The first time I visited Hambantota district was two years after the tsunami of 2004 and it was a school in Kirinde that brought me here.
As I stood on the beach, I was told a fascinating legend from a couple of millenia ago. According to my storyteller, the King of Kelaniya, in South-west Sri Lanka, had a beautiful wife. His step-brother was said to have had an affair with his wife, with whom he exchanged letters in secret. The King intercepted one of the letters and was outraged, when he recognized the handwriting, even though the letter was not signed. However, he wrongly assumed that the handwriting was that of his priest and had him put to death. It turned out that the priest, who was the King’s childhood friend, and his brother had studied at the same Buddhist school and ended up with a similar handwriting.
My storyteller continued that nature furious with the wrong done to a Buddhist monk had responded in the form of a tsunami. As people ran to the King for help against the advancing sea, the astrologers and other counsel of the King told him that the only remedy was to sacrifice a human being. No-one stepped forward to volunteer for the sacrifice. The Princess, the daughter of the King, finally said that she would sacrifice herself to save the people. She was put in a boat, with lots of riches, to take with her to her afterlife and sent towards the sea. The tsunami however lifted her boat and landed it on the south eastern shore of Kirinde, in the southern Kingdom of Ruhunu.
The fishermen in the area were astonished and ran to their King to say that a boat had been swept ashore with a beautiful woman on board. King Kawantissa came to the beach to see for himself the strange sight that had caused such commotion and he decided to marry the Princess himself, when he heard her courageous story.
A temple, the Vihara Maha Devi pansala, stands at a high point on Kirinde beach to mark the landing of the Princess. The inner walls of the pansala are painted with stories of the arrival of the Princess in Kirinde, her marriage to King Kawantissa. The stories on the wall continue with the stories of the two sons born to them, Tissa and Dutugemunu, famous Kings in the recorded history of Sri Lanka.
As the princes grow up, the country faced inter Kingdom wars and invasions from Tamil Kings from the North. The peace-loving King Kawantissa extracted a promise from his two young sons that they would refrain from getting caught up in inter-Kingdom wars and killing people, when they become Kings. A wall painting then illustrates the famous depiction of young Prince Dutugemunu lying on a huge bed curled in a foetal position. His mother sits beside him and asks him why he sleeps thus. He replies that he has no space to stretch his legs as the sea surrounds him in the south and east and King Ellalan is pressing from the north and so this is the only way he can sleep. His mother understands his frustration but reminds him firmly of his promise to his father.
However, after his father dies, Dutugemunu finds himself unable to desist from war. He seeks his mother’s permission to be released from his promise to his father and to be allowed to fight a war with Ellalan, the King of Jaffna, who had expanded his Kingdom to Anuradhapura in the north-central region of the island. He promises her that he will try to minimize the deaths incurred from the war. On that promise, she finally releases him from his promise to his father and he sets off to the north.
On the battleground, he requests King Ellalan that only the two of them fight, as it is a fight between the two and that the people needn’t suffer unnecessarily. Ellalan acquiesces and both fight. The younger King slays the older King and Dutugemunu sets up his Kingdom in Anuradhapura. At the site of where King Ellalan was slain, he set up a memorial and enforced the law that each passerby had to offer his or her respect to the slain King.
This is the story that is narrated in South Sri Lanka and the story that makes King Dutugemunu one of the most respected and popular Kings among the Sinhalese.
I also happened to hear the story of King Dutugemunu, as narrated in North Sri Lanka and it is the story of a blood thirsty King, in search of power and land, propelled to war by his mother and thereby leading to the death of the just Tamil King Ellalan. Therefore, King Dutugemunu is not such a popular historical figure in Tamil narratives.
For me, it was interesting to listen to the story of the same person, as handed down in history, among two ethnic groups, and see how the angle of view hugely affects the perspective.
I find the story houses of pansalas (Buddhist temples) the most interesting part, with tales of local legends painted on the walls. A walk around the walls is akin to reading a book. Yet without a storyteller, the pictures may well be disconnected paintings. I was fortunate to have a knowledgeable story-teller bring to life the paintings on the walls. Perhaps you will be lucky when you ask someone who works or volunteers at the temple. Kirinde’s Vihara Maha Devi pansala is a little gem on the southern coast and is worth visiting.
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