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Olden day Sinhalese sports and games

Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources - Asiff Hussein.

Illustrations reproduced from P.E.P. Deraniyagala's book titled `Some Sinhala Combative, Field and, Aquatic Sports and Games.

There can be little doubt that the ancient Sinhalese indulged in some form of sport or other. Hunting and horse-racing, favourite pastimes of the ancient Indo-Aryans would have also found favour in Sri Lanka following the great Aryan invasion of the island around the 5th century BC.

 As P.E.P. Deraniyagala (Some Sinhala Combative, Field and Aquatic Sports and Games, 1959) notes `Sri Lanka... received the vanguard of the Aryan invasion down India, who superimposed their North Indian sports upon the semi-religious practices of the aboriginals.'

 He adds that in this connection, it is interesting to note the references to Sind (Saindava) horses which occur in the early passages of the Mahavansa, the ancient chronicle of Sinhalese royalty written in the 5th century AC.

 As may be gleaned from Buddhist Jataka tales which reflect the social conditions of 6th-5th century BC India, hunting was the most favoured outdoor sport of royalty.

 According to the Mahavansa, King Devanampiyatissa (3rd century BC) was out on a hunt near the famed Mihintale hill when he met Arahat Mahinda, envoy of the Indian Mauryan Emperor Asoka, who had been sent to preach Buddhism in the country.

 As evident in the Mahavansa, it was considered unsporty to kill a standing quarry, for the king would not shoot an elk until he first put it to flight by twanging his bow-string.

 However, with King Devanampiyatissa's conversion to Buddhism along with that of his countrymen, hunting seems to have gone out of vogue and we do not hear of kings going a-hunting till the 12th century.

 King Nissanka Malla (12th century) refers to one of his hunting expeditions in the Galpota slab inscription. Since then royal hunts appear to have caught on.

 The sequel to the Mahavansa, Chulavansa relates that King Parakrama Bahu I (12th century) whilst out on a hunting expedition in a large forest with his queen and retinue struck a huge sambhur with his javelin when it rushed at him.

King Rajasinghe II (17th century) was well known for his gaur hunts as attested by an old palm leaf manuscript (Purawriththa. D.D. Ranasinghe, 1928).

 In ancient times, chivalric art (sippa) such as archery (danu-sippa) and riding on horse-back or on elephants (hatth-assa-sippa) were commonly practised by princes and scions of noble families.

 Archery was evidently well developed. The Mahavansa refers to archers who were able to split a hair (Vala-Vadhin).

 As for horse racing, it appears to have gained popularity in late medieval times. The 13th century Sinhala work Saddharma-Ratnavaliya refers to horse-racing (duvaliye-lalu-asun) while it is well known that the Kandyan King Rajasinghe II (17th century) had a plain levelled for racing his horses.

 According to Robert Knox (Historical Relation of Ceylon 1681) the king possessed about 14 horses some of which were Persian.

 As for falconry, Knox mentions the sport, although we have no evidence to show whether it was known before. King Rajasinghe II is said to have been an avid falconer and procured Persian and Indian birds through the Dutch. Sporting in gardens and in water (Uyyana-Jala-Kila) were other favourite pastimes of royalty, though commoners too indulged in them.

 According to the Mahavansa, shortly before his conversion to Buddhism, King Devanampiyatissa declared a festival of water sport for the inhabitants of the city (Anuradhapura) before he went out to enjoy hunting.

 The same chronicle informs us that King Dutugemunu following his victory over the Dravidian usurper Elara, disported himself in the water of the Tissa reservoir the whole day through, together with the ladies of the harem.

 Such sports were of a highly amorous and sensuous nature as evident in later literary works.

 The Sinhala epic Kavsilumina attributed to King Parakrama Bahu II (13th century) which represents the royal lifestyle as it existed then gives a vivid description of the king sporting about in the water with his women.

 They are shown swimming about and splashing water at each other diving from the shoulders of one another and dancing about singing. The work alludes to a lady who `Climbed the diving board the shoulders of the King.'

 Women are also described as swimming about with their faces turned upwards.

 This revelry of singing and dancing is said to have continued till dawn.

 Four quatrains from the crest gem of poetry Kavsilumina by W.R.McAlpine and M.B. Ariyapala (1990) relating to the water sport scene are given below.

The water, flung to a fountain when a maiden
Her hair flowing in the wind, plunged into the lake.
Assumed the unsurpassing grace of enchantment.
Of a white lotus brimming with marauding bees.

Like two golden pots gay with coconut flowers
Gracing the ritual anointment of a king
Were the breasts of a maiden glistening with water
Splashed with speed from machine-like hands of her lover.

A woman, distracting the looks cast by the king on a girl,
From whose eyes the Kohl was washed away, 
And the red from her lips from swimming in the lake
Came from behind and audaciously embraced him.
At that moment a young lady squirted water
from her mouth, which struck the ear of the playful king
It appeared as if she, through a secret wand,
Told the king of her deep and enduring love for him.

A 15th century Sinhala poem Hansa Sandeshaya mentions a cross stream race between a man and woman. The competitors are referred to as starting from opposite banks and the woman is shown playfully kicking her opponent's face as they cross at mid-stream. The Gira Sandeshaya, also of the 15th century refers to a water sport called Diya-Kokila which was played by women. Coming to more serious sport. We know that wrestling (malla-pora) and armed gladiator contests (Ura Linde Angan Ketima) were very popular in the olden days.

