Under the Sinhala Kings, Kandy showed a remarkable degree of cosmopolitanism which should be an inspiration to us in this day and age when nations are torn asunder by ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions. People of all faiths and ethnic groups, immigrants from the rest of the island and overseas were welcome to settle down, trade, work, inter-marry and prosper in Kandy under the Kings.
According to Prof. Gananath Obeyesekere’s latest book: The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom 1591-1765 (Sail Fish, Colombo, 2020), there was no communalism or ethnic conflict in that era. This article gives some interesting facts culled out of the above-mentioned book.
Kandy’s tolerant culture continued under King Senarat (1604-1635), a cousin of Vimaladhramasuriya’s, who was a former Buddhist monk
Obeyesekere says people (and Kings too) effortlessly slipped in and out of Buddhism and Catholicism. It was possible to be a Catholic outwardly and a Buddhist deep inside. Places of worship of different faiths were constructed without let or hindrance. Kings and commoners spoke more than one language. While the hoi polloi spoke Sinhalese (the language of the majority) and Tamil (the language of trade), a section of the elite were familiar with Portuguese and Dutch as well.
It was during the reign of Jayavira Bandara (1511-1552) that, for the first time, European Catholic priests got a place in the Kandyan court. In order to please the Portuguese, who were a force in the Kotte Kingdom, Jayavira Bandara became a “nominal” Catholic. Jayavira was deposed by his son Karalliyadde Bandara (1552-1582), who became a devout Catholic, publicly embracing Christianity around 1562-64. But such public display of the conversion alienated him from his subjects, and he had to flee to Trincomalee with his daughter Kusumasana Devi. He died of smallpox there but Kusumasana Devi was rescued by the Portuguese, baptized and renamed Dona Catherina.
After Karalliyadde Bandara’s death, Kandy became a bone of contention between Rajasinha I of Sitavaka and Virasundara Bandara of Peradeni in the Kegalle district. Rajasinha I killed Virasundara. Subsequently, Virasundara’s son Konappu Bandara took the help of Dharmapala of Kotte to capture Kandy. Dharmapala had converted to Catholicism, gifted the Kotte Kingdom to the Portuguese King in Lisbon and ruled Kotte as a vassal. Konappu Bandara, married the daughter of Sembagaperumal, a Catholic prince and brother of Vidiye Bandara, the father of Dharmapala. This marriage (the first to be referred to by the Portuguese term (Kasaada) was performed as per Catholic rites in Dharmapala’s palace.
However, Konappu Bandara was sent away to Goa in India by the Portuguese following the murder of his confidant Salappu Bandara. Konappu was baptized and renamed Don Joao of Austria. Konappu alias Don Joao, came back to lead a Portuguese campaign to oust Rajasinha I from Kandy. But after ousting Rajasinha I, he ditched the Portuguese and took over Kandy and crowned himself as Vimaladharmasuriya I.
He then reverted to Buddhism. Angry with this, the Portuguese invaded Kandy with an intention to place Dona Catherina, the Catholic princess of the Bandara clan, on the throne. But Vimaladharmasuriya destroyed the entire Portuguese regiment, captured Dona Catherina and married her. While Vimaladharmasuriya remained a strong Buddhist after marriage, Dona Catherina, his wife, remained a staunch Catholic, though she brought up her children as Buddhists.
In the 16th Century, changing religion was not uncommon in Sri Lanka. People also had dual affiliations. Obeyesekere says: “Buddhists could become Christians and some would even go to church. Yet at the same time, they could continue to be Buddhists.” Further, Jesus could be easily adopted as one of the Hindu gods like Vishnu and Natha and looked upon as benevolent beings. Virgin Mary could be absorbed as Pattini, he points out.
Heavily exposed to the Portuguese, Vimaladharmasuriya and Dona Catherina led a partially Western-style life with the King shaking hands with Europeans and Don Catherina and the children wearing Western dresses. The King spoke Portuguese fluently, learnt to speak Dutch and was interested in Western instrumental music. But at the same time, he dedicated himself to the promotion of Buddhism by housing Buddha’s Tooth Relic in a grand temple and sending a mission to Arakan in Burma to get monks to come to Sri Lanka and ordain Lankan monks. But Vimaladharmasuriya was not dogmatic. According to the Dutch chronicler P.A. Baldaeus, he sincerely believed in freedom of religion. To cement ties with the Tamil Hindus of the East coast, he married one of their princesses.
