Gajaman Nona - Sri Lanka’s legendary poetess
by A. C. B. Pethiyagoda
The play, among other acts, focuses on a meeting — Gajaman Nona in O’Doyly’s Residency where he welcomes her with a glass of wine as a token of English hospitality to a guest of equal social standing which was declined most gracefully. However, this meeting whether true or not led to assumptions that there were others leading to a close friendship or relationship between the two.
The statue built to honour Gajaman Nona during President Premadasa’s time at the junction of highways A2/A18 between Tangalle and Ambalantota is today a sorry sight. The lady leans a few degrees to her left from the upright position, a rather undignified stance; the result of a private bus crashing into the short protective fence and small plinth. She is dressed in a Dutch style, Kabakuruthuwa (blouse) and Saya (skirt) holding a quill. Though said to have been a beauty, the sculptor has failed to bring out even a suggestion of good looks and poise obviously a hurried job.
According to a Dutch Thombu (official record) at the Milagiriya Church in Bambalapitiya, she was baptized Dona Isabella Koraneliya Perumal, born on 10th March 1746, the second daughter of Don Francisco Senaratna Kumara Perumal and Fransina Jasenthu Graivo. The family then lived in Kollupitiya where her father held a minor government post connected with looking after elephants. Shortly thereafter they moved to Weragampitiya near Hakmana on Don Francisco being promoted Gajaman Arachchi, Headman responsible for capturing and taming elephants in the Matara District. Baptismal during Dutch times had financial advantages like the non-levy of certain taxes etc. but these Kiristhanis (Christians) as they were called continued to practice Buddhism in private. Gajaman Nona was one such.
Even as a young woman her fame spread far and wide among the educated people mostly in the Southern, Western and Sabaragamuwa Provinces for her ability to compose Situvankavi — impromptu verses. Her rare talent improved both in vocabulary and style under the tutelage of the Buddhist scholar Monk Pandita Koratota Hamuduruwo.
Gajaman Nona was first married to Talpe Merenchegel Arachchi who died young as a result of an accident. Shortly thereafter, she married Hendrick Siriwardena, Wijaya Wimalasekera, a Mudaliya thus elevating herself in the social ladder. However, he also died after a few years leaving the young widow to care for three children from the two marriages. Soon tragedy struck again when her father who looked after the widow and the children was himself killed by an elephant, which was in his care.
Gajaman Nona having during a short period faced the death of three important persons in her life was faced with further difficulties — economic privation.
The only silver lining among the dark clouds of poverty under which the twice widowed Gajaman Nona was managing to eke out a living was a Cambridge educated British Scholar and Civil Servant who had mastered the Sinhala language — John O’Doyly, who was later knighted. He was Government Agent and Fiscal Collector of Matara and Hambantota Districts from 1802 to 1806, a demigod to the entire population in those parts of the country being second in the hierarchical order only to the British Governor, the Hon. Fredrick North GCMG later Earl of Guildford. He was the first British Governor of Ceylon — then a Crown Colony and held that position from 1798 to 1805. Those times were before the Sinhalese lost their independence with the annexation of the Kanadyan Kingdom by the British on 18th February 1815. Gajaman Nona’s written appeal to O’Doyly for help was in the form of 12 verses of polished Sinhala poetry explaining her difficult circumstances. This resulted in the Government Agent’s gallant response with a grant of land, a Nindagama then known as Nonagama encompassing several villages the revenue from which helped the widow and her children to live in comparative comfort.
Incidentally, O’Doyly was a master political strategist. He played a prominent role with the disgruntled Kandyan Chieftains in helping the British to wrest control over the Kandyan Provinces and was later appointed to the highest British post in those Provinces as Resident and was stationed in Kandy with his residence in the building to the right of the Dalada Maligawa, close to the Audience Hall.
Dayananda Gunawardena’s Gajaman Puwatha (translated into English by Lakshmi de Silva) dramatized the story of Gajaman Nona’s association with O’Doyly in verse making a valuable contribution to Sinhala literature. The play, among other acts, focuses on a meeting — Gajaman Nona in O’Doyly’s Residency where he welcomes her with a glass of wine as a token of English hospitality to a guest of equal social standing which was declined most gracefully. However, this meeting whether true or not led to assumptions that there were others leading to a close friendship or relationship between the two. Such thinking is not far fetched as O’Doyly was a man of letters and admired Gajaman Nona’s intellect and was also known to have associated freely with the Sinhala people, particularly the aristocracy, and respected those who deserved it. One instance in proof was when he ordered a palanquin for the last King of Kandy who was being escorted on foot from Urugala, (now Meda Mahanuwara) to Kandy after his capture. Gunawardena’s Gajaman Puwatha, through research and his wide knowledge of those times brings out forcefully the social, political and economic circumstances which prevailed in the country at the tail end of the Dutch period and during early British times.
Matara Sahithiya Wansa (literature of the Matara period) by P. B. A. Hewawasam describes how rich the Sinhala language was in those times and has devoted several pages to Gajaman Nona’s exceptional prowess as a poetess. He wrote of her poem of 32 verses about her father and about her longest poem about Buddhist ceremonies and rituals. Some of Gajaman Nona’s verses were recited by her under a giant Nuga tree in Dehipitiya, then a small market town, near Nonagama of which only the tree stump is said to now remain. He also records that Gajaman Nona received a great deal of moral support from a lady known as Tillakaratne — probably the wife of a Mudaliya or a woman of high standing and wealth.
After Gajaman Nona’s second husband’s death many learned men corresponded with her in verse. The most talked of was with the handsome Elapatha Mudaliya of the Ratnapura District. Elapatha like Gajaman Nona was also a pupil of Koratota Hamuduruwo, then in robes as a Samanera (pupil bhikku) and known as Elaptha Dhammaratna Thero, residing at Sapugoda Vihare before he disrobed and took to public administration as a Mudaliya.
His poems were unmistakably erotic in nature with a great deal of thrust and parry, warm, friendly and polished. Gajaman Nona replied in the same vein with clever puns thrown in lavishly. Whether they ever met is not recorded but, there is every possibility as any part of the Ratnapura, District is not far from Nonagama.
Some records indicate that Gajaman Nona was born in 1758 and died in 1814 while others give the year of birth as 1746. Hence, was she 56 or 68 years when she passed away? Whichever, there was no dispute at any time that she was the most outstanding woman of letters in the country in those late Dutch and early British times.
It is therefore only fitting that the Ministry of Cultural Affairs or the Southern Provincial Council take immediate steps to repair the damage/or better still replace the statue with an elegant and carefully sculptured one in a better location befitting a woman who was considered an intellectual and a beauty.