History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce
- Karl Marx
‘Dhatusena’(ISBN 978-955-0955-79-4/ Visidunu Prakashakayo (Pvt) Ltd, Boralesgamuwa, 2017) is a short historical novel in Sinhala written by veteran novelist, poet, and socio-political thinker and activist Dr. Gunadasa Amerasekera. It is a story related by a first person narrator who is inspired to do so by a dream vision of king Dhatusena of Anuradhapura (455-473 CE), father of king Kashyapa of the Sigiriya citadel fame (473-495 CE). Dhatusena was celebrated in history as one of the heroic kings of Sihaladeepa, who freed the island from foreign invaders.
But the tragic story of Dhatusena’s being walled to death on the bund of the mighty Kalawewa tank on the orders of his elder son king Kashyapa for failing to reveal where he was alleged to have hoarded his wealth is still indelibly etched on the collective historical memory of the Sinhalese. The first person narrator is struck by the remarkable analogies that he is able to make between Dhatusena’s royal court and the country’s current political scene, each in its specific historical context, riven with internecine rivalry, intrigue, treachery, and personal hatred among political contenders. All this is focused on the heroic architect of victory over foreign aggression, who demonstrates the Buddhist ethical principles of humaneness, humility, loving-kindness, and goodwill towards all, and equanimity in situations of adversity.
However, Amerasekera introduces rational alterations to some crucial elements of the traditional story without affecting the perceived correspondence between the Dhatusena period marked by the alleged succession crisis in the fifth century that we normally take for granted and the present tumultuous political situation persisting in the country. The novelist significantly modifies the traditional story to suit his thematic purpose, as the reader can soon discover. A nett result of these well thought out modifications to the narrative is to suggest a historically highly plausible turn of events that rejects the traditional (Mahavamsa) version of the Dhatusena saga that portrays Kashyapa as a patricidal villain.
The narrator is an irrigation engineer inspired by what he had read about the ancient hydraulic engineering system of Sri Lanka in scholar surveyor R.L. Brohier’s books (such as ‘Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon’, 1934). At the time of the story, the engineer narrator is employed as the chief engineer in charge of a restoration project on the ancient Kalawewa water reservoir that Dhatusena had built. In addition to his normal work, the engineer is driven by a personal desire to find out something about the scientific irrigation technology that had been in use in ancient Sri Lanka.
In the Mahavamsa, Dhatusena emerges as a saintly king, a compassionate human being. But he was a brave warrior as well
More centrally, however, he claims that he writes this story out of an irresistible internal urge to try to resolve the problem as to how, in a society like ours that boasts of an illustrious culture, a great king who had saved the country and the people, having fought for thirty long years amidst immense hardships and untold suffering, could be put to death, demanding of him to surrender supposedly hidden treasure. It is left to the reader to decide whether the novelist achieves this goal.
In the foreword, Amerasekera claims that he finds the Mahavamsa account of the Dhatusena episode very stimulating to his creative imagination. It contains events and scenes that take the reader to the heart of darkness in the human mind. Amarasekera discovers a prototype of the present in that past epoch. He points out that the Dhatusena chapter of our long history embodies a recurrent motif (i.e., that of betrayal of the patriotic national hero through personal envy and hatred, as I read it). In Amerasekera’s opinion, even the present political situation illustrates the point.
Amerasekera argues that a novelist and a historian view history from two different angles: a historian tries to investigate the past with a view to recording events and information associated with the past as accurately as possible; a novelist on the other hand, looks at the past while being positioned in the present. The novelist does so in order to reveal the present hidden in the past, as it were. If the narrative in a novel differs from a historian’s record, that is because the novelist intends to achieve some special purpose (by deviating from what is historically recorded). The narrative that we find in the novel ‘Dhatusena’ is an imaginative reconstruction of the Mahavamsa story about the life and work of the monarch, and his tragic death as a prisoner executed by being buried alive (or ‘walled to death’) in a niche in the bund of the Kalawewa. He was subjected to this punishment by his own son Kashyapa. (Dhatusena story is recorded in Chapter XXXVIII of the Mahavamsa, which is part of the 13th century CE Culavamsa, being the continuation of the Mahavamsa of the 5th century CE; the Culavamsa is traditionally ascribed to a Buddhist monk named Dhammakitti). This is what the novelist calls the Mahavamsa account of the Dhatusena episode.
