Uva Wellassa Rebellion of 1817/1818 and Monarawila Keppetipola Memorial

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The Uva Wellassa Rebellion, also known as the Rebellion of 1817/18, is considered the first freedom fight in Sri Lanka after the British captured the Kingdom of Kandy in 1815. This fight to free the kingdom of Kandy from the British was headed by Monarawila Keppetipola Dissawa was almost won but for the betrayal of other Kandyan Chieftains and some.

Undoubtedly, among Sinhalese heroes, none has left as profound a mark on our history as Keppetipola, the Uva Rebel Leader. His determined effort to challenge foreign power proved both formidable and resolute.

Monarawila Keppetipola hailed from the ancient family of Keppetipola Rajapakse Wickramasekera Bandaranayake in the Galboda Korale, in the historic Hatara Korale. His father is Keppetipola Nilame who was also called Golahela Nilame. Mother was Monarawila KumarihamiAhelepola Kumarihami. who was drowned by King Sri Wickrama Ranasinghe was his sister and she was married to Ahelepola Maha NilameMonarawila Keppetipola Maha Nilame was married to Delwala Etana, from an elite family from Sabaragamuwa.

After the Kingdom of Kandy fell to the British, the Sinhalese were feeling oppressed by the British. The elites, who used to be respected wherever they went, now did not get any respect even from an ordinary British soldier. They appointed a Moorman Hadjee as the headman of the Moors of hill country. These moors were Muslim tradesmen from Arab who had settled in Sri Lanka and were mainly travelling traders. This act alone had diluted the powers of Dissawes over the Moors living in the area to almost nil.

The displeasure with the new colonial government started brewing between the elites as well as the common man. During this time, the elites of the kingdom brought in a man called Wilbawe Doresami (Doraiswamy), apparently with a royal lineage to Wellassa as the heir apparent to the crown. He was accompanied by eight Buddhist monks and started to recruit men for a rebellion against the British.

The British got to know of this “stranger with two old and six young priests” who had taken up adobe in the jungles in the province of Welassa. Wilson, Assistant Resident at Badulla, sent the above Hadjee on 10th October 1817 with his brother and some Wellassa moormen from Badulla to apprehend this stranger. The Hadjee was captured by the rebels and his brother was wounded, the rest of the army escaped and arrived in Badulla.

On the 14th October Wilson set out for Wellassa with a party of Malay soldiers and found out that the Hadjee had been flogged, and sent prisoner to the man who was called the “stranger”. During this expedition, Wilson was killed by an arrow and the rest of the detachment returned again to Badulla.

By this time Millawa Disawa, who was the Dissawe of Wellassa was old and was not able to execute the duties of the British and Wellasa was also assigned to Monarawila Keppetipola Maha Nilame. He was the Dissawe of Uva province appointed by the British after Kandy came under their purview. The British then sent Keppetipola Maha Nilame along with 12 of his followers with muskets to bring the people of Wellassa back to their allegiance. Unexpectedly, Keppetipola Maha Nilame joined the rebels and returned the 12 men back to the British with their muskets.

Keppetipola was appointed the Chief Adigar of Doresami (Farlane,1884) and became the leader of the Uva-Wellassa Rebellion thereafter and the whole Kandyan country was roused against the British. However, this appointment did not go well with some of the other chiefs of the rebellion. However, the rebellion spread rapidly and almost every chieftain had a hand in it. All communications were cut during this period and the floods caused by the Kelani River prevented the despatch of troops from Colombo (Udugama,1983).

In early November 1817, a detachment was sent from Batticaloa to Wellassa. When the troops appeared in villages, a large portion of the villagers went into hiding in the jungles with whatever grains and cattle they could take. To open up a communication path to Batticaloa they established a number of military posts along the route with the main post at ‘Kattabowe’, the chief Moor village in the district to whom the British had promised protection. As soon as the British left, these Moors seized all the cattle of the Kandyan villagers who had fled the jungles and sold them to the British commissariat for meat. Marshall states “For some time, many of the Moors played a double part, apparently determined in the end, to join the party which held out the longest. It is alleged, also, that not a few of the Moorman who had been successful in obtaining possession of the cattle of the Kandyans fearing that they would be obliged to restore the property they had pillaged, were the Kandyans to return to their homes and submit to British rule, circulated reports much to our prejudice, for the purpose of inducing them to holdout against the government” (Marshall, 1846).

