“And then the eight year old, Madumma came forward and said to his elder brother who was in the arms of his mother, crying. “Brother, don’t be afraid, I will show you how to die.”
There was pin drop silence at the Bogambara river bank that evening, as the crowd watched the boy slowly making his way towards the man dressed in red, holding a sword. The sky rumbled and cold wind started blowing.
The tyrant king, Wickrama Rajasinghe, had failed to capture one of his courtiers, Ehelepola Nilame, who he thought to be a traitor. Ehelepola had escaped his wrath and joined the British. Frustrated, the king had decided to execute his family.
The man in red looked back at the King, confusedly, as the boy knelt down on the chopping block. The boy did not have a shred of fear in his eyes and his courage surprised everyone present.”
We were sitting on a concrete bench, on the banks of the Kandy Lake as the blue dusk sky slowly turned dark. People returning home after a day of work, evening walkers, tourists walked past as the cook of my hotel, Asanka, a thirty year old man born and brought up in Kandy, narrated me this 200 year old legend. Cool breeze soothed my body, which was tired after a day marked with flights, layovers and uncomfortable bus rides. Mumbai to Chennai to Colombo to Kandy. It has been a long day.
On the other side of the lake, I could see a beautiful temple; hear its bells and the evening chants. It was the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic, which attracts Buddhists from all over the world.
The Kandy Lake is in the heart of the city with everything located close to its shores. The buzzing market, dotted with restaurants and small bakeries, is the busiest place in the city. You could hear the crowd, the cars, and see the lights from the other side of the lake. If you walk through the market, passing all the shops and street side fruit vendors, dodging the cars, tuk tuks and two wheelers, you would eventually reach the bus station. Walk past the honking buses destined for different parts of the island, cross the busy main road and you would reach the Kandy railway station, insides of which looks more like a bank branch. If you have some energy left, you can walk a bit further to the Begombara prison, where in 1975 the execution of a death row prisoner named Maru Sira created headlines.
Maru Sira was a murderer and was to be executed. He had escaped thrice in the past and subsequently recaptured. The night before his execution, he was drugged by the prison guards so that he would not attempt another break out. Due to a drug overdose, he was not able to stand up on his feet at the time of his hanging. He suffered a slow strangulation which created a public outcry about the brutality of the prison officials. It was said that had the prisoner been standing, he would have suffered a quick death instead of a prolonged painful one. For the first time in the history of the nation, a public inquiry was ordered about the execution of a prisoner sentenced to death. In subsequent years, movies were made, books were written and plays were staged on the incident. Now, from the safer side of the thick white walls of the prison, the place seemed eerily peaceful.
The peacefulness that we were experiencing near the Kandy Lake however, was of a completely different kind, as we saw birds of different kind fly around and nest on the trees surrounding the lake. The calm water, the trees, the birds, the evening sky, the hills, and the temple in the distance painted a beautiful picture.
Asanka continued his story.
“Looking at the confusion in the eyes of man with the sword, the king stood up from his seat and shouted, “Kill him. His father is a traitor.” The sword came down and the boy’s head was separated from the rest of his body.” He paused, looking at me gravely, before finally adding. “His mother and sister were drowned in this lake.”
I looked at the peaceful waters of the lake and tried to picture someone using it to end lives. I could not. You will hear many variations of this story, but the essence remains the same. The story of Madumma is one of courage, bravery and sacrifice that the locals still draw inspiration from.
Kandy, the second largest city of the island country located about 120 kilometres from the city of Colombo, was the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings. In 1817, the members of court of the last king, Wickrama Rajasinghe, successfully organised a coup and signed the Kandyan Convention with the British. The king was exiled and the city, and soon the whole country, fell into the hands of the British crown.
Asanka decided to go back to the hotel to prepare our dinner. The lights of the temple, along with the magical chants and bell rings emanating from it, attracted me and I decided to walk towards it.
I walked along the shores of the lake, as buses and tuk tuks drove past. Every once in a while, I passed through quiet stretches where I couldn’t hear any of the city noises. The only sound was the chirps of the birds that resided in the trees near the lake.
As evening slowly faded away and the night settled in, I found myself standing in the main hall of the temple. Evening prayers were on and the insides of the temple were decorated with flowers and candles. The smell and smoke of incense sticks filled the air and the constant ring of the temple bells rang in my ears. People of all shapes, sizes and kinds thronged the shrine, which had two large elephant tusks in front, where the evening ceremony was underway. They folded their hands and prayed as the priest and his helpers handed out flowers to the devotees.
I explored the temple, walking from room to room, looking at the beautiful carvings on the walls and decorations all around. Little kids ran around the temple, playing with flower garlands while their parents tried to get as close to the priest as possible and seek his blessings. There was so much life and colours all around that the fatigue of the day vanished, and I was wide awake.
They say when Lord Buddha died someone took one of his tooth from his funeral pyre, brought it to Sri Lanka and gifted it to the king. As time passed, safety of the tooth became the responsibility of the king and its possession began to symbolise the right to rule. Due to foreign threats, each time the capital of the country was changed, the tooth was brought to the new capital and a new temple was built in its honour, until finally it came to Kandy.
Every year a grand celebration, Esala Perahara, takes place and the tooth is taken out of its shrine and is paraded around the city on a royal male elephant. The festival lasts for 10 days and is a grand affair attended by thousands of people from all over the world. Due to the threats from LTTE and other terror outfits however, the actual tooth has not been brought out since 1990 and its casket is honoured instead.
After about an hour, I walked back towards my hotel along the same path that I had came. The lake seemed calmer and the birds had settled for the night in the trees. I walked past the silhouettes of the street lights, as night buses and cars zoomed past. There were a lot less people around and it seemed like Kandy was getting ready to call it a night.
I came across a small lake side cafe, where I decided to taste the famous Ceylon tea before heading back to my hotel for dinner. The staff was packing up for the day, and were waiting for the last few customers to finish their meals.
“I just want a cup of tea.” I told them, as the grocery shop across the road pulled down its shutters noisily. In the distance on the other side of the lake, the lights of the market were in full glow. If I strained my ears, I could even hear the cars, and the evening crowd. On this side of the lake, however, life seemed so quiet and calm. Apart from the occasional passerby, there was no one about. You could hear the rustle of the leaves and the calm waters of the lake.
The manager, a lady wearing a blue apron smiled and nodded and I took my seat next to a window overlooking the quiet winding road, lit yellow under the street lights. Every now and then a vehicle whooshed past and before I felt the energy of the sudden flicker of life outside, the quietness set in again.
I am not a tea enthusiast but that first taste of Ceylon tea along with the peace of the night, occasionally disrupted by the sound of a moving vehicle or the ring of the cash register, put me at ease. Sitting in the corner table of the cafe that night, I reflected upon the day, relived all the conversations, revisited all the wonderful places and reheard all the beautiful stories. By the time I finished the cup of tea, I realised that I couldn’t wait for the sun to rise up again and see more of this beautiful country.
Some people say they do not believe in love at first sight. Clearly, they have never been to Kandy.