Mahasenapathi Dutugemunu Rajatuma An excellent book on King DutugemunuJuly 23, 2010, 5:09 pm
Reviewed by Bandu de Silva
Much has been handed down to us about King Dutugemnu through chronicler tradition and by word of mouth since the 6th century AD compiler of Mahavamsa wove the story into an epic poem. But, a book devoted singularly to this king using sources outside the chronicler tradition is still a rarity. Dr. P.G. Punchihewa’s new book written in Sinhala, tries to meet this lacuna, though he does not claim so.
Though the book is not a voluminous historical treatise, but a small work of 125 pages primarily written for school children, who through the wisdom of our present day rulers were denied the opportunity of learning their own history in schools, it contains information selectively derived not only from the chronicler and other literary tradition but also folk tradition, again without being engrossed in details, and historical evidence presented by epigraphic sources which are far more reliable.
The book is arranged under 16 themes and presented in a lucid style, something that school children and adults alike could read in one sitting without getting bored.
The author, Dr. Punchihewa needs no introduction as a writer. The long inventory of his publications in Sinhala and English including books for children, his literary compositions, fiction, travel accounts and translations from English to Sinhala and vice versa , all numbering around two dozens, which were well received speak for his writing skills.
The strong tradition about Dutugemunu had drawn little support from more reliable historical sources but epigraphists have since brought to light much evidence which gives credence to some aspects of the popular story. The author has brought in this new data to support the traditional account. Dutugemunu himself is identified as Gamini Abhaya of the cave –donor’s inscriptions which record their genealogical background. His father Kavantissa is also identified with ‘Tisa’ who possessed a number of paladins referred to in one inscription. But for some other identifications by Paranavitana like that of ‘Abi Savera’ of an inscription as a reference to Vihara Maha Devi one has to depend on the respect for his great authority and ‘intuition’ than to the validity of the argument. Magama seals with the symbol of a ship could confirm the tradition about sailing tradition in the days of Vihara Maha Devi and the modern day Tsunami about the memory of the great deluge which inundated the Kelaniya kingdom. The book uses some of this evidence. To this evidence one could add the important identification of [Saddha] Tissa in the genealogical references of a number of inscriptions left by his son Lajji Tissa (Lajaka Tisa) found in the Ampara district where according to tradition, both father and son spent much of their time developing that district. (Dighavapi or Digamadulla). That strengthens the chronicler tradition.
The author refers to the several inscriptions of great significance which clearly establish the historicity of Dutugemunu’s paladins, the Dasa Maha Yodhayas. They are not mere legendary men of great prowess of the tradition but Commanders of a professional soldiery who supported Dutugemunu in his enterprise to unite the whole of Sri Lanka. Dr. S. Paranavitana interpreting a cave inscription at Ritigala had asserted that Dutugemunu himself presided over these area Commanders was a great Commander himself. It is in view of this interpretation of Dutugemunu as against the traditional presentation of him in purely legendary heroic characteristics that the author has portrayed him in the book as: "Maha Senapathi Dutugemunu Rajatuma."
The author makes a vital departure from the Mahavamsa tradition which portrays Dutugemunu’s father Kavan Tissa as a weak ruler. This is done by projecting him as laying the foundation for the unification of the scattered settlements in the island through the use of diplomacy and laying the foundation for the bigger battles north of Mahaweli by placing guards at vital strategic points. This is also an aspect that Collin de Silva introduced through his historical-fictional writing. I would have called both Kavantissa and Dutugemunu pioneers who worked towards achieving the ‘Ekachchatra’ (unification and unity) idea in the island which continued till the last days of the Sinhalese kingdom which helped to sustain itself as an independent nation through out history before the final subjugation by the British.
The author agrees with the tradition in portraying Vihara Maha Devi as a courageous and resourceful female who motivated Prince Dutugemunu to unite the country (Ekachchatra) and accompanied him in the war against Elara. However, she disappears suddenly from history after her presence halfway through the war, an aspect to which attention has not been drawn by any writer. The present work too avoids it. Could one find the reason for this in the proposal of a marriage alliance to the Tamil chieftain named Titthamba at a place called ‘Ambatitha’ (crossing ford named Amba)? Mahavamsa refers briefly to the employment of the strategy to entice this Commander by placing ‘the mother in view.’ (mataram dassayitvana tena lesena aggahi=Showed the mother and captured the opponent). That was after a long drawn war with him lasting four months. The Mahavamsa Tika, however, explains this as a matrimonial proposal, i.e., ‘Dutugemunu promising to his adversary marriage with his mother and with it the expectation of government’. (Geiger). ‘He was caught like a fish going after the bait’, the Tika says. At this point of time did the queen –mother decide on a less adventurous settled life style with this adversary with the son’s blessings for the greater security of the rear during the march against Elara? Such a proposition might not please those who hold Vihara Maha Devi in high veneration but this is a reality to which Mahavamsa itself briefly, and Mahavamsa Tika, in more emphasis alert us.
Dutugemunu’s youth is briefly discussed leaving out much of the folk tradition in Kotmale area but the author brings to our attention two cave inscriptions which are considered references to Dutugemunu’s wife, Ran- etana of tradition. The inscriptions refer to ‘Rajika’(Ven.Medhankara)and to ‘Kati" (Paranavitana). These are nothing but surmises which could arouse curiosity more than support the tradition. Like other works this book too does not inquire into this aspect.
