"When the people of England were living in the jungles wearing skins, leading a fierce livelihood venerating idols, moving in floating boats, the people of Ceylon have spent civilized life developing their country and were successful in depicting the serene qualities of Buddha in inanimate rocks."
This quote from British explorer Sir Samuel Baker, who spent nine years (1846-55) in Nuwara Eliya, adjacent to a full page black and white photograph of the Samadhi statue in Anuradhapura taken amidst well grown trees before the canopy was erected, makes an impressive entry to a beautiful book – 'Glory of The Royal Cities – A visual celebration of Ancient Sri Lanka' written by Sunil de Costa.
He follows up with another quote on 'Former Glories of Ceylon' by Sir Emerson Tennent, Colonial Secretary and Lt. Governor of Ceylon (1845-47). "The stupendous remains of reservoirs are the proudest monuments, which remain of the former glories of Ceylon. No similar constructions performed by any race, whether ancient or modern, exceed in colossal magnitude the stupendous tanks of Ceylon." The accompanying colour picture depicts an 'Evening in the tank country'.
Author de Costa spent his school vacations in Anuradhapura at his grandfather's residence, 'Abhayawewa Walawwa' at the foot of the Basawakkulama tank. He used to get on a push bicycle and roam around. That's how he developed an interest in the heritage of Sri Lanka. Later when he served as Magistrate in Anuradhapura and as District Judge Polonnaruwa in the 1990s, he visited the archaeological sites and studied them in depth. By that time he had developed an interest in photography and started shooting the places he visited on film. The photographs in the 250-page book are his own.
When he had enough material, he thought of a coffee table book which he wanted to be "neither a text book nor a guide book or a mere pictorial and not designed for historians or scholars." Then who - "The average man who is interested in knowing something about the grandeur of our motherland."
He has achieved the rather huge task admirably.
Publisher Bandhula Ekanayake was impressed when he saw the first proof. He thinks this is the only coffee table book which narrates the overall story about the history of cities of Sri Lanka, cataloguing all the Royal Cities identified as kingdoms or sub-kingdoms into one volume. The design and layout by Ajith Kumara Jayamanne is neat and Gunaratne Offset Ltd. has done a fine printing job. I wished the author had taken a little more interest in reading the proofs though.
Starting from 'Thambapanni to Sri Lanka' , de Costa travels through the royal cities of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Ruhuna through Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Dedigama and Kotte to Kandy – 15 cities in all. He gives a complete list of the 195 kings and queens who ruled from 451 BC(Vijaya) until the end of the Kandyan period 1815 AD. He finds the list incomplete in relation to rulers of Ruhuna and Kelaniya. So is Jaffna where he lists out seven rulers - 1478 – 1620 AD which he calls the Jaffna Period. This period covers Kotte, Sitawaka and Kandy as well where the main rulers were.
The author first takes the reader to Kudiramale Point – the place that chronicles call Thambapanni ('copper coloured palms') – located in the maritime belt of the north-west where Prince Vijaya is said to have landed, married Kuveni and made it the seat of government for 38 years. In addition to pictures of the coast and a road through Wilpattu National Park leading to Kudiramale, he uses a not so common photograph of a location in Wilpattu which is believed to be the abode of Kuveni.
As expected, the photographs used in the book cover a wide range of Buddhist places of worship, Buddha statues, stupas, ancient monasteries and masterpieces like the moonstones. While de Costa has shown a creative mind as most pictures show, he has gone into details whenever he felt the reader would want to explore - as in the case of the moonstone in Anuradhapura where he shows several close-ups. A better example is the extreme close up of the ornate urinal in the Anuradhapura forest monastery where he explains that toilets and urinaries were indispensable features in all monasteries. "The urinaries had been constructed by assembling three large pots with perforations at the bottom stacked one over the other and filled with sand and gravel and attached to the urinary stone. Provision had been made to drain the water into the ground after a process of purification through the pits. This was a device used to prevent environmental pollution."
The reader gets a glimpse of the not so well known places like Panduvasnuwara (Parakramapura) – a sub-kingdom of Anuradhapura dating back to the 12th century BC, Ritigala, a forest hermitage with 32 caves with drip ledges - an archaeological reserve. While foundations of at least 200 buildings are visible, other eye-catching features, the author says, are the stone-laid narrow paths reminding one of a network in modern town planning, a sauna bath, a meditation hall and toilets. Haththikuchchi situated about 25 km off Anuradhapura is featured as the location where King Sirisangabo offered his head to a traveller enabling him to claim a vast amount of money from the king. It is a huge archaeological site covering around 148 acres with eight dagobas, 16 ponds and 38 caves. King Devanampiyatissa is believed to have sheltered 500 'arahants' here.
Hasthishailapura – present day Kurunegala – had been the royal city for 48 years (1293-1341 AD) with four kings ruling during that period. The author had tried to locate remains of the kingdom within the town limits or in the suburbs but only managed to find a stone-carved entrance to a building identified as the Dalada Maligawa where the Tooth Relic had been housed.
Gangasiripura – referred to as the kingdom of Gampola – had been founded by King Bhuvanekabahu IV (1341-44) and his successor, King Parakramabahu V had ruled from there for 12 years. The credit of building the beautiful Lankatilleka temple and Embekke Devale – both of which are popular sites to this day – goes to King Wickremabahu III (1356 – 74).
Describing Embekke as "a unique specimen of wooden architecture in Sri Lanka", the author presents a panorama of the exquisite wood carvings in the devale. The roof structure ('magul kurupava') is intriguing. The building is erected on 32 wooden pillars – each with wooden mouldings on the four sides - supporting the superstructure link to the 'magul kurupava'. There are 132 tiny wooden carvings on each pillar making a total of 514. These include 44 lotus carvings in the mouldings, 30 carvings of creepers in the beam, 36 in the cross beams and another 128 scattered around.
Not much is found in Dedigamnuwara – present day Dedigama – which had been an optional residence for some of the regional rulers of Dhakkinadesa in the 12th century and later been the royal capital of King Parakramabahu V (1344-56).
Of interest in the chapter on Yapapatuna – Jaffnapatnam are some of the Buddhist monuments in Kandarodai and some Buddhist artefacts in the Jaffna museum. Alongside a picture of the Vallipurama gold plate is a translation of the text. It reads: "Successful in the reign of the great king Vasabha and when the minister Isigiriya was governing Nagadipa, Piyagula Tissa caused a vihara to be built at Batakara." Photographs of Kanda Samy
K ovil – Nallur and Nagapoosani Ammal Kovil accompany the text which ends thus: "Perhaps the most startling memorial of all is a solemn invocation still preserved in the liturgy of the Nallur Kanda Samy Kovil of King Bhuvaneela Bahu VI , 15th century King of Kotte."
After visiting the royal cities of Sri Jayawardanapura, Sitawaka and Raigamnuwara, the author moves over to the hill capital. A detailed coverage is given ending with the fourth paragraph of the Kandyan Convention which reads: "The Dominion of the Kandyan Provinces is vested in the Sovereign of the British Empire and to be Exercised through the Governor or the Lieutenant Governor…."
He uses the final pages to describe the last days of King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe who with Queen Venkatharangammal was arrested by the British troops on February 18, 1815 and imprisoned in a cell in Colombo Fort before being deported to Vellore in South India. He quotes the oft repeated Sinhala poem recited by the King when he embarked on the ship 'Convolis', with an English translation.
Until I remember the victorious Sinhala generation,
Until the Royal blood does not extinct from my body,
I shed no tears till I lose my life
I bid farewell to thee Sri Lanka!