When the floods subsided Major MacDonald decided to punish the inhabitants of the hill country. British soldiers went on a rampage burning down villages, destroying or carrying away all grain and livestock belonging to villagers, cutting down all fruit-bearing trees, and all persons found with arms were placed under arrest and mercilessly put to death. Marshall writes “The inhabitants appeared to be horror-struck at the devastation thus produced: they ceased to shout at the troops, or to fire upon them; while they were seen on the neighbouring heights, and close to the skirts of the plain, gazing in silence upon the flames which consumed their habitations, and the driving away of their cattle, they having had no time to remove any part of their property.” (Marshall, 1846)

However such destruction and murder did not have the expected results, the revolt in Wellassa acted like a match thrown into a barrel of gunpowder where a dissatisfied population of the whole country rose throughout the country and on 21st February of 1818, the whole of Kandyan Provinces were placed under martial law.

By February-March 1818 the whole kingdom other than Hatara Korale, Thun Korale, Lower Saparagamuwa, Udunuwara and Yatinuwara was rebelling against the British. There was a good probability that Hatara Korale and Thun Korale would join the rebellion and communication to and from Colombo would be cut off leaving troops of Kandy to defend themselves.

At the beginning of April, the British offered a reward of 1000 pagodas for the apprehension of Monarawila Keppetipola Maha Nilame, Madugalle or Pilamatalawa.

During May, June, and July the British were contemplating withdrawing from the hills. Lady Brownrigg was evacuated from Kandy with a large escort. About 300-500 soldiers who were being treated in the Kandy hospital were regularly provided with arms and ammunition at sunset for a potential attack on Kandy by the rebels.

Towards the end of August, Madugalle Maha Dissawa of Dumbara joined the Keppetipola in the rebellion. However, he found out that the Doresami, the heir apparent to the crown was in fact a ex-priest with no royal blood. Greatly offended, he went to the house of Keppetipola and made him and the Doresami prisoners. However, as soon as Doresami was released, he denounced the claim to the throne and sought refuge with the Vedda community of Bintenna and went into hiding. It would be 12 years later that the British would capture him in 1829.

Towards the end of the rebellion, only Ekneligoda Dissawa of Sabaragamuwa was with the British. He and a body of troops with some locals from his dissawa, were attacking the Kandyan rebels, plundering and destroying whatever came their way. What the troops spared they captured and killed.

Around the months of June and September of 1818, some of the local rebel chiefs had been captured and tried by the British. In October 30th 1818, Monarawila Keppetipola Maha Nilame Pilimathalawa Nilame was captured by the British in Anuradhapura, apparently from a tip given by a travelling Muslim trader who had visited the village where Keppetipola was staying. Madugalle Maha Dissawa who had reconciled with Keppetipola by this time, was captured on 1st November. With these two leaders being captured, the rebellion was terminated.

Keppetipola and Madugalle were condemned to death and on the morning of 25th November, on their request brought to the Temple of Tooth. Paying their last respect, they were taken to a place near Bogambara Tank, about a mile from the temple. Keppetipola washed their face and hands and tied the hair in a knot on top of his head. He took out a Bana Potha, and after reciting some verses, gave the book to a native official and asked him to hand it over to Mr. Sawers as a token of gratitude he felt for his friendship while they were officially connected at Badulla, Mr Sawers as the Government Agent and Keppetipola as the Dissawe of Uva. Then the executioner struck him once with the sword, and the second stroke killed him and the body fell into the ground. As per the Kandyan custom, his head was placed on the breast.

