Colombo Telegraph

Appuhamy Regiment And The Recent Rugby Games

By Charitha Ratwatte

Charitha Ratwatte

A historic battle took place in the Kande Uda Rata Rajadhaniya, in the course of one of the many invasions by the Western colonial powers who once occupied what was known as the Maritime Provinces of Lanka, at the site of the ford at Wagolla village, a crossing point of the Mahaweli river on one of the routes from Senkadagala Kande Mahanuwara to Hanguranketha and Hewaheta.

The Mahanuwara, the capital city of the kingdom, was protected by the Mahaweli River on three sides, the west, the north and the east. Invaders or those retreating from the capital often had to cross the river at fords such as Wagolla, Watapuluwa, Katugastota and Gannoruwa.

During the reign of Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, a column of British troops had set out from the Maritime Provinces, through Satara Korale to get to the Balana Pass, which provided the access to the Mahanuwara. Another column approached the Galagedera Pass. Elements of the British Army were also reported to have set out from Trincomalee on the east coast.

Kandyan war strategy

Channa Wickremesekera in his book ‘Kandy at War’ describes the strategy adopted by the Kandyan Sinhala people to meet this overwhelming European force equipped with more sophisticated firepower.

‘In his narrative of the expedition to Kandy in 1804, Captain Arthur Johnstone described Kandyan military strategy in the face of an invasion as one of avoiding confrontation with the invading force. Once the Europeans had entered Kandyan territory, the strategy shifted to trapping the Europeans within the mountains of the Kandyan heartland by cutting off its supplies and blocking routes of egress.

Then they waited for starvation and the insalubrious climate to take their toll on the trapped Europeans, and force them to retire, before making the final move.

“When encumbered by a long line of sick and wounded, exhausted by fatigue and want of provisions, and probably destitute of ammunition (which frequently happens from desertion of coolies), then it is and then only, that they attack him, exerting all their skill to harass and cut off his retreat.”’

Colonel Geoffrey Powell of the Green Howards regiment, in his book ‘The Kandyan Wars’ quotes the letters of Captain Beaver of the 19th Regiment of the Foot, British Army, who at one time was Governor North’s A.D.C., on the tactics adopted by the Kandyans: ‘The Cingalese lie concealed till you come close upon them, then they give one regular fire and fly. This is the general case… We were attacked from three points at once… they pick off at least one European or two… in each encounter, as we are obliged to be in advance… I cannot give you an idea of the country; the jungle is so thick, and the fastness so strong, that we are not a moment sure but what may be destroyed by a masked battery.’

It was the classic guerrilla warfare well in concert with the terrain, the lie of the land and superior firepower of the Europeans. The advancing British troops captured the Mahanuwara, which the Kandyans had abandoned; the King and the Dalada Vahanse, the Maha Sangha and the people had retreated into the hills to Hanguranketha. Most buildings in Mahanuwara had been destroyed before the Kandyans retreated – the British would have little shelter.

Punchibandara Dolapihilla, author of ‘In the Last Days of Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, Last King of Kandy,’ describes the feelings of the populace thus: “The enemy will defile the temples. When we surround them and their generals finds his proud army caught like cattle in a pen, and then he will try to escape and going away, leave every building in ashes. Let us burn the city ourselves.”

Appuhamy victory

The Kandyan troops received information that the British were intent on following the King to Hanguranketha, Hewaheta. The invading troops would have to cross the Mahaweli at Wagolla Ford. A special unit of the Appuhamy Regiment, the King’s bodyguards, attached to the palace, were assigned to defend the ford. They planned an ambush.

Dolapihilla writes: “They knew the white men would not march more than 10 miles during a morning. They would halt to rest until the sun became less warm.

They could command a view of the vicinity of the Wagolla Ford. There was water too and the place would be excellent for a halt. A number of kitul trunks placed on the banks of the river, their hearts packed with gunpowder should be so arranged as to make tempting seats

“But who would fire the gunpowder?… Under each trunk would be hole large enough for a man to squat in. In each hole would hang a fuse. At a signal every man would fire his fuse, using a coconut shell of live charcoals.

The trunks selected were of fair girth and cut long enough for a score or more men to sit comfortably. There was much debate to select the volunteers who would ignite the gun powder. Though it was certain death, the number of volunteers was much more than the 18 needed. They were chosen by drawing lots.

