Saturday Magazine

Our first ever woman Disave
by S. Pathiravitana

Long before Sirimavo Bandaranaike brought fame to this country and surprise to the machismos of the West by being the first woman in the world to become a Prime Minister, there was a woman from Kegalla who was appointed by the King of Kandy to be the first ever woman Disave in this land. H.C.P.Bell in his Kegalle Report (p. 50) tells the story, which he says is based on local history:

"In former times there were two rival families, skilled fighters with sword and shield - the one called Sudhaliye harambakaarayo, the other Maruvalliye harambakaarayo. They were also styled Panikkirala. It was customary for the men of these two gladiatorial families to be matched to fight in the presence of the king - a spectaculum known as Angamay-kotaagannawa." These rival families were not like the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. And the king of Kandy was not getting them to settle their private quarrels in physical combat. They were really two professional gladiatorial schools like in the Mallawa-desa (Kerala?) with whose gladiatorial skills we had some inter connections.

`A0In Edanduwaawa, a little village in Kegalla district, functioned the Maruvalliye school of gladiators. One day the king sent word to the head of the school to send a representative to the court to fight a member of the Sudhaliye school. The chief who accepted it decided to go himself to do the fighting. But before he went he told his wife, who was pregnant, in case the fight ends with his death, then the child born whether girl or boy should be taught the hereditary arts of fighting. With that he went to his death.

When the child was born it was, as the story has it, a girl. The mother brought up the child and one day when some traders from Mallava-desa came to the village they came to the wallauva of the late Maruvalliye chief where the school for sword fighting was held and sought lodging for the night. On their being invited to stay the night they got to learn about the girl and her father’s wish. They offered to take the child to Mallava-desa where she could be trained in the hereditary arts of fighting.

In Kerala, the girl was looked after by a family of gladiators where she became

accomplished in the art of fencing. On her return to the island she went to the court of the king disguised as a man and told the king that she was willing to fight anybody from the Sudhaliya school with sword and buckler. The girl having being taught to fight in a deeper and larger pit than the ones in Lanka entered the pit. Such combats were usually fought to the end and before long the Sudhaliya harambakkaaraya was sabred to death.

`A0 The Maruvalliye harambakkaaraya now reappeared before the king but this time in female dress. The astonished king then inquired from her, her background. Having learnt the full story the king was so pleased with her bravery that he presented her with the usual royal gifts - five elephants, much land and many other gifts. The most honoured gift, however, was her appointment as the Disave of the Hatara Korale. Bell adds this little note to this story, "From that time it is said, the term Disamahatmaya was applied to the Disave and (nowadays) to the Ratemahatmaya in lieu of the former name Disaralahami."

The woman Disave’s skill in swordsmanship or rather, I should be saying swords-womanship, aroused my curiosity about a neglected aspect of our history - combative sports. I found that the information we could gather from our books about combative sports is rather scarce. John Davy’s observations at the tail end of the Sinhala monarchy heartened me in my search. This is what Davy found:

"Formerly, the kings of Ceylon delighted in games and sports: in seeing feats of horsemanship performed: in witnessing gladiatorial exhibitions, and the fights of animals, as of bulls, rams and elephants: but particularly, during the last reign, such diversions were discontinued." In other words a blight fell on the country with the coming of British intrigue. Next I found a short but excellent little brochure with the name - Some Sinhala Combative, Field and Aquatic Sports and Games by P.E.P. Deraniyagala, Director of the National Museums, Ceylon, which included all the items of sport mentioned by Davy. It was a brief but useful introduction redeeming some of the shortcomings in the history of this subject.

Deraniyagala Snr,. who was himself a pugilist once, had participated in this combative sport in which he shone. He won his colours from Cambridge where he astonished boxing audiences with his ring craft which once floored a more powerful opponent to win the light weight championship of the Oxford-Cambridge boxing encounter. Later, his interest in boxing tailed off when he turned to the less bloody and more philosophical sport of Ju Jitsu where you are taught how to turn weakness into strength, a typical Far Eastern concept.

