Reflecting on Kurunegala | Sunday Observer

Reflecting on Kurunegala

14 May, 2023

Like most other regions, Kurunegala exists beyond the city, but is part of it also. From one corner to another, you come across restaurants, complexes, itinerant hawkers and peddlers, and ubiquitous trishaws. The bus station, perhaps one of the biggest in the country, covers a plethora of shops and complexes selling everything, from mobile phone accessories to fruits to subwoofers and milkshakes. The main shopping complex does not quite compare with its counterparts in Colombo, Kandy, and Galle, but for what it’s worth, it’s big, even if it revolves around what the author of Eloquence in Stone describes as a noisy town.

Kurunegala served as a fortress, a bulwark against invading forces. Rocky boulders adorn the region, creeping up in every corner, absorbing the intense heat. In April the heat can be particularly unbearable. The driver of the trishaw I found myself in told me that trishaw drivers never go up Ethagala, the most popular of the outcrops here, between March and May. The heat may well have helped in warding off invading forces and the rulers may well have used it to their advantage. In any case, these boulders and outcrops served as military strongholds here, and they succeeded in warding off outsiders.

The kingdom associated most strongly with Kurunegala, however, is neither Yapahuwa nor Dambadeniya, nor for that matter Kurunegala. When the Sinhalese kingdom shifted from the south-west to Kandy, the latter slowly absorbed Kurunegala and Sabaragamuwa, along with the Southern interior. This fuelled a revival of the arts in Kurunegala, a revival visible almost everywhere. The Ridi Vihara stands as the epitome of this revival. But the Ridi Vihara is one among many temples that underwent a revival in the Kandyan Kingdom. Naturally, among the many influences these temples have imbibed, it is the cultural and artistic motifs of Kandy that have prevailed.

Separate Diocese

It is that Kandyan influence, in fact, which seems to have motivated the Church of Ceylon to set up a separate Diocese there. In terms of the following the Church of Ceylon enjoys in these parts, it did not make sense to establish a separate Chapter here. But from a historical or geographical perspective, it made perfect sense. Kurunegala serves as a nexus between the Western Province and the Kandyan regions, and it seemed logical to absorb some if not many of the churches, cathedrals, and mission societies that had been established in the latter areas, including parts of Sabaragamuwa.

The establishment of the Diocese coincided with a drive towards indigenisation within the Anglican Church. This development is associated with two figures in particular: A. G. Fraser of Trinity College, and Lakdasa de Mel. De Mel’s name is inextricably linked to the Kurunegala Diocese: he was, after all, its de facto founder. Having served as Assistant Bishop of Colombo for five years, de Mel took the lead in establishing a new, separate Chapter in Kurunegala, financing it with his wealth and inheritance. That coincided with his efforts at reaching out to other communities, particularly the Buddhist clergy: he made it a point, in fact, to invite the Chief Prelates of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters to religious functions, including at such sites as the Trinity College Chapel.

It is easy to miss the Cathedral of Christ the King now. It juts out and is visible even from a distance, yet unless one specifically locates it, one can easily pass by it. But this is only to be expected when its very entrance evokes the entrance to a Buddhist Vihara. The Cathedral, in that sense, is a tribute to the Anglican Church’s efforts at indigenisation.

Cathedral of Christ the King  (PIC: Uthpala Wijesuriya)

Like the Trinity Chapel, it incorporates elements of Kandyan art, including the Pattirippuwa, along with the sculptures of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. One comes across such elements inside as well. A photo of the induction of Lakdasa de Mel’s successor, Lakshman Wickremesinghe, for instance, features that most Buddhist of desiderata, the sesath.

Lakdasa de Mel came from one of the wealthiest families in then Ceylon. They owned land throughout Kurunegala, and he gave it liberally to various causes. His name is not carved in stone everywhere, but a school in the city – Lakdasa de Mel College – and a whole village – Melsiripura – are named after him. De Mel also gave some land in Ibbagamuwa to Yohan Devananda. That is now Devasaranaramaya, which, in keeping with the Church of Ceylon’s philosophy at the time, assimilated Buddhist and Hindu elements.

Gale Bandara Devalaya

Just a few hundred metres from the Cathedral, one comes across a different religious site: the Gale Bandara Devalaya. Officiated by a Muslim, the Devalaya seems to the layman an anachronism. But the notion that Muslims do not worship saints is wrong. it is only certain creeds that forbid such worship. Sufis permit these practices, and in Sri Lanka, despite a backlash from certain fundamentalist sects, the Sufi creed is still strong. In that sense the Devalaya is a tribute to the confluence of cultures that has defined Sri Lanka so well over the decades and centuries. Regardless of their faith, people visit it and pay their respects here, making vows and returning to fulfil them when they come true.

However, there is a somewhat dark history underlying the Shrine: the person after whom the Devalaya was originally established, Waththimi, was slain by Sinhalese nobles for the sin of being an outsider. His father, Bhuvanekabahu I, married a Muslim, reputedly from Aswedduma. Legend has it that he was originally named Ismail, but that on a request by his father it was changed to Waththimi Bandara.

While historical sources do not tell us what happened next, after being crowned king following his father’s death Waththimi had taken certain actions which had not been to the liking of the nobility.

That may well have been on grounds of his race. The nobility hence connived to invite him to a Pirith Mandapaya on top of Ethagala, and then threw him to his death. The popular story is that those who connived in his death met a particularly bloody end, compelling locals to venerate the slain king and call him Gale Bandara. Today, visitors to the shrine do not seem to be too aware of this background, nor of the ethnicity of the man they venerate. To them, as to most others, he remains one of us.

What can we conclude from all this? Places and sites like the Gale Bandara Devalaya may be anachronistic at one level. But at another, they are in line with an identity that Sri Lanka has pursued. Kurunegala remains distinctly Buddhist. By anchoring itself here, the Church of Ceylon reinforced these qualities, and in doing so it contributed much to that identity Sri Lanka may yet realise: one based not on an exclusivist framing of culture and community, but instead on an all-encompassing and much more tolerant and benign reading of race and religion.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected].