In Search of Archaic Practices & Features in Ancient and Medieval Lanka

Two foreign personnel, one a British man and the other a Taiwanese Chinese lady, have developed a deep interest in Sri Lanka and a considerable  äcquaintance”, so to speak. with the land and its peAnswer: perhaps Sigiriya?oples, and have recently sent me these fascinating inquiries on arcane topics. Michael Roberts

ONE:  A NOTE from Lewis Bower [i], late February 2021

 Have you heard the term “Argyra” before? It was mentioned in Stephanus of Byzantium’s contribution to the geographical dictionary Ethnica to describe a “thriving metropolis” that he came across on his travels of Sri Lanka… Typing that made me feel like I’m on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”.

We’re talking 5th/6th Century AD so I’d be really interested to find out where he was talking about,”

… Answer: perhaps Sigiriya? … Michael Roberts

TWO:  An Inquiry from Kayo Chang Black, February 2021

Hi Michael, it’s so lovely to finally be in touch with you. Lewis may have told you that I am doing some research about Sri Lankan history, both modern and ancient. Right now, I am working on a series of stories and blog post about the Kandyan kingdom. For the stories, I usually take inspiration from a historical event, a real person, or a Sri Lanka custom. My stories may not be historically accurate (they’re fiction) but I do try to be as authentic as possible. The blog posts are supplemental. Since my stories are short (about 600 words), I often don’t have space to discuss the actual event/person/custom. So I throw all that information in a blog post: Here is an example of a post about the traditional Kandyan wedding jewellery:

Right now, I am very interested in the last queen consort of the Kandyan Kingdom, Rangammal Devi (one of the wives of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha of Kandy). I was not able to find any information about her in English, except for the fact that she was married to the king and was exiled with him after the British took over Kandy in 1815. Do you have any information about her? I am specifically interested in her as a person, a woman of her time. What was she like? Did the courts like her? I know that she was a princess from South India and there were animosities between the Kandyan, Sinhalese nobles and the royal family… and I would love to learn more about what her life might have been like. It seems so easy to find information about the queen consort of other countries, like Marie Antionette–people knew that she was extravagant and threw lavish parties. She was a fashion icon of her time and set the standards for all of Europe. It’s so hard to find any information about the last Kandyan queen consort!

Also, in the British Royal Family, the servants refer to the members of the family by ‘Your Royal Highness.’ What did the servants call the king or the queen consort? 

I know my questions are pretty unconventional. Unfortunately, I have not come across any historical shows or films about the Kandyan royal family (oh, if only they would make a TV show like ‘The Crown’ for the Kandyan royal family!) If you can point me to the right sources (I’ve done quite extensive searches on Google and read a bunch of JSTOR articles, but I still haven’t been able to satisfy my curiosity), I would really appreciate it. Thank you so much, Michael!

All my best, Kayo

THREE:  DATA sent by Dr Raja Bandaranayaka [ii] in response to Kayo

Extracted from Sir Wm. Gregory’s Autobiography

In the evening, after dinner, we had a perahara of the finest elephants belonging to the temples, headed by the Kandian chiefs, together with devil-dancers, torch-bearers, and other appurtenances of these functions. But the most important of the Kandian ceremonies was reserved till the following evening, when, after dinner, we adjourned  to the Audience Hall, now the Hall of the Supreme Court,  formerly  that of the Kandian kings. Here were assembled all the great Kandianchiefs, each of whom was introduced to the Prince, and received mostgraciously. Moreover, the wives of these chiefs were also assembled, in a blaze of jewellery. Among them was a celebrated old lady, one of the largest landowners in Ceylon. She was a woman of the highest rank and bluest blood, and had been lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Kandy, To the memory of her ancient mistress she had remained unswervingly faithful, stubbornly refusing to pay her respects to the Governors or their wives — a good, honest rebel in heart. She, however, had the strongest regard for Mr. Parsons, the Government Agent of the Central Province, and placed the most unhesitating confidence in him. Pie had persuaded her that she could not avoid, as a great landowner, paying her respects to the son of her sovereign. Mr. Parsons pointed her out to the Prince and told him her story. He at once descended from the raised dais, went to the old lady and  took her by the hand. He said, “I have heard of your unshaken fidelity to your former mistress, and I admire you for it. But she  is gone and dead. I ask you now to show the same fidelity to my Mother and your Queen, and to accept and wear this ornament,* which is one of the symbols of the English crown, in remembrance  of me.” These few words were said with singular kindness. The old lady was  silent for a minute, and then burst into tears. “I will always wear it,”she said, “in memory of you and your Mother, who will henceforth have no more devoted servant than myself.” And a devoted loyalist  she became, and remained till the end of her life.

