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Meet Our Last Queen in the Colombo Museum

 

by Padma Edirisinghe

Destiny is very strange. Our last queen, Queen Rengammal hangs in a gilt-framed glass case adjacent to a drawing of the last king of Lanka, Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe and just behind the king"s ornate throne and crown, proudly displayed to visitors to the Colombo Museum sited in an enviably green-carpeted vast land expanse in the "elite" area of the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. And in another large case in the proximity of these objects is exhibited "The queen"s jacket". Both the queen and the queen"s jacket are associated with a tale of much historical significance that reveals the high drama that tragically ended one of the longest running monarchies of the world.

 Henry Marshall, an eye-witness Britisher to these events of the 19th century writes, that the news of the capture of the last king of Lanka and his family made the then British governor very emotional. In fact, Marshall had been having dinner with Governor Brownrigg at the Governor"s House in Colombo when the news of the capture was brought in. On hearing this news Brownrigg had stood up with tears rolling down his cheeks. Why the emotion? To quote yet another English writer, "From this day we may date the extinction of Ceylonese independence, an independence which had continued for 2357 years."

 Sad to say, it was a very ignominious end for such a long running monarchy whose kings included such illustrious personage as Dutugemunu, architect of Swarnamali Chaitya, empire-builders as Parakramabahu I who even defied mighty Indian powers. The tale of the capture of the king by the British and the intricate whirl of events leading to it, could form a separate essay and hence those facts are marginalized here, giving priority to the sad tale of Queen Rengammal.

 Rengammal! Not a very familiar name, you would say. You are correct. She was not ethnically a Sinhalese and nor was the king, for that matter. That the last four kings of Lanka all hailed from the Malabar coast of India is well-known information. But the women of the Kandyan Court seem to have infiltrated into it even earlier from South India. The practice of bringing consorts from South India for the reigning princes of Kandy seems to have begun somewhere during King Rajasinghe II"s time (1635-1687) and continued almost unbroken. In fact, when the last Sinhala king, Vira Parakrama Narendrasinghe was heirless, the South Indian queens" faction had grown so numerically strong as to enforce a new rule of dynasty that the throne should now pass to the queen"s brother, ultimately making the kings too South Indians!

 But those four kings were very tactful and had no ambition of projecting a South Indian identity here. They embraced Buddhism, took on Sinhala names and became the most ardent patrons of Buddhism and Sinhala literature, thus endearing the subjects to them till the estrangement between the last ruler and his subjects began. They seem to have been very fluent in Sinhala too, King Rajadhi Rajasinghe even authoring Sinhala books. But not the queens. In fact, when the leaders of the Sinhala faction who rose against them began harassing the queens at Meda Maha Nuwara, records show that they clung to Mr. C.V. Dias, an ancestor of the Bandaranayaka family who had gone with the British party piteously crying out their sentiments and pleading for help in Tamil.

 Meda Maha Nuwara off Teldeniya surrounded by rings off mountains was where our last king fled with his queens when he heard of the British advancing on them. Bitter internal politics had alienated his subjects, especially after the cruel massacre of the Ehelapola family. The whole royal family took refuge in a house belonging to one Bomure Udapitiya Arachchie at a time of fierce thunder and storm. The Sinhala faction headed by Eknaligoda Nilame and egged on by Ehelapola Maha Adikaram was too smart for them and soon the house was surrounded and the family subject to much ignominious treatment. The king had been stripped almost naked, abused in filthy language, kicked, spat upon and finally attempted to tie like a pig (all fours, hands and legs to be tied to a pole). Meanwhile the poor queens too were abused and their jackets torn off. It is Queen Rengammal"s jacket deposited in a chest in a house of one Kiriporuwe Mudianse, a member of the faction who seethed with fury at the king"s cruelty, that ultimately found its way to the Colombo Museum. A headmaster of the area, one Chandrasena had been instrumental in getting this jacket into the museum. Its authenticity has been proved by academic personnel due not to the particular texture of the jacket (of the related period) but due to the stain of human blood on the jacket. It is recorded that captors tore off the queen"s jewellery and the stain has been caused by the dripping blood.

 Two fifth or sixth generation descendants of two families closely connected to these events, the Eknaligoda family and the Rajapakse family, testify to a fierce vendetta to be orchestrated on the royal family. As a punishment for Ehelapola Maha Adikaram"s desertion to the English, King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe had massacred the Adikaram"s children and later commanded Ehelapola Kumarihamy to slay her own infant which she refused to do. The king then had her and a relative of hers drowned in the Bogambara Lake.

 
"The waters of the lake are blent with blood no more
Its lovely banks are no more stained with crimson gore
No wretched queen with sword her dear-loved children slay
No more she tracks her doom upon the watery way"
From "The life of Ehelapola" by Pohath Kehelpannala
Now the plan by Ehelapola Maha Adikaram and Eknaligoda Diswawa and their faction had been to stage a fierce "Eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" vendetta using the queens. They were to be stripped to the bare minimum like Chandalee women, marched to Kandy all the way from Meda Maha Nuwara in that disgraceful state and drowned in the very Bogambara Lake where the Kumarihamy was drowned.

 However, before further ignominy could be orchestrated, John D" Oyley and his party had arrived on the scene and rescued the royal party. They were then taken to Colombo via Negombo (a secret route) and kept as prisoners in Fort till they were finally deported to Vellore where they remained till their death. In 1934 during Governor Stubbs"s time the regalia confiscated by the British in 1815 and taken to England were returned to our country in the ship Sussex. In 1936 a beautiful portrait of Queen Rengammal had begun to adorn the wall calendars. (It is the same portrait that is displayed at the Colombo Museum). She is fully dressed here, in a strangely attractive blend of Western style gown and Eastern shawl and robe. According to certain historians whose ancestors had been eye-witnesses to the famous drawing of the queen, it had been done by a white artist (while his wife fussed about Rengammal adjusting frills and drapes) during the time of the queens" imprisonment in the Fort in the vicinity of the Beira Lake. This lake covered Colombo with its waters more generously than now. (Since those times much land from Beira Lake has been reclaimed for putting up buildings in land-hungry Colombo).

 Maybe as Queen Rengammal posed on the picturesque banks of Beira rather unwillingly for the portrait in a full fastidious dress designed by Dutch seamstresses of Pettah (according to a descendant of the Rajapakse family of Maradana in whose Walauwa or mansion the dress had been made), she remembered with horror that terrible day in Medamahanuwara at the base of Uragala hills when she was near naked as her captors tore off so cruelly the jacket that covered her beautiful bosom. Women paying for the foul deeds of their male counterparts? Rengammal clearly belongs to this category and also belongs to Sri Lanka"s colourful and turbulent pas

Source: Expore Sri Lanka