As the Union Jack that had flown majestic over the entire isle of Ceylon for 138 years was ceremoniously lowered on February 4, 1948, marking the end of Britain’s regal sway; the pride and hope that would have swelled and soared in the newly independent nation’s collective breast, would, no doubt, have known no bounds. [...]


Did freedom’s guns boom the damp squibs of hope?

BY THE BANKS OF THE CHRONICLES, WATCHING THE TORRENTS OF HISTORY FLOW - Was independence handed to a people made weak by time and fate, with their psyche battered repeatedly by shocks of defeat?

As the Union Jack that had flown majestic over the entire isle of Ceylon for 138 years was ceremoniously lowered on February 4, 1948, marking the end of Britain’s regal sway; the pride and hope that would have swelled and soared in the newly independent nation’s collective breast, would, no doubt, have known no bounds.

But beneath the euphoric joy freedom’s long awaited advent naturally evokes, beneath the patriotic ecstasy freedom’s hour provokes when a long suppressed race find themselves free of their colonial shackles, did there dwell in the sober recesses of the leaders’ westernised minds a historic sense of gravitas of what they had just received?

With an independence gained without sacrifice, without struggle, without blood, tears, toil and sweat, did the magnitude of the burden placed on this nanny-fed nation, grace the leaders jacketed shoulders when a free and sovereign Ceylon was handed over to them on a platter?

Beneath the trance, as they stood in that sunlit hour bathed in the lambent light of the nation’s sunrise and embraced destiny wholeheartedly to their bosoms, did they realise that, henceforth, in their hands lay the labour to forge the future? That they will have none but themselves to blame if they failed to flower the blooming buds of a nation’s aspirations, that the British Raj’s magic wand will no longer be there to fill the larder of their wants nor the protection of a mighty empire on which the sun never set, to find shelter from the tempests that may soon blow.

Were these inheritors of Lanka’s ancient glories, the Gullivers their forefathers once were or Lilliputians made weak by time and fate; the deformed descendants of the Sinhala genius that had succumbed to the repeated batterings of foreign invasions and were now weak in will, reduced to pulp? The harsh price of monotonous defeat had taken its inexorable toll; and sealed the nation’s resurgence.

Through the mist of the hazy past, behold the grandeur that was Anuradhapura, the acclaimed city which was the capital of Lanka for a record 1400 years. At its glorious zenith, its stupas matched the wonders of Egypt’s Giza pyramids and the nation’s ports had become the trading hub of the then known world. In that golden era which saw the arrival of Buddhism to the land in the first hundred years of the city’s establishment, the manifold facets of civilisation thrived beyond measure. After a thousand years of existence, the city showed no sign of slowing down.

But the cycle had turned, the decline had begun and the rot had set in. Though there had been many Chola attacks during the first millennium, they had all been successfully repulsed. But the die had been cast. The city’s death knell had been rung. The fall was inevitable. And when it came, it was devastating.

The final Chola invasion in 1017AD razed the once magnificent capital to rubble; and with the city ravaged and left desolate, the triumphant Cholas chose the picturesque garden city of Polonnaruwa as their seat of government from which to rule the usurped land. But it was not to be for long. A prince of royal blood was soon to rise from the south of Lanka, destined to restore the defunct Sinhala Monarchy and rule over the entire island with Polonnaruwa as its new capital and he as its first Sinhala king.

THE LION PURRS TONIGHT: Freedom, where are the fruits that leaders have seen in thy face?

That prince was Vijayabahu, the First. For 17 years, this king of the Ruhuna principality waged a stubborn struggle to rid the land of the Chola usurper. Twice he launched attacks on the Chola citadel and twice he failed. In a valiant third attempt, he launched a three pronged attack to encircle Polonnaruwa, laid siege on the city for seven months and, finally, broke through the fortifications to capture it. After 53 years, the Sinhala banner flew again across the land.

