Gongalagoda banda the last crowned king of Kandy

by H. N. S. Karunatilake
The written history of the first hundred years of British rule in Ceylon contains a considerable amount of wrong interpretations and conclusions. It could therefore be said that impartial analyses and narratives of the major events that took place in this period are lacking. The available written original documents, dispatches and books were nearly all written by Englishmen who were officials of the British government. In the nineteenth century Sinhala writers presumably did not deal with the repeated attempts made by the Kandyans to dislodge the British, especially between 1815 and 1848. The Sinhala writers of this period, there would have been many, feared the British and many of them may have refrained from publishing their writings. Furthermore, whatever that was published which was not in favour of the British may have been willfully destroyed, or were lost or scattered in the chaos that followed the wars and insurrections that were ruthlessly suppressed by the British.

Equally in the twentieth century local writers and historians were to a large extent biased in their analyses and in writing the history of the British period. They all seem to have taken an orthodox approach in their interpretations which were largely in line with what the British writers had written in their reports and dispatches in the first half of the nineteenth century. There were more than fifteen plots, conspiracies, insurrections and uprisings between 1817 and 1848, but a national stand point has not been taken in evaluating the significance of these attempts to dislodge the British. Detailed reports on the many smaller conspiracies and insurrections and the motivating forces behind them are not available even from British sources. This could have been one reason why the Ceylon historians have not analysed these events in the context of the aspirations of the Kandyan people.


In all these uprisings, rebellions, insurrections and wars the leading role was played by Sinhala leaders, not all of whom were Kandyans, and the bhikkus. The third force were the Veddhas who constituted a major component of the patriotic fighting force. The earlier rebellions were led by leading Kandyans and chieftains, but later on, especially after 1842 the mantel fell on people from the low country. One reason for this was presumably the Proclamation issued by Browning after 1818 to execute all Kandyan males over the age of eighteen years. This proclamation was implemented and many thousands of Kandyan youth were brutally executed by the British. This would have instilled fear among the males in the leading Kandyan families that could have provided the leadership for major uprisings after 1818. Peace and quiet did not prevail between the major wars of national liberation between 1818 and 1848. According to James Emerson Tennent there were major uprisings every six years, apart from the great wars of national liberation in 1817, 1823 and 1848. Three conspiracies were detected before they broke out as major insurrections in 1834 and 1843. Uprisings which were characterized as treasonable plots took place in 1816, 1817, 1824, 1830 and 1842.

One common feature in all these uprisings and conspiracies, was the Buddhist priests who were in the forefront and played a major role in leading the people and advising the leaders. Most of the causes for the rebellion of 1848 have been attributed by historians to the administrative changes after 1834, especially the tax proposals introduced by the Governor, the Earl of Torrington. But these historical studies have not analysed the more fundamental factors behind this war of national liberation, which have been the common characteristics behind the successive uprisings and insurrections between 1817 and 1848. For an objective analysis of this national struggle for freedom historians have not made use of extensive documentation available on the 1848 rebellion in the form of committee reports, despatches, judicial records, evidence before committees and correspondence between the British Governor and the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The war of national liberation of 1848 is the final link in the chain of events which developed over 30 years. Ever since 1817 there have been regular reports of disaffection among the chiefs and even the people who were loyal to the Kandyan chieftains. Throughout, the British were ill informed about the prevailing tense situation in the Kandyan province and there appears to have been an enormous communication gap. Their main source of information was the Kandyan chiefs who were generally unwilling to give factual reports unless they were the official secret agents like Mahawalatenne, Eckneligoda and Tambi Mudiyanse. The prelude to the war of 1848 took place in 1842 when the influential priest Chandrajothy was arrested on charges of sedition soon after the British got wind of a fresh conspiracy in 1843. A British military officer Major Kelson stated that a man named Java or Dennis, who was the sword bearer to the "Pretender" David was a dangerous person and had still not been arrested. Java was none other than Dennis whom the British mistook for Peliyagoda David or Gongalagoda Banda. There was yet another ringleader in the 1843 uprising who played a major role in the 1848 rebellion named Dingiralle whose birthplace was Hanguranketa. Dennis and Dingiralle who were involved in the events that took place in 1842 and 1843 became active leaders in the liberation struggle of 1848.

