Posted on September 17th, 2023

By Sena Thoradeniya

N. B. In a time of chaos, confusion, disorder and uncertainty discussing about

Kandyan Chieftains may be interpreted as something akin to engaging in

 ecstatic revelry, overlooking current issues. But as a modern myth has been

created, that Kandyan Chiefs subverted” the policies of the British, expressed

their resistance to British colonialism”, we are duty-bound to debunk it and put

the record straight. As Chairman Mao Zedong had said (1957), Undoubtedly

we must criticise wrong ideas of every description. It certainly, would not be

right to refrain from criticism, look on while wrong ideas spread unchecked and

allow them to dominate the field”.

1. Creation of New Office

British Colonial administrators created new offices to reward Kandyans and entice them to toe the line.

In 1904 S. M. Burrows, Acting Government Agent of North Western Province proposed to appoint Assistant Rate Mahattayas for the three criminal hotspots” Dambadeniya Hathpattuwa, Katugampola Hathpattuwa, and Weuda Willi Hathpattuwa and entrust them primarily with all crime matters. This was a peculiar way of appointing persons for high office never in the annals of regional administration.  

D.W. Banda was appointed to newly created post of President, Village Tribunal of Yatikinda, Uva in 1908

In 1911 on the occasion of King’s birthday, rank of Rate Lekam was bestowed upon Batangala Banda, Korala of Kandupitapattu South in Kegalle District. In ancient times Rate Mohottala was the Secretary to the Disava. All these ranks were nonoperational, but the Britishers revived those to please the lower ranks of Kandyan chiefs. 

In Sabaragamuwa, appointment of an additional President of Village Tribunal was sanctioned in 1914.

U. B. Welagedera was appointed in 1920 to the newly created post of President of Village Tribunal, Kotmale and the Gravets.

A new office of Chena Muhandiram was created in Kegalle District in 1913 and W. A. Wirasekera was appointed. 

Retired Rate Mahattayas were appointed as members of Sanitary Boards and Local Boards (precursor of Town Councils and Urban Councils), District Road Committees and Provincial Road Committees: In 1920, A. J. W. Marambe, retired Rate Mahattaya of Patha Bulathgama was appointed to District Road Committee of Kandy District. The other native member was R. E. Paranagama Rate Mahattaya of Patha Dumbara. (Government Agent officiated as Chairman of these boards.)

In 1920 T. B. Panabokke was appointed as Unofficial Member of Gampola Local Board.

2.Playing Politics with Kandyan-Low Country Divide

In 1906, D.W. Dullewa was appointed as Gravets Muhandiram in Kandy, a post held by a low-country” person, D.S. Moonesinghe.  His title was changed to Muhandiram Nilame of the Gravets which is more in accordance with Kandyan usage.” The practice of appointing a low country man to the office was thus interrupted. It was felt that the office should if possible be filled by a Kandyan”, wrote J. P. Lewis Government Agent of Central Province. This reveals that British administrators too had worked for the perpetuation of Kandyan-low country” divide.

 In 1908, Charles Taldena succeeded Mudliyar J. C. Weerasuriya.  Lewis wrote, this office being thus as should always be the case, held again by a Kandyan.”

But for Tamankaduwa in North Central Province, virtually dominated by Kandyan Sinhalayas, a low-country person,” Gabriel Jayawardena was appointed as Revenue Officer (after sometime Rate Mahattayas were not appointed to Tamankaduwa by the British). In 1910 at his demise another low-country person” Godwin de Livera succeeded him.

On transfer of H. Bandaranayake, President, Village Tribunal of Demala Hathpattuwa and Puttalam Pattuwa a low-country” person A.P. S. de Silva Wickrematilalake was appointed in 1921.

In 1932 E. G. de S. Jayasundara, a low-country” person was appointed President of Village Tribunal. Later he was elevated to the position of Rate Mahattaya of Dambadeni Hathpattuwa, much to the animosity of the Kandyans.  

3. Rewards and Praise

Britishers never failed to reward their faithful and obedient native headmen with monetary and psychic rewards and promotions.

In 1884 a Dullewa Banda was appointed as President of Village Tribunal of Matale North. In 1884, H.L. Moysey, Assistant Government Agent of Matale praised him for the good work he had done as the President ofVillage Tribunal. In recognition of his good work he was appointed as the Dissava of Tamankaduwa.

