The Kingdom of Kandy

Between two Kingdoms: Kandy

From Eladetta to Gallangola…

Kandy, important independent monarchy in Ceylon at the end of the 15th century and the last Sinhalese kingdom to be subjugated by a colonial power. Kandy survived the attacks of Ceylon’s first two colonial rulers—the Portuguese and the Dutch—and finally succumbed to the third and last colonial ruler, the British, in 1815.

While all the other Sinhalese kingdoms had been extinguished by the Portuguese in the early 1600s… Kandy survived with stubborn persistence for another two centuries.

Under Portuguese rule, Kandy allied itself with the Dutch; under Dutch rule, it sought assistance from the British. From the time of the British takeover of Ceylon in 1796, Kandy was thrown on its own resources. The British considered the continued independence of Kandy a hindrance to the expansion of both their trade and their communications network in Ceylon.

The first British attack against Kandy in 1803 was a failure. By 1815, however, the Kandyan chiefs became dissatisfied with their tyrannical king (of South Indian descent) and welcomed British intervention. In the ensuing agreement of 1815, the Kandyan Convention, the Kandyan king was deposed and sovereignty was vested in the British crown, but the rights of the Kandyan chiefs were largely maintained. Soon, the chiefs became dissatisfied with this arrangement and openly rebelled in 1817 but were decisively subjugated by the British in 1818. Ceylon was thus brought, for the first time in many centuries, under unified rule. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Robert Knox at Eladetta

In 1681, Richard Chiswell, printer to the Royal Society, published at the Rose & Crown in Saint Paul’s Churchyard, London, the first book about Ceylon in the English language – and one which in some ways is still the best. With a commendation by Sir Christopher Wren and a preface by Dr Robert Hooke, then Secretary to the Royal Society, the book was titled An Historical Relation of Ceylon. It was written by Robert Knox, the son of an East India Company captain, with Hooke’s help.

In September 1680, Robert Knox returned home to London after an absence of 22 years. For almost all this period, he had been a virtual prisoner of the king of Kandy, the mountainous kingdom in the centre of Ceylon.

The following year he published his remarkable story as An Historical Relation of the island of Ceylon, describing his capture when he was barely 17 years old on his father’s trading ship on the west coast of Ceylon in February 1660, and his subsequent incarceration – at first as a captive held in a village, later as a Kandyan freeholder planting fruit and trees and rearing goats, pigs and chickens, who was permitted to travel throughout the kingdom selling his wares. Eventually, Knox and a fellow prisoner, Stephen Rutland, escaped by walking north from Kandy to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, and thence to the Arippu Fort on the Dutch-controlled northwestern coast. The Dutch sent them to Colombo, where the governor received them, before transporting them to Batavia ; and from Java the two escapees sailed to England .

Knox began to write his account of Ceylon on the voyage home. Although he had a limited education and had had no access to writing materials for 19 years, he re-learnt how to write and as a “man new borne” recorded the basic narrative of what became a work of some 100,000 words consisting of 189 folio-sized pages divided into four parts. The first of these is a general description of the island and its fauna and flora. The second concerns King Rajasinha of Kandy and his court, and other aspects of the Kandyan kingdom. The third describes the inhabitants of the entire island and their social organisation. The final part is autobiographical and explains how Knox fetched up in Ceylon . Overall, the book remains by far the most impressive document on Ceylon – non-fiction or fiction – ever published. I am lucky enough to own a first edition, and it is one of my most prized literary possessions. (Richard Boyle)


A stone slab indicates that Robert Knox and his companions had dwelt there. The words etched on it are still to be seen: “Whereabout dwelt Robert Knox, Stephen Ruthland 1670-1673 and with them until 1674 Roger Couhd, Ralph Knight.” Erected in 1908 – J.P.L.

Robert Knox describes Eladetta thus:- “.. It lies some ten miles to the southwards of the city of Cande in the country of Oudaneura in the town of Elledat.”

In his book, Robert Knox makes mention of the land he had bought to put up his house at Eladetta for five and twenty Lares (that is about five dollars). He writes, “….the terms of purchase being concluded on between us, a writing made upon a leaf in a manner witnessed by seven or eight men of the best.”

Robert Knox also worked a paddy field close to where he and his companions had stayed at Eladetta. Knox described this ‘corn’ field and the water spout thus: “… it being a point of land standing, into a corn field that corn fields were on the three sides of it and just before my door a little corn ground belonging thereto, and very well watered in ground besides eight Cocker-nut Trees.”

