On the banks of the Palar river, off the busy Katpadi road in the bustling city of Vellore in Tamil Nadu, is a single storey modern looking hall called the ‘Muthu Mandapam’ or the 'Pearl Hall', which does not attract Indian tourists as it should. But each year, a steady stream of Sri Lankans troop here to pay obeisance. After all it is the resting place of Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe, the last ruler of the Kingdom of Kandy in Sri Lanka, who was exiled to India by the British. Amazingly Rajasinhe belonged to the Telugu & Tamil speaking Nayaka dynasty of Kandy. This was a branch of the Madurai royal family, which would play a pivotal role in Sri Lankan history. Sadly, neither this dynasty of Indian origin nor the last king of Kandy who is buried here, get a passing mention in India.
The story of the Nayaka dynasty, that would later rule large parts of South India and Sri Lanka, begins with the battle of Talikota in 1565 CE. This fateful battle saw the tables turn on the great Vijayanagara Empire. Its army was defeated by a confederacy of Deccan sultanates and it never recovered from it. Taking advantage of the weak central authority, the local Vijayanagar governor of Madurai, Kumara Krishnappa Nayaka started ruling Madurai as an independent ruler. The Nayakas went on to establish a powerful and prosperous kingdom that stretched from Madurai, down to Kanyakumari and built several magnificent buildings which can be seen in Madurai even today. A branch of the Nayaka family also established a kingdom in Thanjavur before being ousted by the Marathas in 1673 CE.
The Nayakas of Madurai and Thanjavur had close ties with the Kingdom of Kandy in Sri Lanka. Kandy was the last independent kingdom left on the island of Sri Lanka, parts of which had been taken over, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. The kings of Kandy regularly married into the Madurai and Thanjavur royal families. These matrimonial alliances had two objectives. First, it helped them establish alliances against the colonial powers and second, it helped them keep a check on the powerful and ambitious Sinhalese noble clans, who wanted to gain power through their own matrimonial alliances with the royals of Kandy.
With the Nayaka brides from India, also came their retinue of relatives who gained positions of power at the Kandy court - forming what was called the ‘Nayaka Nobility’. This was the beginning of the Kandy Nayakas.
The relatives of Nayaka brides from India formed the ‘Nayaka Nobility’
The Nayakas branch of Kandy was established after the death of King Vira Narendra Sinha of Kandy in 1739 CE. At that time a succession crises ensued and after many court intrigues, the late King’s brother-in-law, Sri Vijaya Rajasinha from the Madurai royal family became the King and established the Nayaka dynasty of Kandy. The Nayakas ruled Kandy till 1815 CE. There were four kings of the Nayaka dynasty, Sri Vijaya Rajasinha (1739-47 CE), Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1747-82 CE), Rajadhi Rajasinha (1782-98 CE) and Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (1798-1815 CE). But because of their Indian and Hindu origin, they were looked at with suspicion by the predominantly Buddhist, Sinhalese population.
The relations between the Nayaka kings and the native Sinhalese aristocracy remained strained. Nayaka nobles from India formed a coterie around the king and monopolised power, much to the resentment of the Sinhalese. In fact, in 1760 CE, there was even an unsuccessful plot by the Sinhalese nobles, to replace the second Nayaka king, Kirti Sri Rajasinha with a Buddhist prince from Thailand!
Nayaka nobles from India monopolised power, much to the resentment of the Sinhalese
Despite threats from colonial powers and local Sinhalese clans, the Nayaka dynasty endured. In 1798 CE, an 18 year old Prince Kannasamy, ascended the throne in Kandy, taking the title Wickrama Rajasinhe. However, he was a puppet in the hands of his powerful Adigars or prime ministers like. A shrewd Adigar, Pilimitalava and then his nephew Ehelepola manipulated the King forcing him to get into a military conflict with the British. They also plotted to overthrow the King.
Discovering the plot, just in time, Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe had his Prime Minister Pilimitalava executed. However the Prime Minister’s nephew, Ehelepola escaped, joining the British to plot his revenge. The Sinhalese noble clans were also plotting with the British to get rid of the Nayaka dynasty.
This confusion and political instability was just what the British were waiting for, to annex Kandy. In 1815 CE, using the pretext that British merchants had been tortured, a large British force invaded Kandy, entering the town on 10th February 1815. While the King and his family fled, the local Sinhalese nobles welcomed the British Army with open arms. On 10th March 1815, the Sinhalese nobles signed the ‘Kandyan Convention’ at the famous Temple of the Tooth, which abolished the rule of the Nayaka dynasty and incorporated Kandy to the British empire. King George III was declared the King of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known.
Sinhalese noble clans had hoped that the British would get rid of the Nayakas and deliver power into their hands. However, they would soon realise how misplaced their hopes were. After getting rid of the Nayakas, the British turned their attention to clamping down on the Sinhalese nobles.
Meanwhile, King Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe and his family were captured by the British troops through treachery and placed under arrest. The King was first taken to Colombo, where he remained under house arrest, for ten months. On 25th January 1816, he along with his wives and an entourage of 50 people were sent to Madras on board the HMS Cornwallis. Interestingly, this was the very same ship on which the treaty between the British Empire and China would be signed after China's defeat in the first Opium war!
From Madras, Wickrama Rajasinhe was taken to the Vellore Fort where he stayed at what is now called the Kandy Mahal. This is also the palace where family of Tipu Sultan was kept before the Vellore Mutiny of 1806. The former King of Kandy remained a prisoner here for 17 years, before dying of dropsy (oedema) at the age of 52 on 30th January 1832. His only son died young without heirs in 1842, thus ending the saga of the Nayakas of Kandy.
King Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe was cremated on the banks of Palar river in Vellore. In 1990, a large memorial hall was built on the site and it was inaugurated by the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi . The hall encloses the memorial of the king and his four wives. It also has some photographs and some information about the dynasty.
The descendants of King Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe through his daughters, still live in Chennai and Bengaluru. They continued to receive a pension- the Privy Purse from the Sri Lankan government till 1965.
Many Sri Lankans consider the Nayakas of Kandy as outsiders who ruled over them. But the most visible and enduring legacy of the dynasty is the national flag of Sri Lanka. The royal standard of the Nayaka kings was the ‘Maha Simha’, the golden lion holding a sword, with a yellow border. In 1948, after independence, it was adopted as the National Flag of Sri Lanka, with a few modifications.
Today, the National Flag of Sri Lanka and an old fort in Vellore are all that remain of the Nayaka legacy. Sadly, so few even remember them, here in India.