March 2015 marks the 200th Anniversary of the loss of independence of Sinhale after 2,300 years of uninterrupted suzerainty. This month should have been declared a period of mourning to mark the darkest day in our history.
Whilst reading on this subject I came across a fascinating account by a British writer, Henry Charles Sirr ((M.A) titled: ‘Ceylon and the Cingalese’ published in 1850, on the tragedy that struck the Ehelepola family which perhaps was the immediate incident that finally spurred the nobles of Sinhale to turn to the hostile British for relief, out of desperation. This was a decision they soon came to regret.
The author says that he recounts this tragic event as described to him by "a Kandyan chief who was an eye witness to this horrible tragedy" (pp 232) I thought it would be appropriate to reproduce this account the tragedy that took place 200 years ago on our soil, that became a turning point in our history in order to share it with others at this moment of our long history.
"The day appointed for this horrible butchery arrived and the wife of Eheylepola with his four children (the eldest boy being but eleven years of age and the youngest but a few months old, suckling at its mother’s breast) were led to the place of execution. The woman of majestic mien of noble deportment attired in her court dress, adorned with all her Jewells of state befitting her high rank and station, advanced boldly to meet her fate declaring, her husband’s integrity and expressing her hope that the life she was about to give up might be of benefit to him. She was ordered to stand back as it was the king’s command that she was to die last- and stand by to see her children butchered. She uttered no remonstrance, but embraced the elder boy to submit to his fate as became Eheylepola’s son. The son hesitated, and terrified, clung on to the mother for protection, his brother two years younger, stepped forward boldly, embraced his mother and told his brother not to disgrace his father with such cowardly conduct and would show him how to die as became Eheylepola’s son: advanced with a firm step to the executioner –one blow – a lifeless trunk, deluged in blood, falls to the earth, and the young noble spirit had taken its flight.
But the refinement of barbarous cruelty was not to terminate compelling a mother to stand and see offspring butchered the trunkless head was thrown to the paddy-pounder, the pestle placed in the mother’s hand, she was ordered to pound the head of her child or she would be disgracefully tortured. The mother hesitated; but the feelings of innate delicacy implanted in the high born woman’s breast prevailed – every mental anguish will be preferable to the public exposure of her person – she lifted up her pestle, closing her eyes and let it fall on the skull of her dead child.
This hideous scene was enacted with the two other children, and the wretched mother had to endure the same mental torture. At last it was the turn of the infant’s turn to die, and it was taken from the mother’s arms where it was sleeping, and smiling in tranquil unconsciousness Eheylepola’s wife pressed her babe convulsively to her bosom; then in mute agony, allowed the executioner to take the last child from her. In a moment the little head was severed from the delicate body. The milk that had been drawn a short time previously from the mother’s breast was seen distinctively flowing and mingling with the sanguine stream of life.
The Kandyan matron then advanced eagerly to meet her death. With a firm step she walked towards the executioner, but with caution to avoid stepping on the blood, or treading on the lifeless, mutilated bodies of her children. Her face was calm – almost wore an expression of satisfaction – worst had happened. She had seen her children slaughtered - they were out of tyrant Sri Wickrame’s power. The hand of the executioner is liad on her, to lead her to the watery grave. She thrusts him aside telling him not to pollute a high-born matron with his touch. Bade adieu to her brother-in-law, telling him to meet death as becomes his birth; call to her sister not to unman her husband by useless wailings, but to follow her; then walked towards the tank, (contiguous to Kandy) two executioners following and preceding, carrying large stones.
They had arrived at the tank; Eheylepola’s wife gazes fixedly at the tranquil water wherein the sun beams glitter sportively in millions of rays; the sister weeps as the executioner commences attaching the heavy stones to her slender throat. It is firmly secured. The weight bears her fragile form to earth; the executioner is compelled to carry her. She shrieks wildly as they near the tank; they hold her over the waters – more piercing screams render the air. A sudden splash – then the waters close over the tyrant’s victim, serenely unconscious of the atrocity perpetrated.
Eheylepla’s wife stood motionless during this period, a slight expression of scorn passing over. Has the chief’s stern gaze unnerved the headsman? A blow was struck! A stream of blood gushes forth! – but horrible! The sword is again poised in the air – a flash of light falls on the glittering weapon of destruction: it descends on the muscular, manly throat; the sword is now reeking with red blood! A headless trunk falls to the ground whilst the head with glaring eye-balls, rolls along to the earth, and is thrust aside rudely by the executioner’s foot. The bloody tragedy is finished!
Before the temples of gods Nata and Vishnu, and opposite to the queen’s palace was this fearful scene enacted. Sri Wickrama laid all feelings aside save those of revenge; for by the Kandyan laws it was forbidden that human blood should be shed near a temple; also to wound or shed the blood of a woman was considered a heinous crime, and one of the innocent children of Eheylepola was a girl.
During the time of this revolting was going on, women shrieked, closing their eyes to exclude the terrific reality; men groaned in mental torture burying the heads in their hands; whilst many of the Kandyan noble youth, rolled on earth, their mouths pressing close to the sod to stifle their cries. We will wind up this fearful account by quoting a contemporaneous author:-
"During this tragical scene the crowd, who had assembled to witness it, wept and sobbed aloud, unable to suppress their feelings. Palihapaul Depaul was so affected that he fainted and was expelled his office for showing such tender sensibility.
During the two days the whole of Kandy with the exception of the tyrant’s court, was one house of mourning and lamentation, and so deep was the grief, that not a fire, it is said was kindled, no food dressed, and a general fast was held."
We believe that savage cruelty of this barbarous tyrant to be unparalleled in ancient or modern history: the crimes imputed to the Greek emperors, Nero and Caligula, were trivial when compared with those consistently practised by Sri Wickrama, and our astonishment is extreme that any nation – more especially a warlike one, such as the Kandyans – should have submitted for a lengthened period to the cruel tyranny by their monarch."
An observation: Most tragic as it doubtlessly is, it still gives us pride in our mettle that went to make the courage and the dignity with which those men, women and children of our nation of yore treated death and humiliation. One cannot but be proud that we belong to the same stock. And that may be the secret of our survival for over 2,600 years though being such a small nation in the world.
Incidentally, Ehalepola Kumarihamy was the sister, and Madduma Mandara was the nephew of Keppetipola Adikarama. Perhaps, here lies the line of heroism.