Rise and fall of Seethawaka kingdom
The heritage of Seethawaka
Author: Philip Gunawardena
Visidunu Prakashakayo, Boralesgamuwa
At first I hesitated to review "The heritage of Seethawaka as its
author Philip Gunawardena was more a socialist than a historian. He is
well known as the Father of Marxism in Sri Lanka and the architect of
the Paddy Lands Act.
After reading the book, however, I revised my views about Philip
Gunawardena. He impressed me as a historian who could interpret history
and challenge some of the popular theories. This is a critical comment
on the Seethawaka kingdom and its two illustrious kings Mayadunne and
The original book - Seethawaka Urumaya - has been translated into
English by the former High Court Judge W. T. A. Leslie Fernando.
It has been carefully edited by Indrani Meegama leaving no room for
inaccuracies and typographical errors.
History tells us that Seethawaka emerged as an independent kingdom in
the 16th century. Its formidable rulers Mayadunne and Rajasinghe had the
immense responsibility of facing the Portuguese who were gradually
establishing their dominance in trade with the East. When the king of
Kotte welcomed the Portuguese, Muslim traders were the first to protest
against their presence. Unlike the Muslims, the Portuguese were armed
traders who also propagaged Christianity through missionaries.
The policy of King Vijayabahu of Kotte regarding the succession to
the throne and his attitude towards the Portuguese were resented by his
three sons. Bhuvanekabahu, Raigam Bandara, and Mayadunne.
In 1521, the "Kotte kingdom was divided into three small areas: Kotte,
Raigama, and Seethawaka. Mayadunne became the king of Seethawaka.
Historians in the past had depicted Mayadunne as a power-hungry ruler
who instigated the killing of his brother - Bhuvanekabahu. However, the
author disputes his view and says that there was no need for him to do
so. In fact, even after crushing the rebellion of Prince Weerasuriya and
General Manamperi, Mayadunne did not want to annex Kotte to his kingdom.
After defeating the Portuguese in the battle of Mulleriyawa,
Mayadunne entrusted the kingdom to his son Tikiri Bandara who later
became king Rajasingha, Mayadunne died in 1581 at the age of 83.
Both Mayadunne and his valiant son Rajasinghe had one definite aim:
to rid the country of the Portuguese invaders.
At times, Mayadunne sought the support of Zamorin of Calicut to
defeat the Portuguese. Rajasinghe too employed Sikhs to train his army.
Although he could not drive the Portuguese away, he succeeded in
annexing the Kandyan kingdom to Seethawaka.
When Rajasinghe died without leaving an heir, the downfall of
By 1592 the great Seethawaka kingdom was no longer in existence.
Although some of the views expressed by the author remain
controversial, the book gives a graphic account of the Seethawaka
kingdom and its rulers. As such, "The Heritage of Seethawaka" will
remain a source book of history, serving students and teachers.
The Great Panadura Debate
The statue of Miggettuwatte Gunananda Thera in Panadura
During the dark era of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British colonial
rule of our beloved motherland, the native Buddhists and Hindus were
crushed between two grind stones, the brutal colonial masters and the
Christian missionary workers, who virtually dominated the island with
the blessings and encouragement of the rulers to accomplish their task
of converting Buddhists and Hindus to Christianity.
The Portuguese invaders led by Don Lorenzo de Almeida arrived in
Colombo on November 15, 1505 and having occupied the maritime provinces,
soon began to propagate the Catholic faith with sword in one hand and
the Bible in the other. The Portuguese invaders who had been described
as the most cruel, inhuman and savage persecutors of Buddhism, were
responsible for the destruction of Buddhist temples, historical
monuments, monasteries, looting of valuable treasures and senseless
Further the Buddhists were forced to change their traditional names
and embrace to Catholic faith if they wished to obtain positions under
their imperialist regime.
After the expulsion of the Portuguese by the Dutch in 1658, it became
apparent that the prime motive of the new colonisers was to promote and
propagate Protestant Christianity of the Dutch Reformed Church and at
the same time to monopolise the much profitable spice and ivory trade.
This has been very clearly described in the book titled "Het Machtige
Eyland Ceylon (The Great Island Ceylon) written by the Dutch missionary
worker Philipus Baldaeus and published in Amsterdam in 1672.
The Dutch rulers enforced tough laws for the Buddhists and Hindus
with regard to matrimony, education and employment. Buddhists who did
not embrace Christianity were forbidden to take up any position or
employment in the government or its agencies and no marriage was legally
registered outside the church while baptism was made mandatory for the
registration of birth. Parish School system introduced by the Dutch
missionaries was seen instrumental in proselytising the non Christians.
