Sitawaka: A Short-Lived yet Significant Kingdom
Sri Lanka in the early sixteenth century was an island that comprised a number of kingdoms. Apart from the familiar Kandyan Kingdom, there was the aspiring Sitawaka Kingdom among others. Kandy, at times an allay of Sitawaka against the Portuguese, at times attacked by Kotte, at times seeking Portuguese help against both Sitawaka and Kotte. It is like a mad game of billiards, played by the balls themselves.
Source: Sitawaka: A Short-Lived yet Significant Kingdom
by Richard Boyle
When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the early sixteenth century they found an island that comprised a number of kingdoms. At the time, apart from the familiar Kandyan Kingdom, there was the aspiring Sitawaka Kingdom among others. As the Portuguese soon learnt, it was Sitawaka that held the balance of power and posed the greatest threat to their expansionist intentions.
Sitawaka, the ancient royal residence situated near Avissawella on a tributary of the Kelani Ganga (river), derives its name from Sita, who is supposed to have been imprisoned by Ravana in a grove somewhere in this neighbourhood.
‘The Most-Captured City in the World’
As far as history is concerned, Sitawaka gained prominence for a relatively short period of 72 years, between 1521 and 1593. It was one of several squabbling kingdoms that patch-worked Lanka at a time the coastal areas were held by the newly-arrived Portuguese, the first European colonists.
The turmoil of the period is exemplified by the fact that Sitawaka was raided some five times in its brief history, which, according to Roland Raven-Hart who visited the place in the 1950s and wrote about it in his Ceylon: History in Stone (1964), makes it “the most-captured city in the world, considering its short importance.”
“Not that it was usually taken by storm,” Raven-Hart continues. “The king adopted the annoying tactics later employed by the Kandyan Kingdom, of abandoning his city to the invaders – on occasion with the palace lights burning and white cloths spread, then as now a sign of honour to welcome a guest. He vanished into the hills, watching for the chance of harrying the invaders; and whenever things looked up for him, he went and besieged the nearby Kotte Kingdom.
“It was a seesaw war: but a further complication enters – Kandy, at times an allay of Sitawaka against the Portuguese, at times attacked by Kotte, at times seeking Portuguese help against both Sitawaka and Kotte. It is like a mad game of billiards, played by the balls themselves.”
The Advent of the ‘King Lion’
By the mid-sixteenth century, the ageing first king of Sitawaka, Mayadunne, handed over military leadership to his son, who promptly defeated the Kandyans on the battlefield and earned himself the new name of Rajasinghe, or “King Lion.” Moreover in 1559 he routed a Portuguese army near the Kelani Ganga. The Sitawaka Kingdom now held practically all the lowlands except Colombo, and the Portuguese were reduced to hit-and-run raids along the coasts.
Rajasinghe succeeded his father in 1581. He had originally been a Buddhist like his father, but owing to the treachery of some monks he apostatised to Hinduism. Subsequently he built many Hindu temples. The finest, although sadly incomplete, is the Berendi Kovil, named for Bhairawa, or Siva, at Sitawaka.
This remarkable king had the audacity to besiege the Portuguese at Colombo. Indeed the city almost fell in 1587 after he drained the protective crocodile-infested lake by cutting a canal into it. However the Portuguese had access to the sea and with their naval supremacy were able to bring provisions and men from India.
A minor revolt in his kingdom forced Rajasinghe to abandon the siege. Although this revolt was put down without difficulty, a later one in 1590 in Kandy proved to be his undoing. Eight years earlier he had captured Kandy, but now the kingdom rebelled under a Buddhist king. Rajasinghe was forced to retreat from Kandy and died of blood-poisoning caused by a bamboo-splinter on a sandbank, a spot which the inhabitants of Sitawaka showed Raven-Hart half a century ago. With him died the kingdom of Sitawaka.
From then until 1815, Avissawella was on the frontier between the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally British-held coastal areas and the Kandyan Kingdom. The Portuguese and Dutch built forts there, and clashes between colonists and Kandyans were frequent. But with the fall of the kingdom in 1815 to the British, the place became more accessible. One of the first to describe it was John Davy in An Account of the Interior of Ceylon (1821): “Avissawella is an inconsiderable village, romantickly situated almost at the base of bluff hills of black naked rock, which rise precipitously from a surface of rich foliage to a height perhaps of 1,000 feet. On a low but steep conical hill, just by the rest-house, there are the remains of a small military post, which has been unoccupied since we have had possession of the Interior.
“Sitawaka, once a royal residence, and a place of considerable consequence, is now merely a name. No traces of what it once was are now to be seen by the traveller passing along the road; and for a time none were supposed to exist. Lately, some remains of buildings have been discovered. In June 1819, when travelling this way the third time, I was conducted by the natives to an old fort situated on a tongue of elevated ground.”
Davy goes on to reveal that British vandalism resulted in the degradation of the site. “The ruin was not uninteresting, and might have been worth preserving; I say, might – knowing that the work of destruction has commenced, and that the walls, which two centuries had spared, have been pulled down either in part or entirely, and their stones removed to build a new rest-house. The curious traveller will complain of this measure; whilst the indolent one will bless his stars for being saved the trouble of forcing his way through thickets to see an old ruin, the materials of which, newly arranged, afford him a comfortable shelter.”
Nevertheless, the ruins of the defensive walls and royal palace can still be seen, and the unfinished Berendi Kovil still exhibits some fine stonework, so the site is well worth an exploration. Raven-Hart admirably describes the kovil: “Only the platform remains, quite small within a moat crossed by a bridge of massive slabs. The wall of the platform is gloriously simple, with delicate flowered fillet, a garland of stone that must be seen to be appreciated. Apart from the fillet, the chief ornaments are pilasters, separated by perfectly flat areas which had to be cut away in order to leave the pilasters in relief; and on one of the flats is an odd little parrot, entirely unrelated to anything in the design. It seems obvious, and quite delightful, that the workmen got fed up with recessing that flat surface and left the birds in relief for fun, to be chiselled away on a morrow that never came.” And the “morrow that never came” was, of course, because of the death of Rajasinghe.
Recommended reading: Ceylon History in Stone by R. Raven-Hart, published by Lake House in 1964, with a second edition in 1973 and a third in 1981.