Factum Perspective: “Gaadi” and the Utopianism of “The Doomed King” – By Dhanuka Bandara
Source : newswire
Gaadi, the latest film by the veteran Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage, has renewed general interest in the twilight years of the Kandyan kingdom.
Gaadi – which means “Children of the Sun” – is a historical film set against the backdrop of the fall of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815. It is a technically accomplished film – which is no mean achievement given its hefty subject matter – that is nevertheless somewhat existentially confused.
It is a historical “road movie” that also deals with the grim issue of caste oppression, veers dangerously towards romantic comedy at midpoint, and penultimately reverts to the issue of caste oppression, only to end with a happily ever after of sorts.
Although it is not ideologically or technically coherent as Vithanage’s earlier work, it nevertheless offers the viewer a thought-provoking and satisfying experience, which ought to be appreciated.
This article is not a review of Gaadi. However, it uses Gaadi as a point of departure for a discussion of utopianism as a guiding ideology during the Kandyan kingdom and especially under its last, much maligned sovereign, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha.
In order to make my case I will be extensively referencing Gananath Obeyesekere’s recent work, The Doomed King (2017). This work by Obeyesekere – who is one of the most distinguished of Sri Lankan scholars – is a relentless and passionate defense of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha. As such The Doomed King could be read as revisionary scholarship.
Sri Vikrama Rajasinha is hardly anybody’s favorite “Sri Lankan” – I understand that I’m using the term retroactively – sovereign. In the popular discourse Sri Vikrama Rajasinha is thought of as a cruel and incompetent sovereign who precipitated the fall of the Kandyan kingdom, bringing the entire island under the British control.
Obeyesekere vehemently argues that much that is popularly known about Sri Vikrama Rajasinha amounts to propaganda that justifies not only imperial expansion, but also the treachery, cowardice, and greed of the Kandyan elites. He particularly critiques the mechanizations of Ahelepola Adigar and John D’Oyly and “deconstructs” the infamous execution of the Ahelepola family, which is often used to illustrate the cruelty of an unjust tyrant.
In Gaadi, the execution of the Ahelepola family is partially depicted, but Vithanage deftly tweaks the well-known story to weave it into the overall plot. In the film, during the execution, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha is watching the events from behind a screen. Although Vithanage seems to have a better understanding of the Kandyan kingdom, he does not do much to challenge the stereotypical views of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (which I understand is not the objective of Vithanage).
Obeyesekere contends that it is extremely likely that the only witness to the execution was the executioner himself, and that although the king’s actions were cruel, they were legal. It is pertinent to note here that in a recent interview with Aruna Gunaratna, Vithanage acknowledges the latter claim himself.
The fact that Vithanage does not represent the “pounding episode” (it is said that the Ahelepola Kumarihami was forced to pound in a motor the heads of her children) that Obeyesekere dismisses as pure invention is to the former’s credit. Obeyesekere also questions the credibility of the account of John Davy, one of the key sources whence the episode of the pounding derives, and argues that there is hardly any reason to believe that Davy or his informants were unbiased.
Irrespective of what one thinks about Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, it is safe to say that Kandy wouldn’t have been the city it is today without him. It was during his rule that the Kandy Lake (Kiri Muhuda), the octagonal pavilion (pattirippuva), and the wavy wall (valakulu bamma) were constructed. These are undoubtedly among the most defining architectural features of Kandy.
It is indeed strange – nevertheless understandable – that while builder kings such as Dutugemunu, Parakramabahu, or Mahasen are much admired, irrespective of whatever the cruel acts they might have committed, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha only gets bad press, despite his considerable achievements as a city developer.
Obeyesekere argues that Sri Vikrama Rajasinha conceived Kandy as a “cosmic city,” with the sovereign at the center, in his octagonal pavilion gazing at all the eight directions under his rule.
“The pattirippuva becomes a fixed representation of the white umbrella where, as I said before, the king sits in the center of the eight directions of the traditional compass.
The metaphors continue to tell us that the adjacent rice fields and gardens are like Nandana, Indra’s divine gardens in Meru. The lake with its brimming waters full of fish, bees, and geese like unto kiri muhuda, the milk ocean, churned by the gods to secure the secret of immortality.
While the construction of an octagonal pavilion for himself, whence he can direct his sovereign gaze over his land, and his assumption of the divine right arguably reveals certain monomaniacal tendencies on the part of Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, his conception of Kandy as a “cosmic city” and as such as a utopian space also renders him a visionary.
