Saturday Magazine
The Catholic (?) Don and the Apostate Dona

by R. A. Sirimanne
Students of the Portuguese period have been vastly amused by the laborious attempts of the two Fernandos (PVD & ADN) to sanctify poor misused (by the Portuguese) Kamalasana Devi alias Dona Catherina and, subtly, insinuate some kinship purely on account of one of her honorific titles — "Suriyawansa" ! In today’s (5/3) Midweek Magazine B. A. Aryatilleka has punctured their false history and silly claims with surgical precision. "Dona C" could no longer qualify as a Catholic after her first marriage to Vimala Dharma Suriya the "Apostate of Candea" - as the Portuguese dubbed him. She too qualified for labelling as yet another apostate - most certainly not as a Catholic "Empress" [a silly exaggeration used by the Portuguese to describe the potentate of the little land-locked Kandyan kingdom]. She was neither Catholic nor empress - just a scion of a treacherous noble with a rather tenuous link to ‘royalty’.

I am more interested in the case of "Don Juan" Dharmapala, the legitimate King of Sri Lanka who had been baptised a Catholic and thus qualified to be our one and only Catholic king. His "secret history" has certain fascinating aspects that seem to indicate that he too may have been a "closet Buddhist". In the first instance he retained the very Buddhist, and absolutely, non-Catholic name Dharmapala rejecting the title of "Don Juan 1, King (Emperor?) of Kotte." The King of Burma was convinced that Dharmapala was a Buddhist when he sent envoys to Kotte, with untold wealth, to buy the "Tooth Relic" the Portuguese had captured and later destroyed in Goa. Interestingly the Burmese observed the whole Inquisitorial farce culminating in the Pope’s representative cursing and pulverising the object they had captured. Its destruction convinced the Burmese that this object was a fake as they firmly believed that the real Sacred Tooth Relic was indestructible. Or had Dharmapala, in the course of secret parleys, assured them of the safety of the real Relic?

Dharmapala’s theological loyalties remained an enigma even after his death. After a grand funeral procession he was laid to rest in a tomb in the Catholic Church (St.Peter’s?) that stood on Chatham Street. Very soon this became a shrine to - his Buddhist subjects! Would they have revered him unless they were convinced that their King Dharmapala was as Buddhist as they were? The Portuguese had a typically drastic "final solution". They razed Dharmapala’s church and carted off its tombstones and other artifacts to build St. Lucia’s Cathedral in Kotahena! The remains of King Dharmapala now lie, accursed for ever (?), beneath the flight of steps leading to the Church. Would this ever have been done to a "Catholic King" unless a post-mortem Inquisition concluded that "Don Juan" had been, after all, an apostate who obstinately insisted on retaining the Buddhist name Dhannapala? How happy would be the churchmen, who buried King Dharmapala under these steps, to know that hundreds of thousands of feet have, unwittingly, stamped on the bones of Sri Lanka’s only anointed Catholic king who lapsed into apostasy (i.e.Buddhism) as did Don Joao/Vimala Dharma Suriya and Dona C/Kamalasana Devi some decades later.

It is thus clear that the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka NEVER had a Catholic king - let alone an "Empress"