It is interesting to note that Dutugemunu crowned himself (sayam rajje ‘bhsecayi") after returning to Magama from exile. This is another point that has evaded scrutiny of writers on Dutugemunu including the present writer. Was the Prince facing a problem because there was no queen of equal birth to be anointed with him? Did he then like Napoleon crown himself at Magama without ceremony? Though the king’s [second] consecration at Anuradhapura is mentioned in the Mahavamsa the name of the consecrated queen is conspicuous by its absence. The curiosity arises not because the names of queens are mentioned on other occasions of consecration but because the chronicle makes out the king’s consecration was carried out with great pomp with attendant festival customs.(kilam abhisittanam carittam canurakkhtum). The consecration could not have taken place with an ordinary woman as queen. That was against the tradition Mahavamsa was upholding. Did this absence of any reference to the anointed queen then present the occasion for folk writers to compile the story of ‘Dutugemunu rajatuma ha Naga kanyawo describing the king’s amourous behavior towards the Naga maidens; and the king’s envious remarks about son Prince Saliya’s choice of a beautiful woman as his spouse albeit a Chandali ?
The author does not leave out the folk tradition about the king’s death by a cobra bite though he does not discuss the story referred to above about ‘Naga-kanya’ which is behind the folk story of the king’s death. That folk tradition is not compatible with the character of Dutugemunu that Mahavamsa presents; but like the love affair with Ran-etana, the daughter of the village smith which the chronicle has avoided, it reveals a human side of this ruler. As any virile man might have been tempted, he too was, perhaps, tempted by the beauty of the three Naga maidens bathing in his pond (their diyaredda sticking to the body?). The other folk account of his encounter with the Chandali daughter-in-law when he said to the Prince that he himself would not have hesitated to make such a choice also brings out the human side of the king. To me these three folk traditions (two found in the form of written manuscripts) present a truly human situation of a ruler which deserves sympathetic understanding. Neither pouring scorn nor trying to hide them under the cloak of high moral rectitude could help a fair evaluation. If the Arahants could speak of redemption for the king over the death of multitudes in war by virtue of the his destiny to achieve Arahathood in the time of Maitriya Buddha why did these lesser circumstances become unacceptable to the chronicler tradition?
The book also points to the close relationship between the Prince and the elephant Kandula who accompanied him throughout the war since he came over to him during the battle of the two brothers. I recall during a discussion of the French translation of Collin De Silva’s book "Winds of the Sinhale" presided by me in Paris, the lady translator explained to the audience that one of the reasons for her getting interested in the book was the relationship between man and beast. (the Prince and the Elephant in this case).
The account of King Elara is briefly discussed highlighting both the version of his justice as well as the later version in Rajavaliya which places him in negative light. However, the point made in Rajavaliya that Kavantissa paid tribute to Elara has drawn the attention of the author. He tries to explain this by quoting from Manorathapurani where Dighahajantu, Elara’s commander is referred to have gone to worship Samantakuta which is in Rohana country. The author suggests that there could have been some amicable relationship between Elara and Kavantissa. Later, in the 14th century one finds Ariyacakravrti, the Jaffna ruler helping Ibn Batuta with an escort to accompany him to Adam’s Peak. The Rajavaliya account could be drawing from this latter day reality of the Jaffna ruler exacting toll in the Sinhalese kingdom.
The story of Elara belongs to the common pool of mariner’s tales in West Asia and South Asia. It was present in Persia in the story of the legendary hero Anosharvan complete with the bell of justice and the story of the cow and the bird long before Sri Lanka was colonized around the 5th century B.C. and is part of the popular tradition even in present day Islamic society. I commented on this point through my newspaper articles after I learnt of this strong tradition during my stay in Iran. India too has its own versions. Dr. Merlin Peris has brought out other similarities between Mahavamsa and Greek legends.
The author focuses attention on the character of Dutugemunu in the episode of ‘Vittaka’ (remorse?) over the death of large numbers in the war. The Mahavamsa version of discounting the number of deaths to one and half is a curious one. Gananath Obeysekera pointed out that the Mahavamsa compiler had been influenced by the morals in Bhagavatgita. The present book points to different versions given in Thupavamsa and Sumangala vilasini on the issue. The author also draws a distinction between the situation of Emperor Asoka’s repentance and Dutugemunu’s ‘vitakka.’ (doubt).He says quite rightly that Dutugemunu knew from the beginning that people would die in the war but the war was executed with the objective of uniting Sri Lanka and to confirm the stability of the Buddha Sasana in the country. He also shows that the Commanders who fought in the war were well rewarded by the king. The inference is there did not exist a circumstances for the king to worry over the deaths.
The penultimate two themes are devoted to the religious work performed by the king. The construction of Mahathupa has received emphasis. The last discussion is an over all assessment of the role of the ruler in the history of the island.
The significance of Dr.Punchihewa’s present work lies in the fact that he has been able to overcome prejudices found in some of the earlier writings like presenting an overtly Buddhist perspective. He has presented to school students and the general readers a book which all Sri Lankans could accept as a balanced piece of writing. If Ponnambalam Arunachalam could appreciate the chronicler version of Dutugemunu why should the story be hidden from the new generations?
The book deserves to be in every library and school as well as to be pursued by general readers.
Published by Sarasavi Printers Ltd. the book is moderately priced.