King Swarnamali, the Great | Sunday Observer

King Swarnamali, the Great

24 October, 2021

Making a genuine effort to bring an unimagined and unexplored treasure trove of modern Sinhala literature to the English reading community, Montage brings Udayasiri Wickramaratne’s debut novel Swarnamali Maha Raja translated by Malinda Seneviratne, veteran journalist, writer and poet.

Swarnamali Maha Raja (King Swarnamali the Great), is an imaginative journey with the disgraced Price Gemunu during his self-imposed exile.


Gemunu was informed that King Elara had mounted his mountain-like tusker, Parvatha, and was making his way towards him. Elara had been compelled to embark on a suicidal mission the kind of which Gemunu had almost undertaken in that other time. His father’s wisdom and patience alone had saved him. Gemunu sat perfectly still upon Kandula, full of endless love and respect for his father.

King Elara had spurred his mount and was cleaving through Prince Gemunu’s army. The fighting men let him through, as instructed by Prince Gemunu. Not seeing the prince, King Elara wondered if he, having heard of his approach, had fled back towards Ruhuna. Just then Prince Gemunu emerged and rode straight towards King Elara. Seeing Prince Gemunu and the tusker Kandula, King Elararealised that he was about to perform his final royal act.

The composure or else the agitation of the rider is easily displayed by the way in which the tusker moved. Observing Kandula’s gait, King Elara concluded that there wasn’t an iota of fear or hesitation on the part of Gemunu. This didn’t causer Elara to fret, not in the least. However, the slothful sense that impending defeat engendered spread throughout his entire being. The moment the rider mounts, the tusker’s mind comes to a stop.

The tusker senses the thoughts of the rider and moves into action accordingly. Parvatha, noting the rider’s sudden sloth, slowed down. Parvatha became hesitant. The king was able to comprehend the thoughts that had risen within him only when he noted the change in Parvatha’s gait. The final royal act needed to be executed in a heroic manner. It would be unbecoming for the statesmanship of forty four years to be compromised even for a single moment. He spurred his tusker onwards. The tusker once again recovered composure and began to move forward with the sense of purpose that had for a moment deserted him. The crown was not something that would be gifted to him, it was something that Prince Gamunu had to win. King Elara now stood directly facing Prince Gemunu.

Gemunu felt that his father, King Kavantissa, was by his side, with him in fact.

‘O Great King Elara, this is the final occasion when you will be addressed a Maha Raja upon this earth.’

‘How dare this boy address me thus?’ Elara wondered, instantly angered.

When Elara realised that it was not Gemunu but King Kavantissa, burdened even by the death that he had not yet secured ownership over, it was too late. The spear did not seek Prince Gemunu. The next moment, the spear that Gemunu held with an absolutely steady hand sought out that angered heart.

The great tusker Parvatha realised that King Elara would slip away and fall the next moment. The great tusker Parvatha immediately knelt down to lessen the weariness of that body.

Saluting King Elara

Kandula had no thought of charging and attacking the tusker now kneeling before Prince Gemunu. Prince Gemunu dismounted, took off his crown and saluted King Elara. He gave instructions that the funeral should be conducted with the highest possible honours. It was an honourable death. His victory was honourable too. Prince Gemunu realised that everything had transpired thus only because he was the son of King Kavantissa. Seeking out his mother, the Queen Vihara Maha Devi, Prince Gemunu fell on his knees and worshipped her.

That evening, in the midst of an enormous crowd of people, King Elara was cremated. The supreme rule of the land, King Dutugemunu, immediately declared that everyone passing the grave of King Elara must dismount, that no trumpets or any other noise would be permitted. Thus should the great king be honoured, he declared.

King Elara had to travel along the pathway to defeat simply because Gemunu’s father, King Kavantissa was never consumed by a desire to triumph. King Kavantissa allowed King Elara to remain as the supreme ruler. And yet he was able to engineer things so that the greatness of rule declined. An astute ruler though he was, Elara simply could not find a way to avoid the inevitable. He could be an observer, nothing more.

