Galgodiyana Island and the Thai Prince | Sunday Observer

Galgodiyana Island and the Thai Prince

22 August, 2021

Galgodiyana is a small island near the Polhena beach in Matara in the Southern Province.

Earlier, the island is said to have been used by villagers to dispose of snakes and corpses, and a prince of the Thai royal family who later came to Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was known then and became a bhikkhu, chose this island as his home. This is the story of this wonderful island and the prince of the Thai royal family that was associated with it.

From the village of Paramulla in the Matara District, anyone who wishes to visit this island should travel by boat. Certain studies about the island’s history reveals that in 1766, when a foreigner named Van Doser mapped the southern coast of Ceylon, a land near the coast was named “Galgodiyana”.

However, sources claim that the said land became an island many years later due to prolonged sea erosion. Prior to 1900, it was an isolated island and was used by villagers at the time to release snakes and to dispose of corpses.

Prince Prisdan Chumsai

Born on February 23, 1851, the grandson of King Nankalao III of Thailand, Prince Prisdan Chumsai’s father was Prince Khun Rajsihavikrom and mother was Mom Noi Ayi.

Prince Prisdan, a cousin of King Rama the Fourth, who later became King of Thailand, was also a nephew of King Rama the Fifth (Chulalankorn) (1868-1910). Being a member of the royal family, Prince Prisdan had the privilege of pursuing an education in another country, first receiving his primary education in Singapore and then leaving for Great Britain in 1871 to pursue higher education.

There he joined King’s College, a well-known institution of higher learning in Great Britain, where he passed his examinations with distinction and received a degree in engineering in 1876, with special prizes.

Accordingly, Prince Prisdan was fortunate to be the first Siamese to graduate from a European university.

He established the first permanent Siamese embassy in England in 1881, and within the next five years he established diplomatic relations with eleven European countries and the United States and also served as Thai Ambassador to those countries.

As Thai Ambassador to Europe, he focused on using the support of foreign countries for the betterment of his country, and as a result, he amended the agreements reached with the British Government in 1855, thereby enabling the establishment of postal and telecommunications services in Thailand. He was also a pioneer in gaining membership in the Universal Postal Union.

Ordination of Prince Prisdan

By this time the Buddhist movement in Ceylon had received a new lease of life and in 1886 Prince Prisdan came to Ceylon to meet Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, a pioneer of the Buddhist revival.

On his way to Great Britain, the Prince visited Ceylon and expressed his admiration for Gunananda Thera for the latter’s contribution to the Buddhist revival in the country.

During this time, Prince Prisdan presented a new draft constitution and resolution aimed at preserving Thailand’s independent political power, and in 1886, King Chulalankorn resigned and ordered Prince Prisdan to return to Thailand.

Upon his return to Thailand, he was appointed Director General of the Department of Posts and Telecommunications.

In 1890, Prince Prisdan was unexpectedly charged with allegations to overthrow the throne while carrying out his duties with dedication and as a result, he left the country for India.

When he returned to Ceylon in 1896, hoping to be ordained after spending some time in India, it had been about six years since the death of Gunananda Thera.

Therefore, on November, 5, 1896, at the Waskaduwa Abhinavaramaya, Prince Prisdan Chumsadi became a bhikkhu under the guidance of the late Waskaduwe Sri Subhuthi Mahanayake Thera, who was the then Mahanayake of the Amarapura Siri Saddhammawansa Maha Nikaya. Thereafter he was known as Jinawarawansa and people used to call him by the name ‘Siyam Kumara Thera’ in his honour.

Galgodiyana Island

In 1900, Jinawarawansa Thera arrived at the Galgodiyana Island with the hope of spending an isolated life and as mentioned earlier, by that time the island was used by the villagers for the release of venomous snakes and for the disposal of corpses.

The Thera is said to have used the environment there to promote Vipassana meditation. Later, the island was dedicated to him by the villagers who were impressed by his clerical life.

In honour of King Chulalankorn of Thailand who was at loggerheads with him at that time, Jinawarawansa Thera named the island “Chula Lanka”. The bhikkhu also built a Thai style dagoba on the island and a hut using granite. According to the villagers, he also built a road leading from the island to the land, using granite.

Another bhikkhu who lived on the island with Jinawarawansa Thera from 1905 to 1906 was Gnanatiloka Thera of Germany. He later became a world renowned monk and established the Dodamduwa Polgasduwa monastery.

According to sources, they had lived in huts with thatched roofs and later, Franz Burgundal, the son of a wealthy Dutch merchant, and Fritz Stang, a German, came to the island and begged to be ordained.

Accordingly, Franz was ordained as ‘Sungnga’ and Fritz as ‘Sumana’. The biography of Gnanathiloka Thera states that the ordination ceremony of the duo was held in a grand manner.

In 1906, Gnanathiloka Thera travelled to Germany to visit his parents, and Sumana Thera also went back to Germany to receive some treatment. It is said that Sungnga Thera also later left the island.

Later, at the request of Subhuthi Thera, Jinawarawansa Thera took up the post of Chief Incumbent of the Deepaduttharamaya in Kotahena and in 1911, Gnanathiloka ordained Ludwig Stogg as ‘Vappa’, who later lived there as a permanent bhikku in the Galgodiyana island.

However, during the First World War, the island of Galgodiyana was besieged and Wappa Thera was arrested for allegedly providing war intelligence, after which the island became depopulated.

Meanwhile, in 1911, Jinawarawansa Thera left for Thailand to attend the funeral of King Chulalankorn, and was forced to rejoin the Thai royal family. It is said that the then King of Thailand prevented Jinawarawansa Thera from returning to Ceylon.

Prince Prisdan, who once lived in Thailand as well as in Japan, died on March 16, 1935 in Bangkok.

Current situation

Archaeological monuments on the island were severely damaged during the December 26, 2004 tsunami disaster. The Thai- style dagoba on the island is now in the danger and it is the responsibility of all of us to protect this island, which is of great natural beauty, also as it is a perfect example of Thai-Lanka relations.