The awesome period of Dutch rule ended with the surrender of the
territories to the British in 1796. The victorious forces under Sir
Fredrck North (1798-1805) the first British governor of the territories
soon sent a detachment to the Kandyan province to capture the last King
of Ceylon, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe (1798-1832) and take possession of
the entire Island. The British forces reached Senkadagala on February
18, 1815 and conquered the last stronghold of the nation and vested the
island in the King of England, the Defender of the Faith.
Regaining lost rights
The Kandyan Convention signed on March 2, 1815, between Governor
Robert Brownrigg and the Adigars, Dissaves and the Principal Chiefs of
the Kandyan Province stated: That the religion of the Boodhoo professed
by the chiefs and the inhabitants of the province is declared inviolable
and its rites, ministers and places of worship are to be maintained and
Subsequently the British colonial rulers fully violated the most
significant clauses 5 of the convention. The infringement of the treaty
and betrayal of the Sinhalese, incited the Maha Sangha, national
leaders, the patriotic inhabitants to revolt against the regime to
regain the lost rights of the Buddhists.
However, the national uprising of 1818 was brutally suppressed by the
British forces by burning and destroying paddy fields, cattle,
plantations, property and dwellings of the chiefs and peasants and
slaughtering thousands of innocent inhabitants including Buddhist monks.
Patriotism and Buddhism are but inseperable.
Western imperialists always turned their eyes longingly to the Asian
countries to build a strong Christian empire. A chapel of the Wesleyan
mission was set up in Panadura in the early part of the nineteenth
With the encouragement and assistance from the colonial government
the missionaries enjoyed absolute freedom to propagate Christianity by
opening schools throughout the country for the missionary workers
envisaged that the most effective way to convert Buddhists and Hindus is
through the Church based schools.
Buddhist children attending Christian schools were taught Bible
lessons which were alien to Buddhism. Many pupils eventually embraced
Christianity in later life. During the peak of Christian domination and
the oppression of Buddhists, Reverend David de Silva, a clergyman
attached to the Wesleyan Chapel Panadura, in the Vicinity of the
historic Galkanda Vihare (present Rankoth Vihare) made an adverse
statement against the teachings of the Buddha at a lecture held in the
chapel on June 12, 1873.
His allegations and arguments were refuted by Ven. Migettuwatte
Gunananda Thera at a meeting held at the Galkande Vihare on June 19,
1873. In the meantime Ven. Gunananda, the incumbent of the
Deepaduththaramaya in Kotahena, fought an undaunted battle against the
missionary workers, held more than four thousand public discourses
throughout the country to educate the public and safeguard the Buddhists
from the foreign and local missionary groups.
He had taken part in many verbal battles with the missionary workers
at Waragoda, Udanwita, Gampola and Orugodawatta.
The enraged Protestant missions in the end challenged Ven. Gunananda
Thera to hold an open debate to establish the truth of the faith. The
learned monk accepted the challenge, and the historical debate was fixed
for the 26th and 28th August in 1873 at Dombagahawatta coconut grove in
Panadura, owned by the great philanthropist P. Jeramias Dias.
The sole speaker for the Buddhist delegation was Ven. Migettuwatte (Mohottiwatte)
Gunananda Thera, supported by Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thera,
Ven. Weligama Sumangala Nayaka Thero, Venerable Panadura Gunarathana
Thera, Venerable Waskaduwe Sri Subuti Thera and a few other learned
monks, while the speakers for the joint protestant delegation were Rev.
David de Silva of the Wesleyan mission and Rev. F. S. Sirimanne, a
Catechist of the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.) assisted by a host
of foreign and local theologians.
A Police force of fourteen men and one inspector was on duty at the
premises to maintain law and order. An estimated crowd of ten thousand
people from Panadura and the neighbouring villages of Pasdun korale and
Raigam korale, including one hundred Buddhist monks were present. The
crucial debate commenced at the appointed time of eight in the morning
of Tuesday,August 26, 1873 and ended at five in the evening of August
28. After two days of vigorous battle Ven. Gunananda Thera delivered the
closing speech on the 28th evening and refuted the malicious charges
made against the teachings of the Buddha and thereby won the day for the
Buddhists. It is worthwhile quoting here a few statements made by
Christian clergyman before and after the great debate.
"James de Alwis, Sinhala scholar, lawyer and theologian had said in
1850 that "before the end of that century Buddhism would disappear from
Ceylon". Rev. W.J. Nobel, a British missionary worker of the Methodist
mission had said in 1937, that it is only by evangelism that it can live
and grow, and that is fully understood. The church is strong enough to
go and win Ceylon for Christ."
"The task of the Church in Ceylon will not be finished till the
remaining ninety percent of the population who are not Christians are
converted" Rev. Lakdas de Mel, Assistant Bishop of the Anglican Church
in Ceylon - 1952. Robert Knox (1660-1680) English sailor captured and
held a prisoner in Ceylon was of the opinion that "the Sinhalese people
could never be conquered as long as the Buddhist monks survive".
