The Buried Kingdom of Kotte (Explore Sri Lanka)

Past the junction of Rajagiriya, now the gate-way to the administrative hub of our island, namely the Sri Jayawardene Parliament Complex, one enters a strange terrain. Externally no evidence of any extraordinary or spectacular aspect is visible since the suburban aspects of Colombo s fringe territory marked by the thick asphalt and concrete jungle continues here too with a regular monotony. But what makes the terrain special is that underneath all these modern concrete structures and the network of roads on which a seething populace walk and ribbons of vehicles ply back and forth in mad frenzy, sleeps a mighty city.

It was the capital of our island from 1415-1565 AD predominated by the long reign of Parakrama Bahu VI, the last Sinhala king who ruled a unified Lanka. The attacks on the kingdom both by external aggressors as the Portuguese and internal dissidents were so ferocious that only meagre visible remnants testify to the existence of a once magnificent city. Just past the junction of Rajagiriya or Welikada (the more authentic name) along the Battaramulla road, one comes to the bridge under which flows a rivulet of the famous Diyawanna Oya (river) that snaked around the city. It was in the proximity of this bridge that the resplendent gateway to the old city had stood. It had been a stone-hewn gigantic entrance and no trace of it now remains. The city had been circumscribed by a mighty rampart and moat built by Nissanka Alagakkonara, a minister. Very few traces of this moat and rampart are now visible here and there as seen in the boundaries of the Perakumba Pirivena. According to existing ruins it is concluded that the rampart had been 8 feet high and 30 feet wide. The Dalada Perahara is said to have paraded along the rampart replete with elephants and flambeau-carrying dancers not to mention the king himself riding behind the richly caparisoned elephant carrying the sacred relic casket followed by thousands of devotees.

There is a road in modern Kotte city named Rampart Road , the only tribute to this mighty rampart built to ward off attacks. Along parts of the moat, encroachers have put up shacks and coconut trees flourish here and there. That is the sad fate of a very historical structure put up as late as the 15th century. Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte is the least preserved of our ancient capitals. Even our first capital of Anuradhapura going back to pre-Christian times exhibits a better state of preservation and the explanation given usually for this state of affairs is that Kotte s proximity to the capital spelt its final doom. As the population began to burst within Colombo s seams, the deep moat began to provide a refuge to the homeless and also a dumping ground of garbage while the more resourceful citizens very unpatriotically built their concrete dwellings over the remnants of the ancient buildings. The lethargy of those in power added to the tragic situation. Anyway this modern house building came as an aftermath of the pillage of the city of Kotte by the Portuguese and by King Rajasinghe 1 of Sitawaka. Rajasinghe attacked the city to drive away the Portuguese while the Portuguese themselves destroyed it before moving onto the fort of Colombo with King Dharmapala. All in all the resplendent capital of Kotte plummeted into the most chaotic melee.

The Royal Palace eulogized in the Sandeshas (message poetry of Kotte) as the most magnificent edifice, a five-storied building constructed out of luminous blue stone, in whose exotic courts kings of old received embassies, had been transformed into a heap of rubble and the Dutch are said to have carried away the bricks and other materials to build their churches in Colombo. Later the rubble and the bricks had been carried away during the British government to build the brakewater at Galle Face. Contractors assigned with the removal of these had carried away the more worthy artifacts as the moonstones to decorate their own homes. That is how a moonstone (sandakada pahana) of the Royal Palace adorns a house at Veyangoda now. The cruel fate that befell the Royal Palace, befell the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic) said to be a three-storied edifice crowned by a chaitya with a golden pinnacle.

Today a Maligawa Road (Palace Road) runs along in Kotte by an area surmised to be where the Palace was. The Royal Pond of the Palace had been intact till about the 30s according to some sources but somebody now has built a house above it too. The Portuguese had destroyed the Dalada Maligawa and built a church in the precincts and the church too has now disappeared leaving behind only the karakoppuwa or the cemetery. The Alakeswara Road leads to the ruins of the Palace where Minister Alagakkonara who built the Kotte fortress lived and within its proximity are two large Tombs (according to some, chaityas) known as the Baddegana Tombs. They had been buried inside a mini-mountain for years and years, foliage having grown above it till it is reported in a folk legend that one moonlit night a devotee in sil clothes walking by it had heard the sound of hewisi (drums) emanating from it. Later excavations had revealed the twin tombs or chaityas. And here is an unbelievable and almost repugnant piece. A part of the Chitra Kuta Mandapaya where the Kotte kings had their consecration ceremonies now lies miserably in ignoble negligence and a gaping hole in it is said to be used as a lavatory pit! When the writer last visited it, parts of vehicles from a nearby garage were dumped on it and beggars and stray dogs were surveying these and other heaps of rubbish on it for possible marketable and edible stuff!

Place names in Kotte reveal many edifices as the name Angampitiya. This had been the sports venue of the capital, where many games of skill (angam) were played. Today it is just a humdrum site of human dwellers. In the site where Vibhishana Devale stood, where many a bird messenger paid homage in their aerial flights had been put up a house, however, now it stands as the Archaeological Museum. The museum just now seems to be more in a dormant stage than in an active stage. The Ranga Hala (dancing hall) and Saraswathi Mandapaya, where the learned and the high-born gathered for discourses had been sited beyond this, but there are no visible extents of any of these.

More words need not be wasted on the misfortune that befell the mighty city of Kotte. Most of it lies buried under modern concrete, a part of it has been taken away to put up other buildings while human ablutions are performed on the very consecration stone of the kings, now become a resting place of the area s stray dogs. One can take solace only in Buddha s teachings of impermanence of all things to reconcile one s mind with this state of things. But there is nothing to prevent one becoming nostalgic over the old city described by one of Kotte s greatest poets, Sri Rahula Himi in Selalihini Sandesha in the following strain.

See, friend, proud city Jayawardene
Whose name renowned by victories achieved
Was won, which far in luxury outlives
The devas city and whose mighty host
With faith and love adores the Triple Gem
The basin there, like Diyawanna called
Aye represent the fair silk robe, that wraps
The Lady city and its heavy folds
Of waves with its long shaking girdle cloth
Of splashing foam with rows of lilies red
In wrought and golden likeness of the swan.
The city s wall with strong broad gates and bars
The jewelled breast-band represent, assumed
By the fair proud dame Lanka in her youth.
Her crest Samantha and the sea her zone.

(This is a translation of the original verse done by Paul Peiris and included in his book Ceylon: the Portuguese Era)