A copper plate (Long Service Sannasa) was granted to Suriyakumara Wannisinghe Loku Banda Bulankulama of Nuwarawewa Walawwa by King George V in the year 1923 as a token of appreciation of his 42 years of loyal and faithful service to the government.   

He was earlier rewarded for the great assistance he gave in finding labour for the construction of the Northern Railway in 1900 by the Government with a gold medal”, wrote Seymore Government Agent of North Central Province.

In 1902 Rs. 1000/= was voted for the purchase of a gold plate and a neck-chain presented to Bulankulama Rate Mahattaya for services rendered in the construction of the Northern Railway.

In 1900 L. W. Booth, Government Agent of North Central Province praised L. B. Bulankulama, ‘for his unremitting industry in wrestling with the work of his large palatha which has now become too much for one man”.

In 1902, G. Saxton, Government Agent of Sabaragamuwa Province, praised Gunesekera Rate Mahattaya of Kukulu Korale for his special endeavors to arrest criminals.” 

Making swords to be presented to holders of honorary rank had been entrusted to Kandyan Art Association by the Government. In 1912, 18 such swords were made. In 1914 the number of swords made was 11. Silver and gold bound sannas were also made for presentation to minor headmen as retirement rewards for long service.

When L.B. Halangoda, Rate Mahattaya of Matale East retired owing to ill health in 1912, his post was filled by appointing the Gansabava Clerk of the Kachcheri, Uduwawala and confirmed in 1914. In 1921 Talwatta who worked at the Kandy Kachcheri was appointed as Rate Mahattaya of Kotmale.

The Government Agents praised the native headman system to the hilt. In 1867 E.N. Atherton, Acting Government Agent of North Western Province wrote: The conduct of the Headmen has on the whole mostly exemplary.”

P.W. Braybrooke, Government Agent of Central Province wrote in the same year: It gives me much pleasure to be able to say that the Chiefs and Native Headmen as a body are zealous and efficient in the discharge of their duties. They appear to take a sincere interest in what they are required to do; they are proud of their rank and social position.”

He further wrote, I am glad to say that on my representation in consequence of what my Badulla Assistant brought to my notice, HE the Governor was pleased to direct that all Rate Mahattayas of the Kandyan Districts should in future be exempted from payment of tithe on their lands in addition to the salary they receive, a privilege they are entitled under the Proclamation of the 21st November 1818. This decision has given the highestsatisfaction to the Chiefs who look upon it as an honour as well as a recognition of their services to the Government.” 

Braybrooke repeated what he said earlier in the following year: I have always cherished a grateful sense of the obligation I owe as head of the Province to the Rate Mahattayas and Principal Headmen who are entrusted with the more important duties in connection with the Agent’s Department”.

What were these more important duties?   Supervision of revenue collection to the Colonial Government, recovery of all arears of paddy tax and road tax from defaulters, conservation of Crown forests and lands (by not allowing chena cultivation), execution of all processes of sequestration and writs of execution, conduct of all Fiscal’s sales etc. all directly affecting poor ordinary villager.

In 1910 twenty long service certificates in the form of copper sannas were issued to minor headmen who had retired after serving government for over 25 years. These were similar to low country medals.

When Navaratna Mudiyanselage Appuhami, Korala of Thiragandahaya Korale in North Western Province retired a sannas was granted in recognition of his 40 years of service.  

In 1910 Rate Mahattaya of Tun Korale was specially commended by the Governor for excellent work in connection with a case of attempted murder”, wrote J. Conroy Assistant Government Agent of Kegalle.

In 1913 Nugawela, Rate Mahattaya of Beligal Korale, Kegalle District was made a Justice of the Peace on the occasion of King’s birthday.

E.B. Alexander, Government Agent of Sabaragamuwa wrote in 1919, The year has been a severe test of the administration …. and proved the soundness of the Kandyan Headmen System as a whole. The headmen carried out the works of rice control intelligently; their fairness was unquestioned and their orders were obeyed by all sections of the community”.

H.L. Dowbiggin, the Inspector General of Police in 1920 praised all three Rate Mahattayas of Kegalle District, Meedeniya, Dedigama and Mampitiya respectively for their valuable service to the Crown”. 

T. B. Ellepola, Rate Mahattaya of Matale North was commended by C. Harrison-Jones, Assistant Government Agent of Matale in 1922 forapprehending three people accused of forgery of 5 deeds. The suspects were convicted and sentenced to long term imprisonment.

