by ASIFF HUSSEIN
Kotte, the one-time capital of the Sinhalese Kings is slowly waking up from its slumber after centuries of neglect under colonial rule.
The city more properly known as Jayawardhanapura Kotte or ‘The Fortress in the Victory-enhancing City’ served as the capital of the Sinhalese Kings from the early 15th to the late 16th century before it fell into the hands of the Portuguese imperialists with the death of its last ruler, the puppet king Don Juan Dharmapala who willed his kingdom to Philip I of Portugal in 1597.
With the Portuguese occupation and subsequent Dutch and British rule Kotte fell on evil days and it was only recently with the shifting of the administrative capital from Colombo to Sri Jayawardhanapura Kotte that its important place in the national life of the country was restored though whether it will ever regain its former glory yet remains to be seen.
Kotte was built in the 14th century by a scion of a powerful family of Kerala ancestry Nissanka Alagakkonara in a village called Darugama. It was fortified by high walls surrounding an area of about one square mile while a deep moat encircled it. It was perhaps Sri Lanka’s grandest and most fortified metropolis of its day. The very name Kotte is said to have derived from the Malayalam Kottai meaning ‘fortress’ and this is exactly what it was, a veritable fortress the later kings made their home, court and seat of government.
Situated in Etul Kotte in the heart of the old capital is the E.W. Perera Memorial Kotte Archaeological Museum named after one of Kotte’s greatest sons, E.W. Perera also known as ‘The Lion of Kotte’. The museum set up in 1992 is housed in the Ihala Valawwa, the home of E.W. Perera and contains a variety of artefacts recovered from Kotte and elsewhere including various regional flags, costumes, weapons, pottery and chinaware.
The rich collection of flags on display is particularly impressive. One would find here the Narasinha Kodiya with the figure of a lion with a human head in red, black and white from Ambakke Devale, the Hansa Kodiya of Mahanuwara with stylised goose in black, white and maroon from Uva Disava, the Monara Kodiya with a black peacock against a white field with a maroon crescent above it and the Gajasinha Kodiya of Nuwara Kalaviya depicting a composite creature with a lion’s body in green and the trunk of an elephant in yellow.
Besides these, one would find the Kotte Kodiya with a highly stylised lion in black , white and maroon clutching a whip-like object in its paw, the Sath Korale Kodiya with stylised lion and sun and moon in white against a maroon field, the Satara Korale Kodiya depicting a stylised sun with human face in the centre and two crescents facing it and the Valapane Disa Kodiya showing a peacock-like bird trampling a cobra.
One would also find here a good collection of colonial-period costumes. Especially interesting are the long-sleeved white jackets embellished with renda lace adorned with floral motifs.
A few of these even have a piece of cloth attached to and extending from the sleeves to cover the hands upto the wrists. These costumes evidently borrowed from the Portuguese were commonly worn by upper-class Sinhalese women until about a century or so ago when it gradually gave way to the sari imported from India with the blessings of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists like Anagarika Dharmapala.
Besides these one would find a veskat, a kind of female bodice with collars and long sleeves ending in a triangular shape at the waist and a Bost trokke, a jacket-like female upper garment with laces in front to fasten it.
Among the native cloths on display may be mentioned a Somana cloth in beige and green with floral motifs, a pata kambaya with maroon and yellow squares and a Kukkuta saluva with figures of red cocks which had been donated to Ambakke Devalaya. Besides these one would find an assortment of brown and blond tresses similar to the havariya used by Sinhalese women. They however appear to have belonged to Portuguese or Dutch women as suggested by their colour, the brown tresses probably being Portuguese and the blond tresses Dutch.
Piece of art
Archaeological excavations in and around the Kotte area have also revealed some interesting findings. Notable among them are a female figurine measuring about four inches holding in her arms an even smaller figure found near the diya agala or moat near the Mahasen Devmedura, a bell with a handle of a human figure found in the vicinity and an old wooden fruit squeezer, a large key, a few bricks and a variety of pottery recovered from the area in and around the Dalada Medura of Kotte.
Besides these one would find more recent tableware like some old Chinese porcelain plates in monochrome like blue, green, beige and brown depicting themes like Chinese style house, sailing ship, bird and flower, a bowl with a red crescent probably used by the Moors of yore to make that delectable brown pudding we know as Wattalappam and an antique multi-coloured cake plate depicting a countryside scene with cottage and flowers, a truly fascinating piece of art.
Besides these one would find some antiquated swords of various sizes including one with the head of a lion similar to a Sinhalese kastane, a kinissa sword with ivory handle and an old head of a keteriya or Sinhalese battle axe.
Firearms include a particularly long double-barreled pistol of about 16 inches with a handle thought to be made of buffalo horn.
Last, but not least must be mentioned E.W. Perera’s personal collection including his famous black coat and hat and a baldric with a badge depicting a crown on either side of which are the words GR for George Rex and the name ‘The Hon’ble E.W. Perera’ below it.