Kavantissa had choreographed an enactment which only the Sinhala people of the island was capable of and one in which King Elara simply had no role in, one in which he just could not participate. The only way would have been for him to become a Sinhala person himself, but that wasn’t possible either. All that he could do is witness the drama as the supreme ruler. It was an enactment that was unfolding before him and in which he was absent.

King Kavatissa did not execute grand designs. His pursuits were seemingly trivial. Sometimes they even looked quite silly. On one occasion, he offered alms to onehundred of the MahaSangha and from the food that remained, made three balls of rice. The first he offered the brothers Gemunu and Tissa, but only if they pledged they would not consumed food unless it was first offered to the MahaSangha. The second was offered if they promised not to fight one another. The third was upon the promise that they would never go to war with the Dravidians.

The mighty fortress that stood against King Elara was made of these kinds of acts. As a result, all the efforts of King Elara’s intelligence operatives to cause friction between the Maha Sangha and Prince Gemunu and within the MahaSangha itself, failed. His agents were initially successful in their efforts to cause a rift between the two brothers after King Kavantissa’s demise, but it was the memory of the rice-pledge, which he just could not forget, that persuaded Prince Tissa to seek forgiveness from Prince Gemunu. It was because the Maha Sangha bore witness to the promise made that day.

Gemunu refused to promise not to quarrel with King Elara because he felt this would be a scar on his character, his courage. Nevertheless he did understand later the true meaning of refusing to declare war on King Elara. In other words, that he would not wage battle; that he must wait until all relevant conditions mature and let the war come to him; that he must be patient until that moment arrived and that he would not on his own initiative march on King Elara.

Crown of the entire land

Isn’t this what really transpired? When King Elara’s reign ended, was it the beginning of King Kavantissa’s era? King Kavantissa did not want ownership to such an era, such a reign. He wanted to rebirth the epoch of the Sinala people. King Kavantissa died, but the time of the Sinhala people arrived. It happened under Prince Gemunu’s watch.

And by that time, Prince Gemunu had fully understood his father. If there was one king who had suppressed his own desires on behalf of the spirit or essence of a people, a race, was it not King Kavantissa? Gemunu bore the crown of the entire land with utmost ease. His eyes became moist. They were tears of happiness. The Great King Dutugemunu remembered the grandmother who, like his father the King, had taught him how to eat kiribath. With utmost calmness of gaze he surveyed the world around him.

Gemunu saw how the Sinhala Buddhist markers of Anuradhapura had gradually been subject to decay under forty years of King Elara’s rule. Elara did what he had to do. He was determined to make Anuradhapura safe for his children and his bloodline after them. One street was practically owned by brahmins. There were some kovils being constructed. More significant was the fact that the brahmins had got involved in the affairs of the viharastana. Gemunu realised that his battle was not over until all these signs were erased and the markers of true heritage once again returned to Anuradhapura, until that moment when he himself would not see it as some foreign city, something he was not a part of or belonged to. Magama was his village, but it was not the capital of the country. Gemunu understood that Anuradhapura should be transformed to a point where any Sinhala person entering the city would feel that he or she was entering his or her capital. It should be the capital of the entire population. It should be the village of all Sinhala people living on the island. If not, would there be any meaning that could be associated with the death of King Elara?

That night, as he slept, an angel came to meet him. Gemunu could not believe the form that he encountered. It seemed to be an angel simply because it was a woman’s jewellery that adorned the form, because the neckless was made of gold. Wasn’t all this the jewellery he had gifted his father? The figure which appeared to be an angel spoke thus to Prince Gemunu: ‘Son, I may be wearing a woman’s adornments, but I am no Swarnamali; I am your father, the king.’

Carrying the foundation stone of the Great Swarnamali Chaityaya, the Great King Dutugemunu thought that his entire life so far had been nothing more than an exercise. Without having to expend an iota of effort he felt some unseen force taking that stone and laying it on the ground. As his touched the great earth, he felt the warmness of paternity seep into his being through his fingertips.