“The British patrol approached the ford. A few Appuhamys masquerading as bathers ran away yelling ‘Suddho, Suddho!’ The troops fired but missed. Cautiously the troops ventured onto the bank of the river. They mounted a perimeter guard and sat down on some seemingly innocuous logs, put down their weapons and reached for their water bottles.

“A conch blared out from the surrounding jungle. Kandyan jingals and muskets opened fire on the British. Suddenly the logs began to explode, belching out flames and clouds of suffocating smoke. Before the troops could recover from the surprise they were set upon and massacred by the Appuhamys. 18 Appuhamys were martyred to ‘save the Sasana from the white men’. It was a famous victory by a dedicated group from an elite unit of the King’s personal bodyguard – the Appuhamy Regiment. To this day the site of the Ford at Wagolla is called Lewella – ‘where the sand and was turned red with blood.’”


Not far from the site of the battle at the Ford at Dangolla and the bloodied sands of Lewella lies the hamlet of Nittawela, the location of the historic Nittawela Raja Maha Vihara and also the home grounds of the Kandy Sports Club (KSC).

The village is famous for being the home of the classic, renowned and immortal Kandyan dancer Nittawela Gunaya Gurunanse and his ‘paramparawa’ (lineage). The club was founded in 1874; the home ground originally was Bogambara. A club house named the Adigar Sir Cuda Ratwatte pavilion was constructed there. The building was taken over by the Kandy Hospital during the war. The matches continued to be played at Bogambara.

Until 1954 the club had no permanent home, until it was relocated at Nittawela. The site was a landfill – garbage from the Kandy Municipal Council was used to fill up a valley. Leading sportsperson of Kandy like Col. Stanley Ratwatte, Dr. K.B. Sangakkara, Christie Dunuwille, and Dr. J.C. Blok among others pioneered the development of the new premises.

The Kandy Sorts Club supported by business persons such as Malik Samarawickrama and corporates such as Singer, Cargills and Central Finance, has today carved out a key role in Sri Lanka rugby.

Politicisation of sports

Recently, with the end of the war against the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s armed forces have got into collateral activities such as maintaining parks, lakes and canals, building cricket stadia, commercial operations such as managing golf courses, whale watching boat services and air tours, etc.

Another collateral activity the armed forces have got into is sports administration and sports competition. High ranking officers, both retired and serving, are found in almost all sports associations. Unfortunately this has somehow resulted in a certain degree of politicisation of sports.

The current thinking seems to be that political priorities take precedence over all others, including the Rule of Law. It is reported that a very senior public servant had stated so to the members of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) recently, stating that political considerations should come first and the SEC, whose actions in terms of their lawful responsibilities had annoyed certain pump and dump players in the share market, should compromise. The result was that the Chairman of the SEC resigned. As did his predecessor.

This cancer has spread into the field of sports. There are allegations of favouritism of teams, lack of fairness in treating referees and umpires who do not comply with the current thinking, may be political priorities of the administrators, and also match fixing.

Unfortunately, as in the rest of the world, it is also alleged that gambling has taken a role in sports in Sri Lanka. In the casino culture that is taking hold here, match outcomes are matters on which there is heavy betting.  The fact that bookies, through their political connections, through their generous funding of politicians and due to the prevailing culture that politics has to prevail over all other priorities, such as fair play and the rules of the game, can be suspected to effect the outcome of a match or even the standard of refereeing, has brought about unfortunate results.

We already know about the role of bookies in cricket. This combined with the battle spirit and must win attitude that the armed services showed in their victory over the LTTE has been carried over to the sports arena, has sadly resulted in a great deal of violence, at matches which feature services teams.

Violent KSC-Kandy skirmish

A violent skirmish, fortunately not a full scale ambush and massacre as at the nearby Lewella, Dangolla Ford, took place recently, at the rugby grounds of the KSC in the hitherto pristine and tranquil hamlet of Nittawela on the outskirts of Kandy.

A sports correspondent described the recent game between the KSC and the Navy, in these terms: “In a nail-biting finish Kandy Sports torpedoed Navy by 25 points… to 20… to avenge their first round defeat in the Dialog League rugby tournament match played at Nittawela yesterday.”

Readers should note the use of the naval weapon torpedo in the narrative! It seems reporters are also getting caught up in the battlefield rhetoric! The correspondent went on to say: “A delightful game which was well contested was marred by ugly off-the-field incidents after the match, in which a section of the crowd was assaulted. A frequent occurrence in Kandy in the recent past in games involving the forces.”