Robert Knox hated marriage and did not allow his companions to tie the knot. If anyone did so, he had to leave Knox’s house forthwith. So while at Eladetta, his only companion was Stephen Ruthland who also remained like Knox – a bachelor. Two other comrades, Roger Couhd and Ralph Knight married Sinhalese girls of the village and left his house.

Knox also mentions a little girl in his book. A girl called Lucea (of a mixed marriage of his own countryman) who had looked after him in the house with affection and devotion.

It is also said in Knox’s book, that after escaping from Eladetta, when he reached London, he had sent a note to Lucea through one of his countrymen living around Eladetta, that he wanted to bequeath his property and small estate to her.

It was from Eladetta that Captain Robert Knox and his only companion, Stephen Ruthland made their final escape in 1679 through Anuradhapura. They trekked along the banks of Malwatu Oya-then Dutch territory. They reached the Dutch Fort at Arpu on October 16,1679, after being captive in the Kandyan Kingdom for nearly nineteen long years. From there they set sail to England via Mannar and Batavia. Knox reached London in September, 1680, when he was 40 years old.

Robert Knox died in London on June 19, 1720, at the ripe old age of 79. “He was buried at Wimbledon Church five days after, possibly by the side of his mother who died in 1656.”

(Gamini G. Punchihewa)

Deva Matha Viharaya

Pic. Prasanna Upajeewa

During the ancient Kandyan period, there was a unique type of vihara called the “Tampita Vihara”, also known as “Deva Matha Viharaya”. “Tampitha Vihara” is a temple on pillars. Its most prominent feature is that it is mounted on monolithic pillars or dwarfed rock pillars.

This type of viharaya that stood on raised platforms of wood standing on stone pillars was constructed this way in order to prevent white ants or other vermin from entering it and damaging it.

“Tampita Vihara” has yet another name- the “Deva Matha Vihara”. Deva here means timber and Matha means amidst a vihara of timber. On a recent tour around the interior of Kandy, not far away from the city, I came to know that there are only two such Deva Matha Viharayas in the Uda Nuwara and Yata Nuwara areas.

These archaic monuments are preserved by the Department of Archaelogy.

The superstructure of the Deva Matha Viharaya is composed of wattle and daub and is square in shape.

The height of the doorway is about four feet and its dimensions are 10 feet by 15 feet, standing on six stone dwarf pillars. The doorway is so small that one has to bend down as if in obeisance, to enter the Vihara. Such Deva Matha Viharas enshrine Buddha statues and are places of worship. The walls are adorned with murals and the roof is thatched with flat tiles.

There is a gilted statue of the Buddha in a sitting position made out of terra cotta which is similar to ones found in Gadaladeniya and Lankatillake viharas in the vicinity. Exquisite designs depicting Jataka stories cover the walls while on the ceiling there is a painting of flowers and creepers with tendrils which is fast deteriorating.

Behind the Deva Matha Vihara is a large bo tree with bowers that have given shade to many.

Interestingly, the home gardens of the villages are abundant in pepper vines which are seen festooning the jack, mango and coconut trees. Sadikka is also found in abundance.

Dodanwela Devale and the battle of Gannoruwa (March 28, 1638)

It is said that the King Rajasinghe II (1635 – 1687) was on his way to Balana to battle the Portuguese when his palanquin snapped when one of the supporting staves snapped for no apparent reason, and he had to alight at the Dodanwela. He asked where this place was and was informed this was called “Nahimige Kovila”

On investigating, the king was informed by his men that the deity presiding in the shrine was very powerful. Impressed, the king then vowed that if he succeeded in defeating the Portuguese invader, he would present his crown along with swords from the battle to the shrine. He emerged victorious in the famed battle of Gannoruwa in 1638, on the outskirts of Kandy, routing the occupying forces of General Diego De Melo. Upon securing his victory the triumphant monarch vested the crown as fulfillment of the vow to the deity in the Dodamwela shrine. It remained there until it was transferred to the Kandy museum in the 20th century.

Pic. Prasanna Upajeewa

Dedicated to a local deity in the past, now it is dedicated to Natha and is now called Dodanwela Devale.

The Royal crown that was gifted to the Devale was placed in the Kandyan Museum which was stolen recently by treasure hunters.

The Devale in architecture is similar to Vishnu Devale in Kandy but the inner sanctum has no Vishnu image. Instead there are two portraits of Kings painted on wood which one is believed to be of King Rajasinghe II. It also preserves two embroidered silk jackets believed to be belonging to the king and dozen of swards.

