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In My Kingdom of the Sun & the Holy Peak

February 24, 2014

Three Stories of the Betrayal, the Redemption and the
Last Phase of a Land and its People

By Tissa Abeysekara

Vijitha Yapa Publications

The Betrayal

AD 1778 – 1815

A WHITE HORSE AND THE SOLAR ECLIPSE

Myths and Legends of the Last Years of a Kingdom,

recounted in Samudraghosha.*

*Samudraghosa, is a metre widely used in both classical and folk forms of Sinhala poetry. It prescribes four rhyming lines, a quatrain, per stanza, which when sung are believed to simulate the sound of the sea. Like waves, each line overlaps with the next, until the last line rises sharply in a crescendo to end in a dying fall. Apart from this euphony, a four-line stanza written in Samudraghosa also attempts, especially in folk poetry, an unusual juxtaposition of imagery in that each line presents an image or an impression not obviously related to each other; only the last line qualifies the previous three lines and makes them fall into a coherent and unified sense.

 This story is written in Three Movements and each Movement is composed of four narrative strands complementing each other and converging to a point which takes the main story forward.

I

The Sun

Only the Kotmale river, a slender ribbon reflecting the white light falling from above, could be seen – a long luminous serpent, still, He came up slowly through the mist from the floor of the valley. The mist swirled up in columns along the mountainsides like smoke from a gigantic cauldron. Dawn was just breaking over the rim surrounding the valley. Down below, where the peasant huts of straw-thatched roofs were, huddled together like animals for warmth, it was still dark.silent, and waiting, hibernating in the cavernous dark of the valley.

Ponner Naekathar kept climbing steadily, not too fast, not too slow, his bare feet and splayed toes seeking each step on the paved pathway with instinctive assurance; the white quartz on the narrow path, worn smooth by millions of feet walking over them for centuries, were cool and wet with dew. The man looked up and noticed the sky brightening over the tip of Kadadora Hill, but there was no quickening of pace. Ponner Naekethar knew the exact moment when the sun would appear.

He was a small dark man with a long beard falling midway in his chest and he moved so easily, he seemed to float. He gave the impression of some enormous power coiled within him and the eyes were sharp, unblinking, and fiercely focussed.

Having reached the top of the Thispane Rock, Ponner Naekethar settled into the lotus position immediately. There was no pause in-between; the long walk flowed unbroken into the sitting position, and then everything about him became still, except the eyes that looked straight ahead towards the Kadadora Hill, now quite near and opposite him. The eastern sky over the hill was turning a luminous pink.

In a moment the sun flashed over the hill and Ponner Naekathar stared unblinking into the burning rays. Rainbow colours sprouted in a fountain and broke into a million particles of light and the small dark man with the fierce eyes of a serpent stared with eyelids frozen-open like in death. Shards of light, burning blades of steel, and multi-coloured splinters slashed through his eyeballs, and still he stared and the sun began to dance, spinning-turning-shivering-dazzling-burning, faster and faster into an explosion. ooooOOM! The sound kept turning in a cycle and the sky reappeared, cloudless and blue, sunless and cool, and then, first a white speck in the blue vastness and expanding slowly to fill the heavens, came the horse, the white horse with a hint of blue in its flanks, the mane waving in a milky streak, legs stretching and folding in a dance, galloping, yet moving like an awesome bird across the sky.

The Green Pallu

The river in the month of Nikini is fast with the monsoon rains falling on the Holy Peak from which it flows and the boat moved slowly across the current. The mist had cleared and the vague light of daybreak lay across the water and on the emerald green foliage blooming thickly on the banks.

Pilimatalawe, the young aristocrat, stood stiffly, feet firmly together, smooth-skinned palms with delicate fingers folded on the bulge at his waist caused by many layers of cloth wrapped around, a three-cornered cap of white muslin placed lightly on his head, and he was trying to look calm and steady on the planks unevenly placed between two rafts which made the ferry boat. The boatmen – four of them at the four corners – were struggling to keep on course towards the Getambe ferry at Gannoruwa, but the boat kept drifting away with the current. The crossing was taking more time than he had calculated for, and Pilimatalawe felt impatient. He could hear far away and over the hills the drums beating at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth and by their quickening rhythm knew the Aluyam Duray or the early morning Service was drawing to a close. Then it would be time for the court to assemble in the Audience Hall and wait for the King.

As a newly appointed member of the Maha Wasala or the Inner Court, this was going to be Pilimatalawe’s first appearance, and he didn’t want to be late.

The horanewa piped its last note and fell silent over the Katukele hill as the ferryboat reached the landing. The prow of one raft knocked against the high ground and the boat turned sharply around. A white heron rose from the mangrove and reached above the branches stretching out from the bank; legs splashed in the water as men hurried to tie the boat and the umbrella bearers were the first to reach land, to wait for the young master to step ashore.

