King Swarnamali the Great | Sunday Observer

King Swarnamali the Great

25 July, 2021

Making a genuine effort to bring an unimagined and unexplored treasure trove of modern Sinhala literature to the English reading community, Montage is bringing 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.

Chapter 1

The endless sky resting upon the vast plains of Ruhuna was not visible because dawn was yet to arrive. Anyone resident in that darkness could very well conclude that the entire world had collapsed. Nevertheless, the hoof sounds made by a horse piercing the night confirmed that the world had not shrunk and spoke too of its limitless dimensions.

The rider did not perceive the darkness. He could not understand that the only evidence of this journey was the sound of the hoofs. For him everything before him and around him was filled with light.

He felt that the movement of the entire universe and not just the horse. He realised that in this shaking, trembling and moving world there was no succor whatsoever for him. Unconsciously he spurred the horse to run even faster and the beast moved as though it believed that some relief, some reward was close at hand. Nevertheless the increased speed itself insisted that for him there would be no relief.


At times he wanted to dismount and seek something, someone, he didn’t know what or who but would alleviate the sense of helplessness that consumed him. He would instantly remind himself that he would feel even more helpless if he left behind the horse, his only remaining friend.

The very thought moved him to lean forward and throw his arms around the neck of the animal. In that very instant he realised that the pain in his heart had made his arms and hands so taut that it must hurt his steed. The thought that the horse need not suffer on account of his own sorrows surfaced in his mind, was submerged and resurfaced. Once again he became conscious of the trembling, moving and undulating world around him. Nothing pulsated as fast as did his heart, the horseman realised. He felt that although the horse was making speed, it was he, the rider, who was exhausted.

He felt a certain familiarity and ease. He was surprised at how he, who was engulfed in flames, was now in such pleasant surroundings. He suddenly realised that this pleasant feeling had entered him being through his nostrils. Nothing that entered the circles of his eyes could reach his mind for he was filled with that which arose from his heart. However, the world denied access at the doorways of gaze had found entry point at his nostrils.

He was bestowed with sight. He noticed that the dawn was breaking through the darkness and that he was riding upon the dam of a reservoir. With this, though, the relief that had entered through his nostrils became transformed into a mighty inferno which enveloped him instantly.

He remembered a strange fragrance from the time he was a child walking along a tank bund clinging to his father’s hand. It was a blend of his father’s sweat and that which the wind blew across the water. He remembered how it tickled his nostrils. It occurred to him that he had climbed onto the tank bund holding his father’s hand not to listen to his father’s voice as he related stories about the past or what was happening right then. Nor was it for the rippling waters that pleased the eye or to watch the flock of cormorants flying above the reservoir. It was simply in order to revel in the fragrance of his father’s embrace, he realised.

Having basked in such comforts once upon a time, he could breathe his father’s fragrance while on a tank bund even though he was alone and his father far away. Just as he realised that the familiar feeling and a discernible sense of relief was because the wind that arrived kissing the waters brought the fragrance of his father’s sweat even though he was not with him at that moment, the momentary respite itself was transformed into an even more intense fire that burned him through and through.

He felt that whereas before he had some sense of the pain within, right now it was as though he had ventured into a world where there was no sensation, where nothing belonged to him and he belonged to nothing, no one, and where nothing moved, nothing happened or could happen.

He was able to escape from this benumbed sense of helplessness when he suddenly saw someone standing on the tank bund. He thought that it had to be his father, no one else. Although this was impossible, it is possible for those who are stricken by the worst kind of helplessness to form convictions about the impossible materializing as reality. He felt his heart sink with an enormous heaviness.

The horse had stopped but he could not dismount. He remained that way before the image of his father. That which stood still and ramrod straight, was in fact a bush that was shaped like a man. Had his father, realising what he had done, seeing the author of that act approaching and therefore consumed by shame, hurt and sorrow, turned into a bush?

There was enough light now to distinguish man from bush. There was birdsong in the air. The horseman heard them say ‘son…son…’ and that’s all. He heard nothing else.

What could have been his father’s reaction to what he had done? His father’s heart was even more brittle than that of his mother. When they were small, if either he or his brother fell ill, their father’s face would overflow with kindness like the light of the full moon on a clear night. A single word of affection when he was lying on the bed would immediately cure him of all illnesses, he remembered.

Such was his tenderness, but he was not one to let this detract even an iota from his regality. His mother was an extremely brave woman but he had never once seen her look his father straight in the eye. That privilege was his and his alone. The horseman remembered that it was he alone who could, even from some corner look upon his father’s face when he was angered. When he frowned upon even a loyal member of the Royal Court, his little brother would immediately break into sobs.

He remembered that there was nothing as entertaining as seeing someone’s face turn black like a burnt roti when speared by a look of anger from the king. He would recall these faces later and roll around in laughter, he remembered. How would such a father look upon this act of his?


He felt that the entire world had congealed all of a sudden. Everything was still. Nothing moved. Everything came to a standstill, as though resolved that never again would they know movement. His body, his limbs were trapped with an immense weight. This was how it was within. It was so without as well. His eyelids did not move. Gemunu, wracked with a sudden fear, shouted out…’Amme… Amme…’ The horse stopped at the sound. The horseman dismounted, and at the foot of a near by tree sat down and wept.

Once his eyes were completely washed with tears, he saw that there was light all around now. As though to inform him that there’s no further journey for him the rising sun had captured the Eastern sky. Gemunu realised that he was no longer a prince but an ordinary citizen, that he was less a citizen but a vile traitor. The well trodden roadways would no longer welcome him. He no longer had the right to travel upon a horse on these roads as the king’s elder son. He turned his horse into a jungle pathway.