Madugalle too went through the same motions but was unable to tie the hair in a knot and the executioner had to carry it out for him. He earnestly requested the executioner to execute him with one blow but took two blows to kill him. Henry Marshall, chief surgeon of Kandyan Provinces between 1816 to 1821, took possession of Keppetipola’s skull and presented it to the Museum of Phrenological Society of Edinburgh.

With the independence of Sri Lanka, this skull was returned back to the island on the 9th of February 1948 just a few days after the independence. It was the Duke of Gloucester who was instrumental in return of this skull to the National Museum of Colombo (Wickramasinghe, 1997).

Monarawila Keppetipola Memorial at Dalada Maluwa

Dalada Maluwa is the garden of Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of Tooth Relic) in Kandy. As you enter the premises from the main security gate, you will cut across this garden to reach the Temple. As you walk along this path, you will come across the Madduma Bandara Memorial Monument and then right at the centre of the path, the memorial of Monarawila Keppetipola Maha Nikame.

On the 14th day of September 1954, this memorial was constructed on the Dalada Malaligawa (Temple of Tooth Relic) Maha Malwa enshrining the skull of Monarawila Keppetipola Maha Nilame, a great national hero of the 19th century.

In a letter issued by the government during the occasion, the details of this monument are given as follows.

The model for this monument was taken from the architecture of Anuradhapura era, the root of Sinhala culture. The monument is a pillar built on a foundation, based on the Kandyan tradition. The central cube is made up of four windows arranged after the carvings of the Ambakke Devalaya. The pillar head was designed based on a Vimana copied from Gadoladeniya Temple. The hero who sacrificed his life for his motherland is represented by this pillar. The window carvings reflect his actions and the vimana embodies that that he is treated as a deity.” (ජයවර්ධන, 2015)

References

  1. Marshall, H. (1846) Ceylon: A General Description of The Island and of Its Inhabitants With an Historical Sketch of the Colony by the English. London, Britain: William H. Allen And Co.
  2. Udugama, S. (1983) ‘Keppetipola Maha Dissawe, A Great National Hero’, in Sri Lanka : From Legend and History. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Niloo Bhatt, pp. 108–111.
  3. Farlane, C.M. (1844) in Our Indian Empire, its history and present state, from the earliest settlement of the British in Hindostan to the close of the year 1843, by Charles Mac Farlane .. London: C. Knight, pp. 275–281.
  4. Wickramasinghe, N. (1997) ‘The Return of Keppetipola’s Cranium: Authenticity in a New Nation’, Economic and Political Weekly, 32(30), pp. 85–92.
  5. අශෝක  සද්ධාමංගල (2015) කැප්පෙටිපොළ විරුවාගේ ගුණ සැමරුම, දිනමිණ. Available at: https://archives1.dinamina.lk/node/8207 (Accessed: 01 September 2023).

Also See

Map of Monarawila Keppetipola Memorial Pillar

Please click on the button below to load the Dynamic Google Map (ගූගල් සිතියම් පහලින්)
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The map above also shows other places of interest within a approximately 20 km radius of the current site. Click on any of the markers and the info box to take you to information of these sites

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Driving Directions to Monarawila Keppetipola Memorial Pillar

Kandy can be reached from Colombo on the old Colombo – Kandy road (option 1) which is scenic but heavy in traffic, especially on Fridays and Sundays. However, the new Central Expressway (option 2) has opened up a new route which is longer but less cumbersome.

Route 1 from Colombo to KandyRoute 2 from Colombo to Kandy
Through : Katunayake Expressway – Central Expressway – Kurunegala
Distance :150 km
Travel time: 3.20 hours
Driving Directions : see on Google map
Through : Katunayake Expressway – Central Expressway – Kurunegala
Distance :150 km
Travel Time: 3.20 hours
Driving Directions : see on Google map
Route From Nuwara Eliya to Kandy
Through : Walapane – Raja Mawatha
Distance :100 km
Travel Time : 3.0 hours
Driving Directions : see on Google map

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