The spark of the Sinhala genius that had dazzled Anuradhapura for over a thousand years, now ignited to illumine Polonnaruwa. The new capital flourished under the guidance of its founding king, Vijayabahu; and rose to greater heights under his grandson, Parakramabahu, the Great, the warrior, the peacemaker, the administrator, the engineer, and the artist.

But the summer of the Sinhala renaissance, flowering so soon after the loss of their ancient city, was not destined to last nor for its sweet fragrance to linger long and perfume the annals. The resurgence was short lived, the reborn hopes which the conquest of Polonnaruwa had kindled of a Sinhala comeback lay cruelly crushed, like beautiful butterfly wings under chariot wheels.

A myriad reasons have been tendered for the downfall of Polonnaruwa, one of which attributes it to the follies of King Nissankamalla whose vainness to emulate King Parakramabahu and surpass his building glory, unleashed a squander spree, depleting the nation’s coffers. The threat of Indian invasions again had also resurfaced and thus, with the spirit sapped and energy drained, the lights went out on the splendour that was Polonnaruwa. It had lasted for only 142 years.

It was the turning point. Thenceforth the Sinhala Kingdom, or rather what was left of it, went mobile to survive the exigencies of that deciding hour. Like nomads living desert life on shifting sands, like gypsies with no fixed abode, Sinhala kings, with their kingdoms packed into caravans, took flight, wandering from safe house to safe house, from safe refuge to safe refuge, fleeing the Indian scourge shadowing them. The descent had begun. The kings were on the run.

The first pit stop where the kingdom pitched camp was Dambadeniya. From this rock fortress,

Vijayabahu III the son of Parakramabahu, the Great, and three other kings would rule from 1220AD. The third king Vijayabahu IV was crowned king in 1270AD but two years later was killed by his own minister and the crown fell to his younger brother, Buvanekabahu.

The curtain was to fall on the Dambadeni sojourn of fifty years, just when the Sinhala Kingdom was taking root.

The air was rife with intrigue, treachery and invasion. And for the young accidental King, Dambadeniya spelt certain doom. Facing the possibility of a mass scale onslaught from the South Indian Army garrisoned at Polonnaruwa and fearing for his own security in the wake of internecine warfare after his brother’s murder, Buvanekabahu decamped and settled at the bosom of Yapahuwa Rock to establish his capital.

But after all the fast paced efforts made to transform the rock into a battle citadel of impregnability, Yapahuwa’s tryst with history came to a swift end. In 1284, barely twelve years after first setting foot on the crag, King Buvanekabahu died; and, with his demise, with the loss of his guiding force and star, the rock was soon overrun by the invading Pandyans who plundered and pillaged and decimated Yapahuwa of her treasures.

Worse. They deplumed Lanka of her greatest possession: Stole the potent symbol of sovereign power and legitimacy of kingship.

They seized the Sacred Tooth Relic and carried it away with them back to India to the Pandyan Court. It was only four years later that King Parakramabahu III successfully negotiated with the Pandyan King Maravarman Kulasekara and restored it to Lanka’s custody. In return for this Pandyan gesture, for returning this inestimable spoil of war, Lanka came under Pandyan suzerainty for the next twenty years which ended only upon Kulasekara’s death. The Yapahuwa stay had lasted for only twelve years.

Kurunegala became the next capital when the kingdom on wheels parked its caravan and royal litter in the shade of the city’s famed Elephant Rock. Five kings would rule from here for less than fifty years before moving on to pitch camp in Gampola. The drift to the central mountains further south-west was occasioned by the expanding ambitions of the island’s northern kingdom of Tamil kings.

The Sinhala kingdom would linger here, an area described as an ideal refuge for lost causes, for around sixty years. During this period, the power of the Sinhala kingdom hit a new low. The Jaffna star was at its ascendant and its tax collectors were exacting tributes even on Gampola borders. Fearing for their safety, the Sinhala kings did not rise and make a stand but retreated from their lofty mountains to the western low lands near Colombo, to Jayavardhanapura, Kotte.

