Rediscovering the tomb of our last king

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The interior of the tomb

The interior of the tomb

Far away from his ancient throne in Kandy, the tomb of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe lies forgotten in the Indian city of Vellore

When I set foot in the Indian city of Vellore, 145 km from Chennai for the first time, I was unaware of the importance of this city to Sri Lanka. While being driven though the city I came across a board which displayed, among other important sites to visit – “The tomb of last king of Ceylon”. In my subsequent visits to Vellore I was able to see all places related to our last king’s stay in the city.

Vellore

Outwardly Vellore is no different from any other south Indian city, being busy, dusty, noisy and smelly. It lies between Chennai (145 km) and Bangalore (215 km) and the temple towns of Thiruvannamalai and Tirupati. On the banks of the Palar River, surrounded by a rocky terrain, it is thought to be one of the oldest cities in South India, and has a population of about 500,000. It has two prominent sites, one being the famous Christian Medical College and the other the Vellore Fort.

Christian Medical College

Founded as a one-bed clinic in 1900 by an American missionary doctor Ida S. Scudder, this establishment occupies a prominent place among medical institutions in India and the world. Today it has a 1,700-bed multi campus tertiary care hospital and proudly claims that it has been the pioneer institution in many an advanced medical procedure in the South Asian region.

The Fort

The Vellore fort, in which our last king was held captive for 17 years, spreads over an area of 133 acres. It was built around 1566 by Chinna Bommi Nayak and Thimma Reddy Nayak, chieftains of the Vijayanagar Empire. Ironically, King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe belonged to the same Nayak clan which built the fort.

The fort is considered to be among the best examples of military architecture in Southern India and is famous for its grand ramparts, wide moat and robust masonry. In the 1760s, the British took possession of the fort and used it as a major garrison up until Indian independence.

In 1799, Tippu Sultan, the son of Hyder Ali, died defending the Mysore kingdom against the combined forces of the British and the Nizam of Hyderabad. After his death, his family was detained in the Vellore fort until 1806. After the mutiny of 1806 by Indian sepoys of the Madras regiment, the British decided to shift and isolate Tippu Sultan’s family from Vellore to faraway Calcutta.

After the family was moved the fort lay in silence but when the British captured the last king of Kandy in 1815 they considered Vellore Fort to be the ideal place to keep him under arrest.

Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe: from Kandy to Vellore

Upon the advance of the British forces in February 1815, the last king of Kandy Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe abandoned Kandy and sought refuge in the home of one his loyal minor officers in Udupitiya at Mada Mahanuwara with his four queens. After capturing the abandoned city of Kandy without much bloodshed on February 15, the British army and their local collaborators started searching for the king. Acting on information they received, the search parties reached Mada Mahanuwara and captured the king and his queens on February 18.

Major Hook of the 2nd Ceylon Regiment was entrusted the custody of the king and under a strong escort, the king and his relatives were brought to Colombo, judiciously avoiding the capital city Kandy where the Governor Sir Robert Brownrigg and the officials were preparing the Kandyan convention to subjugate the kingdom. Coming through Teldeniya, the king and his escort proceeded towards Colombo and crossed the Kelani River at Grandpass on March 6, 1815. While the king was on the move towards Colombo, the Kandyan Convention was signed on March 2, ending Sri Lanka’s uninterrupted independence of 2300 years of written history.

In Colombo the king and his relatives were accommodated in a spacious and luxurious house close to Galle Face. They remained in this house for ten months under house arrest until the king and his queens, with an entourage of fifty, were deported from Colombo port on January 25, 1816, aboard the H.M.S Cornwallis to Madras.

The ship reached Madras port on January 21 and the king and his party started their journey to Vellore the very next day. The road the king travelled, from Madras to Vellore, is now a main highway leading to Bangalore (Bangalaru). Having arrived in Vellore on February 28, the king and the party was accommodated in the house located inside the Vellore fort, which the royal family of Tippu Sultan had previously occupied.