Kandy’s tolerant culture continued under King Senarat (1604-1635), a cousin of Vimaladhramasuriya’s, who was a former Buddhist monk. Senarat married Vimaladharmasuriya’s widow Dona Catherina. When 4,000 Muslim were driven out of the Western coast by the fanatic Portuguese, Senarat settled them on the Eastern coast. When the Dutch persecuted the Catholics in their dominions, Senarat gave them shelter in Kandy.
Under Vimaladharmasuriya and his successors, Kandy was a “veritable display of diverse humanity. Obeyesekere quotes Dutch Admiral J.V. Spilbergen as saying: “Among the Singales there live many Moors, Turks and other heathens, who all have special laws. Brahmos (Brahmins) are there in large numbers, who are superstitious and respected by the other nations. These Brahmos never eat anything that has life.” There were also Malays, Javanese, North Indians, and Hindu ascetic wanderers such as Andis and Pantarams, adds Obeyesekere. King Rajasinha II (1629-1687) loved to have foreigners in his domain. The Kandyan Kings sometimes “forced” many European prisoners to settle there.
Jesuits, Joseph Vaz and Jacome Goncalvez
Vimaladharmasuriya II (1687–1707), son of Rajasinha II, allowed Joseph Vaz, a Jesuit missionary from Goa, to settle in his Kingdom and preach Catholicism when the Dutch were persecuting the Catholics in areas under their control. Vimaladharmasuriya II and his son Narendrasinha (1707-1739), ignored the 1638 treaty between Rajasinha II and the Dutch, which had enjoined the Kandyan King to drive Catholic missionaries out of the Kingdom.
Like his predecessor Francis Xavier, Fr. Joseph Vaz was a great success among the poor because he was sworn to a life of simplicity, service and poverty. Like Francis Xavier, Fr. Vaz wore no shoes, wore a tattered black gown and slept on the floor like a Sanyasi. His simple ways earned him the title Mahaswami. People respected him also because he was originally a Brahmin, a caste much respected in Sri Lanka.
King Narendrasinha, grew up in the company of Fr. Vaz and his disciple and successor Fr. Jacome Goncalvez, also a Konkani Brahmin from Goa. Fr. Goncalvez had contributed immensely to Catholic literature in both Sinhala and Tamil. Narendrasinha, who was highly educated and liberal in outlook, sought the company of both Vaz and Goncalvez. But Narendrasinha was a devout Buddhist too. He put up Samaneras (student monks) in his abode. He constructed shrines for Vishnu and Natha. According to historian Lorna Dewaraja, Narendrasinha did not do much for the Buddhist Sangha and was given to pleasurable activities. But Obeyesekere feels this criticism to be unfair, as Narendrasinha had renovated the Temple of the Tooth and had got 32 Jatakas painted on its walls.
Indian Nayaka Connection
No account of the liberalism of the Kandyan Kingdom will be complete without a reference to the three-King Nayaka dynasty from Madurai in Tamil Nadu. The Nayakas entered Kandyan royalty through marriage as Sinhala Kings married Nayaka princesses. Sinhalese Kings used South Indian troops in their military campaigns. They took part in the rout of the Portuguese at Gannoruva in 1638 when Rajasinha II decided to put the Portuguese in their place.
The first Nayaka King of Kandy was Sri Vijaya Rajasinha (1739-1747) and the last was Sri Wickrama Raja Sinha who was deposed in 1815 by the British. Except for the last King, the earlier two were popular because they backed Buddhism to the hilt. According to Obeyesekere, it is incorrect to say that Narendrasinha was the “last Sinhala King” as for generations, the Sinhala kings were related to the Hindu Nayakas of Madurai through the female line. The Hindu Nayaka mothers must have played a significant role in the socialization of Kandyan royalty, he adds.
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