Who is the 'Diyawadana Nilame'?
by L. B. Wijayasiri
It is the highest position in Buddhist society a lay buddhist could be elected to. The office of Diyawadana Nilame fell vacant with the completion of the term of office of the former Diyawadana Nilame Neranjan Wijeyaratne who held that office for 2 ten-year-terms from 1985.
What is Diyawadana Nilame? and what are the duties and functions attached to that office? Are some of the factors of importance that are to be discussed at this hour. The office of Diyawadana Nilame was not so important, colourful or of glory or significance during the period of Sinhala monarchy as today. Most Ven. Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte and Asgiriya Maha Vihara Chapters of the Siyam Maha Nikaya (The Siamese Sect) are co-chief incumbents (Viharadhipathis) of Dalada Maligawa while Diyawadana Nilame is the only lay chieftain who chair the responsibility of administration and other affairs of the Maligawa.
A belief that "whoever possessed the custody of the Sacred Tooth Relic and provide protection to it, is the most fitting person to be the king of the country" had been established in the Sinhala Buddhist society from the ancient times. Accordingly every Sinhala king who was crowned treated this as an uppermost Royal duty and responsibility to maintain the custodianship of Dalada, to protect it and perform rituals under his personal supervision and physical participation, in order to protect his throne and also to ensure peaceful rule with the blessings of the people.
In keeping with that policy successive kings got a special shrine built within the precincts of his Royal palace, and Sacred Tooth Relic was deposited there and the offerings and rituals were performed by him.
During the period of Sinhala monarchy there have been a number of Diyawadana Nilames in the 'Athul Kattale' (within the royal staff) called Rajawasala Diyawadana Nilame, Pallewasala Diyawadana Nilame and Dalada Maligawa Diyawadana Nilame. Rajawasala Diyawadana Nilame was an officer-in-charge of some duties at the Kings palace and Pallewasala Diyawadana Nilame was an officer who was attached to the lower palace where the queen and royal women lived. Diyawadana Nilame of Dalada Maligawa was an officer of the palace too but in charge of some functions at the shrine in which the Sacred Tooth Relic was deposited.
Duties and functions of the Mahawasala (Royal Palace) Diyawadana Nilame were to prepare water mixed with herbal perfumes for the King to bathe and to be by his side in attendance until he finished his bath. Diyawadana Nilame of Pallewahala had to perform similar duties in connection with the bathing of the Queen and other royal women, sans being in attendance by their sides. These two officers were handpicked by the King himself so that they were very faithful to him.
Diyawadana Nilame of Dalada Maligawa was a kinsman of the 'Athul Kattale' (palace staff) and it was a well-known fact, that during that period, the Sacred Tooth Relic was deposited in a special shrine built within the precincts of the kings palace under heavy security and the king personally performed poojas and rituals. The duty of the Diyawadana Nilame then was to prepare water mixed with perfumes and other ingredients to be sprayed on the flowers offered by the King to the Dalada.
Pouring water for washing the hands of the King before making the offerings too was one of his functions. The King made similar offerings and performed rituals thrice a day and the Diyawadana Nilame had to attend to that service. His another function was to make preparations for the 'Nanumura Mangallaya' in reverence of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Following the Kandyan Kingdom falling under the rule of the British throne as a result of signing the Kandyan Convention (the treaty) on March 2, 1815, the administration of the Dalada Maligawa came under the purview of the British rule too. That made possible for British rulers to get an official faithful person to appoint as the Diyawadana Nilame.
However by 1818 the people of Kandyan areas started to rebel against the rule of Britishers mainly due to the fact that Governor Torrington started to act in violation of the clause 5 of the Convention under which the British Raj undertook to protect and maintain Buddhist places of worship and other religious places. British King appointed a Commission to inquire and report on that situation.
Meanwhile a strong opinion was developed in England that it was no proper for the British rule to protect and maintain Buddhist religion which they were of the view that it was heretical. Taking that opinion and the recommendations of the Commission, British Raj decided that they should give up those activities and hand them over to local chieftains of Buddhist clergy and laity.
In keeping with that order the elections of Mahanayake Theras, Diyawadana Nilame and Basnayake Nilames were handed over to Buddhist religious dignitaries in 1853. It was after that somewhat democratic system of election of Diyawadana Nilame was introduced and it was handed over to Mahanayake Theras, Basnayake Nilames, Trustees of Rajamaha Viharayas and Rate Mahattayas (later DROs and presently Divisional Secretaries) to make the choice by their vote.
That system was made more proper and broader with the enactment of the Buddhist Temporalities Act of 1931, under which the legal provisions were made available to implement the current system of electing of temple chieftains.
Under the Act the electoral college for the election on Diyawadana Nilame of Dalada Maligawa comprised of Most Ven. Mahanayake Theras, Basnayake Nilames, Divisional Secretaries (only male officers) of Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Matale, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Vavuniya, Kegalle Ratnapura, Badulla and Monaragala districts, Sinhala Pattuwas of Ampara and Trincomalee districts, Hinidum Pattuwa of Galle district, Morawak Korale of Matara district, Puttalam, Nawagattegama and Karuwalagaswewa Divisions and Trustees of Rajamaha Viharayas recognised under the Act. These areas were under the Kandyan Kingdom at the time of signing the treaty in 1815. This year the number of individuals eligible to vote at the DN election was 355.
Another special feature of the election of these Temple Chieftains is that there is no provisions or requirements for calling for nominations prior to the election. A meeting will be convened by the Commissioner of Buddhist Affairs (earlier Public Trustee) announcing that the election for the office of DN or BN or whatever it is will be held at such and such a time and date at such and such a place.
At this meetings once a name of a participant is proposed and seconded by another, that person becomes a candidate. A person who had been found guilty by any Court of Law could not become a candidate. Any other Buddhist can become a candidate. When more than one name is proposed and seconded and election would be held with the Commissioner of Buddhist Affairs presiding.
Upto 1937 the office of Diyawadana Nilame of Dalada Maligawa was a life time job. After 1937, the term of office of a DN was limited to five years. The UNP regime who came into power in 1977 increased that term from five to 10 years when Dr. Nissanka Wijeyaratne, a cabinet minister of that government was the DN too.
Following were those who held the office of DN after 1815. Kapuwatte Adikarama (up to 1824), Dehigama Loku Bandara Nilame (1824-1827), Kuda Molligoda Nilame (1827 to 1828), Kuda Dehigama Nilame (1828-1835), Mullegama Adikarama (1835 to 1842), Dullewe Adikarama (1842-48 ) and Dehigama Nilame (1848-1862), Kuda Banda Dunuwila Nilame (1862-82), Kuda Mudiyanse Giragama Nilame (1897-1901), Seneviratne Ratwatte Nilame (1901-1916), C. B. Nugawela Nilame (1916-1937). All of them held that office for life.
Following were those who were elected for a term of five years: T. B. Ratwatte (1937-47) two terms. Kuda Banda Dunuwila Nilame three terms (1947-61), Harris Leuke Ratwatte Nilame (1961-64).
He was succeeded by his son former Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte in an acting capacity for a short period. Heen Bandara Udurawana was elected in 1964 and held office for three successive terms up to 1975 in which year Nissanka Wijeyaratne was elected and continued for 10 years.