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The execution of keppetipola Dissawe


(@M.D. Saldin/Sunday Observer)

After the British conquest of the Kandyan Kingdom located in the central hill-country in Ceylon in 1815, discontent with the British gradually germinated in the minds of the Kandyan nobility.


It is generally believed that the seeds of revolt were triggered by two major events:

The first occurred sometime in June 1816. Madugalle Uda Gabada Nilame, without the knowledge of the British Resident in Kandy, John D'Oyly, secretly proposed to the high priest about the removal of the sacred tooth relic from Kandy. The second took place in Sept 1816, when he publicly sent offerings and prayers to the deities at Bintenne and Kataragama, for the downfall of the British rulers and the re-establishment of a king.

The British rulers considered these actions as amounting to high treason.

Madugalle was summarily despatched to Colombo under close arrest without being given the opportunity to bid farewell to his family. Another event was the anger evoked on the appointment of Haji Mohandiram, a Moorman of Wellasse, as Chief of the Madigey (Transport) Department, a position usually held by the families of Bootawe, Kohukumbura, Nanapurowa Raterala, Allamulle Rala, Baknigahawella Mudiyanse and Nakkala Mudiyanse.


In Sept 1817, Sylvester Wilson, who was the government agent of Badulla, received intelligence that a Malabari had turned up in the Uva Wellasse region with a large following, claiming the throne of Kandy. The British initially mistook him for Doraisamy a relation of the deposed king, but it later transpired that he was Wilbawe, a former priest.

Government Agent Sylvester Wilson set off from Badulla on 16.10.1817 with an armed escort of twenty-four soldiers under the command of Lieut-Newman and made contact with Wilbawe's forces in Wellasse. He tried to reason with the unruly mob, comprising of people of the Uva/Wellasse region, to give up their uprising, but they refused to hear him. On his way back to Badulla, Wilson stopped at a stream to take a wash. It was at this time that some hundred armed rebels appeared. Wilson defensively removed his coat to indicate to the rebels he was unarmed, and called them to come closer to negotiate. Instead, about forty of them advanced within about six yards of him and shot him with their bows and arrows. Wilson fell dead.

Wilson's head was decapitated on the orders of Wilbawe and mounted on a stake. An Ola wrapped in a white cloth suspended from a tree contained a Proclamation from the Pretender Wilbawe, announcing himself as the king and enjoining his subjects to put every white man to death.

Keppetipola Dissawe

`Rajapaksa Wickramasekera Mudiyanselage Monarawila Keppetipola, the warrior Dissawe of Uva, known as Keppetipola Dissawe was in the hill capital when Wilson met his premature death.

The British Resident in Kandy John D'Oyly, thoroughly alarmed by this tragedy, despatched Keppetipola Dissawe to Badulla with instructions to crush the rebels and restore law and order in his Dissawony.

But it transpired that Keppetipola and his followers numbering about five hundred men joined the rebels.

Keppetipola's defection to the rebel's cause made a profound effect on the British administrators as well as on the Kandyan chiefs and the people.

He was an influential and a highly placed aristocrat, connected to all the leading families in the kingdom. His late sister, mother of child hero Madduma Bandara, was the wife of Ehelepola Maha Nilame, and his uncle was Pilamatalawa Maha Adikaram, or Prime Minister, to the deposed king.

Wilbawe did not have the legitimacy to the throne but sought to obtain it by getting himself proclaimed as the king in the same manner with due pomp and ceremony.

Wilbawe claimed to be a Suriyawansa and a descendant of King Kirti Sri Rajasinghe. Wilbawe needed Keppetipola's allegiance so that the Kandyan aristocracy would legitimize his appointment. Accordingly, Keppetipola was appointed as first adikar.

Governor Brownrigg issued a Proclamation on 01.01.1818 that the following seventeen persons were engaged in promoting rebellion and war against His Majesty's Forces, and that they were "Rebels, Outlaws and Enemies to the British." Their lands and properties were to be confiscated by the Crown.

They were:

(1) Keppetipola, the former Dissawe of Ouva; (2) Godagedara, former Adikaram of Ouva; (3) Ketakala Mohottala of Ouva; (4) Maha Betmerala of Kataragama in Ouva; (5) Kuda Betmerala of Kataragama in Ouva; (6) Palagolla Mohottala of Ouva; (7) Passerewatte Vidane of Ouva; (8) Kiwulegedera Mohottala of Walapane; (9) Yalagomme Mohotalla of Walapane; (10) Udamadure Mohottala of Walapane; (11) Kohukumbure Rate Rala of Wellassa; (12) Kohukumbura Walauwe Mohottala of Wellassa; (13) Bootawe Rate Rala of Wellassa; (14) Kohukumbura Gahawela Rate Rala of Wellassa (15) Maha Badullegammene Rate Rala of Wellassa (16) Bulupitiye Mohottala of Wellassa; (17) Palle Malheyae Gametirale of Wellassa.

Keppetipola fled to Anuradhapura but was captured together with Pilama Talawa the 2nd in a walauwa on 28.10.1818 by Lieut. O'Neil assisted by Native Lieut-Cader-Boyet of the Ceylon Rifles. Madugalle made good his escape through the back door.

However, five days later, on 02.11.1818, in a separate incident, Ensign Shootbraid captured Madugalle hiding behind a rock in the jungles of Alaherra.

On the same day, the Sacred Tooth Relic fell into the hands of Ensign Shootbraid. "Its recovery had a manifest effect on all classes and its having fallen into British hands again by accident, demonstrated to the superstitious people that it was the destiny of the British Nation to govern the Kandyan Kingdom," wrote Gov. Brownrigg to Earl Bathurst in triumph. Some months earlier, Keppetipola Dissawe had the Sacred Tooth Relic spirited away from under the very noses of the British sentries at the Dalada Maligawa.