Kandy as a utopian “cosmic city” ought to be discussed in relation to the broader philosophy of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism as a philosophy could be traced back to the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes, who claimed himself to be a “citizen of the world.” Cosmopolitanism at its deepest philosophical end is essentially a utopian project that attempts to unite the city (polis) with the cosmos. It is in this sense that the cosmopolite is a citizen of the world.
As Obeyesekere has pointed out in The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom 1591-1765, many Kandyan kings were “cosmopolitan” in sensibility. The roots of Kandyan cosmopolitanism go back to the founder of the kingdom – although not the first ruler of Kandy – Vimaladharmasuriya I (Konappu Bandara before coronation) and his wife Kusumasana Devi (earlier Dona Katherina), who, according to Obeyesekere, adopted “Western ways of living.”
Although Konnappu Bandara was a formally baptized Catholic, he later became a Buddhist sovereign. Dona Katherina, as Obeyesekere argues, never ceased to be a devout Catholic. It is also very likely that both knew at least some Portuguese.
To establish the cosmopolitanism of Vimaladharmasuriya I, Obeyesekere mentions the fact that the king had his own vineyard and served wine to visitors. Similarly, the later kings of Kandy, and especially the Nayakkar kings, were familiar with different religious traditions – Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and so on – and knew multiple languages.
In the Sri Lankan nationalist discourse, which often idealizes the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods, Kandyan period is often treated with ambivalence and suspicion. In my view, Kandyan cosmopolitanism has much to do with this attitude, as it resists the nationalist fantasies of a homogeneous and continuous Sinhala-Buddhist precolonial past.
In the Sri Lankan popular historical discourse, the Kandyan period is often associated with decadence and decline, and is conceived as the final stage of a once brilliant Buddhist civilization. It is the Anuradhapura period that is thought of as the model for the nation’s future.
Anti-Tamil sentiments also have much to do with the prevalent low opinion of the Kandyan kingdom. As Obeyesekere contends, such sentiments are evident in texts such as Ahelepola varnanava and were also exploited by the Dutch and the English mechanizing to lure Sinhala aristocrats away from their outsider (supposedly Hindu/Tamil, although they were practicing Buddhists) sovereigns.
As such, the Kandyan period has never had too many admirers. It is revealing that in Martin Wickramasinghe’s Kalunika Sevima (In Search of Panacea) – a text in which Wickramasinghe undertakes a quest to discover his own roots – the author stops short of coming to Kandy. His journey stops in Polonnaruwa.
It is possible that Wickramasinghe’s Theravada puritanism was at odds with the Kandyan period, which in many ways was a cultural melting pot (yet predominantly Buddhist). On the other hand, Ananda Coomaraswamy in his monumental Medieval Sinhalese Art shows unrestrained and at times uncritical admiration for the Kandyan period, and especially the Kandyan village way of life.
For Coomaraswamy, the Kandyan village represented a utopian agrarian ideal. It is also possible that the Kandyan period rhymed better with Coomaraswamy’s own cosmopolitanism.
Although it could be argued that architecturally, artistically, and technologically the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods were superior to the Kandyan period, as a model for the future the Kandyan period appears to be a better choice. Therefore, it is indeed apt that Obeyesekere’s The Many Faces of the Kandyan Kingdom is subtitled “Lessons for Our Time.”
While, obviously, my point is not that we must go back to the feudal conditions during the Kandyan period (conditions that Coomaraswamy found “medieval”), or revert to the divine right of the kings, the Kandyan kingdom, with its cosmopolitanism and tolerant kings, provides us with a better blueprint for a harmonious and pluralist future.
Moreover, the self-sufficient Kandyan village is a sustainable alternative to neoliberal “progress” which has made us heavily reliant on imports and catastrophically debt riddled.
Perhaps, above all, both symbolically and philosophically the greatest lesson to be learnt from the Kandyan period, and especially from Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, is that as a nation we must strive to build the cosmic city where cosmopolitanism in its deepest philosophical sense can thrive and help its citizens overcome the narrow racial and religious sentiments that brought down the Kandyan kingdom, destroyed our sovereignty, and have continued to plague Sri Lanka to this day.
Through the Kandyan period there appears to be a path that leads us out of present dystopia, to a utopian future.
Dhanuka Bandara is a freelance writer based in Kandy, Sri Lanka. He holds a PhD in English Literature from Miami University, USA. He has taught English at Miami University and the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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