Uneasy feeling

Tennent remarked that in May and June 1848, "an uneasy feeling prevailed amongst the people in the Kandyan country". The first expressions of discontent about the new taxes were voiced at several meetings that were held in June 1848. But even prior to that government had received information from the Assistant Government Agent Kegalle, that Peliyagoda David and his brother Dennis, who had been tried in 1843, had actively travelled all over the country making seditious speeches at temples and houses of chieftains, collecting money and publicly announcing their intention to overthrow the British Government. This was long before the taxes were introduced by Torrington and Tennent. This shows that the rebellion would have broken out even without the reported opposition to the taxes. Gongalagoda Banda claimed that all the chiefs in the Kandyan country, with a few exceptions, had rallied round him. Tennent confirmed that Kapurubastianlage David or Gongalagoda Banda and his eldest brother, Kapurubastianlage Dennis Appuhamy had been for some years fomenting dissatisfaction among the Kandyans. Tennent also dismisses the view that the rebellion did not have the active participation of the Kandyan chiefs.

On the antecedents of the rebellion Dunuwille Dissawa of Kandy addressed a letter to the Governor’s Colombo administration stating as follows. "The pretender King and his brother have been, it seems, busy for the last five to six years in fomenting disaffection in the minds of the Kandyans who live far away from the towns; and the recent transactions in France, and all over Europe, must have represented to the poorer classes in such light as to have induced a belief that it was right to enlist themselves on behalf of the designing pretender and his brother." By that time reports had been received in Ceylon on the 1848 revolution in France and the disturbances and revolts in other European countries and the reverses which the British army had suffered in India. This gave the Kandyans the courage and the initiative for action. The local press also drew the attention of the Sinhalese to the achievements of people in other countries that year.

In an address on the rebellion of 1848, the leading priests of the Malwatte Vihare said "we cannot at all think that this rebellion originated owing to the recent tax ordinances, or on account of the government having interfered with the Buddhist religion." This statement implies that the causes behind the rebellion, were far more deep seated. It can be inferred that the expulsion of the British from Ceylon and the restoration of a Sinhala monarchy were foremost in the minds of the Kandyans. These are aspects that have not been highlighted in the accounts of the war of 1848 by our historians. The other fact which appears to have escaped their attention is the feelings of nationalism which had been simmering over a period of time and the part played by David and Dennis in rallying the people for the war of 1848.

Puran Appu

When the rebellion broke out the plan of the patriots was to march towards Kandy and capture the town. This was corroborated by Puran Appu who was labelled by the British as a ‘brigand" and an "escaped convict". Torrington held the view that the rebellion was the work of criminals, adding that one of the most desperate robbers in the island was Purang Appu who had on more than one occasion escaped from prison and for whose apprehension a reward had been offered. In a letter dated 26th July l848 by C. R. Buller, to the Private Secretary of Governor Torrington, refers to the leaders thus "They are Puran Appu, who is an escaped prisoner and for whom there is a reward of ten pounds, and one Dennis who was tried and acquitted and one David his brother."

According to an official dispatch Puran Appu was the Commander in Chief under Gongalagoda Banda. He had been convicted more than six times for robbery hold ups and major crimes and on his way to be executed he had remarked "Had our King had three men like me we should have been in possession of Kandy". Tennent stated that the official information available with the government was that the insurrection and the disposition to join the rebels, without exception, existed in every province in the Kandyan Kingdom. When the rebellion broke out serious attacks took place on British establishments as the patriots had adequate arms to challenge the British forces in Kandy and Kurunegala. The rebellion took place at a time when planting activity was at its highest and many thought that the plantations had a great deal to do with the outbreaks. Nevertheless, land sales at ridiculously low prices and the road construction policies of the government had encouraged the expansion of coffee cultivation, which had antagonized the people.

The first reports came from David, Ratemahataya of Beligal Korale, who stated that a claimant to the Kandyan throne was organizing a revolt in the jungles between Matale and Dambulla and that he was being assisted by the Kandyan chieftains and those who were averse to British rule. It was further stated that a large number of fully armed men had assembled in Matale for the purpose of creating alarm and disorder. Loku Banda Dunuwille found that the rumours were all true, that armed villagers were coming in from all directions and that the Pretender to the throne had been crowned King by the priests of the Dambulla Vihare. This coronation ceremony took place on 26th July 1848.

