King Swarnamali the Great | Sunday Observer

King Swarnamali the Great

8 August, 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 disgraced Prince Gemunu during his self-imposed exile.



Overwhelmed by pain, he tried to remember everything from beginning to end. He had, he told himself, done his best in numerous ways to veer his father away from the erroneous path he had chosen. Wasn’t it after all these efforts had failed that he had been compelled to do that vile act her had done the previous day, he asked himself.

He had told his mother several times that his father’s decisions were wrong. Finally he stopped discussing the matter with her. As for his younger brother he known for a long time that it was more profitable to rub his own face on a rock. If their father had so wished Tissa would have joined forces even with the Tamils.

Father no longer concerned himself with preparations for war. His attention was focused instead on other maters. He had already launched a project to expand the city of Magama. Work on making the Tissamaharama Dagoba even larger had been commenced the previous year. In the meantime new temples and dagobas were being built all over Ruhuna. If this was not enough, he had started on the construction of a royal palace at the beginning of this year.

His first act

His first act after ascending the throne was not to build himself a palace but to commission the construction of a hostel for students in the military school equipped with all necessary facilities. Skilled fighters from all over the country honed their skills at this school under the supervision of the ten great commanders. Similar training facilities had been founded in many locations in Ruhuna. The plan had been that under the stewardship of the ten great commanders ten facilities like the one at Magampura would be set up by that year. If this was not done, how else could the fighters in the hundreds of rudimentary training schools in the villages be subjected to a systematic training schedule? Without such training how could Elara be defeated? This program seemed to have been shelved now.

What a silly speech had his father made that day after annexing Seruvanuwara to the Ruhuna Kingdom? ‘I am now more powerful than Elara. I control two-thirds of the country, he has just a third. I am no longer a lesser king.’

His foolishness didn’t stop there. Wasn’t the sudden decision to build himself a new palace prompted by a need to outdo Elara’s palace in terms of grandeur? When he saw King Kavantissa inspect the work on the palace and the expansion of Magampura, it was a sense of disenchantment regarding his father that took root within Gemunu.

It had all come to a head the previous day. A grand consecration ceremony had been planned at the new palace in the now expanded city. What upset Prince Gemunu was not so much any of this but the fact that he could not bring himself to believe that his father honestly believed in these things. He didn’t think that a wise king like his father could ever engage in these clownish acts. He was fully aware that all these acts were meaningless, wasn’t he?

The ceremony to discard the small and rather inconspicuous crown with a new one especially made for the occasion and declare himself the overlord of the entire country after the new palace was opened was to happen today. Prince Gemunu had pleaded with the king to abandon these silly ceremonies.

Silly women

The king was adamant that he will have his way. Isn’t it silly women whose wisdom was no lengthier than a ladle who would be persuaded to be this indulgent in this way? Wasn’t it because he could no longer live in that household as though without eyes and ears that he had placed a set of women’s ornaments by the new crown t with a note suggesting that King Kavantissa wear these along with the crown? And yet, was he justified in thinking these thoughts about his father?

Kavanthissa wasn’t born as the son of a powerful king. The entire island was for all intents and purposes under Elara’s rule. Elara’s soldiers would according to whim and fancy march into villages and plunder the lands and temples. Kavantissa was around fifteen years old when he, together with others his age, attacked one such gang.

It was Kavantissa’s keen strategic thinking that enabled them to slaughter that group which consisted of around fifty men. In the guise of leading them to a rich treasure trove, they had been lured deep into the jungle. Kavantissa’s group had been waiting for them. None of them escaped the assault. Those brigands would not have anticipated any such attack, used as they were to the Sinhalese shrinking in fear whenever they set their eyes upon them. This is why they ventured into the forest without an iota of suspicion.

Such groups, in fact, operated without the knowledge of Elara. They were only motivated to plunder and take back home to the Southern part of the India something extra, something more than the average soldier could obtain. They weren’t soldiers but relatives or friends of Elara’s men. They were not well trained fighters. However, it was a period when due to the power wielded by Elara a Sinhalese would fear even a scarecrow with a Tamil name. In any event, the brigandry of such people, although unbeknownst to him, indirectly helped Elara keep Ruhuna fearful and subdued.

After this attack, there was a marked drop in the operations of such groups and Ruhuna could once again lift its head. People organised themselves in villages to meet and defeat such ill-intentioned marauders. Kavantissa was able to establish armed outposts and make the boundaries of Ruhuna impervious to such adventurers. Thus was created the conditions for people to engage in their farming activities peacefully.