“Kandi Mahal” in Vellore

“Kandi Mahal”: Named after the last king of Ceylon

“Kandi Mahal”: Named after the last king of Ceylon

Located inside the Vellore fort, this large house is better described as a housing complex (or mahals) which is a group of houses and courtyards. I was surprised to see that even now it is named “Kandi Mahal” after the last king of Kandy. It is also known as Hyder Mahal / Tippu Mahal after the family members of Tippu Sultan.

The entire housing complex is now occupied by government offices. The section in front, which is the district land registry, is in a dilapidated state and the rest is used as a Police training college and hence is a restricted entry area.

It is in this place that our last king was held captive by the British for 17 years. Governor Brownrigg’s instructions were to, “treat him like a prisoner of war, without splendour or honours, but that he should live in comfort though in perfect retirement.”

Though the king was living on a payment (Privy Purse) by the British government he wished to keep his dignity and refused to be treated as an object of curiosity, to be shown to visitors. On one occasion in 1830 he refused to meet the Governor of Madras, Mr. Lushington, who was touring Vellore and wished to see the king.

According to Henry Marshell M.D. who was the Inspector General of Army Hospitals in Ceylon, in January 1832, the 52-year-old king fell ill with “Dropsy”. Dropsy is an old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water (edema). In years gone by a person might have been said to have dropsy without describing a specific cause for it. Thus the king might have had edema due to congestive heart failure or any other organ failure.


According to Dr Marshell, “from the commencement of the month he died the reports of the native medical attendants respecting his health were considered very unsatisfactory: and he was visited by Mr. Reid, an English surgeon, who found him afflicted with general dropsy. He at first consented to abide by Mr. Reid’s prescriptions, but afterwards declined his assistance, and again called his native attendants.

He (the king) died at Vellore, on the afternoon of the 30th January 1832 aged 52 years, having being seventeen years a state prisoner. At the desire of the family the body was conveyed to the place of burning before sunset, under the escort of a military guard, and accompanied by his male relatives and servants.”

Muttu Mandapam

The location where the king was cremated on the banks of Palar River is now known as “Muttu Mandapam”. A lotus-shaped structure has been built by the Indian Government at this site enclosing the tombs of the king and his descendants. As the local community was unaware of this location, I found it with much difficulty. It was at an end of a gravel road running through low-roofed cadjan huts, separated from the surrounding huts by a high wall. The premises were kept locked.

Determined to get the gate opened I roamed through the sea of huts several times and finally, with the help of my interpreter and trishaw driver, I found the caretaker, a lady who happily came out of her small hut with the keys to the premises to show me the tomb of our last king.

When the iron door of the dome was opened I was emotionally shaken to see the tomb surrounded by the tombs of some of his relatives. Colourful pictures of the king and one of his queens are displayed inside. A great grandson of the king, A. Vikrama Rajasingha erected a tombstone on July 27, 1932, describing the king’s tomb one hundred years after his death. A. Vikrama Rajasingha is probably a descendant of one of the late king’s daughters.

The Dynasty of the Last king

The Nayakar dynasty of Kandy, of which Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe was the last king, ruled the Kandyan kingdom from 1739 to 1815.They were part of the royal family of the Madurai Nayak dynasty, of Telugu origin.

The king had four wives. The king’s only son, by Queen Venkatha ammal, was born in Vellore Fort and died in 1842 without children. The two daughters of Queen Muthukammama married and their descendants received an allowance (Privy Purse) from the government of Ceylon till 1965.

According to the caretaker, the king’s tomb is hardly visited now. Forgotten by his descendants and his country, the tomb of our last king stands in isolation on the banks of Palar River in Vellore.

By Dr. Ajith Amarasinghe
The Sunday Times

Also See

Map of Vellore – India

The Vellore Fort where the King was imprisoned for 16 years and the location of the tomb is marked below. A circular building has been built surrounding this tomb and it is known as “Muthu Mandapam”


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Driving Directions to Vellore Fort

Route from Bangalore to Vellore Fort

Route from Chennai to Vellore Fort

distance : 210 km
Travel time : 4-4.5 hours
Driving directions : see on google map
distance : 140 km
Travel time : 3-4 hours
Driving directions : see on google map

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