Midweek Review
Dona Catherina was not an "Empress"

By B. P. Aryatilake
On reading the article by Dr. K. D. V. D. Fernando, a doctor of medicine, on Dona Catherina I get the impression that he is mixing up history and medicine to a lethal dose. Mr. Dennis N. Fernando (a geologist) is admittedly a well-informed amateur on the subject. But he has over skipped his territory.

If you require reliable knowledge on the period in which Dona Catherina lived, read authorities that have done the laborious work of ploughing through the original sources. The researches of the late Prof. Tikiri Abeyasinghe are essential reading for this purpose. The article on Dona Catherina in the Sinhala Encyclopaedia (Vol. VII, Fascicle 3) would provide a quick overview. We have to challenge the two articles referred to above because they are much in the trend of creating a new sociology of knowledge to suit the agendas of the proselytising NGOs.

Dona Catherina cannot be characterised as an "Empress" by any extent of imagination. The term "Emperor" was used by foreign invaders to flatter and exact favours and privileges from local rulers having sway only on a small part of the country and to set up one against the other. Catherina existed only as cover for Portuguese occupation of the Kandyan Kingdom, lasting only for four months with Lopez de Souza, the Portuguese Conquistador on her side. The latter was killed at the battle of Danture (l594). The Portuguese completely routed, Catherina fell into the hands of Konappu Bandara who married her to strengthen his claims to the Kingdom of Kandy.

The first and the foremost qualification for kingship in Sri Lanka was the possession of the Dalada (The Sacred Tooth Relic). Since the time it was brought to Sri Lanka during the reign of Kirti Sri Meghavanna (310 CE), kings guarded it jealously building a special shrine (the Dalada-ge) within an arm’s reach to their palaces. Special guards and monks were appointed to remove it to a place of safety during turbulent times. When the capital shifted from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa and thence to Dambadeniya, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala, Gampola, Kotte and Kandy the Tooth Relic went with the royalty. It was the sceptre of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

Konappu Bandara, a Kandyan aristocrat who had mastered Portuguese military skills by feigning to have become a Christian became the king of Senkadagalapura (Kandy) in the year 1592. He deposed, (l592) the Portuguese puppet Don Juan, set up by them. Konappu Bandara assumed the name of Vimaladharmasuriya I, (l592- 16O4) marrying Dona Catherina and thereby strengthening his claim to the throne. He brought the Tooth Relic from the Delgamu Raja Maha Vihara where it had been hidden under a stone grind during the turbulent times of Rajasinha I. The country shed a sigh of relief from the rapacious Portuguese invaders. To become king or Emperor one had to possess the Dalada. Otherwise rebellion quickly and necessarily followed. Don Juan Dharmapala, (l541-l593) Don Philip (1992) and Dona Catherina were either pawns or puppets of the hated foreigner. They did not represent either the people or the heritage and the culture of this country inextricably entwined with the country’s religion Buddhism.

Dona Catherina was for all running through her veins practical purposes a foreign lady with Portuguese culture. From the tender age of three she was brought up by the Portuguese Her childhood conditioning in a Portuguese convent in Mannar couldn’t have produced anything different. Fundamental beliefs and prejudices are implanted in childhood.

She suited ideally the scheming plans of Lopez de Souza, the Conquistador General, chaperoning and protecting her from public view. He planned to marry her off to a Portuguese prince and was marking time in Kandy with his "Empress" he had so even installed, till a suitor of his specifications was brought there from Portugal. He dismissed all young men who made a claim to hold the hand of Catherina as this would be an impediment to the plans of the Portuguese to assume sovereignty over the Whole Island. This they claimed by virtue of the deed granted to the Portuguese by Don Juan Dharmapala of Kotte (l541-l591) as his inheritors to the Island.

If this ever happened Sri Lanka would have been fully Catholic country today by operating cujus regio, ejus religio - the principle that the established religion should be that of the sovereign. What is wrong with that? I could hear someone ask. The answer is; the change would have been a regress in our island civilisation. Sri Lanka produced its own unique civilisation and is as old and as valuable as any other. Who would want a mild, tolerant liberal religion that has a proven record of bringing love, peace and tranquillity to the nations of Asia, be replaced by an authoritarian and a militaristic one. Just take the case of South America. Sixteen million indigenous people died there during the same period in wars the aim of which was to convert "heathens" to Christianity. It was Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) who gave the Spaniards to do so.

Dona Catherina had no interest in kingship and had no political ambitions. She could have hardly spoken the language of the people and was obliging with only the interests of the Portuguese in whose company she found herself secure. In fact some time after her second marriage to Senarat, step brother of Wimaladharmasuriya, she wrote to Azevedo, the Portuguese Captain General (l594-1612) requesting permission to come and settle down in Malvana. This very same Azevedo according to the Culavamsa (Pt. II. 9S) Ch. "broke into the shrines and monasteries, destroyed image houses, Bodhi trees, Buddha statues and so on, and did great harm to the laity and the order". Her desire was to come back to this hated enemy of the Sinhalese. "Empress" Catherina indeed deserves a monument! What about a monument to Rajasinhe I of Sitawaka who kept the Portuguese on the run, confining them virtually to the limits of Colombo?

Dr. K. P. V. D’s agenda to construct a memorial to Catherina is unnecessary and would be a waste of public funds. The erection of statues, monuments and memorials are recent practices to bolster the egos of bloated potentates. Anicca vata samkhara (All component phenomena are transitory). I am quoting the right thing at the right place with the right transcription if Dr. K. P. V. D. wants to understand what it means. Practically all the great Emperors of India, including the greatest of all, Asoka, were Buddhists. No monuments were built in their honour. This rule applies also to the great monarchs of Sri Lanka, who were all Buddhists. A statue to a mortal being is inconsistent with the concept of anatta (no soul). In Myanmar where the Theravada tradition is live and kicking no statues are built to any potentate. A policy of wisdom - pure wisdom.

It is deplorable that a piece of land allotted for the historical commemoration of Dona Catherina has been occupied and encroached. This has been due to the neglect by authorities. But it must be said that the ulterior motive of some is to use the name of Queen Kusumasana Devi as a pretext to impose, inappropriately, Christian iconography and other structures on this nation. What could be conceded is, that a memorial stone be installed without any religious symbols at the place where Catherina died. She after all is a part of the history of this country and the mother of Rajasinha II, a great king who did much to stabilise the social and economic conditions of the country.

Dona Catherina, the tragic character in Sri Lanka’s history, was only a pawn in the true sense of the word. - Not an Empress. We have no reason to erect monuments to persons who voluntarily or involuntarily did a great disservice to the religion and culture of this country allying themselves with our enemies and intruders for their pure egoistic glorification. Dona Catherina was an involuntary player in that game. To designate her as a heroine and as a great Catholic Empress of Sri Lanka would be a gross distortion of our history.