The red gravel path moved up from the ferry, on ground rising steadily through tall grass, and passed under a giant jak-fruit tree with a branch hanging low like a half-raised hand – so low that the umbrella bearers lowered the canopy held over Pilimatalawe’s head and he bent his knees and hunched himself to clear the spot. He was a tall man. The little procession began moving up slowly and solemnly with the canopy held over the nobleman’s head swaying and billowing slightly in a wind which came across the river, blew gently over the tall grass and died on the treetops.

A dog barked and the birdsong which had persisted in a soft harmony of vague chirps and trills since early dawn suddenly erupted into a shrill chorus and Subbamma paused in combing her long dark tresses to peer through the square hole which stood for a window, and saw the white canopy moving through the trees like a giant butterfly. Her feet moved swiftly and lightly like a dancer’s, out of the room and across the little open courtyard to the front door just when the nobleman and his retinue appeared over the embankment and Subbamma covered her head with the green pallu of a dull-gold saree. She stood there as the curious procession came slowly and her dark eyes peering from under the pallu covering her head began to pick the tall man walking stiffly under the canopy held aloft. At first he seemed like a puppet or a buffoon in a nattakoottu  and she was on the verge of breaking out into laughter, when she noticed his face; the sharp eyes, the beautifully chiseled nose, the high cheekbones, and the well-formed mouth with lips closed in perfect symmetry. It was the face of a god in a temple, inscrutable, distant, and proud. She noticed his step slow down as he came nearer and for a brief moment their eyes locked. Something burned within her like a sharp stab and vanished as suddenly leaving her slightly breathless and numbed.

Pilimatalawe inquired from his men and was told that this strange vision in a green pallu was a Malabar princess from Madurai who had come with the retinue of the Mahesi, the chief queen of the Nayakkar King of Kandy, Kirthi Sri Rajasingha. Her husband had died on the way and she lived now under royal patronage as a member of the royal family. The King had settled her in this plot of land where once-upon-a-time the Senkadagala rulers had a pleasure garden.

For five days Pilimatalawe, the young courtier, went about his daily routine at the Senkadagala Court, and as custom decreed, was confined to the Sacred Triangle. In the nights he watched the moon waxing over the Demon Hill – Bahirawa Kanda – and then he remembered the Malabar Princess in the house on the hill by the Getambe Ferry; as fair as the yonder moon, and as unreal as an apsara.  He sighed. The fair one with the dark eyes in a green pallu who stood by the door of the little house now stood poised on the edge of his eye and sleep did not come to him.

Five days after the Nikini full moon Pilimatalawe’s men were squatting silently on the embankment between the ferry and the little house where the Malabar Princess lived. They were chewing betel and looking away from each other trying desperately to avoid conversation. The canopy lay folded on the ground.

Inside the white lime-washed walls of the little house on a little dais covered with a white cloth and facing the narrow courtyard in the middle, Pilimatalawe was seated, and presently Subbamma emerged from a room at the opposite end carrying a copper vessel with a slender stem and a drinking bowl of shining white pewter. She crossed the courtyard and Pilimatalawe watched her feet move at an angle from each other, like a dancer. She placed the pewter bowl in his hands – both hands outstretched with the palms open and placed together to receive – and poured the water from the copper vessel. The water poured out from a spout shaped like a swan’s neck. There was a faint smell of jasmine and cardamom about her and the nobleman’s heart beat a little faster. Now came the problem. Water offered like this had to be taken without the bowl touching the lips; that was the new custom, the Indian manner of drinking. Pilimatalawe had seen the Malabar nobles at the Senkadagala court drink in that manner. But he was not used to it. He half raised the bowl and paused; he knew he would spill the water all over himself; he was helpless like a child. Subbamma laughed. It was a tinkling laugh with the voice lingering slightly on the notes of mischief and coquetry. He knew no Telegu and she knew no Sinhala. They kept looking at each other and she laughed again, more expansive and longer held this time. He took the risk and brought the rim of the bowl to his lips. She nodded. Is it alright? He questioned with his eyes. Yes. She nodded again. He drank, and once again the smell of jasmine and cardamoms wafted in the air. From where was it coming? Couldn’t be from the water; it tasted pure and clean. Couldn’t be from the woman either; she had withdrawn to a fair distance. It was then that he saw the figure of Goddess Lakshmi in a niche in the wall with a bowl kept in front on which floated freshly picked jasmines. A clay lamp burnt. On the floor below the niche there was a many-coloured pattern made of rice-grain. A similar motif lay at the entrance to the house, but he had not noticed it when he entered. Perhaps he had stepped over it without seeing or feeling. As he came through that door he had entered a totally different world to what he had been accustomed to, a world where everything seemed part of something else, linked to each other in perfect harmony. It was like entering a sacred place where one felt immediately at peace. Pilimatalawe thought of home with its constant smell of boiling rice, cow dung and hay, musty and smoke-filled rooms damp and humid, sweat-soaked clothes and dirty linen and his wife who seemed part of all that.

© 2004 Tissa Abeysekera
ISBN 955-8095-73-7

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