Another curious abject here is a brass crown which is said to be of King Vesamuni, the king of the daemons.

The avenue of na trees (iron wood trees) – the national tree of Sri Lanka- has adorned the devale precincts for centuries.

Esala festivities take place in the historic Natha Devale in Dodanwela in Yatinuwara. Dated back to its inception beyond the Portuguese period, the festivities of this temple are held in honour of God Natha.

Diyakelinawela : Kirti Sri Rajasingha and the Buddhist revival

Originally built by Kirti Sri Megavanna in the 4th century AD, it was subsequently renovated by King Kirti Sri Rajasingha during the Buddhist cultural renaissance in the 18th century.

Its name originates from the legend that the spot was used for water-sports by the young princes of the Royal family during the Kandyan period: diya=water; kelina=sports, and wela=place. There had in fact been a clear pool where the present bana maduwa (open hall) now stands.

The complex consists of a maduwa, a pansala, the gal-vihara or cave temple, a recently built dagoba, and the old bodhi tree. The last two are on the right but slightly farther back.

The pilimage lies within the cave, which protected by a lean-to roof of modern tiles, and a front wall with a narrow carved doorway. The original stone pillars have been arranged methodically in front, in recent times, as well as along the periphery of the courtyard. Entry into the vihara is through this doorway into a long vestibule on to which open four cubicles (the division is man-made).

The one on the extreme right contains a splendid recumbent Buddha of clay over a wooden or brick core. It has been somewhat damaged with time, but fortunately has not suffered the indignity of recent restoration. It is in its original colours, and non-garish. The eyes of the image were originally of precious stones, but these have been stolen. No other images lie in this, the largest of the cave cubicles.

On the walls there are representations of Solos-Mahastana, Suvisi-Vivarana, Sat-Satiya, and also Dhammasonda Jataka.

The next three cubicles contain in descending order of size:

  • a sedant Buddha image under a makara torana from the top of which arises a bo-tree;

  • a second sedant image in cave 2 protected by an enormous capella of the naya;

  • and in cave 1 a third sedant Buddha image under the usual elaborate makara torana, above which are carved numerous devas.

Pic. Prasanna Upajeewa

The ceilings are decorated with tiny squares with a large lotus directly overhead. There is also a beautiful painting of hamsa-puttuva.These paintings of the 18th and 19th century are characterized by their bright colours, with a genuine and sober quality.

This vihara has also an image (1. 8 m) of the King Kirti Sri Rajasingha.

 A close connection exists (as is usually the case where devales are associated with a temple) between the nearby Dodanwela devale and this vihara. After recitation of the Kol-mure (a recitation of the origins, birth etc. of the deity) by the kapurala of the devale, the offerings are brought here to the vihara shrine room.


Pic. Prasanna Upajeewa

Built in the 1800s the arches within this beautifully painted temple are indicative of the colonial influence which has modified the architecture of this island.

Gallangolla is a colonial structure (built probably in teh early 1800s)with really surprising large arches with murals in lovely earth and orange shades, there is also a long hall on the side with a large reclining Buddha, upstairs more surprising architecture and murals as Kandyan and Colonial mix. and a huge painted storage box that is quite rare in temples. Apparently this temple was not built by the devotees but by a monk who collected resources to gift to the Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth in Kandy) but for some reason that did not work out so he decided to build a grand temple himself!

 References in our Library:

  • Holt, John Clifford (1991). Buddha in the Crown. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Holt, John Clifford, Editor (2011). The Sri Lanka Reader. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • Knox, Robert (1681). An Historical Relation of the Island CEYLON in the EAST-INDIES. London: Richard Chiswell.
  • Knox, Robert (1693). Relation ou Voyage de l’Isle de Ceylan dans les Indes Orientales. Amsterdam: Paul Marret, 2 tomes.
  • Knox, Robert (1911). An Historical Relation of CEYLON. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons.
  • Mirando, A.H. (1985). Buddhism in Sri Lanka in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Colombo: Tisara.
  • Mudyanse, Nandasena (1965). The Art and Architecture of the Gampola Period. Colombo: M. D. Gunasena.
  • Mudyanse, Nandasena (1967). Mahayana Monuments in Ceylon. Colombo: M. D . Gunasena.
  • Seneviratne, Anuradha (1983). Kandy. Colombo: Central Cultural Fund.
  • Weerekoon, Lloyd (1990). Raja Maha Viharas of Kandy.Colombo.

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