Deraniyagala gives us some examples of our swordsmanship, which have not been too publicised. He tells us of how King Rajasingha II entered the fortified Portuguese fort in Colombo in disguise "and left by night after slicing with his sword a young palmyrah palm which remained erect although in horizontal slices. When the Portuguese saw it next morning they had no doubt as to the identity of their visitor."

The story of how a woman became a Disave narrated earlier appears in a variant version in Kerala. Our swordsmanship was well known in Kerala so much so, according to M.D.Raghavan, who worked at the Colombo Museum for a time, drew the attention of Deraniyagala to a Kerala ballad which describes how fencing masters from Ceylon were imported to Kerala. There is a similarity to this story recorded by Bell regarding an event that took place in Kerala. There, a dispute between two families resulted in a duel in which the winner of the duel was treacherously stabbed by a relative. "Mortally wounded, Aromer (the dying swordsman) hands his blood stained kachcha to his pregnant sister and requests her to instruct her unborn child to avenge him. Her son later challenged this relative and kills him."

Another instance of the skill of our swordsmen referred to by Deraniyagala is Ratwatte Disave’s achievement with the sword. When Sri Wickrama Rajasingha was riding his horse on his morning canter, the Disave who was riding behind had tossed an arecanut into the air and sliced it twice which deed was acclaimed by the spectators. But the acclaim of the by-standers was such that it aroused the jealousy of the King. Horse racing, which is called sometimes the king of sports, was also a favourite with some of our kings. Rajasingha II had a levelled a field for the horses to race on.

"The last display of Sinhala swordsmanship," writes Deraniyagala, "was a contest in the fields of Kandy about five years after British occupation. It is said that Galagoda Ratay Mahatmaya, a noted deaf swordsman, was challenged by an English Captain. The two met in the Hevavissa fields in Paatha Hewaheta.. Galagoda in loin cloth with sword and shield, the Englishman in shirt, trousers and sword. Before commencing, Galagoda drew two cross lines in the sand and standing where they intersected defied his rival to shift from this position.

"Although the Englishman’s sword flashed all over Galaboda’s sword and shield, the latter would not give ground. Then in his turn Galagoda exclaiming "Englishman on guard" attacked and after a few passes, left the mortified officer grasping a bladeless hilt. The Beravayas who were watching the fight raced home for their magul drums and played a triumphant march to celebrate this victory."

The information about other sports that Deraniyagala has gathered is from paintings on cloth he has found in the Ratnapura District and in the Devale at Hanguranketa. Some of the tracings he has made of these paintings, which appear on this page, are really beautiful. They reveal not as he once did the strength of his fighting fists but the refinement of his artistic fingers and a very sharp eye to display the born painter that he was.

Somewhat similar to the Roman spectacles staged in their amphitheatres are the fights that were staged, as Davy observed, between rams, bulls, elephants, and between man and beast. Were the fights staged between man and beast inspired by what our Ambassadors to the court of Emperor Claudius saw at the Roman amphitheatres? There is evidence that the subjects of diplomatic conversation took that turn. As Deraniyagala points out, quoting Pliny, the Ambassadors were describing the elephants of Ceylon and the nature of their work in captivity. They would also have described how the elephants were caught and how the kraals that were constructed to trap them were made.

As for the use of the word kraal, Deraniyagala suggests that this has been derived from the Sinhala word gaala, which is the one used to describe an enclosure for animals. A word, which the Portuguese in turn seems to have borrowed, but that, however, is not the impression the Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives.

A more important thing the Ambassadors told the Roman court, according to Pliny, was that the elephant in captivity sometimes played the role of executioner. More particularly when a king was found remiss in his duties and condemned to death - "a magnificent hunt for elephants and leopards was organised for him. He knew what was expected of him and met his end facing them." Should we, I wonder, revive this form of punishment to stop the vast mismanagement and corruption in our country?


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