Last King’s lonely cell | Sunday Observer

Last King’s lonely cell

16 February, 2020
ILLUSTRATED TALE: The inside wall of the cell is decorated with paintings and portraits of the king, queen and other key figures of the capture
ILLUSTRATED TALE: The inside wall of the cell is decorated with paintings and portraits of the king, queen and other key figures of the capture

I have been eyeing a small cell in the car park of Ceylinco Building at Echelon Square, bordering Fort’s Clock Tower whenever I frequented this locality in Colombo Fort. I used to stop a few seconds here and glance at this cell each time I visited it. Eventually, I had the idea of writing about this historic monument which denotes a sorrowful chapter in our history.

I thought this would be the best time for this as we just celebrated the 72nd Independence Day and commemorated the patriotic heroes who struggled to achieve freedom from Britain.

In what is now a small concrete structure in the parking lot of the Ceylinco Building in downtown Colombo Fort, the last King of Kandy saw his reign meet an ignominious end. Many people believe Sri Wickrama Rajasingha was imprisoned in this tiny, one-room cell with a capsule-shaped concrete roof, signaling the end of the Kandyan Kingdom and the beginning of British rule. It is surrounded by many colonial architectural buildings in Fort, such as, Queen’s House (President’s House), Cargills Building, Dutch Hospital and the famous Fort Clock Tower.

Just as I peeped into this tiny cell, I wondered whether the last King of the country had been imprisoned in this cell. According to historical notes, the king had been brought down to Colombo Fort from Kandy and it is said that the British had given due respect for the king and kept him in a spacious house. Due to his unruly behaviour he was imprisoned in this cell and later deported to India.

The prison cell, located in the car park of Ceylinco Building, is an archaeological monument preserved by the Department of Archaeology. Painted in pale yellow, it is roughly a 12 foot by 11, half capsule-shaped cement structure, about 8 feet high. The width of the walls is approximately two feet, and the iron bar gate is about 5 feet high. The half capsule-shaped roof is also made of concrete. The structure contains a vaulted roof with the exterior decorated in fish scale motifs over the roof with a circular ventilation duct figuring prominently on top.

The elaborately carved bust-statue of King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha has been exhibited in a cavity carved into the structure wall on the rear side of the cell to commemorate his imprisonment in the cell after his capture by the British in 1815 AD. The statue is the work of prominent sculptor Ariyawansa Weerakkody and it would have been added to the cell in the recent past. There are two granite plaques embedded onto the wall, describing the capture of King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha and the significance of the building as holding the King’s cell.

Prominent surveyor, author and explorer R.L. Brohier has described this cell as being constructed as a guard chamber of the massive army barrack during British occupation in 1875.

The wall in the cell is adorned with a few paintings visualizing key events and persons, in the episode of the king’s capture. Among them are portraits of King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha, his consort Venkata Rangammal Devi, over them are smaller paintings of the Kandyan Kingdom’s flag, Sri Dalada Maligawa and the Kandy Lake.

Flanked by them on the left side is a portrait of Pilimathalawe Maha Adikaram who elevated the King to the throne. Adjoining that is a painting of Muthu Mandapam, a memorial tombstone in Vellore, South India, where the king’s ashes were enshrined after his cremation (he died on January 30, 1832). On the right side of the wall is a portrait of Sir Robert Brownrigg, the British Governor who was in Ceylon when the king was captured by the British in 1815. Further right is a painting of the H.M.S. Cronwallis, a ship which had sailed to Vellore Port carrying the captive king and his entourage as prisoners. Viewing these clusters of paintings, one can imagine how feudalists betrayed the country to western imperialism.

Known as Prince Kannasamy, Sri Wickrama Rajasingha, a king of the Nayaka dynasty, was sworn-in, in 1798. He ruled Kandy till 1815, after which he was exiled by the British. Sri Wickrama Rajasingha made some important contributions to the Kandyan Kingdom. Architecture and the arts bloomed during his reign, from 1798 to 1815. The beautiful Kandy Lake, called Kiri Muhuda, was created during his rule, and many buildings, including additions to the Sri Dalada Maligawa, are now recognized as his work.

It was after Sri Wickrama Rajasingha executed Adigar Ehelapola’s children and his wife (she was drowned in the Bogambara Lake) that people lost respect for their King. Disgusted by his conduct, even the commoners turned to the British, hoping they could help. And indeed, in January 1815 the British declared war on the King of Kandy, who then fled to the house of Gallehewatte Udupitiye Arachchilage at Bomura in Dumbara with his consorts and attendants. But his hiding place was soon discovered, and the King and his party captured and sent to Colombo as prisoners of the British.

It is said that he was then imprisoned in this small cell, which is now seen in Colombo. In 1816, he was exiled to Vellore in India. Sri Wickrama Rajasingha was then formally dethroned, and the King of Great Britain was acknowledged as Sovereign of the island.

The ex-king, his queens and the others were taken to the ship H.M.S. Cronwallis under the supervision of Capt. O’Brien and deported to Vellore in Madras (now Chennai) on January 24, 1816 where he lived as a prisoner of war. King Sri Wickrama Rajasingha died on January 30, 1832, aged 52. Outside Vellore Fort on the banks of the Palar River one can see the tomb and memorial to Sri Lanka’s last monarch called the Muthu Mandapam (Pearl Hall), an Indian government-designated tourist site. The last King of Ceylon who spent his final days in this cell, is only alive in our memory.