17 November, 2018

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Two Days & One Night In Kurunegala

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Over two days, we tried to traverse the length and breadth of Kurunegala. We could not, even after covering more than 600 kilometres. Then again, it is impossible to ascertain with just one trip, and a randomly organised trip at that, the full worth of a place, especially one as culturally fertile as this. For while much of the region is arid and susceptible to the shifts of droughts and floods, it remains fertile in the memory of the people who inhabit it. Fertile even to those who chance across it and fertile even to those who choose to ignore it.

We are hesitant to associate a people with the place they reside in, because we happen to be lotus-eaters. What possibly can we know of a region that has housed an entire civilisation, and has borne witness to a renaissance not just in our history, but in our literature and economy as well? Precious little, as it turns out.

I have always felt that travel bloggers, in their quest to capture the exotic, frequent those sites which have already been covered, hundreds if not thousands of times, by other bloggers. I remember once making the mistake of boarding myself at the Rest House in Matara. A friend of mine, a good friend, later advised me to go inland, to Deniyaya, Telijjawila, and Akuressa, for it is there, in those places, that the real Matara unveils itself to the outsider. You do not come across many rest houses in Deniyaya and Telijjawila and Akuressa. You come across houses. And real human beings. That curious anomaly called tourism has not visited these places. At least, not yet. The same can be said of Kurunegala, at least the Kurunegala I chose to visit.

For a long time, Kurunegala to me was a place occupied with history. It was a fortress, a never ending assortment of rocks and mountains which provided the perfect cover for a civilisation that was facing the first few onslaughts of destructive colonialism. The Dambadeniya Era was one of tentative ties with the outside world and careful diplomacy, in particular because the country had been all but completely enslaved. It marked the last recorded time that a kingdom which had been abandoned before was resorted to again: Polonnaruwa, under Parakramabahu III. But as Professor K. M. de Silva argues, this was less an accomplishment than a necessity, since Polonnaruwa provided the base for Parakramabahu to maintain cordial relations with the Pandyans and to bring back the sacred tooth relic to Sri Lanka. From Parakramabahu III, the mantle of power passed to Dambadeniya once again. This time, to Kurunegala.

It was this history and the culture it entailed that first fascinated me, I distinctly remember. The shift from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa was necessary as much for strategic reasons (threats from South India) as for economic reasons: Gokanna, which was what they called the Trincomalee Harbour, was closer to the latter region, and with the expansion of trade with the West, being near it made good sense.

From AD 1232, the capital began to move from Polonnaruwa, this time further down to the south-west. Again, this was motivated by both military and economic concerns, since trade had by then shifted from India and the West to China, the world’s biggest single economy, which on an unprecedented scale was opening itself up to the world outside. Though it would take the Ming Dynasty, a century or so later, to give effect to this process (and, in one of the many maritime voyages it “sponsored”, even “invade” our country), around the 13th century China was becoming a more powerful “arrival in the trade sector” (as Kamalika Pieris put it). The Sinhala kings responded to this growing reality, and one way through which they could respond to it was by moving further south-west. They began this shift with Dambadeniya.

With Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, Sinhalese civilisation pioneered a hydraulic civilisation never before seen on such a scale elsewhere. The bisokotuwa, an invention of the third century BC (the founders of which haven’t been identified by historians) laid the foundation of a culture that thrived on a sleek relationship between the wewa and neighbouring tanks. Both these kingdoms had been able to withstand the pressures attendant on such places: “intermittent streams, gross yearly variations, undulating relief, high evaporation some eight degrees from the Equator, poor groundwater resources, indifferent soils, and marked seasonal concentration of rainfall with its risk of disastrous floods”, among others. The dry zone had to do with rainfall restricted to the period from September to January, which was less reliable than in the wet zone. The marvels of engineering and water conservation constructed during this period, then, would be modified and adapted to meet the needs of the subsequent kingdoms.

Dambadeniya was the first testing ground for how well those marvels could withstand the shift to a new centre of power. All in all, it passed the test rather well: not only did it find refuge in the many fortresses which shielded the kingdom, it also fermented a civilisational renaissance. For the Dambadeniya Era was the bedrock of a revolution in literature. It gave birth to the kavsilumina, the sandesha kavya, and the Dalada Siritha. It also gave birth to the Muvadevdavata and the Saddharma Ratnavaliya.

