Digging into the roots of an illustrious family

By Padma Edirisinghe

Our story begins as far back as the Uva rebellion where the colonial masters made ruthless moves to crush the indomitable spirit of an independent race. They had managed to do so in the rest of the country, thanks to their bayonets and other fiery weaponry leaving only the people of Uva to stake a claim to be rid of the foreign yoke.

The retaliation had been severe. After crushing the rebellion, the white sahibs ignored this vast province. The indigenous rulers, even of South Indian stock, had been banished to Vellore. Uva was left fatherless and motherless while the rest of the country made some headway.

At what juncture, a member of the Kotelawala family of Raigam Korale decided to take up the cause of Forgotten Uva the writer is not aware but he did.

Muhandiram D.C. Kotelawala was born in 1886 (today there is a village named Kotelawala in Raigam Korale), in the very vicinity of the main Vihara of the area. The Vihara premises are an archaeological preserve for once this had been the abode of the prince of Raigama. It had even been, for a short period the capital of the island. That was in the tumultuous period following the evacuation of Gampola as a capital and the years when Kotte took on the mantle of power.

It can be safely surmised that the Kotelawala family emerged from this historical village. It would have been a foremost family even then to take on the name. Though the beginning of the progeny is at times alluded to as Wickremasinghe Mudaliyar the chief stalwart in Mayadunne's army, there is dispute about this.

Uva was teeming with highway robbers and other criminals. Very adventurously D.C. Kotelawala sent his first fleet of bullock carts for trade along makeshift roads.

Undaunted by robbers the business went on. Small towns began to emerge by the wayside, towns that have now grown to major cities. Soon horse drawn carriages were introduced and the affluent of Uva were now enjoying the comforts enjoyed by the luxury class of Mahanuwara of Kandy benefiting by the energy of governors like Barnes and Ward.

Next Kotelawala moved his residence to Uva, later strengthening ties more by linking in marriage to the Taldena Wijekoon family with Kandyan antecedents and to Dunuwila and Kiriella and Lankatilake families in the area. By this time he had become a popular figure in Badulla and its surroundings as he was personally present at many a wayside stop of the carts and coaches to see that all went well.

The strong independent spirits of this family is exhibited in another way too. They remained immune to conversion to the religion of the Western rulers. Not only did the Kotelawalas remain steadfast to the native faith, but they went on to play a vital role in resuscitating Buddhism that was fast dying out in Badulla under Christian onslaught who had put up many schools both for boys and girls making schools centres of missionary activity.

D.C. Kotelawala can be considered the pioneer figure in changing this tide in distant Uva. To counteract the growing missionary activity in education he put up Dhammadutha College, the first English medium Buddhist College in Badulla and the Uva province. This was later supplemented by Sujatha Vidyalaya for girls put up by his son Henry Kotelawala, later knighted by King George VI for his services.

If D.C. Kotelawala did the clan proud, Sir Henry Kotelawala did it prouder. Entering politics he was first elected to the local body in Badulla and then to the legislature of the country at a young age. In fact he had been elected twice to this august body. That he did his duty by his electorate is testified by his second nomination - 26 years, 1921-1947.

The political tradition of the Badulla Kotelawalas continues with Jack Kotelawala getting elected to the Badulla seat and Gladwyn, son of Sir Henry becoming MP for Buttala. A mansion built for comfortable living of the Kotelawalas was later sold and proceeds donated to the two schools put up by the family. The Kotelawala walauwa in Bandaragama was gifted to a kinsman by Sir Henry Kotelawala.

Who carries the torch down in this illustrious family, I am not sure. When sons are absent or do not get married the families totally disappear. I am not sure of the ultimate fate of this clan but I know a delightful female, who spends the eve of her life in Barnes Place, where the ancestral town residence of the Uva Kotelawala clan is. She is the only daughter of Sir Henry Kotelawala, so proud of her father and grandfather.

The tradition of helping the less fortunate she carries on despite her advanced age, visiting venues in the Maradana Methodist church crèche and teaching children 3-5 English song and dance. Does she remember her days in USA with nostalgia, when she played a prominent role as Mrs. Oliver Weerasinghe, wife of the Ambassador to the USA and a Director and Consultant to the United Nations, and Sri Lanka's first Town Planner who planned the new city of Anuradhapura, I ask Christobel leafing through her collection of memorabilia. Lovely she had been and a lithe dancer, yet engaged in serious assignments as a UN assistant too to broadcast the Sri Lankan heritage.

To my query she answers that she takes everything in her stride and goes on to tell me how she used to enjoy talking to the village women in Badulla taking the Ambula to their husbands. Tragedy struck her early when her mother (belonging to the famous Bulathsinhala family boasting connections to Kotte royalty) passed away when she was just 12 years.

She always enjoyed the company of the simple village women, those who reaped the fields back home in Uva. Did she relish those memories more than her days in America? She really seems so, even now so comfortable among her devoted maids at Barnes Place who dish out to her snippets of political gossip from the Sinhala newspaper she buys for them.

A graceful tapering of a family that has etched a powerful mark not only in the country's heritage but its history for four centuries.

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