 P.E.P. Deraniyagala (Some Sinhala Combative Field and Aquatic Sports and Games 1959) has shown that wrestling was a highly developed art in the country.

 Such games were often fought till the death of one contestant. The Kandyan aristocracy are even known to have written wrestling treatises known as mara-nil-satra (the science of death-inducing centres).

 Deraniyagala has shown that a variety of scientific blows as well as throws and locks were known to the wrestlers. An interesting kind of bloodless wrestling was well-wrestling (Ura Linde Angan Pora).

 This contest comprised of two wrestlers descending into a narrow well whose sides had been strengthened by terracotta rings. They then commenced wrestling with their backs pressed against the sides of the well, each endeavouring to make his way up the shaft and emerge to the surface by propelling himself off his rival by kicking him back into the well.

 Water Fights (Jala-pora) where the contestants who were stationed about two yards apart, splashed each other with water so that one of them was eventually forced to turn away from the constant deluge were well known.

 During the contest, it was permissible to approach one's opponent. The first to turn his or her back to the attack lost the contest. The Kav Silumina alludes to such fights being conducted by squirting water through a large syringe known as the Jala Yantaraya (lit. water machine).

 The Mayura Sandeshaya (14th century) states that the women employed an ellipsoid article known as pen malava made with silver and set with a large ruby.

 There also existed a great deal of armed combat such as quarter staff (polu haramba) and mace combat (muguru pora). These however were not so violent as the sanguinary gladiatorial contests with swords and daggers fought between contesting gladiators (Saramba-Karayo).

 The contestants fought in an arena or Ura linda, a pit 30 cubits long and 7 cubits deep. The duration of the fight was one Sinhalese hour (i.e. 24 minutes) by the water clock. The winner of the fight was rewarded with lands and a rank such as `Panik-rala' (Master of martial arts). The contest did not commence at once; as Deraniyagala notes: `As it was considered improper for a man to attack another without provocation it was customary for one contestant to inquire from the other `Fellow from where do you emerge' or some similar impolite question to which the reply would be `You beef eating dog, you have but an hour to live, make your peace with the Gods' and the fight was on.'

 During Kandyan times, gladiatorial contests were usually undertaken by two renowned martial clans, the Maruvalliye and the Sudaliye who were rivals of one another.

 H.C.P.Bell (Report on the Kegalle District 1892) has recorded an interesting tradition from the Kegalle District concerning a famous female gladiator.

 A gladiator of the Maruvalliye clan was once summoned to the court to fight a renowned Sudaliye champion and before departing for the fight instructed his pregnant wife to train their unborn child in the martial arts in case he fell. The Maruvalliye warrior was slain in the contest and their child, a girl, was trained in fencing. Some years later she made her entry to the court disguised as a man and threw a challenge to any Sudaliye warrior, whereupon a fighter from that clan accepted the challenge. The Maruvalliye girl killed her opponent and revealed her identity to the king, who was so pleased with her that he presented her with five elephants and appointed her Disava (Governess) of the Satara Korale.

 Fighting with wild beasts as the ancient Romans did was also not unknown.

 The Deva Angam cloth of the Maha Devale Hanguranketa (16th century) depicts two gladiators armed with daggers and aided by three dogs fighting a leopard.

 Fights between animals were also known. Some of these were elephant fights (Gaja-Keli) cock fights (Kukul-Keli) bull fights (gon-pora) and buffalo fights (migon-pora).

 Elephant fights were commonly witnessed by royalty. Stone inscriptions of the 11th-12th centuries allude to the king watching such fights. Robert Knox (1681) refers to the elephant fights staged before the king who watched the spectacle from a pleasure house built upon a high wall in Kandy.

 In a famous elephant fight at the royal sports field at Kundasale near Kandy, a fight between a wild tusker and a tamed one was watched by the king, the court nobles and thousands of others. The wild tusker is said to have been pushed backwards by the tamed beast and slid down a slope in a clay pit where it was gored to death by the victor. As for cock-fights (cocking), this pastime was evidently very popular in the olden days.

 Abu Zaid Al-Hasan (851 AC) states that the chief pastime in Sri Lanka was cocking. The owners armed the fowls with blades of iron and bet gold, silver, land etc, upon the combats.

 The Portuguese Historian Joao Ribeiro (ceilao 1658) records that one of King Rajasinghe's brothers at Matale was so devoted to the sport that he was called `Prince of the Game Cocks' and preferred cocking to asserting his claims to sovereignty.

 The king himself was not uncaptivated by the game and in spite of the continuing war with the Portuguese wrote to the Dutch in 1652 with a request to secure some Siamese game fowls for him. Setting one kind of beast against another kind was also deemed a form of entertainment.

 The Deva Angam cloth (Hanguranketa Maha Devale - 16th century) depicts a fight between an elephant and an imported Bengali tiger. The painting shows armed men attempting to shove aside the elephant who is on the verge of crushing the tiger to death. This may be an attempt to save the tiger for another occasion.

 Such grotesque games are thankfully no longer practiced though it is known that today villagers enjoy setting the mongoose against its proverbial enemy, the cobra for a fight unto death. @Explore Sri Lanka


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