Curiously enough, while being shielded from South India, the writers of this era, to compensate perhaps for the infiltration of South India, imbibed the traditions of North India: the heavily ornate, “alankarist” (sophist) style of Sanskrit poets. By the time of the 15th century, the process of cultural assimilation (or imitation?) this necessitated was virtually complete; it would be continued, with minor modifications, in the 20th century with the Colombo poets. At the same time though, it did not abandon the people’s quest for a genuine national literature: it was during these centuries that the Sidat Sangarava was written and, according to Wilheim Geiger, the shift towards Modern Sinhalese transpired. Dambadeniya, and Kurunegala among its kingdoms, was hence a place of contradiction as well.

Still, it was not always fortunate for Sinhalese civilisation to have moved so abruptly to such a region. The turbulence which marked the first few outside conquests, even those of the Cholas, had been combated and resolved. But the 13th century saw a very different wave of conquests, more merciless since it compelled the abandonment of the heartland of ancient Sri Lanka.

The process of resettlement this compelled was made more difficult by other factors, prime among them malaria, which “added a further and insuperable obstacle to the reoccupation of the once productive areas of the dry zone.” Not surprisingly, by the mid-14th century, with the rise of the Aryachakravarti Kingdom in Jaffna (the most powerful in the island), the monuments to our irrigation system, the tanks and the reservoirs, were fast deteriorating, physically and metaphorically. Deterioration on such a scale could not be halted or paused, and it went hand in hand with the decline of irrigation cultures in South East Asia: in Cambodia, northern Thailand, and Burma.

Our people were always resilient in the face of outside threats. They faced the biggest series of invasions from the 10th to the 13th centuries, which would have been enough to put down any civilisation. But Martin Wickramasinghe once wrote that this culture of resilience, which survived the Cholas, the Pandyans, and the Pallavas, was probably rooted in the Buddhist ethos the people readily imbibed. Was it because the court poets, the prose writers, and even the kings of these centuries began to abandon that ethos which had run through the literature of the preceding centuries that, during and after the Dambadeniya Era, a period of decrepitude got rooted in the country?

Dambadeniya, and with it Kurunegala, was a kingdom that flourished in the realms of the sacred and the worldly. It was the bedrock of modern Sinhalese, the language and the literature. It was the classical era for scholars and writers. And yet, it was also a place of contradictions, of a Buddhist civilisation coexisting with a secular culture. It was this history that I sought to explore with the two days I spent in Kurunegala. To be sure, by itself, Kurunegala does not span the entirety of Dambadeniya, which is why I explored Yapahuwa and Panduwasnuwara as well. Still, Kurunegala is special to me, because of the many glimpses it affords: the people, the sights, and the sounds. These, more than the cultural sites, may yield something of value with which we can look at its inhabitants more wholesomely. Now, and forever.

Photos by Manusha Lakshan

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 4
    2

    “Over two days, we tried to traverse the length and breadth of Kurunegala.”

    Well, Uditha ………. you should find yourself a girlfriend!

    If she is true to form …….. it’ll take you a lifetime to traverse the length and breadth; not two days

    If not even God can’t help you ……….. keep a bottle of glyphosate nearby ………..

    Have a method of escape ……. already worked out ………… before you venture. :))

  • 8
    3

    I am yet to learn something that is not being said commonly and without any convincing evidence. Often words can be a substitute for lack of intelligence . Shallowness is displayed by a pomposity-the reader must assess for himself anything he reads

  • 7
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    The word Kurunegala it self is of Tamil/Dravidian origin and this person with little knowledge speaks of shielded from South Indian( meaning Tamil ) influence Blah Blah. Kurunagala means in Sinhalese :Kurune” means tusker or an elephant with protruding teeth and gala in Sinhala means rock. This is purely derived from the Tamil word “Kurunai” which means a tusker or elephant and ” Kal” means in Tamil rock, hill or stone. The Sinhalese word Gala is derived from the Tamil word Kal. Just like the word ” Modaya” meaning fool is derived from the Tamil word ” Madaiyan”. meaning fool. There are huge populations in the present Kurunegala district now calling themselves Kandyan Sinhalese Buddhist but were still until recently practising many customs of their Tamil ancestors , like tying the Thali during the wedding. Please get your facts correct and stop Sinhalising Tamil name. The correct and ancient Tamil name for Trincomalee is Thirumalai ( meaning the holy hill)

    • 0
      3

      RSSS Or Who Ever You Are,

      The CORRECT and ANCIENT Name for Trincomalee is SRIGOKHANNA.
      Find the Real history, Do not Bark HERESAY!!!!.

