An artist’s impression of Kusumasana Devi or Dona Catherina
Christmas may have been a grand occasion in the Royal Courts of the Kandyan kingdom way back in the 16th Century when Konnappu Bandara who reigned as Vimaladharmasuriya 1 in Kandy made Dona Catherina his consort.
Dona Catherina, who had been crucial in the Sri Lankan history but downplayed by historians, had been a devout Catholic. With Karalliyadde Bandara, the legitimate King of the Kandyan kingdom and his Queen – parents of Dona Catherina dying of a small pox epidemic, she was brought up by nuns in a Convent in Mannar. Therefore, she may have been well acquainted with Christmas festivities and her Christmas Festive Table in the Royal Courts of Kandy, may have thus been laden with bolo fiado (Portugese cake) boruwa, fuguete (Portugese sweets) and sweetmeats made with rulang and ground cashew which had been brought to the island
by the Portugese.
Dona Catherina, who had been crucial in the Sri Lankan history but downplayed by historians, had been a devout Catholic. With Karalliyadde Bandara, the legitimate King of the Kandyan kingdom and his Queen – parents of Dona Catherina dying of a small pox epidemic, she was brought up by nuns in a Convent in Mannar
Konnappu Bandara himself had been converted to Catholism on fleeing to the Portugese Fort when Rajasinghe 1, ruling the Hill country as part of his Sitawaka kingdom, killed his father Virasundara Banda of Peradeniya. Rajasinghe1 was finding it difficult to control the Hill country and Virasundara Banda was a regional leader in the hilly region. Konnappu Bandara on hearing the killing of his father, fled to the Portugese Fort in Kotte. From there, he was transferred to Goa and was baptized and named Don Joao of Austria.
State Literary Award winner C. Gaston Perera, in his “Kandy Fights the Portugese” writing about this period said, “The grand strategy of the Portugese or their war policy objective towards their presence in Ceylon, evolved slowly from trading to one of complete conquest of the whole island by the subjugation of Kandy.”
He further wrote that Kandy which was under Sitawaka domination for ten years, had been restive and had asserted its independence two years ago with the death of its King Rajasinghe. The Portugese, seizing the opportunity, had sent a force to take over Kandy under the former Peradeniya chieftain Konnappu Bandara. …. His task was to install Don Phelipe alias Yamasinghe Bandara, nephew of the former King of Kandy, Karalliyadde Bandara on the throne as a Portugese puppet. Instead, Konnappu Bandara, on arriving in Kandy, abandoned the Portugese and installed himself as the leader of the Hill country.
According to Gananath Obeysekere’s “Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom 1591-1765,” people and royalty effortlessly slipped in and out of Buddhism and Catholism…. Places of worship were constructed without let or hindrance
“By 1594, with the death of Rajasinghe 1, the Portugese had taken over Sitawaka. Having subjugated Jaffna, they only had the Udarata to capture. The vital expedition to capture under Pedro Lopez Souza therefore, received high priority in the Portugese camp. Arriving from Goa, he headed it under the title “General Conquistador the First in Ceylon.” Consisting of Portugese soldiers recruited from Goa, reinforced by lascorins (Ceylonese soldiers) and led by renegade Jayavira, they set off. The pretext was to overthrow the usurper Konnappu Bandara, install the rightful heir and restore the last relic of Kandy royalty to the throne.”
This last relic, a protégé of the Portugese – then a world power and coveted as a bride for the Portugese General, was Kusumasana Devi, later Dona Catherina who grew up in the Portugese fort of Mannar. She had even been sent to the Portugese Fort in Goa for advanced studies and was groomed to be installed as Queen in the Kandyan Kingdom.
Rajavaliya tracing her ancestry referred to Don Catherina as the “Mannarame un biso adhasin” (the respected queen who was at Mannarama) or “e bisava kanyani” ( that queen, the virgin.) It states “Kusumasana Devi or Dona Catherina belonged to the dynasty of the Hill Country and when Rajasinghe 1 of Sitawaka attacked the Hill country, her parents who were ruling Udarata, fled to the North. When they were attacked by the Damila ruler of Yapa Patuna, they sought the help of King Dharmapala of Kotte who with his army and that of the Portugese (pratikal) rescued them and arranged them to stay at the Mannarama Fort. The King and the Queen died and the princess continued to live in the Portugese Fort. “
While leading the life of a Catholic in Mannarama Fort, Dona Catherina came into the limelight when the Portugese entertained lofty ambitions of capturing the Hill Country. Renowned historian K.M. De Silva in “A History of Sri Lanka” states, “as legatees of the Kotte Kingdom, the Portugese sought to reassert Kotte’s overlordship over the Udarata. Besides, through conversion to Roman Catholism, the Portugese had a pliant protégé whose claims to the Kandyan throne was as good as, if not better than those of any other aspirant. These claims they now advanced in support of an extension of Portugese power to the Udarata. In 1594, Pedro Lopez Souza led Portugese troops for this purpose, taking with them the Sinhala princess. The motive was to install her in Kandy Throne in the Portugese interest. “
With Dona Catherina being the key element in this grand plan, Tikiri Abeysinghe, author of several books on the Portugese era wrote that Dona Catherina was ten or twelve years at the time and was the last surviving relict of the Kandyan Royal Line. She was to be married to a Portugese high ranker and the consequences of such an eventuality is thus explained by him. “They would have established a child queen on the throne of Kandy, married her off to a Portuguese Fidelio and she would have been an apanage of theirs.”
Portugese did arrive in Kandy with Dona Catherina on board. But Konnappu Bandara’s strategy paid off with the Portugese deciding to retreat when they were heavily attacked with the Portugese facing its worst debacle in the famous combat of Danture. The Sinhala army captured Dona Catherina and handed her over to Konnappu Bandara who with no legitimate claim to the Kandy throne, married her thus legitimizing his right to rule.
He, as Vimaladharmasuriya 1, reverted to Buddhism and dedicated himself to its promotion. He brought and housed the Tooth Relic in a grand temple and sent missions to Burma and reestablished the Doctrine.
According to Gananath Obeysekere’s “Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom 1591-1765,” people and royalty effortlessly slipped in and out of Buddhism and Catholism…. Places of worship were constructed without let or hindrance. Kings and commoners spoke more than one language – a section of the elite were familiar with Portugese and later Dutch as well.
Dona Catherina remained a church-going devout Catholic. In the Royal Court, Vimaladharmasuriya 1 and Dona Catherina led a westernized life. They spoke fluent Portugese, wore western dress complete with hats and shoes and shook hands with foreigners. The responsibility for the education of their four children was given to Portugese Catholic priests whom Vimaladharmasuriya allowed to settle down in Kandy and set up their churches.