The correspondent ends his report by stating: “Richard Kelly from London RFU refereed.” Seems that a local cannot be relied upon to be fair in a heavily-contested game of rugby football? How low have we fallen?

Another correspondent reported under the head line ‘Rowdyism mars end of play, as Kandy sink sailors in 25-20 thriller’. Note the use of the rhetoric/analogy of a naval vessel being sunk, perhaps with no survivors, going down with all hands on deck!

The report goes on: “However a day of excellent rugby was marred by rowdy behaviour on the part of some spectators. Soon after the long blast when the Navy players were walking into their dressing room a section of the jubilant Kandy supporters jeered at the Navy team, with cat calls. … It is also alleged that some bottles were thrown into the field, which resulted in fighting breaking out. It was a sad day for rugby after a well-contested team game.”

A writer of a letter to a newspaper, opines: “After the Navy SC vs. Kandy SC rugby match on 12 August, there is one unmistakeable message that must be passed on to all those who turn sport into hooliganism… you are not welcome on our playing fields anymore! If you are unable to handle defeat, stick to fighting wars and don’t bring that attitude into the sports field. Sure you have to win a war but this is simply a game! It was a great game of rugby… fought out brilliantly… The Kiwi referee described the intensity of the game and the atmosphere created by the crowd as ‘nothing like anything he had ever experienced before.’”

The writer goes on: “Then we had the ugly crowd incident.

“The diehard Kandy supporters ran onto the field when the final whistle blew and were celebrating along with the Kandy players… one of the … Navy players got jostled on his way to the pavilion, something which could have been done much earlier but over which he lingered, taking his own time, almost as if he was waiting for such a thing to happen, whereupon this worthy decided to retaliate. His brother went back into the melee and brought him out and then all hell broke loose”.

“Some people in track bottoms and white tee shirts started assaulting all and sundry and even climbed onto to the balconies and the VIP seats and have been captured on video assaulting the spectators. This was telecast on the Swarnavahini news broadcast that evening. There is no doubt who the perpetrators are and the footage is so clear that identification will not be a problem… If there is an interest to do so… If a disciplined force like the Navy can allow themselves to be provoked by an admittedly rowdy crowd, how can they be relied on to conduct themselves with decorum during their official duties?”

History of violent behaviour

The writer seems to have forgotten that the Sri Lanka Navy has a past history of such behaviour; it is the only national armed force, in the whole world, that has the unenviable record of a member of an honour guard, mounted by them, attempting to assault a head of government of another nation with the butt of his rifle! Only the quick reaction of the Navy Commander of the day who threw a punch, emulating one of Muhammad Ali’s ‘Sting like a Bee’ best, which knocked down the rating, saved the day. There seems a pattern emerging!

The Brits have a humorous saying: Aristocrats join the Navy, gentlemen join the Army, and others join the Air Force! Seems that in our local context we need to do some editing of this age old adage! The Reverend Peter Pillai is supposed to have famously said: “Football is a sport for gentleman, played by rowdies, while rugby is a sport for rowdies played by gentlemen!” The situation may be changing in the light of current events.

The writer goes on to say: “Also, this is not the first occasion. Such instances have become commonplace during games played by the forces teams with particular emphasis on the Navy and the Air force.

If this is the example being set by the elite forces of this country who the people are eternally grateful to, for bringing peace to our country… what hope is there for our society and for all the youngsters who were present at the match? …If the Navy and Air Force are not able to control their ‘supporters,’ who are essentially troops in civvies, they should be banned from taking part in tournaments that involve civilians. Let’s not forget the discharging of a firearm during a match at this self same venue during a game against the Air Force two seasons ago…” Another writer stated that the Navy had purchased 1,200 tickets in advance for the match.

These are indeed strong sentiments expressed in anguish due to the low standards to which sports (and some say most other things) seem to falling.  The armed forces have been a source of permanent and pensionable employment for hundreds of accomplished sports persons who have been able to improve their performance in the supportive environment provided by the sports councils of the various services.

They have fought a heroic war to defend the nation. It would be a pity if all this was jeopardised due to some sad incidents of rank indiscipline.

How this contrasts with the behaviour of the brave young cadres of the Appuhamy Regiment at Wagolla Ferry in the days of yore!

Courtesy Financial Times

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