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From Bradby to Degaldoruwa

20 August, 2023

The Degaldoruwa Viharaya in Gunnepanne, near Sirimalwatte and Amunugama, may have been a regular haunt for George Keyt. One of the most historically significant temples in the region and the country, it is famous for its murals, painted by the most renowned sittara artist of his day, Devaragampola Silvatenne, and the Nilagama family. In his book on the Ridi Vihare, SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda writes that Silvatenne “was responsible for the most brilliant period in Kandyan art.” An unordained bhikkhu and a brilliant master painter, he had earlier executed the murals at Medavala Raja Maha Vihara, and had been commissioned the decoration of two other leading temples, Dambulla and Ridi Viharaya.

I had wanted to visit Degaldoruwa for a long time. In 2021 I visited the Kundasale Raja Maha Vihara and was permitted to explore it by the Head Priest there, Rambukwelle Sudassi Thera. On my way back I passed Degaldoruwa, but did not have the time. Earlier this year, Sudassi Thera put me in touch with the Head Priest at the Vihara, Watagamuwe Ananda Thera. A preacher and a scholar, Ananda Thera graciously guided me and my friends through the Vihara, showed us the murals, explaining their origins, charting their influence.

Citing not just Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Mediaeval Sinhalese Art but also Ralph Pieris’s Sinhalese Social Organisation, he observed that Kandyan temple murals constituted some of the most authentic objets d’art in Sri Lankan culture. I could not have agreed more.

Kandyan art

Kandyan art, in fact, was an extension of Kandyan society, the culture and ethos on which it stood, as far removed as it could be from the rest of the island. Remnants of this society are still there, and one invariably registers it when in the region.

The previous day my friends and I had checked into a hotel in Kundasale. It was my interest in rugby that had brought me here. My friends had come to see the First Leg of the Bradby Shield, and I had decided to go watch it with them. On Saturday it seemed like Colombo had invaded the last bastion of the Sinhalese kings, and the town looked as though it had been conquered by a riot of blue and gold. The Esala Perahera would begin in a few days, and until it did, the First Leg looked set to dominate conversations here.

A rugby encounter with less than 100 years behind it can hardly be considered a microcosm of Kandyan society. But the Bradby Shield is different, and at one level it served for me and my friends as a prelude to our visit to Degaldoruwa. Unlike in Colombo, in Kandy there is a widespread cultural and emotional attachment to old institutions. This is true of schools and universities, even hotels and restaurants: the oldest hotel in town, the Queen’s, is more of a historical artefact than even the Galle Face Hotel. That is reflected in a fierce, almost undying loyalty to these establishments. Not surprisingly, from our cab driver to our hotel owner to a random shop owner, I sensed much loyalty to local schools, chiefly Trinity.

Resonant love

In cultural terms, for Kandyan people, the Bradby Shield serves roughly the same function as the Esala Perahera. Regarding the latter, one discerns a love for tradition, for culture, for the rites and rituals of an ancient heritage. Regarding the former, there is an equally resonant love for Trinity. This, I believe, has to do with the reforms A. G. Fraser enforced in the early 20th century at Trinity College, reforms that paved the way for the indigenisation of not just the school but also the Anglican Church of Ceylon.

Kandy is also not the cosmopolitan hub that Colombo is. It is a cosmos, as Gananath Obeyesekere has reminded us, but it is also far more rooted in the history and heritage of the land than Colombo. For these reasons, not surprisingly, whenever Bradby comes up, Kandy extends its support to Trinity in a way which, at the cultural level, transcends school loyalties in Colombo.

This is, of course, an interesting phenomenon. And one can posit different reasons for it. One of my friends contended that Kandy does not have the rugby culture that Colombo does. Temptingly accurate, but it does not hold for the simple reason that it is not true. In Kandy, rugby remains as popular as if not more so than cricket, and it is rugby, at school or club level, which attracts spectators. Another reason, which felt more tenable to me, is that school loyalties – which remain as much a barometer of the popular and “modern” culture here as it does elsewhere – are much less diffused, the result being that unlike in Colombo, where one contends with multiple rivalries, in Kandy institutional loyalties tend to be more concentrated, more sharply articulated.

That, I believe, blends in with the region’s historical moorings. The sense of attachment to the past, so evident in Kandy, hence forms the crux of Kandyan schools, in contrast to their counterparts in Colombo.

This is hardly surprising, since Kandy evokes a past that has almost died in Colombo. The path to the Trinity Stadium, for instance, was long and narrow. Stretching from one by-road to another, it looked as though it would never end. Even the stadium seemed a world away and apart from the stadiums one frequents in Colombo: standing atop a hill, it looked more spacious, more expansive. As the first half ended, the match transitioned to a cultural item from Trinity, featuring Sinhalese drums. Colombo had dominated the scores in the first half. In the second half it went down, ending in a final and much expected victory for Trinity.

The moment belonged to Kandy, and we felt humbled. As we walked back, though, I could not help but reflect on the drums, and wonder whether they had tapped into divine help. What other rugby encounter, after all, would feature such an item during the break?

I have not been to many rugby matches, and I do not consider myself an afficionado. But there is something culturally intriguing about rugby, which distinguishes it from the more gentlemanly pursuit that is cricket. Coupled with Kandy’s cultural and religious bearings, the First Leg of the Bradby Encounter therefore took on a new life this year.

My two assistants Uthpala and Nimsara, who had visited the Trinity Chapel and had lunch at Trinity College on an official tour the previous day, felt the same, and told me as such. As I took leave of Kandy with my friends, having explored Degaldoruwa and having lunched near Mulgampola, I reflected on Ozymandias, and wondered how long it would be before these historical associations would fade away. I comforted myself with the thought that Kandy was not Colombo, that the one would never become the other. Then another thought hit me. We are so used to regarding the Southern Province as a distinct cultural, even geographic, entity. Returning home, I wondered why this could not be truer of Kandy.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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