A moment in time….

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A moment in time….

By: Avanthi Kottegoda.

History is not a very appealing subject to many. I was no different when I was in school until I came across a book that changed not only my perception of History, but my life as well.

Sri Lankan History is a tapestry of richly woven epics and tales of our ancestors our Kings and our people. Mahavamsa is the great chronicle that bares testimony to that wonderful history. Mahavamsa was written in the 6th century AD by the venerable thera Mahanama, a brother of King Datusena. There are many theories about the accuracy of the Mahavamsa, and many argue that Mahanama thera was partial to certain dynamic characters of History such as King Dutugamunu and that he exaggerated the heroism and certain incidents from King Dutugamunu’s life.

As children we have all heard stories of the brave King Dutugamunu who united our country for the 1st time under one kingdom of Sinhalay, by defeating the Chola King Elara in Anu (now known as Anuradhapura). Although the Mahavamsa is without doubt the greatest and the single most important document of our resplendent country, it is not unthinkable that the author might have glorified this particular King for the marvellous victory and unification of our country under one flag. I however, came across a book called “Winds of Sinhala” written by Colin De Silva, which is about the life of King Dutugamunu. Having researched every possible avenue that gave any information about the King, Colin De Silva has managed to paint the extraordinary life of King Dutugamunu with such vivid, heart warming detail that explains not only the glories but those dark and lonely moments of a monarch that we rarely think of.

King Dutugamunu was known as Gamini, and was born to a wise & patient King of great strength of character, and a queen with a strong spirit and unknown to many, a fierce ambition. He was also born to a great destiny that predicted he would one day be the greatest King of Lanka by uniting the entire kingdom under one race, one religion, one language. It is said that Prince Gamini even as a child possessed a great calmness, a deep sense of understanding and the bearing of a noble prince even without the training. However, he was also driven by the desire to fulfil his destiny and was impatient to make it happen. Thrice he implored his father King Kakkavantissa to grant him permission to invade Anu. The wise King knew it was not time for such an invasion and knew that his headstrong son would be severely defeated. All three times the King dismissed the young prince’s requests and the 3rd time when the prince heard of the refusal, he was enraged by the King’s decision and misunderstood it for cowardice. He inturn sent a gift for his father that contained garments and jewellery of a woman, which shocked and angered the King so much that he renamed his son Dushta Gamini (Evil Gamini), which coined into Dutugamunu later on.

Colin De Silva uses a fictitious character named Prince Rodhana in the book as Prince Gamini’s tutor and later his most trusted and faithful friend. The story of King Gamini is all that more real and beautiful because of this character. The story of ‘Winds of Sinhala’ is narrated by Prince Rodhana. I would like to believe that there was in fact such a person, and that in the end, he was in fact given the most important task of recording every moment of King Gamini’s life as it was, without any exaggeration, and that he did bring justice to a great King and his life by writing the winds of Sinhala….

When King Gamini finally goes into battle with the Chola, Prince Rodhana gets captured by the enemy and is tortured. His fingers on his right hand are burnt and cut off and is sent to King Gamini as a present, an ironic twist of history repeating, reminding the young King of the gift he sent to his father as an insult. Prince Rodhana is somehow smuggled out of the enemy location by Sinhala spies and is united once again with his beloved King. He is trained by the best warriors to go into battle once again with just one hand, because it is his greatest wish to fight beside his King. It is said that unlike other Kings who enjoy the luxuries of royalty even on the battlefield, King Gamini wanted to be treated like any other soldier in his command and denied these luxuries, opting to live in the exact same conditions as that of his army. On one such night the King was dining with his commanders and other Princes who supported his cause, with Prince Rodhana sitting at his right as his guest of honour. What happens next is a moment in the book that touched my heart deeply and has stayed with me to date. That particular moment might have happened or might not have…My belief is that it did. Maybe it is my deep desire to believe that such amazing greatness in people existed. Or maybe it is my belief that we were once capable of such enormous strength and humility, and that there is still some sort of residue left in us as a nation to be great.  Below is the excerpt of that incident that I wish to believe did take place.

“The attendant proffered the bowl of fried chicken to Gamini. He took a leg and placed it on his platter, which was already heaped with white rice, yellow and green curries and the little red chillies he loved for tincturing his meal.

The attendant bowed, moved to my left and proffered the bowl to me. It was the first time since my hand had been severed that I was eating from a communal bowl. I reached out with the stump of my right hand; self consciously withdrew it and raised my left hand instead.

Before I could even touch the chicken, prince Vijaya’s high voice cut in sharply. “Just a moment, prince Rodhana!” he exclaimed. “I pray you don’t touch the chicken with your left hand. We too must partake of it”.

For a moment his words puzzled me; then the emphasis on the word left hand hit me with shattering force.

Sinhala and Chola alike are clean races. When we ease ourselves, whether it be of liquid or solid, we wash those parts well with the left hand. The right hand is therefore the only hygienic one for eating.

Shame rose from the pit of my stomach and suffused my face in a burning flush. I withdrew my hand as if it had been stung by a cobra. I stared incredulously at prince Vijaya. His gaze was scornful. I looked around the table. Each one of the princes avoided my eyes.

Placing my left hand on the table I started to rise.

Gamini’s hand swept down on my wrist, holding me back with surprising strength. “We did not give you leave to depart, prince” he said. His voice was gentle, but I did not need to look at him to recognise his suppressed fury.

I sat back on my chair, looking at Gamini for directions. His dark eyes were compelling. “We are very tired tonight cousin” he said quietly. His eyes continued to hold mine. “Will you not therefore please feed us?” he settled back expectantly in his chair.

I hesitated, moved beyond tears. Then I lifted the food to the conqueror’s lips with my left hand.” (‘Winds of Sinhala’ by Colin De Silva).

We, as a community, a nation have heard the glory of our Kings. We have heard of their prowess in the battle field, their ingenious foresight that went into building magnificent reservoirs and other infrastructure needed for our people, their piousness towards religion. But it is moments like the one I’ve quoted above, that testifies to their true greatness, and unbreakable human spirit. In the times that we live in at present, where values seem shaken and human spirit broken, and we have no where to look to for direction, such moments from our history, our ancestors, makes me believe that we are capable of being unbelievably cultured and civilised, capable of reviving that true essence of humility.

Maybe it is time that we looked back instead of forward to find direction…Direction to empower us with real values, values that were a part of us once upon a time, in order to go forward as a nation that is ahead of our times. I would like to end on a note from the author of ‘Winds of Sinhala’ Colin De Silva.

“I have woven my novel from the care threads of facts, introducing fictitious characters, incidents, customs and ceremonial to complete the tapestry. As for the life and government of those early times, I have combined imagination and an assumption of strong Aryan influences stemming from the Indian Emperor Chandra Gupta Moriya, with the sparse records available.

What of the story is history then?

I do not know, any more than I know what of it is fiction, for it could all have happened just as I have written.”
(Colin de Silva -1981)