Death sentences were passed on both Keppetipola and Madugalle.

Both tried to commute their sentences to banishment, but failed. Dr Henry Marshall's record of the last moments of the two chiefs is touching as described by MA Durand Appuhamy in his book, The Rebels, Outlaws and Enemies to the British (Colombo, Author, 1990).

"Early in the morning of 25th of November, 1818, Keppetipola and Madugalle were in compliance with their own request, taken to the Dalada Maligawa, or temple of the sacred tooth relic. At the request of Keppetipola, and by permission of His Excellency Sir Robert Brownrigg, Mr Sawers met him at the temple. Kneeling before the priest, upon the threshold of the sanctuary, the repository of the sacred relic, the Chief detailed the principal meritorious actions of his life, such as benefits he had conferred on priests, together with the gifts he had bestowed on temples, and other acts of piety. He then pronounced the Proptannawah, or last wish; namely, that on his next birth, he might be born on the mountains of the Himalayas, and finally obtain Nibbana, a state of partial annihilation. Having concluded his devotions he was addressed by the priest, who in an impressive tone, pronouncing a benediction, the last words of which were as follows: 'As sure as a stone thrown up into the air returns to the earth, so certain you will, in consideration of your religious merits, be present at the next incarnation of the Buddha, and receive your reward.' The scene between the Chief, and the priest was most solemn and impressive. The Chief, who had continued kneeling, rose and turned round to Mr Sawers, addressed in the following words:- 'I give you a share of the merit of my last religious offering' - and forthwith unwinding his upper cloth from his waist he presented it to the temple, jocularly observing, that although it was both foul and ragged, 'the merit of the offering would not on' those accounts be diminished, it being all he had to give. He then requested Mr Sawers to accompany him to the place of execution, which was kindly and respectfully, declined.

"Madugalle's devotions were conducted in a similar manner, but although he had evinced great bravery in the field, he lost self possession on this occasion. When the priest had given him his benediction, he sprang forward, and rushed into the sanctuary, where he loudly craved mercy for the sake of the relic. He was instantly dragged from behind the dagoba by Lieut.

Mackenzie, the fort adjutant, with the assistance of some of the guard.

Keppetipola who conducted himself with great firmness and self possession, and was greatly surprised at the pusillanimity of his fellow prisoner, in the most dispassionate manner observed, that Madugalle acted like a fool.

He then, in a firm and collected manner shook hands with Mr Sawers, and bade him farewell.

"The prisoners were then taken to the place of execution which was near to the Bogambara tank about a mile distant from the temple. Here they requested to be provided with water for the purpose of ablution, which was brought to them. Keppetipola then begged to be allowed a short time to perform the ceremonies of his religion. This request being granted, both the prisoners washed their hands and face. Keppetipola then tied up his hair in a knot on the top of his head and sat down on the ground, beside a small bush, grasping it at the same time with his toes.

From the folds of his cloth which encircled his loins, he took a small Banna potha or prayer book and, after reciting some prayers or verses, he gave the book to a native official who was present, requesting him to deliver it to Mr Sawers, as a token of the gratitude he felt for his friendship and kindness, when they were officially connected at Badulla, - Mr Sawers as Agent of the government, and Keppetipola as Dissawe of Uva.

"The Chief continued to repeat some Pali verses; and, while he was so employed the executioner struck him on the back of his neck with a sharp sword. At that moment he breathed out the word Araahan, one of the names of the Buddha. A second stroke deprived him of his life and he fell to the ground a corpse. His head being separated from his body, it was, according to custom, placed on his breast.

"Madugalle continued to evince great want of firmness: and being unable to tie up his hair, that operation was performed by the Heaigha Kangaan, the chief public executioner. The perturbed state of his mind was evinced by the convulsive action of the muscle of his face. He earnestly begged to be dispatched by means of one blow, and then finally pronounced the word Arahaan. In consequence of his not having sufficient resolution to bend his head forward, it was held by one of the executioners. After the first blow of the sword he fell backwards; but he was not deprived of his life until he received the second stroke."

That Madugalle flinched faced with the jaws of death, is both understandable and pardonable.


Wilbawe escaped into the jungles and lived with the Veddhas. He was subsequently captured by the British in 1830 and released without any punishment being imposed on him.

Prologue: Descendants

In recent weeks I interviewed a direct descendant of the famous hero Keppetipola Dissawe, He is the genial Chandrawansa Chandrasekera Keppetipola Mudiyanse Ralahamylage Manendra Keppetipola of Dodantale Walauwa, in Mawanella.

Through him I was able to learn that as soon as the British declared Keppetipola as a rebel, the Keppetipola family converted their ancestral Walauwa in the village of Keppetipola on the Mawanella-Rambukkana Road in the Kegalle District into a Viharaya, to ensure that the British could not touch it. Manendra is presently the Basnayake Nilame of Dodantale Natha Devale.

Manendra's father, Madduma Bandara Keppetipola, received the skull of Keppetipola Dissawe, which was returned to Ceylon by the British after the island gained independence. The skull was transported on a gun carriage from Colombo port to Kandy and ceremonially buried with military honours at Bogambara opposite the Dalada Maligawa.

References: (1) The Rebels, Outlaws & Enemies to the British by M.A. Durand Appuhamy.

(2) The Great Rebellion of 1818 by Tennakoon Vimalananda, Professor & Head of Dept of History, Vidyalankara University.

(3) The Kandyan Wars by Colonel Geoffrey Powell.

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