King Swarnamali, the Great | Sunday Observer

King Swarnamali, the Great

10 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.

The Chaityaya at Tissamaharama was a veritable lamp that shone upon the entire Ruhuna. In fact, along with the now completed viharageya, it made one imagine Tissamahara as a miniature version of Anuradhapura. King Kavantissa had expended much effort to develop the city, its streets and market places. The palace as well as the council hall had been made bigger and more ornate. Prince Gemunu saw all this as wasteful. It was a moment, was it not, to go to battle instead of adding such frills?

Wasn’t his entire effort to rebuild Tissamaharama an exercise in obtaining the knowledge necessary to redesign Anuradhapura after defeating Elara? Moreover, developing Tissamaharama into a fully fledged city spurred by a need to bolster the self-confidence of the people in Ruhuna and to dispel the fear that had taken root among them on account of the sense of grandeur that Elara had in fact created through Anuradhapura?

Beautiful city

Elara had indeed turned Anuradhapura into a truly beautiful city over the course of the forty years he had ruled. That beauty certainly helped boost Elara’s fame far and wide. This city with all amenities imaginable had instilled a sense among all that its ruler was unassailable. This perception had in fact made Elara the de facto ruler of the entire island. The people of Magampura dreamt of visiting the splendid city. Since it was the seat of power, traders and soldiers and indeed anyone else who ventured out of Anuradhapura by that very fact were able to exude a sense of power and authority.

Nevertheless, Kavantissa had succeeded in preventing these lordly folk from stepping south of the Mahaweli. This was purely through military strength, through the power of an army led by the ten supreme Generals, the dasa maha yodayo.

The strength of arms was necessary but not sufficient to awaken a people. It was after he was certain that his military capacity along with the natural protections that the Ruhuna was endowed with were enough to counter any threat from Elara that Kavantissa launched the project to develop Magampura. He wanted to convince himself and of course his people that there was no magic to Anuradhapura and that he could rule not just the Ruhuna from Magampura but all of Lanka from Anuradhapura itself.

The rise of Magampura coincided with a decline in the number of people visiting Anuradhapura. People travelled long distances to see for themselves the splendid city that was being built by this Sinhala king.

And yet, had he, Gemunu, not thought that all this was absolutely wasteful, that it was but the whims and fancies of a king who desired worldly comforts, an exercise of self-indulgence at the cost of taking on and defeating Elara? Why had he not been able to see the sense of unity that was spreading throughout the Ruhuna, the submission to King Kavantissa to the point that it had extended even to territories that were officially under Elara’s jurisdiction?

Had he not, nevertheless, sent women’s jewellery to him as an attack on what he had perceived to be needless frills and indulgences of his father the King? Why had he not understood that the rule of an astute king such as Elara developed over four decades could not be overthrown in a hurry? His father’s circumspection he had in fact read as timidity.

There was a clown performing before the mind’s eye of Gemunu. It was the joker who four or five years before was planning to seize a land but who could not even conquer a humble plateful of kiribath. There was a smile that sought the edge of Gemunu’s lips. Instantly, though, it turned into an unbearable sorrow as though a grain of sand had been transformed into a tremendous cloud. How much his loving father would have grieved upon witnessing his clownish behaviour! Gemunu felt that there could be no greater tragedy than his jocular ways.

He could not bear such feelings. If there was one feeling or thought which stopped further thought of feeling there could be nothing that could cause a human being to suffer more. Such a feeling renders one utterly helpless. In fact there could be nothing in the world that could make one feel so impotent. It brings one face to face with the most terrible of sorrows. There was nothing to do but suffer it through.

The first thing his father had done was to construct a splendid training facility for his fighters. Yes, it is true that this would have inspired them. However it didn’t have any significance on the rest of the population. Ironically it is the construction of massive temples and other religious structures and well landscaped and splendidly designed cities that awaken a people, embolden them and infuses a sense of independence and fearlessness.

It is now that Gemunu understood how his father had taken meticulous care to strengthen his people. First he had built an army that was not second to Elara’s forces. It was not easy. It was a challenge to develop the Magam Kingdom to be equal to the Rajarata Kingdom. This is what his father had embarked upon after building his army. The result, the inevitable outcome, was the expansion of the Magam Kingdom to the borders of the Rajarata Kingdom.

Had he not been able to comprehend this patient and wise strategy of his father? Was it that he had indeed understood the logic of the process but some kind of envy about his father’s wisdom had taken root within him? Was it that all he desired was to play the role of a jealous agitator who along with an army of similarly envious agitators carried out an attack before the fruition of a process that was inexorably moving towards the very eventuality that was sought?

Such a move, however, would not have delivered victory but defeat for his kingdom. At best it would have cost both kingdoms and even this thanks to the military power that his father the king had deliberately and systematically developed.

His father respected Elara. In other words, he was well aware of Elara’s astute statecraft. He knew of Elara’s capabilities. Was this because his father was ready to accept and weigh facts as they were and did not reflect upon them from a mind polluted by arrogance? Hadn’t his father cultivated this composure on account of much suffering? Had he not sacrificed his entire youth for this? And had he, Gemunu, not applauded those skills and the wisdom to ascertain the true dimensions of all things acquired thus by sending him the jewellery typically worn by women?

True nature

His father had been able to understand the true nature of things because he had the ability to suppress selfishness. Since he had suppressed the greed to become overlord of the entire Lanka, King Kavantissa had been able to conclude that this was not the time to wage war. He may not be alive as Elara’s reign neared its end, King Kavantissa knew this.

Nevertheless having cast aside all notions of self, he had decided that blazing the path that would lead to Elara’s fall was his primary and most important duty. Was it not this Bodisatva mind which valued the nation over the fact of being king that he had ridiculed? If a woman’s jewellery was what his father deserved, what did he, Gemunu, deserve?

Why was his father, who could discern everything so well, incapable of understanding him? If indeed this was the case could it not be attributed to the overpowering love of a father for his son? Was this love for one’s child the single feeling that his father had never tried to control? How enormous the penalty that his father had to pay for this one blemish!