King Swarnamali the Great | Sunday Observer

King Swarnamali the Great

17 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.


Chapter 10

The Army moved onwards with singular purpose. Although the numbers were enormous there was no dust being disturbed during the march. It reflected in fact the mind of Prince Gemunu who was riding the majestic tusker, Kandula. Each step that Kandula took was accompanied by a graceful swaying of its body. This did not bother or distract Prince Gemunu in the least. Indeed the movement was like a conversation between the two, undisturbed and uninterrupted by their individual thoughts.

Kandula was a gift that Prince Gemunu had received from King Kavantissa. During infancy, Kandula was even more mischievous than Gemunu and impossible to bring under control. If told to approach, Kandula would run away. If offered plantains, Kandula would decline, wanting the soft kernel of the kithul; if kithul was given, Kandula would wander off towards the palace looking for plantains.

Often, when being led towards the weva for a bath, Kandula would escape and run across the paddy fields. Once in the water, though, Kandula would simply refuse to get back on dry land. It was from this friend who had come from the jungles that Gemunu learned the wonderment of being stubborn. And yet, it was wondrous indeed that it was this same, playful, mischievous and intractable Kandula who moved gracefully in absolute concert with a mighty Army.

Gemunu felt ashamed, sorrowful and joyous. As though to erase the shame or else to share it all of a sudden like a friend clambering the windows of the tree line on the left a soft breeze began swirling around Gemunu. Kandula was fully aware of the stranger that had suddenly arrived. Lifting its trunk, Kandula acknowledged and greeted the stranger.

Gemunu knew that what lay before him was but a platter of kiribath, balled and cool enough to consume. His younger brother Saddhatissa had turned the fallow fields of the vast Digamadulla into an endless tract of lush paddy. The granaries held enough rice to last even five more years. Granaries had been built along the way at appropriate intervals to ensure that the soldiers would be well fed. In addition there were plenty of carts to transport grain. A special continent of physicians was accompanying the army. They had more than enough medicines. There were specialists who remove arrow heads and treat wounds. The elephants and horses had been trained not to be afraid or in any way uneasy in the midst of the shouting and screaming. Instead, in the event there was a great commotion, they would immediately look in the direction of the source and move accordingly, absolutely devoid of fear or foreboding.

The rains had arrived on time as though the gods themselves were in consort with his designs. All the reservoirs were full. The Army feared only flight. The swords were made of well tempered steel. The soldiers were well aware that the shields they held were impervious to the blows of an enemy sword. The sword was a friend who would never abandon them, this too they knew. For this reason they never unbuckled their swords from their waists. The weapon was unsheathed only for sword play. They knew that the blades were so exquisitely made that they would break the enemy sword first before targeting the owner of that weapon. When strength of body was linked to such a sword could any Dravidian withstand the onslaught? The ten generals, the dasa maha yodayo, were not just supremely skilled fighters, they were also extremely wise teachers.

The soldiers had been taught how to wield their swords with the least effort expended. They knew how at the right moment the full weight of bodily strength could be transferred to the blade they wielded. They also knew how in the face of an impassioned foe, the sword, fully composed, would come unsheathed and do its duty. The weapon, unlike them, was never immersed in water.

There is kiribath that can be consumed without burning fingers or mouth. Since there was comprehension regarding what needed to be done after the meal there was no reason to hurry in consuming the kiribath. Prince Gemunu knew that it was a battle that had already been won and was being enacted just to please the mind. The entire army knew this. Nevertheless here was unanimity in the need to execute completely and with utmost pomp.

The most colourful and glorious segment of this piece of theatre was played during the battle at Vijithapura. When Kandula, upon having burning hot oil poured on its back, fled, it caused peals of laughter. Returning with the protection of a buffalo hide, Kandula was welcomed again with laughter and much cheering. The fortress fell, signalling the end of this act of dramatic enactment. Nandimitra, realising that a section of the wall was about to fall upon the elephant, quickly intervened to move it to safety. Would he succeed or would he not was the question in everyone’s mind and this was a particularly tense moment in the play. There was applause. There was much cheering and laughter. It was all transformed into a mighty roar when Nandimitra crashed into the fortress through the breach caused by the falling wall. It was a signal for a full scale assault on the fortress. The curtain fell, so to speak, on this scene.

Prince Gemunu knew the script by heart. It was as it should be. It was now time to partake of the kiribath. This was not a struggle where fingers would get burned. What was left was to wipe clean the kiribath platter, calmly and in full enjoyment.

Gemunu had acquired the wisdom to understand one thing during the time he spent in Kotmale, the need to recognise that what was before him was a platter of kiribath neatly rolled into so many balls. Had he not known this earlier, would he have observed his father, the kind, calmly separating the kiribath into lumps and would he have recognised that it was such a platter of balled kiribath that was now before him? It was this process of his father that he had once considered to be cowardly. Had he not, at the time, considered the burning of fingers and tongue a supremely heroic act?