distort assessments. We book-people need to traverse the Hanguranketa ranges or trudge up Bible Rock to discover the remote village worlds and lifeways of poor Sinhala villagers eking out an existence in deep valleys and isolated terrain. Perhaps a glance at the stories relayed recently by “Anduren Eliyata” when they delivered solar lighting to a relatively inaccessible village known as Udagaldebokka Hasalaka  will assist the book-person’s enlightenment. Or one could chat with persons of knowledge such as Punchi Banda Meegaskumbura who told me of village personnel in his home arena in Kotmale exchanging teravili (riddles in verse) loudly across the night air in the mid-20th century. Written knowledge is not the only mode of insight/awareness.

It is, to speculate, from such processes that one witnessed a remarkable moment during the Kandyan rebellion against the British in 1817-18 which erupted initially in Uva and Wellassa. As I noted earlier, Kumārasinha Unnähē of Nuvarakalāviya was among those in the outlying areas who pledged allegiance to the pretender king. This act is/was quite remarkable. There is no evidence that British officials even set foot in Nuvarakäläviya in the years 1815-17. It appears that the idea of a native Sinhala ruler in Mahānuvara conveyed by ‘bush telegraph’ appealed to this village leader just as the thought stimulated a headman of Väddā lineage named Kivulēgedara Mohottāla in Wālapana to participate  in resistance seeking the restoration of Sinhala kingship.

Book-bound urbanites, therefore, need some boots on their backside from such personnel from yesteryear to dispel their modernist blindness and conceit.


CPA  2012 The Republic at Forty, Colombo, 2 vols

De Silva, DGB 1996 “New Light on the Vanni Chiefs ….,” JRAS Sesquicentennial Special Number, vol.  LXI, pp. 153-204

Griffith, Mrs G. Darby 1841-42 Ceylon During a Residence in the years, 1841-42, Mss diary in 4 Volumes [Peradeniya Library]

Karunanayake et al 2020: “Confronting Welikala and De Silva Wijeyeratne,” 31 August 2020,

Knox, Robert 1911 An Historical Relation of Ceylon, ed, by J. Ryan, Glasgow, James Maclehose & Sons.

Pieris, Paul E 1995 Sinhale and the Patriots, 1815-1818, Delhi, Navrang, a reprint

Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring Confrontation: Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishing, 1994 now London: Routledge, 1994 ……….

Roberts, Michael 2012 “Sinhalaness and ts Reproduction,” in Asanga Welikala, The Sri Lankan Republic at 40, Colombo, 2012, pp 253 -87

Tambiah. Stanley J. 1992 Buddhism Betrayed, University of Chicago Press

Tambiah. Stanley J. 1976 “The Galactic Polity,” in his World Conqueror, World Renouncer,

Welikala, Asanga (ed.) 2012 The Sri Lankan Republic at 40, 2 vols, Colombo, CPA

Welikala, Asanga and R. De Silva-Wijeyeratne 2020: “The Rajapaksa Reshaping of the Sri Lankan Polity.” 30 Aungust 2020,


[1] See Welikala and De Silva-Wijeyeratne 2020.

[2] See Tambiah 1976 where the term “galactic polity’ also conveys the mandala concept.

[3] In late August 2010 I was approached by Professor Inrae You of the International Affairs Dept, The May 18 Memorial Foundation to present this lecture by Zoom Video. It has yet to appear in public.

[4] This thesis is developed and illustrated in Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1815, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004.

[5][5] Roberts, 2004: xviii (Glossary)

[6] Roberts, 2004: xviii and 76.

[7] Knox 1911: 159.

[8] Roberts 2004: 28.

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