      • 1
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        Stop posting lies . This is an ancient Tamil Saivite area and the name is Thirumalai. The temple can be called Gokana in Sanskrit or Thiru Kooneswaram in Tamil and the Sinhalese can call it Gokana does not mean this is the original and ancient name. The ancient Tamil Naga and the Tamilised Vedda who are indigenous to the region have always called it Thirumalai( meaning the holy hill where the ancient prehistoric Saivite Konneswaram temple is located) and this is their land not Chingkallam or Muslim land. Just because the British called Kandy does it mean this is the correct name for Kandy? Your argument is the same as this. very silly trying to impost a foreign name on to an ancient Tamil city for future Sinhalisation purposes and claim it for the Chingkallams.

    • 0
      2

      HEE HEE TAMIL supremacists wanting to pee on every article to prove Tamils are the original inhabitants across entire Ceylon. Who the fuck cares man? Tell me how Muslims are flourishing in Polonnaruwa and Kurunegala first? Who is breeding like guinea pigs and taking over.

    • 0
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      RSs….

      “Kurunegala” I thought an area where no girls with sexy legs

  • 5
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    Hello Uditha;
    The effort is very much appreciated. Some people seem to be stuck in their pessimistic garbage bins but I see this as the beginning of more essays on the subject. Personally I am happy that another person is trying to highlight the importance of this area that is neglected by writers and historians and looked down upon by the so called Colombians.

    Siva, it is an undeniable fact that Sri Lanka was invaded by South Indians. As a Sri Lankan, if you are one, irrespective of your ethnicity you should accept the facts. There is no argument against that Singhalese Language was influenced by other languages, particularly by Tamil. You might not know that the locals of Kurunegala interpret the name as Kurani Gala for the rock’s Kurani shape. Kuraniya is a basket made of cane and has been used to take sweets (kewum) in. You might then argue Kurani is Tamil too. In “Goodness Gracious Me”, everything is Indian including “shit” and “Price Charles” People do not give two hoots whether the words come from Tamil or heaven as long as they are there and people understand what is meant by them.

    • 0
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      We hope and pray that Colombian’s and Ranil’s brains don’t suddenly lightbulb-up, and the place starts being used for money making ventures to sustain the greedy Colombian lifestyles. We demand that the money of the hardworking rural masses that goes to the Colomboites to roll into their elite commercial ventures, gets bank-rolled back to the rural sector. Traditional organic and non-gmo ancient agriculture needs to be regrown; lives of the farmers need to be uplifted.

  • 0
    0

    Uditha, please tell us about Kurunagala cashew nuts and thalaguli.

  • 5
    2

    Used to live in Kurunagala when I was 5 & 6 in the late ‘60’s. Took my nursery rhyme book and sang “lavender’s blue, dilly, dilly”, and immersed myself in the rural landscape whilst gazing at sheaves of rice and hay and cattle roaming around, and rural folk. Used dried (and sometimes wet) goma to fertilize our little flower plots.………..one I saw a snake in our chicken coup with feather at its end…wow, what a snake, I thought!…… was told later that it was in the process of eating one of our chickens…….my favorite hen went missing after that. Then there were the kabaragoyas and talagoyas. One grandmother used to make hot kyowns dripping with coconut oil……never tasted anything more delicious. Went to convent school in the Kurunagala town from kindergarten-grade 1 in a double decker bus past the big rocks. Some girls went in large chauffeur driven limousines (guess the paddy money of the hard-working goviya masses translated into the big cars……….hence the glyphosates nowadays). The nun principal was wild with my mother because my mum refused to teach us Sinhalese……. didn’t want us to become godayas (in spite of being half godaya). Yes, Kurunagala was the bastion of Sinhaladom…..gene amalgamations included.