Colonel Drought had informed Torrington that the King was a low country Sinhalese named Gongalagoda Banda who had been tried for high treason in 1843 in Badulla but had escaped conviction. He had been responsible for the disturbances in Kandy on 6th July 1848. Being an ayurvedic practitioner he had stayed at the Maligawa in Kandy and subsequently the Kandyans had paid homage to him as their King. Golahela Ratemahataya had sent the King armed men and clothing. Details of the coronation were given by the chief priest of Dambulla, Ambulambe Unanse. According to the priest the King had come with over 800 people for the coronation. At the temple the King made an offering to the Buddha and made a declaration before the shrine of Vishnu that he was not an imposter.

Gongalagoda Banda hailed from Wanawasala in Peliyagoda and had married into a Kandyan family. Galagoda Ratemahataya stated that he was a descendent of one of the ancient Kings. Ambulambe Unanse speaking about the King stated that he spoke Sinhalese fluently and was learned. He was light brown in colour with hazel, dark brown hair, with moustache and whiskers. He appeared to be about 40 years in age, stout medium built and about five feet five inches tall. On his head there was a yellow silk turban and he was dressed in a white jacket extending up to his waist and a white cloth with a golden border draped from his waist downwards. On the forefinger of his right hand he wore a gold ring.

Hymns of victory

In a communication from the Governor to Earl Grey the Colonial Secretary in Whitehall Torrington stated "Upon this the priests of the temple pronounced the hymns of victory and blessings over a vase full of water and anointed Gongalagoda Banda, King of Kandy. People then prostrated before their King and rose against the Government. There is hardly anybody in Matale who is not concerned in this rebellion. The priests and tenants of Dambulla Vihare are the leaders. I do not think the recent rebellion is owing to the imposition of new taxes. The object of the rebels is to conquer the country from the English."

At the height of the rebellion the main attacks were led by David who had been crowned King. He was called the "Matale Pretender" by the British. After being crowned, David had the support of Purang Appu. Beyond Matale the land was laid waste and houses in the nearby villages and estates were sacked. South of Matale the patriots were cornered and many were taken prisoner. As this was not anticipated it was a drawback for the freedom fighters to their march towards Kandy. Thousands from Wellassa, Hewaheta Bintenne and Walapane were expected to join the force led by the King. Large reinforcements were also expected to march from Dumbara to join the King. As the British were gaining the upper hand, on 29th July, Torrington declared Martial Law and offered a reward of Pounds Sterling 150 for the capture of the King. The troops had butchered thousands of unarmed Kandyans who had marched into Matale on 31st July. By that time the Government Agent C. R. Buller had reported to Torrington that the Kings followers had dispersed and were hiding in the jungle. The King had by then taken refuge in the caves of Hunnasgiriya in the company of Doretigalla of Ukuwela. Golahella Ratemahataya a patriot and his tenants had deliberately misled the British about the whereabouts of the King. Buller ordered all Ratemahatayas to report on the headman who had been absent from their villages without satisfactory explanation in July and those found guilty were dismissed and their property confiscated. Buller discovered that 84 headman in Matale alone had joined the rebellion.

Brutal suppression

After the most brutal and ruthless suppression of the rebellion, Colonel Drought was able to obtain the keys to the chamber of the Tooth Relic in the Maligawa from the High Priest and the Diyawardena Nilame. At this stage Buller made the most stupefying and ridiculous proposal to Torrington in writing, that the time had come to remove the Tooth Relic to Colombo or to England and to sell the Maligawa jewels to finance the suppression of the rebellion. Buller also suggested that the Maligawa should be converted into a commissariat store. Another proposal made by him was to take the Maha Devale for a public purpose and that the property in the Devale should be moved to the Alutnuwara Devale in the Four Korales. Buller further proposed that the Vishnu and Pattini Devales should be relocated on a piece of land between the Kandy town and the Katugastota Ferry. His object was to free the Esplanade of all religious activity and gatherings where large numbers would congregate.

After the battle of Wariyapola, the King escaped to the Eladua jungles to which hide out Dullewa Dewa Nilame sent food and provisions. It was from this place that the King went to Kurunegala to lead the second attack on the town after which he returned to the jungle again. The cave in which the King lived was in the thick jungle in the Elkaduwa district. The King was finally apprehended by Malay troops and was taken to Matale. Even after the Kings army was disbanded, he still had many armed followers who gradually deserted him due to continued harassment and pursuit by the military.

The King was tried before the Supreme Court on 27th November 1848 for high treason and the death sentence was passed. However this sentence was commuted to transportation for life.