14th November 1999

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From childhood to proud queen and today's chaos

Book review

Kandy past and present (1474-1998) by Dr. Nihal Karunaratna. Reviewed by Carl Muller

"Ten years," Dr. Nihal Karunaratna told me, "it took ten years."

One supposes that no one can make any real claim to fulsome creativity when it comes to the recounting and retelling of history. Who really can? All the history books one sees are, in truth, presentations of a story earlier told. Even Moses, it is said, wrote the first books of the Bible in the great library of Alexandria, referring, researching the scrolls and parchments of lands too ancient for even his mind to envisage.

The book is an engrossing read. Earlier, Dr. Nihal gave us his story of Udawattakelle, and it was in that scintillating presentation that he actually began the story of Kandy - the story of the hermit-monk Senkhanda and the birth of Senkadagala.

That was a book of Kandy's infant days. Now we watch this infant grow to become the dancing maid with roses on her gartered legs, then the proud, tender woman, then the stately prouder queen.

This, I think, this childhood of Kandy is the most difficult part of the unfolding story. Many are the sources that are relied upon and this is why part I becomes a heady medley of legend, geography and art, custom and religion and aesthetic tribute.... that led to Knox's "land full of hills.... pure and clear rivers" to Brohier's "country passable only by footpath.... overspread with deep waters infested with crocodiles" .

It was Panditha Parakramabahu IV (1302-1326 AD) who desired to move to Kande-Uda-Rata. We are told of how the scouting of the land was done; but it took time - time enough for rulers to rise and fall; for Vikramabahu to ascend the throne in 1543 and, according to Kandyan tradition, found the city of Senkadagala. The book is so comprehensive that the author has not resorted to a happy mead but has laid down conflicting viewpoints side by side.

It is as if he urges readers to go to the source material too. There is little doubt that this was a rich, thriving kingdom even if its army consisted of 20,000 archers only and no other weaponry. Also, this proud heart of Sri Lanka was so secure. Dr. Nihal records the Portuguese reports - "everything in abundance", "rich in natural resources", "great passes (which can be defended) with a small force", "a place so strong that even if one had the whole power of the Turk, it cannot be taken."

One senses, naturally, Dr. Nihal's love for all things antiquarian as the book progresses. This, to the lover of history and to those who seek to embark on a nostalgic journey through time, is refreshingly welcome, but it does tend to upset the skein of history.

As if the spinner has paused at the wheel as, when looking out the window of his tower into the past, a vision of the present bursts upon his senses. Yet, after a couple of chapters one gets used to it and begins to make mental notes. You will find this quite fascinating too - this marriage of the past and the present.

This book is primarily an exercise in the telescoping of the past to lie with the present and make sense of it all. He wants us to go back when Wimaladharmasuriya I was king. This telescoping is admirably done, but requires careful and patient reading.

Naturally, a large section of the book deals with the British conquest with much meat on the wars and intrigues and, in the end, "a mere forty-day campaign (that) ended two thousand three hundred and fifty-seven years of Sinhalese independence."

It is fascinating to take in all that Dr. Nihal has written about the Lake, the Bogambara Wewa, the Sri Dalada Maligawa and the old houses around the Lake. It is interesting to know that the Queen's Hotel had another small hotel for overflow of guests. This was the Firs, which is today the Hotel School Training Centre. We are taken through the days of the Colombo-Kandy mail coaches, then the railway. And we have a choice - to take in all the details of streets, bridges, gravets and military buildings.

Chapters are devoted to the Botanical Gardens, the Kandy Municipality, the University, the war years and suddenly, just when you are flitting back to Mountbatten and the RAF Officers' Magazine, "Kandy Calling", you are brought - and most rudely too - into the present!

A very nice trick, I think, for suddenly we raise our eyes and see the harsh reality - today's Kandy: "busy, over-crowded, noisy, haphazardly developed." Nihal has packed his pen, taken up a whip. "What have we, the citizens, done to this great city? After all, it is by our own choice that we elect our government and municipal council."

Europe here he comes!


Travelogues are always interesting. But it's not often that Sinhala readers get an opportunity of enjoying a traveller's tales. Veteran journalist Arthur U. Amarasena fills the void with his recent book, 'Ethera Visituru'.

After a trip to Europe, Arthur wrote a few articles to the newspapers. He confesses that in the process of editing these articles, most of the essential and salient points he discussed were often dropped. The result was disastrous. He was disgusted. Meanwhile, readers demanded the articles in book- form and he has obliged them.

Arthur reminds us of the age-old folk idiom, 'Avidda Paya Dahas Vati' (how rich it is to walk seeing places). He admits he too walked miles, to get to the places described in his book. One such was Pompeii. Most of us still remember the film, 'Last days of Pompeii' produced about four decades ago. This ancient Roman city in South Italy was buried by the eruption of Mount vesuvius in 79 A.D. It was rediscovered in 1748 and excavations revealed a town preserved much as it was, on the day of its destruction, even to the extent of finding several bodies.

Arthur discusses what happened and how the city stands today, in his opening chapter titled 'Pompeii, the city destroyed by the wrath of the gods'.

Madame Tussaud's wax museum is a 'must' for anyone who visits London. Ranking it as the third most sought after place by the traveller, after Buckingham Palace and Shakespeare's village, Arthur is fascinated by the hundreds of models of well-known people at the museum, looking so natural. He takes us through a guided tour of the place set up by Marie Grosholtz Tussaud (1760-1850), the Swiss wax-modeller who left Paris in 1802 when she was forced to make death masks of guillotined aristocrats in the French Revolution, and founded the London wax museum.

Arthur proves himself a superb guide, the way he takes us through the many cities in Portugal, Italy and France. He doesn't miss any of the famous places, the leaning tower of Pisa, the 184-foot white marble bell tower in Italy built by Bonanno Pisano which had begun to lean by the time it was completed in the 14th century; the Eiffel Tower in Paris built by the French engineer Alexandre Gustave in 1887-89; the Colosseum in Rome built in 80 AD which could hold 45,000 spectators on several tiers of seats and many more.

Arthur sounds a warning to our young men who are anxious to get to Italy and become victims in the hands of unscrupulous job agencies. Employers in Italy pay good money but it is extremely difficult to get visas to enter the country. Many smuggle themselves through neighbouring countries, but it's a big risk. Even if one gets in, if one is found without a visa one is deported immediately. Those who have managed to get good jobs get good money. Drivers get the best wages, above Rs 75,000 a month. Even housemaids and hotel maids earn around Rs 50,000.

The book is well illustrated even though the black and white pictures could have been better. Ideally, colour pictures should have been used, but obviously the writer and the publisher (Godage Publishers) were conscious of the cost.


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