Diplomatic protocol in the Udarata Court


Kingdom of Kandy (1469–1815)

By Kamalika Pieris

During the rule of the Vaduga (Nayakkar) kings, starting with Wimaladharmasuriya II (1687-1707), Udarata had concocted an elaborate ceremony for diplomats presenting their credentials to the royal court. The Dutch ambassadors sent from the maritime provinces had to accept this. The first British envoy to arrive in the Udarata, John Pybus also had to undergo this ceremony in 1762.

Pybus was lodged in the ‘tanayama’ at Gannoruwa, reserved for the Dutch ambassador, a mud walled and thatched house, with an open square and many small apartments and stores for the presents which usually accompanied the embassy. In the middle of the square was a ‘kind of shrine’ where the letter addressed to the king was kept under a white cloth. Pybus started from the tanayama in the night at seven p.m, amidst firing of guns and beating of drums, letter to the king on a silver tray between several folds of white linen, carried in front of him under a silk canopy. Everybody went on foot, Pybus and the minister escorting him went hand in hand. Worn out, hungry, and bespattered with mud they arrived within sight of the palace around eleven- thirty in the night.

They had to wait till permitted to come forward to the outer gate. Pybus then had to remove his shoes, and carry the silver tray above his head into the large dimly lit hall, hung with ‘white cloth arches adorned with rags of red and white’ (reli pallan) . The throne was concealed by seven curtains. The king was seated on a carved gilt throne on a dais three feet in height. He wore a gold worked jacket over a close fitting vest, with broad gold embroidered belt and a jeweled dagger at his side. A broad sword with jeweled handle rested by the throne. His feet had slippers and above him was a canopy of white silk. Pybus continued to stand with the tray on his head, while the rest all prostrated themselves. He was pulled down by the skirts of his coat and made to kneel down. He advanced in degrees, prostrating himself six times, then handed over the letter kneeling down, then after stepping backwards, was given permission to sit, which he was very glad to do. Every question and answer was recorded by a secretary who sat nearby. Pybus, exhausted, returned to the tanayama at dawn. After many representations, as a very special mark of favour, he was permitted to wear his shoes when he appeared before the king for his farewell audience,

British Governor North (1798-1805) sent General Hay MacDowell, as ambassador to Kandy in 1800. Pieris says the letter relating to this, was carried under a canopy on the heads of appuhamis, with the reverence insisted on by the Sinhala court. It was escorted by 1100 men, who with their guns, baggage and cars resembled an invading army. MacDowell was received at the Sinhala border by First Adigar, Pilimatalawe MacDowell’s royal audience began at four thirty in the evening. It was nine by the time all the presents were sent across the river. Then MacDowell and the minister accompanying him, started hand in hand. At midnight first Adigar, Pilimatalawe received him. MacDowell then went through numerous courts, saw the raising of the seven successive curtains and went through an exhausting ceremonial. He had to fall on his knees three times whenever he approached or retired from the throne. He was given Sinhala sweetmeats, fruit and water and it was five a.m. before the exhausted MacDowell started on his way back. Both Robert Andrews, ambassador in 1795 and MacDowell commented that this ritual was almost religious in style, and was devised to impress foreign representatives with the greatness of the ruler.

The Vaduga kings, unlike Wimaladharmasuriya I and Rajasinha II, did not enter into direct conversation with the ambassadors sent by the Dutch and the British. That was left to the First Adigar and the chiefs. Any request made by the ambassadors had to pass thorugh several channels, from interpreter to interpreter to the Adigar who sat next to the throne and conveyed it to the king. The reply followed the same procedure. The process of putting a question and getting a reply from the king took nearly half an hour. Dewaraja notes that this was totally unsuited to the intelligent discussion of external affairs.

British Governor Maitland (1805-1811) was ‘mildly reprimanded’ by Udarata for not dispatching an ambassador to Udarata as soon as he arrived in Colombo. Maitland protested but Udarata insisted. When a new governor arrived in Colombo he must first send a ‘keydapana’ to the Udarata king. All foreign nations that came to the island must follow the accepted policy of a properly worded keydapana. It must be couched in respectful style, informing the’ Happy lotus like mind of the divine supremely great king, ruler of tri Sinhala’ that he had arrived. This ancient practice must be observed. Maitland eventually sent a keydapana to the Happy Ruler of Lanka, otherwise known as the Ruler of Happy Lanka but he did not send an ambassodor.

Governor Brownrigg (1812-1820) who succeeded Maitland, sent his letter directly to the King, bypassing the First Adigar, who complained that the letter violated protocol, and was not worth looking at, let alone present to the king. It had contained ‘many words which cannot be thought, which cannot be told’. Thereafter a keydapana sealed with a gold stamp instead of the usual three seals of wax was sent and again Udarata objected. They wanted an explanation for this new departure. D’Oyly, Chief translator, said that the gold seal was the arms of the English king and they used it in Europe and in India. Udarata replied ‘things done in countries of Dambadiva suits not this Happy Island of Lanka.’

D’Oyly added that they could not find specimens of keydapana despite searching. He was told to look at the copies of the keydapana sent by the Dutch governors and to copy them. They were preserved at Colombo. Look at the wording of the keydapana of Robert Andrews, British ambassador in 1795 and study also the procedures for its presentation, they said. There would be mudaliyars in Colombo familiar with all this. . Udarata further stated that the letter had not been sent with sufficient ceremony. It had been accompanied by drums only from Gurubevila. There would be mudaliyars in Colombo who knew the customary procedures. Udarata would not budge from this stand and D’Oyly said that he would hereafter follow the traditional customs.

(The writings of Colvin R. de Silva, L.S. Dewaraja, P.E.Pieris, M. Roberts and T. Vimalananda were used for this essay.)

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