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Looking anew at Kandyan combat strategies

Kandy at War

Author: Dr. Channa Wickremesekera
Reviewed by Batty Weerakoon

Kandy at War by Dr. Channa Wickremesekera with its sub-title 'Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka 1594 - 1818' is a creditable achievement in the field of research as it relates to the history of the Kandyan kingdom. It is a definitive contribution in an area of our history that has not had the benefit of in-depth research. We have remained satisfied with citing the invader's accounts of our military capacity without, except in a rare instance or two, seeking to correct the obvious/bias or prejudice in such accounts. This is especially so with the Portuguese material on this subject as on several other issues too.

Dr. Wickremesekera in his history focuses on the Kandyan military establishment and its functioning in the face of the successive attempts by the Portuguese, Dutch and English to defeat indigenous resistance to foreign occupation. The military machine itself was no more than the means of politically mobilizing the people against an enemy. There is therefore understandably a political dimension too to the subject.

The main political factor was the king and his acceptability to the Buddhist establishment which was the link between the king and the people.

The Hill country or the 'Kanda Uda Rata' was the one region in the country which in the 14th century coped with an Aryachakravarti invasion from the north by mobilizing an army without the mediation of a king. The army so mobilized chose its king - Senasammata Vikramabahu. The core of this army was the militias of the clans that had settled in principally the Matale and Dumbara regions.

They had been subject to an invasion by a Jyoti sitano who had led an army of Aryachakravarti in order to establish here a system of tax collection through a zaminadari system.

The Bandaravaliya that Jyoti inducted to the region assimilated with the clans and constituted the ruling class of the region. It rebelled against Aryachakravarti and it is in the resulting invasion by Chakravarti that Senasammata Vikramabahu won his spurs.

These are alternative versions of events in the region that have not as yet been recognized by 'conventional' history. I mention these matters in order to be mindful of the fact that the Kandyan army had traditions which it did not share with armies elsewhere in the country.

The concept 'Senasammata' in relation to a ruler breaks the bounds of carefully maintained dynastic traditions - even those of a spurious nature - and asserts the power a ruler has over a people by virtue of his command over a readily available army.

Dr. Wickremesekera has carefully abstracted his subject from its political dimension presumably to gain focus on his closely defined project. He operates with the basic concept of a 'frontier' which as in the case of the American colonists is what had been pushed back with further settler expansion into Indian territory.

The Portuguese had pushed back its frontier across the Four Korales and right up to the foot hills of the Kandyan kingdom.

In 1594 which is the year from which Dr. Wickremesekera begins his account is the year that Konappu Bandare - Wimaladharmasuriya as named by the Sangha - became the ruler of the Kandyan kingdom and commenced his drive against the Portuguese.

The concept of 'frontier' is new in these studies.

It is meaningful too and contributes to precision of expression. Dr. Wickremesekere writes, "Across the frontier in the south-west - and occasionally elsewhere as well - Kandy and the Europeans clashed in an attempt to gain advantage over each other. The Kandyans often pushed back the Europeans from the interior, limiting their control to their strongholds. Sometimes the European strongholds in the interior had to be evacuated and the frontier contracted right up to the coast".

This appreciation does not allow for what Dr. Wickremesekera calls the simplistic view that the Kandyans confined themselves to the strategies of guerilla warfare - "avoiding superior force and weakening the enemy until they are weak enough to be overwhelmed".

This no doubt was their main combat strategy and was used as a defensive measure. In almost all occasions when it was used the invader was annihilated on his retreat. But there were the daring offensive attacks too as when "the Portuguese were fortifying the eastern coast and threatening to seal Kandy off from the world in the 1620s the Kandyans launched raids into the Jaffna peninsula and attempted to overthrow the Portuguese rule there with the help of the local population".

Dr. Wickremesekera takes count of all other items too that relate to an army - its mobilization, weaponry and related technology, field preparation as the strengthening or demolition of forts, the erecting of stockades, the cutting of trenches and the movement of military hardware and baggage. This is an intensely researched and very readable publication. It is an excellently arranged handy reference book too.

It engages the sustained attention of the reader and I may add that his skills as a gifted novelist have been of assistance to Dr. Wickremesekera.

He obtained his first degree in History Special and his doctorate from Monash, Australia. I would with some trepidation add that this has saved him from the misplaced 'nationalist' binds and inhibitions of our 'conventional' history of this period.

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