Kavantissa had to sacrifice his entire youth for all this. In fact it was when he was around forty years of age that he was recognised as the principal ruler of Ruhuna. This too was made possible by the fortuitous fact that Princess Devi was brave enough to row a boat all by herself along the Kelani River and that the untamable waters had taken it out to sea only to make land several days later in Kirinda. Since Princess Devi belonged to the dynastic line of the Kelani, Tissa’s right to be the supreme king of Ruhuna was further strengthened.

Therefore, Prince Gemunu was born essentially as the son of an aging king. How could a king weakened with the inevitable ravages of time take on Elara? His father was not at an age where he could lead an army to battle. He had however wanted to be the ruler of the entire Sirilaka and not have his power limited to Ruhuna. He had fought his way to subdue all kingdoms except for Anuradhapura.

How could it be wrong for his father, who had until this time enjoyed few if any royal comforts but had relentlessly devoted all his strength to win independence for the nation, to seek some rudimentary joys appropriate for a general if not a king? Wasn’t it because she knew how exhausted he was from spending an entire lifetime fighting that his mother was silent in the face of her husband’s recently acquired interest in pomp and pageantry?

And yet, should a man as great as his father fall so low? Doesn’t his father know even better than he did that it was all make believe and that there was no true happiness to be found in such comforts? Isn’t it only an unbeliever and a ruffian who could consent to consecration in Mahampura when the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhi was under the siege of heretics?

His father should not fall so low. Wasn’t his struggle to prevent the noble father he had known from the time he was a child from such a fate justified? If his father was no hero, then this act would be wrong. Was it not in order to protect his father’s heroic stature that he had been compelled to make that extremely difficult decision? Wasn’t he, even now, totally devoted to protecting his father’s reputation?

Massive tear drops

At this point Prince Gemunu felt massive tear drops seep into his eyes, hurting his eyelashes. It was as though he was being drowned by a sudden, cold and immense body of water. He thought to himself that his father and he could never reconcile their difference and that his father would never see him again. His father could not look him in the eye and neither could he look his father in his eye. That amazing paradise belonged to the past. That affectionate nest could no longer exist. The entire world had been shattered. Memories of his childhood associated with his father belonged to a distant past. They could not be resurrected again.

His father was not only an exceptionally skilled swordsman, he was a powerful swimmer as well. Prince Gemunu recalled that nevertheless his father had only taught him to swim and dive but had not shown any interest in teaching him how to use a sword.

From the time he was a young man, King Kavantissa had an insatiable drive when coming upon a reservoir to swim to the bank at the other end and swim back. As a young man he would eagerly await the flooding of the Menik River because he knew that it was only during such periods that the sweeping waters could offer a challenge to his swimming skills. In this sense he was a perfect match to Gemunu’s mother. Gemunu remembered how his father would swim under water, float upon his back, perform somersaults that would generate a splash so loud that it would echo in the farthest end of the reservoir and in these and other ways strived to entertain him. He could see vividly how Tissa and he would play with their father, clinging to him like two small fishes.

Gemunu remembered once again that his father who had taught him to swim, somersault, move under the surface and other such tricks had been reluctant to teach him swordsmanship. Whereas the children of other relatives and friends learned the use of the sword, there was no occasion for Gemunu to do so. The reason was that his father had not been keen on finding an auspicious moment to place a sword in his hands after getting Gemunu’s horoscope. He realised that his was a father who had been reluctant to give his own son a sword from his own hands.

It was his mother who attended to this, finding an auspicious time for him to begin learning the art of wielding a sword. His father had not objected, but had never come to observe him train. He recalled that his father, who was a keen observer of how students picked up and honed skills at that training facility, had deliberately avoided the facility when he had his training sessions. He once overheard his instructor informing the king in the royal court that he, Gemunu, was the most skilled swordsman in the school. Gemunu realised that it was a few days after this that his father had sought to obtain a promise from him that he would not go to war with the Dravidians.

All that was over now. He had become a traitor worse than even Elara. He could not go back to his father. The army was without a leader. He would have to watch from the jungles how within a couple of years everything that had been built over forty to fifty years would be destroyed, all on account of his absence. Could there be a traitor worse than himself?

‘Dushta Gamini…’ the name came to his lips involuntarily. Thereafter, the only joy he could feel was when he could utter than name in thought when there was someone nearby, whisper it if there was no one around and shout it out for the entire world to hear when he was all alone in the middle of a jungle or a vast valley with no one in sight.