KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

How did the remains of a Ceylon king make their way to tombs in Vellore?

There was a brief period of truce before conflict broke out again between the British and the king. He was defeated, forced out of his hiding place and deported to Vellore, 150 km from Madras.

MOST people are intrigued when they hear of it. "Tombs of a Ceylon king and his queens in Tamil Nadu? In Vellore?" Where did these royals hail from? How did their remains make their way here? Did they live out their last days in this town so far away from the emerald island where they were rulers or were the bodies brought here and interred?When you arrive at the site on the banks of the Palar, a few km from the heart of the town, you are surprised to find instead of an old broken-down structure a newly whitewashed building in the shape of a lotus appearing to brave it out in the blazing Vellore sun.As you descend the marble steps, you see tombs built in the shape of miniature mandapams. There are three moderate-sized ones and four smaller ones. The biggest of them is that of Vikrama Raja Singhan, the last king to rule Kandy. The inscription tells you that the kings who ruled Kandy (from the 18th century) came from Tamil Nadu and were related to the Nayak kings of Madurai. It also bears their coat of arms two flags flanking a crown. The tomb carries the legend "Sri Vikrama Raja Singhan, last king of Kandy (Ceylon), Died 1832". The tombs in the next row are of his great grandson and his wife and behind them, those of his three queens.

The last king

Vikrama Raja Singhan was the last of the Tamil kings of Kandy. The monograph of Natana Kasinathan, former Director of the State Department of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu, tells you that after the death of the Ceylon king Veeraparakrama Narendra Singhan, the brother of the chief queen of the Madurai Nayak was sent to Kandy to succeed him. Sri Vijaya Raja Singhan reigned from 1739-1749. He was followed by three more kings before Vikrama Raja Singhan came to the throne. His chief queen and the two other queens were from the Madurai Nayak family. The British, who felt threatened by his growing popularity with his subjects, waged war with him on a slim pretext. He managed to escape and return to Kandy. There was a brief period of truce before conflict broke out again between the British and the king. He was defeated, forced out of his hiding place and deported to Vellore, 150 km from Madras.The king's grandson, it is said, renovated the memorials. The lotus-shaped outer structure, the plaques reveal, is a "Muthumandapam" constructed by the Government of Tamil Nadu and declared open by the present Chief Minister in 1990 to honour the last Tamil king of Kandy. The names of the engineers too are put up along with two photographs one depicting the tombs before they were enclosed and the second, the building when it was inaugurated. There is no board or banner here. The sole unsigned entry in the visitor's book reveals how a history buff came eagerly from quite a distance to view the tombs; it reflects his disappointment at the lack of information at the site and at finding a building carrying no aura of the past. The elderly man in much worn shirt and trousers who meets you at the site introduces himself as the fifth generation descendant of Vikrama Raja Singhan. If you are in for a shock that, at 67, Prithviraj works as a ticket clerk at the nearby cinema, more is in store. His first son is an attendant at the medical college, he adds, and his second son is an electrician. "The family has been through some really bad times. My uncle raised me as I lost my parents when I was a child. Only after Independence could the family members reveal that we belonged to the royal family as we were afraid of the British," says Prithviraj who could not complete his graduate studies owing to straitened circumstances. "Even the political pension paid to us by the Ceylon Government which helped meet our educational expenses was stopped".

Reduced circumstances

He is eager to show you the photograph of his late wife and so you accompany him to his home in a residential colony some miles away. "Home" is the shabby one room he occupies with his son, daughter-in-law and two-year-old grandson and is accessed through narrow, steep stairs to the second floor. " What else can we afford for Rs. 350 a month?" asks his bright-eyed daughter-in-law. "If we are granted a pension, life will improve," says the old man yearningly. But his pride in his lineage is unmistakable. He goes regularly to the tombs to pay his respects to his royal ancestors and hopes that Time's wheel will take a turn to improve his position. At the State Museum at the Vellore Fort, a small corner is devoted to the Kandy king. Displayed are the ivory chessboard and the coins used by him and his queen and a boomerang he used for hunting. There are also pictures of him and his palace Thalatha Mahal in Kandy, an impressive building with star shaped towers. When you contrast the palace with the mouldy room (now the crowded, file-laden Sub-registrar's office) in the Vellore Fort where he was imprisoned by the British for nearly 17 years, it seems bitter punishment for the courage and tenacity he showed in fighting their might. India Beats features stories of the unusual, the exotic and the extraordinary.