In a curious coincidence, I recently received simultaneously a new Madras magazine, Provoke , and mail from Colombo, both mentioning Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, the last king of Kandy whom the British defeated in 1815 to make Ceylon theirs. The first included an article by former Tamil Nadu DGP AX Alexander about a well-maintained fort in Vellore, where Vikrama Rajasingha and his family had lived in exile. From Colombo came news of a new book on “the doomed king”, a reassessment by Gananath Obeysekera, whom I last met when he was teaching at Princeton.
The Madras connections of this tale are tenuous, but the Tamil ones are not. From the time of Vijaya, who is stated to have founded the Sinhala race, not only did he, according to the Sinhala chronicles, but other kings as well took wives from the Pandyan court in Madurai. Later Sinhala kings and nobility took wives from the Telugu-Tamil Nayak kingdoms of Madurai and Thanjavur.
When the last Sinhala king of Kandy died in 1739, childless, his Nayak queen made her brother the king. From then till the deposing of Vikrama Rajasinha, a continuous lineage included two other Nayak kings. All four worshipped at Buddhist and Hindu shrines, used Sinhala and Tamil as court languages (though they spoke Telugu), and encouraged their courtiers to take wives from Madurai and Thanjavur.
It was in early 1816 that HMS Cornwallis arrived in Madras with the Kandyan king, his two queens and a few close relatives. A few weeks later, they were moved to Vellore where comfortable accommodation had been arranged. Vikrama Rajasinha was to live there till he died in 1832, receiving a privy purse from the British. He was buried on the banks of the Palar, a mile north of Vellore and, later, so were other members of his family. Shading them today is the Muthu Mandapam, inaugurated by the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi, in July 1990.
Vikrama Rajasinha had only one son, who died young. He adopted his daughter’s son and this family continued to receive the privy purse till 1965 when it was stopped by the Ceylon Government. In fact, it was enhanced somewhat after Ceylon’s independence through the intercession of the then President of the Ceylon Indian Congress, M Subbiah. Two brothers from the adopted son’s lineage living in India — and whom I used to meet whenever they came to Ceylon — benefited. The last I heard of the Rajasinhas, the elder was living in Madras, the younger in Bangalore working as a journalist (I had a vague impression it was with this paper).
The Rajasinha family, however, has left Sri Lanka several legacies, a heritage contribution that few Sinhalese recollect or know of today. Sri Vikrama Rajasinha’s royal standard, a yellow lion holding a sword against a red background, is the main feature of the Sri Lankan flag! Yet another legacy is the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, housed in the magnificent Dalada Maligawa. Adjacent is the Kandy Lake. Both were built by the last king of Kandy who had been forced by superior arms — and treachery — to surrender his kingdom.
The Madras squadrons
The No 99 (Madras Presidency) Squadron of the Royal Air Force, I hope, remembers to celebrate its centenary this year. Yes, that’s right, ‘Madras Presidency’ is in its name! Captain DP Ramachandran, the livewire behind Colours of Glory, a foundation, sends me the tale behind the name.
The notice you see here appeared in Madras newspapers in, I would guess, 1915. The response was overwhelming: Madras Presidency funded five squadrons; other parts of India only one or two each. The Royal Flying Corps, as the RAF was then known, raised 35 Madras Presidency (1916), 79 Madras Presidency (1917)
, 99 Madras Presidency (1917), 234 Madras Presidency (1918) and 264 Madras Presidency (1918). Of them, 99 Squadron alone is still operational; the others were disbanded between 1945 and 1994. Squadrons 79, 234 and 264, with 18-24 fighters each, were designated Battle of Britain squadrons.
99 Squadron, with 12 aircraft, was raised as a bomber squadron, originally equipped with de Havilland DH 9 bombers. It now flies Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic/tactical transport aircraft from a base in the UK. A bomber squadron in both World Wars, Squadron 99 also briefly served on the Northwest Frontier between the two Wars when the British waged minor wars against the Pathan tribes.
The appeal in the Madras Press certainly got quick response in the Presidency, with the ‘first Madras flight’ in the air by 1916.
One for the road
At the recent release of Tamil Diaspora – Myth and Reality by Prof V Suryanarayanan, which focusses on Tamil overseas migration over the last 250 years, the keynote speaker impassionedly continued speaking, even as members of the audience kept walking out, on the glories of Tamil when it made contributions to Japan and Korea centuries ago (no mention of the Tamil words in the Aboriginal languages of Australia) and on the greatness of the ancient Tamil kingdoms. That’s sticking to the point! The glory of Tamil always matters more than the travails of Tamil migrants.
The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places and events from the years gone by and, sometimes, from today