Sri Lankan Muslims

Genesis of Kollupitiya


Kollupitiya in the 1880s. The coconut estate of Ambanwela Rala who rebelled against Rajasinghe II is visible in the background.
Pix: Courtesy Rienzie Wijeratne

On a day subsequent to a Friday in January this year when I got enmeshed in the maddening traffic of Kollupitiya thanks to the dark tarred ribbon unfurled way back in the dawn of the 19th century by Major Skinner (a feat commemorated by the Dawson Tower at Kadugannawa) I was up on the green hills of Nillambe in the salubrious highlands. Nostalgia for my carefree youthful days in the Peradeniya University sprang in me as I viewed the Campus halls along the Hindagala-Galaha road.

A few days later in an attempt to put some order to my small library. I came across the book, 'Madyama Lanka Puravrththaya ' (Anecdotes of medieval Lanka) by Ven. Naulle Dhammananda Thera.

Turning its pages I came across a tale that revealed the intriguing story of the genesis of Kollupitiya. Actually this terrain that has become one of the craziest and busiest parts of modern Colombo has been spawned out of an episode connected to Nillambe.

Galle Road, Kollupitiya

One piece of news on Nillambe was already known to me, which was that Rajasinghe II (1635-1687) one of our most valiant kings had a palace at Nillambe. This fact is mentioned in several places in Historical Relations of Ceylon by Robert Knox whose imprisonment in our island owed itself to this capricious monarch. Actually I had not visited Nillambe to locate this palace though on inquiry after the remembrance of this fact, I was told that remnants of some stone columns still stand in a thick bamboo grove flourishing in a plummeted valley where British tea planters had later grown tea, a site that cannot be reached by vehicle now. I was also told by a person in the Meditation Centre of Nillambe that Nillambe is sited at the other end of Hantane mountain range that overlooks the city of Mahanuwara or Kandy and the king would have fled to Nillambe along the mountain pass. Nillambe is said to derive its name from Nil Ambe, the Blue Waters of the Mul Haluwa Oya river flowing through this terrain. (This is the name of the river given in the prelate's work).

Why did the king flee to Nillambe? According to other historical sources as well as according to Madyama Lanka Puravrththa' it was to flee the wrath of some rebel leaders. The king had not been a popular one. Very despotic and capricious he ruled according to his own whims and fancies and his decision to suspend a long standing procession in Kandy had been the last spark to ignite the inflammable situation. By this time the king had already fled to Nillambe. The ringleaders of the 1664 rebellion against the king had been Udunuwara Ambanwela Appuhamy, Satkorale Manna Appuhamy and Ataklankorale Sundara Appuhamy who very successfully broke into the Nillambe Palace, threatened the king to resign and requested that he give over the throne to the king's son who however declined to accept it either through filial loyalty or through fear. That proved the undoing of the rebels. Rajasinghe II came back to power and had some of the rebel leaders beheaded and due to a sudden whim of his (a characteristic of him) banished Ambanwela Rala to Dutch territory in the lowlands.

Ambanwela Rala was a man of many sides. He belonged to one of the most powerful Kandyan families at the time. Yet he was a crafty and scheming opportunist and also a poet. It did not take him long to establish very pleasant relations with the Dutch who instead of punishing him gave him a piece of land by the sea where he began an extensive coconut cultivation. This land eventually came to be known as Polwatte. Still a part of Kollupitiya where the famous church and aligned school of Kollupitiya stand is known by the name Polwatte. The wider land in this area came to be known as Kollan Pitiya or the Robbed Land, robbed by the machinations of an upcountry fugitive chief.

But the machinations seem to have been more of an aesthetic nature as the composition of panegyrics to big wigs in the Dutch administration. In the above book are quoted a set of ode like verses dedicated to one Surya Muttiah, an officer in the Dutch bureaucracy perhaps to facilitate the land transactions by the sea.

The Polwatte begun by Ambanwela Rala became so prosperous later, that according to the late Mr. Gamini Samarasinghe, the prolific banker - writer, either in the late Dutch period or the early British period a brewery commenced here turning coconut treacle to liquor. The beer turned out had been of such high quality that it had been very much in demand and had at one time was exported even to towns in South India.

The house in which lived the head of this brewery business, according to this writer, is the nucleus of the present Temple Trees!

However, Ambanwela Rala's progeny, perhaps who did not flee with him to Kollupitiya to escape the king's wrath had got domiciled later at Ratnapura. So Ambanwela Rala, the temporary bachelor, hailing from the Kandyan backwoods was very adventurous and reckless as to plan the overthrow of a powerful king, and then by a stroke of luck has his neck saved from the scaffold and comes down to the lowlands and signs his way to become the proprietor of an extensive coconut estate is really the author of present Kollupitiya with its soaring skyscrapers, maddening traffic and thronging crowds.