The Kingdom of Kotte was to last longer than the Polonnaruwa era. But if Polonnaruwa had seen the triumph of peace and the blossoming of the arts, Kotte’s 190-year reign as the nation’s capital was to see the isle shores invaded by a western foe; to encounter the tribulations of war and internecine strife; witness betrayal, treachery and patricide; gaze helpless at religious conversions and squirm in shame over the bequeathment to Portugal the Kingdom of Kotte by its baptised Sinhala king Don Juan Dharmapala: in short, a historic racy pot boiler.

And, with the Kingdom of Sithawaka which had broken away in 1521, having perished before, so ended the fragmented kingdom in Kotte, with the focus shifting to Senkadagala, the last stronghold of the Sinhala race.

The Kingdom of Kandy thus became the sole repository of Sinhalese aspirations, where the hills were alive with an equal temper of free souls, breathing freedom’s sweet air. But, apart from defending this highland patch where the last trace of the island’s independence still precariously survived, the kingdom was also embroiled in power politics within its royal court, in clan intrigues, in betrayals, hastening its end.

After over 200 years as the last capital of the Sinhala Kingdom, as the last bastion of Sinhala rule, its ultimate downfall in 1815AD marked the beginning of Lanka’s long night of oblivion.

But dusk had set in much earlier on the Sinhala Kingdom. It had fallen in the early part of the 13th century with the abandonment of Polonnaruwa’s splendour which, during the renaissance, had briefly shone on the Sinhala firmament, like the last bold burst of a dying star. The Sinhala retreat had been sounded. Fortune that had favoured the brave had fled once stout Sinhala hearts; and debilitating fear had taken its place.

The fire that had spurred King Dutugamunu and Vijayabahu to emerge from the southern wilderness and drive out Chola usurpers from the Rajarata and unify the land under the Sinhala banner, and moved other great kings to defend and never to yield, had long died out; and, in its stead, an all pervasive sense of defeatism had taken hold of the collective Sinhala spirit.

With the kingdom in reverse mode, the Sinhala exodus to the south began. Deserting the grandiose works, which the Sinhala genius of their forefathers had created, to the vagaries of the elements or as departing gifts to Indian beneficiaries, they hitched their wagons to the Kingdom’s slinking star and drifted further south, seeking southern safety and southern comfort.

The Sinhala Kingdom had entered the twilight zone; and the Sinhala Kings ruled from their fast dwindling twilight realms. Every descending step, driven by fear, prodded by Fates’ spur to survive, brought them, unwittingly, closer to dreaded night. Every step down, from Polonnaruwa to Dambadeniya, to Yapahuwa, to Kurunegala, to Gampola, to Kotte and Sithawaka, was attended with a rain of blows battering the Sinhala psyche.

The scramble to the hills when all seemed lost was the abject admission of final defeat; and the ultimate fate that awaited the Sinhala Kingdom during its mountainous refuge was the final killer blow — the knock-out punch — that crushed the once proud Sinhala spirit and laid it prostrate beneath the infidel’s sword.

The long night of darkness had enveloped the Sinhala people; and when morning broke on February 4, 1948, a dazed Sinhala race awoke from their long enslavement to find independence thrust upon them and made the masters of their fate.

But in that shining hour, were they, leaders and the citizenry alike, upto the task? Had the repeatedly bruised and battered collective psyche of their forefathers, which, according to Jungian psychology, contains the full gamut of ancestral experience, rendered the inheritors impotent of vision beyond their petty prejudices, incapable of placing the nation’s interest before their own? But thoroughly able to make a pig’s breakfast out of a bright future given on a salver.

Though the primordial fire of chauvinism still burned in their bellies and vainglorious boasts of their forebears’ marvels still spouted from their mouths, did it burn, did it spout from some inferiority complex rising from a wounded psyche scared, confused and insecure that, even after 73 years of independence, it is still in search of a new constitution and is still trying to correctly draw the lion on its flag?


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