In his childhood, Dhatusena was ordained as a novice monk under the tutelage of his maternal uncle, the erudite Mahanama Thera (who later composed the Mahavamsa or The Great Chronicle at his nephew’s invitation). They lived in a monastery built by Dighasanda (rendered as ‘Diksanda’ in the novel), the general of king Devanampiyatissa (307-267 BCE) during whose reign Buddhism was introduced to the island according to the Mahavamsa tradition. The young royal disrobed when his leadership was found necessary to fight Tamil invaders from South India. King Dhatusena’s history writing project was most probably meant as a part of his farsighted plan of action for nation building and for keeping the country whole safe from foreign invasions. The book comes to a sudden end at the conclusion of Chapter XXXVII, which deals with king Mahasena (277-304 CE)’s reign. But the original plan could have been to describe the island’s history up to Dhatusena’s own time in order to perpetuate the memory of his achievements.
In the Mahavamsa, Dhatusena emerges as a saintly king, a compassionate human being. But he was a brave warrior as well. He always thought of the welfare of the people and worked to ensure the development of the agriculture based economy of the country. Dhatusena was an extremely humble person. When he was being driven from the prison to Kalawewa (having been ordered to show his son the new king where his wealth was), he ate a portion of a meal of roasted corn offered by the charioteer. He wanted to reward the poor man for his kindness. So, he wrote a message for Mugalan on a palm leaf and gave it to the driver for future use. The message was a request that the charioteer be given a job when Mugalan became king. (This detail is not given in the novel). The novelist conforms to the saintly image of Dhatusena that the Mahavamsa gives.
The narrator (chief engineer) introduces his narrative with a description of a dream that he had in which Dhatusena appears before him determined to help him and to answer certain questions that he has been pondering.
He is ‘awakened’ by the piercing sound of a favourite verse of his from the Mahavamsa (being recited):
“iti mettaya mano tan aha senapatin pati – moggallane tvai veva eka citto ahan” (Geiger translates these lines thus: “I have the same feelings for thee as for Moggallana”). These words were addressed by the condemned Dhatusena to Migara the ‘brutal Senapati’ or general who was preparing to carry out Kashyapa’s orders. Moggallana or Mugalan was his beloved younger son, the legitimate heir to the throne.
In the dream, Dhatusena asks the engineer to stop digging various places around the tank as he was doing looking for the place where the original sluice gate (sorovva) was. He reveals that it is right below the place that he excavated last. This is vital information for the engineer, because some disgruntled workers have spread the worrisome false allegation against him that he was not trying to find the old sluice, but was looking for hidden treasure. The apparition of Dhatusena then denies the traditional charge seared into our national psyche that Kashyapa had his father murdered: “It was our monks who historicized this baseless lie. They turned Kashyapa into a villain in order to prevent people from being enthralled by the Sigiriya art gallery. The monks were worried that if Kashyapa’s successors followed his example, it would be a threat to the Buddhist establishment”.
The apparition continues, trying to resolve the listener’s perplexity on hearing this: “Kashyapa was not a parricide. He was an innocent, maudlin person with a penchant for art. He was not fit to be a king. I didn’t make him king not only on account of his birth of a non-royal mother, but on account of the fact that he was unfit for kingship. My enemies used him…. Kashyapa should be absolved of this false charge at least now.”
It is my feeling that ‘Dhatusena’ will prove to be an interesting read for those who take an interest in history as a living force.