The following piece is from Google – I don’t have the reference:

The Dress Of The Queens In Kandy Had Also Changed With Foreign Influences.

At the dawn of the Kandyan Kingdom, royal custom changed, possibly with foreign influence. King Vimaladharmasuriya, the first king of Kandy, cemented his claim to the throne with his marriage to Dona Cathirina (Kusumasana Devi) of royal lineage. While the wedding took place in haste, the Devi, brought up in European style, is believed to have worn the attire of European ladies at the time. This signalled the transformation of royal dress with the king’s outfit including a loose jacket consisting a Manthe, while the cloth made from the somana fabric was draped around the waist in a unique manner. Later, kings wore bejewelled crowns, elaborate anklets, armlets, heavy earrings and several rings along with a sword at special functions. Written accounts indicate that fine fabrics such as brocades were popular, especially during the reign of the last four kings of Lanka, who were of the Nayakkar dynasty.

The dress of the queens in Kandy had also changed with foreign influences. The portrait of Queen Rengammal, the last queen of Kandy, by William Daniell shows the queen draped in finery. Her neck is covered with exotic jewels, large pendants, representing the origins of the elaborate Kandyan bridal jewellery worn by brides today. Instead of jewels, as was the custom in Anuradhapura, her hair was adorned with flowers. Although details of the wedding ceremonies are unknown, it may be assumed that elaborate costumes similar to this were worn by the Kandyan royals.

This photograph was originally from Wm. Daniell’s book


 …. Sri Vikrma Rajasinha


Raja C. Bandaranayake:  Betwixt Isles: The Story of the Kandyan Prisoners in Mauritius, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2006. 360pp, ISBN 13 9789551266417 and 10 955-1266-41-2

Sir William Gregory: Autobiography, ed. by Lady Gegory Hamilton, London, 1894

Senake Bandaranayake and Madhyama Saṃskr̥tika Aramudala: Sigriya. 2005

Ananda Coomaraswamy: Medeival Sinhalese Art, 1908.

Senani Ponnamperuma:  The Story of Sigiriya.  2013, Panique Pty Ltd. ISBN 978-0-9873451-1-0.

Paul E. Pieris: Tri Sinhala — The Last Phase, Colombo, 1939.


S. Muthiah: “The Nayaka kings of Kandy”. The Hindu. (2017-03-27). ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 2020-10-23.

G. Obeyesekere: The Doomed King

Harini Amarasuriya: “The Doomed King: A Requiem for Sri Vikrama Rajasinha,” Social Scientists’ Association

Michael Roberts:  Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s to 1815, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2004

Michael Roberts:  “An Imperial Saga: The Kanydan Sihnalese Prisoners in Mauritius, 1819-1832,” in Thuppahi

An Imperial Saga: The Kandyan Sinhalese Prisoners in Mauritius, 1819-1832

[i] I met Lewis Bower at a cafe on Mount Lavinia Beach on several occasions in mid-year 2020. He has been in Sri Lanka, including spells in the Gal Oya region, for quite a while.

[ii] Dr Bandaranayaka is a medical man who was our neiehbour in oneof the campus bungalows at Peradeniay University but then migrated to sydney in Australia. He utiliseda working stint in Mauritius to research the life in exile énjoyed’by the last Nayakkar King of Kandy.

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