Around and about in Kurunegala

From the top of Ethagala / Uditha Devapriya

Covering 65 kilometres, the road from Colombo to Ambepussa is fairly straight. From there it turns left and right, up and down. To get to Kurunegala via Ambepussa, you have to pass Alawwa and Polgahawela. Between these regions the terrain rises, offering you a glimpse of the hill country. Then the mountains recede from view, the mist settles, and the chaos of urban life returns. The shops teem with life, the clock-tower looms over you, and the heat rises. From afar, the faintest outline of Ethagala catches your eye. This is your first glimpse of Kurunegala.

Ethagala (Elephant’s Rock) is a stiff climb, though we had a van at our disposal. At the very top, a fairly large statue of the Buddha looms over the region. It is perhaps the highest point of any rocky outcrop in Kurunegala. Another statue, of a “fasting Buddha”, lies near it.

The plaque next to this other statue informs us that it is recent and is a replica; the original lies at the Archaeological Museum in Lahore, dating back more than 1,800 years to the time of the Kushana kings. With its distinctly Hellenic touch, it is a testament to a profound artistic renaissance that swamped the country between the first and third centuries AD. The replica is no less majestic; in its own way, it reminds us of the close cultural links between Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

There was no special reason for our sojourn to Kurunegala. Part of my family hails from there, but the connection was interrupted early on. Kurunegala entranced me for other reasons: the history, the culture, the literature, and the people. There were the rocks: many of them inviting every other person to climb them. There were the temples: too many to list out, a great many unexplored. How could I resist these temptations?

Kurunegala’s importance has not been fully appreciated by scholars. It was the last of the Wayamba kingdoms after Dambadeniya and Yapahuwa, perhaps the weakest among them. Their rise coincided with the expansion of the Jaffna kingdom under the Aryacarkravartis.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Sri Lanka’s irrigational civilisation was on the verge of collapse. Having stamped out particularism and unified the country under his rule, Parakramabahu I, the most resolute of the Sinhala kings, ironically ensured the deterioration of the polity after his demise. His most illustrious predecessor, Vijayabahu I, had been much more pragmatic in matters of state; for him discretion remained the better part of valour.

Under Parakramabahu I, and to a lesser extent Nissankamalla, these policies changed. The historian describes these monarchs as ambitious, ruthless, and reckless. It is in the interests of scholarship not to pass arbitrary judgments on the past, and yet it cannot be denied that in Parakramabahu’s time, the state concentrated its powers to itself.

Not only did the State stamp out any and all particularist tendencies on the part of Ruhuna, it also diverted tax revenues to the construction of agricultural works that justified its centralisation; these more or less provided the raison d’etre for its entrenchment. In entrenching itself, though, it undermined its existence: it weakened severely any regional power it could have relied on in the event of an external invasion. Without these powers, no resort was possible.

The expansion of the Aryacakravarti dynasty in the north proved two points: one, that the expulsion of Kalinga Magha had not led to the recovery of Sinhalese power, and two, that the growth of an adversary in the north meant the kingdom had to shift elsewhere. Even before the Aryacakravartis solidified their position, it was very clear that the days of the tanks and irrigation networks in the Sinhala heartland had long gone.

The result was to push the kings further to the south-west. Not that their enemies stopped pursuing them once they made this shift: even in Gampola, there were Tamil tax collectors at work: according to an inscription at Madawala in Harispattuwa, and the Rajavaliya, one of them, Mathandan Perumal, “cause[d] tribute to be brought from the hill country.” He collected taxes from no fewer than five villages.

The absorption of Wayamba to the Kandyan kingdom followed from its earlier position as a dependable, if weak, fortress against external invasion. In this Dambadeniya and Yapahuwa proved their mettle better than Kurunegala, which may be why not much has been written on the latter. Yet Kurunegala did not just come into prominence with the shift of the Sinhala heartland there. This was a place teeming with history even before that shift.

The number of temples, caves, dwelling places, and ruins attest to the fact that monarchs patronised these places long before the collapse of Anuradhapura. These temples, caves, and ruins stand out perhaps more in the Vanni Hatpattuwa than they did elsewhere: the ruins at Toniyagala and Padigala date back to the first century BC and first century AD respectively, while the Torava Mahilava Viharaya traces its origins even earlier, to the second century BC.

Kurunegala, in fact, bore witness to some of the more peripherally important events in the history of the land. Mogallana, who rebelled against Sanghatissa in the seventh century AD, set up camp at Nikawaratiya, then known as Mahagalla; it was from there that he made his advance towards Anuradhapura. Its reputation for rocky outcrops came in handy as kings, and chieftains, turned those outcrops into formidable fortresses. Yapahuwa, for instance, was chosen as a fortress not by a king but by a local chieftain: it was the site of the Javaka king Candabhanu’s defeat.

The proximity of these centres of power to the ports of Chilaw and Puttalam sealed their reputation as commercial and trading hubs. This was not really wet country, but it lay far away from the dry zones of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in which Sinhala kings had flourished.

With the fragmentation of the polity into several regional powers, Kurunegala, Dambadeniya, and Yapahuwa served as a transit between Kandy and the north, just as Sabaragamuwa did between Kandy and the Maritime Provinces to the south. As such the cultural and religious renaissance that swept through Kandy made its presence felt in these parts too.

Perhaps the most enduring tribute to the influence on Kandyan culture on Kurunegala is the Ridi Viharaya; built in the second century BC and rebuilt and reconstructed on the orders of Kirti Sri Rajasinghe in the 18th century AD, it attests to a revival of the arts in the kanda uda rata.

Under the British Kurunegala gained some prominence for its agriculture and prosperity, yet it lagged behind other regions in other domains. By 1907, the North-Western province was fifth on the list in size, fourth in population, and third in revenues obtained. Striking as these achievements are, what is more striking is the absence of a proper communications network which could explain them.

That they were achieved at all without proper railways and roads is perhaps a testament to its position as an economic hub in the time of the kings; that they went hand-in-hand with increasing mortality rates, arising from epidemics and diseases, is a testament to the decline it underwent under colonial rule.

It is true that coconut cultivation thrived in these parts, as did a rush for rubber that improved the fortunes of elites in the early 20th century. But these achievements, if they can be called achievements at all, merely confirmed colonial biases towards particular parts of the economy.

Friendly and open, the people of Kurunegala are hospitable. There is an aura of abundance in every corner; agriculture remains, for most people, a part-time occupation. It is difficult to escape the past, because the past is everywhere: in temples, caves, ruins, and rivers. Starting our journey in the town, we made our way across Tittawella, Wasiwewa, Panduwasnuwara, Yapahuwa, Deduru Oya, and Arankale. Yet this is a journey one trip can never hope to complete. A land of history, Kurunegala belongs to the past. To the present, too.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

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Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.