    • 1
      1

      ” my mum refused to teach us Sinhalese…..”

      Yes all Fernandos’ mothers and grandmothers were Tamils and speaking Tamil not Sinhala until the local bishop Edmond Peiris asked to give up tamil and study Sinhala and become Sinhalese. This kind of metamorphosis took place in 1960s.

      • 3
        1

        Sadhu,

        Noooo…..my mother was Half Burgher and half Upcountry Sinhalese. Anyway, Fernando is my married name……and it is a Sinhalese Kurukulasuriya Fernando.

        • 4
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          “Fernando is my married name”

          It’s the husband we feel sorry for! :))

          • 3
            1

            Ma husband is amused.

            • 0
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              Well it’s good to know that there is time for humour.
              .
              RTF; Why not find out what’s happening in the Maldives? There is an important election there on Sunday. It used to be a 100% Sinhala Buddhist country. We certainly can’t take the country back to that situation, and indeed nobody is trying to challenge its status as 100% Muslim now.
              .
              But if you keep your American eyes open, you will see plenty happening there that is not irrelevant to us.

  • 4
    1

    Was said in regret (could have said it better). Wishing that there wasn’t so much demeaning of the Sinhala race in those times. If one was mixed with Sinhalese, one had to not admit to it by the other side. That’s why I speak for the Sinhalese for I have seen the discrimination against them (not the big-shots, but the humble Sinhala masses). Glad that the Sinhalese have come into their own now, although there is an unfortunate retaliation from spoilt minorities.

  • 2
    5

    Ancient Tamil kingdoms thrived in these areas especially Kurunegala, Dambadeniya and Panduwasnuwara. Great Tamil kings like Alageshwaran, Douraisingham and Arasarathnam ruled the entire Vayamba province even before Sinhalese set foot there. In Mahava we had a Krishna devala built more than 4000 years ago. Para Pandukabhaya came and demolished it. Para Sinhalese have infiltrated into our country. That is why Great Amirthalingam widow said that shoes must be made out of Sinhala skin for us Tamils to wear.

  • 2
    1

    Dear Nirmalanjali Gopinathinan,
    .
    How foolish can you get? Why do you want to unnecessarily antagonise Sinhalese readers? In the comments, “Helasinghe” (sorry “Helasingha” – the guy is particular about spellings) has welcomed the fact that Uditha Devapriya has chosen to do a quick exploration of the Kurunegala area, and hopefully, persuade others to do the same. Such travel costs money, and it is best done independently of political agenda. Increasingly, Colombians are dominating our attention and thinking.
    .
    Similarly, I have made three brief visits to the North, with groups of retired teachers, and reported what I saw. What I have had to say has pleased most Tamil readers. My visits were not undertaken with a sense of triumphalism. I want to see normalisation of life for those who live in “majority Tamil areas”. If you have common sense you will realise that speaking of “Traditional Tamil Homelands” (while not being inaccurate) is politically loaded.
    .
    As for the Mrs Amirthlingam story, I have seen that convincingly denied by a Tamil writer. Apparently it was uttered about using “Tamil skins” by the racist Welimada M.P. , K.M.P. Rajaratne. Mrs Rajaratne was also in Parliament, representing Uva Paranagama. Those people and you must be held responsible for making our country so notorious for discord.
    .
    Sinhalese and Tamil, we are one people, differentiated today mainly by language. Helasingha is no racist, but even he has been provoked in to here writing some things which you may think provocative owing to remarks like that made here by RSSS. With every passing day, bits of our Common Heritage are being forgotten Your comment is one of the worst that I have seen.
    .
    I would appreciate a response from you.

  • 1
    0

    Nirmalanjali Gopinathinan could be Vigneswaran writing in a pseudo name. Vigneswaran is also like that – trying to claim the whole Lanka giving bogus names of Tamil kings never existed. He He even errected bogus Tamil Kings statutes in Jaffna using Sri Lankan tax payer funds.

    Nirmalanjali Gopinathinan has given 3 names of kings. This is the first time ever that such names have appeared as Kings of Sri Lanka. It is like the people of Nirmalanjali Gopinathinan that this country is destroyed.

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