In striking contrast a complimentary remark had been made by
Professor T. W. Rhyss David (1843-1932) University College London.
"There is no record known to me in the whole of the long history of
Buddhism throughout the many centuries where His followers for such
lengthened periods of any persecution by the Buddhists of the followers
of any faith".
Ten years after the debate the Buddhist Defence Committee was
inaugurated at a meeting held on January 28, 1884 at the Vidyodaya
Pirivena in Maligakande with the objective of safeguarding the interest
of the Buddhists.
Muhandiran A. P. Dharma Gunawardana, Don Carolis Hewavitharana, H. A.
Fernando, Carolis Pujitha Gunawardana were elected as the office-bearers
of the committee while Colonel Henry Steele Olcott served as an honorary
member. Subsequently a sub committee comprising Ven. Miggettuwatte
Gunananda Thera, Ven. Hikkaduwa Sri Sumangala Thera, Don Carolis
Hewavitharana, A.P. Dharma Gunawardana, William de Abrew, Carolis
Pujitha Gunawardana, Charles A. de Silva, N. S. Fernando, Peter de Abrew
and William Fernando was set up to look into the possibility of
designing a prestigious symbol of identity for the Buddhists. The blue,
yellow, red, white and orange coloured flag designed by Carolis Pujitha
Gunawardana was unanimously accepted by the committee as the most
appropriate symbol of identity of the Buddhists.
Through the mediation of the Buddhist Defence Committee, the British
colonial government was urged to restore the Vesak Poya holiday enjoyed
by Buddhists since the time of King Devanampiyatissa until it was
abolished by the Dutch in 1770. The British rulers were compelled to
accede to the demand and as a result Vesak Poya was declared a public
holiday from April 28, 1885 and the Sinhala and Hindu New Year day too
was declared a public holiday on March 27,1885.
Ven. Miggettuwatte Gunananda Thera hoisted the five coloured Buddhist
flag for the first time in Ceylon on the Vesak Poya day of April 28,
1885 at the Deepaduththaramaya Temple in Kotahena. The flag was also
hoisted at the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihare, Hunupitiya Gangaramaya,
Vidyodaya Pirivena and at the headquarters of the Buddhist Theosophical
Society in Colombo.
Meanwhile Anagarika Dharmapala, the saviour of Buddha Gaya Temple had
the honour and privilege of hoisting the Buddhist flag at the Buddha
Gaya temple on the Esala Full Moon Day in 1891.
At the assembly of the World Buddhist Council held in Kandy on May
25, 1950, one hundred and twenty nine foreign delegates representing
twenty-nine countries agreed to the proposal moved by Dr. G. P.
Malalasekara to accept the Lankan Buddhist flag as the symbol of world
The impact of the Panadura debate was so effective that Col. Henry
Steele Olcott, Madam Blavetsky, Anagarika Dharmapala and many other
dignitaries visited this historical site in Panadura, the stronghold of
It is almost 137 years since the world renowned debate was held but
no steps had been taken to develop and protect this heritage site.
Statesmen, politicians, national leaders and Buddhist institutions have
not paid due attention presumably due to lack of knowledge or
unawareness of the significance of the great Panadura debate.
To lessen the disappointment, the Department of Public Trustee in
collaboration with the Panadura Bhauddha Maha Sanagamaya and the present
owner of the block of land donated by Mrs. P. Roslind Rodrigo, daughter
of P. Jeramias Dias have taken steps to erect a memorial hall to
commemorate the noble event and pay homage to Ven. Gunananda Thera.
The project is expected to be completed to coincide with the 2600
year of Samma Sambuddthawa Jayanthi in 2011, two thousand six hundred
years after the attainment of Enlightenment of Gautama Buddha.
The Buddhathwa Jayanthi Secretariat established under the Ministry of
Religious Affairs and Moral Uplift has identified a twenty point action
plan to be implemented in view of the Jayanthi celebrations and under
the proposed plan priority has been given to the restoration of
neglected heritage sites.
The Panadura Bhauddha Maha Sangamaya appeals to the authorities of
the Jayanthi Secretariat to pay attention to this worthy cause and
extend co-operation to fulfil the noble task.
Buddhist philanthropists, individuals and institutions willing to
share in this meritorious act may send their financial contributions,
big or small to the Public Trustee, Dept. of Public Trustee, 2, Bullers
Lane, Bauddhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 7 or remit to Account Number 2323296
(Gunananda Fund) maintained by the Public Trustee at Bank of Ceylon,
Independent Square Branch, Colombo 7.
(The writer is the President of the Panadura Bauddha Maha