Nuwara Eliya Assistant Government Agent E. T. Dyson (1923) praised Talwatta Rate Mahattaya of Kotmale for his work in connection with encroachments on Crown lands. In other words, prosecuting poor chena cultivators in the Division.

H. A. Gunesekera Rate Mahattaya of a Division in Sabaragamuwa had arranged an excellent gemming demonstration for the benefit of Crown Prince of Rumania in 1920 who spent a day in Pelmadulla”.

In 1933 T.A. Hodson, Government Agent of Central Province wrote: The Rate Mahattaya of Uda Palatha deserves special commendation for his good police work. His promptness in giving information to police at Gampola was mainly instrumental in securing the conviction of two counterfeiters of 25 cents”.  What would have been the commendation if the Rate Mahattaya caught counterfeiters of Re. 1/= if there were any detections!

In the New Year honours of 1937 appeared the name of Ratwatte Adigar on whom a knighthood was conferred: This Imperial recognition of the Adigar’s sterling merits”. He was elected Mayor of Kandy in 1937. (William Gopallawa was the Municipal Commissioner, later last Governor General of Ceylon and first and last non-executive President of Sri Lanka).

T. B. Ratwatte, Diyawadana Nilame and former Rate Mahattaya of Patha Dumbara was conferred the rank of Dissava signifying King’s birthday honours.

4. Land Acquisition for Plantations

At the beginning of plantation agriculture Kandyan Chieftains were required to show land allotted to buyers and speculators in the Kandyan countryside or show land suitable for coffee cultivation. Later Kandyan Chieftains directly helped British Colonialists to earmark and acquire land for plantations.  

In 1875, J.A.L. Rambukpotha, Rate Mahattaya of Kandukara and Buttala Korales in Uva provided a report to W.E. T. Sharpe, the Assistant Government Agent of Badulla, describing the suitability of Maragala and Moneragala Ranges, hills which rise above the plains of Buttala Vedi Rata, to an elevation of 2000 to 3000 above Mean Sea Level, covering an area of 8000-10000 acres for coffee cultivation. As preparing a modern-day feasibility report he reported that its valleys were filled with a vast deposit of manure; the soil was exceedingly fertile equal to any other flourishing coffee district of the day. He wrote about the physical features of the identified land, their slopes and unsuitability of some ranges; in his assessment soil and climatic conditions were very much suitable for coffee; mentioning about streams and other water bodies he was very particular about water availability; he cautioned wind havoc in some parts.

In 1877 Sharpe succeeded in bringing into the market 3465 acres of the said land at the rate of Rs.60 peracre. Speculators devastated virgin forests as cutting choicest and valuable timber before the sale was not successful.

Rate Mahattaya of Wellawaya suggested to Government Agent of Uva in 1928, that sugarcane cultivated at the foothills of his division to be replaced with tea. Thus, a rewarding peasant cultivation and an indigenous cottage industry were devastated with the help of local headmen.

5. Providing Village Labour to Plantations

In 1890, Gordon, a planter in Uda Dumbara requested the Government Agent of Central Province R. W. D. Moir, to ask the Rate Mahattaya to aid him in securing village labour for his estate. As he was not able to secure the numbers he wanted from indentured Indian labour he was willing to pay daily or weekly wages for villagers. He said villagers can come direct or through the kangani.

6. Use of Scholastic Knowledge of Sinhala Chieftains

In 1887, Herbert Wace, Government Agent of Sabaragamuwa meets Kobbekaduwa Rate Mahattaya at Kegalle Kachcheri.   Kobbekaduwa speaks to Wace about his project of collecting and editing a book of Kandyan sannases and thudapaths, which he had already collected a good many and solicited assistance towards further work in that direction”. Wace thought that such a book would be historically interesting if arranged chronologically and would be of value in testing sannas when produced”. He thought of checking spurious sannas produced by villagers more than assisting a scholarly work.  

In 1894 E. T. Noyes, Assistant Government Agent of Chilaw wrote, two years ago all the lands in the District were claimed as private property on spurious sannas or private transfers. But now the right of the Crown has been successfully asserted.”

In no time the British administrators were able to identify spurious sannas, thambapath and talpath by looking at their outward appearance, thickness, writing style, language used and the honorifics bestowed by the King.  The king had never used an honorific before the word Mudaliya”.  They knew that certain taxes (such as hungam and marala) were abolished during the reign of Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe. This knowledge was imparted to them by the Kandyan chieftains.

There was a reason for the proliferation of fake sannas. With the promulgation of the Waste Lands” Ordinance of 1848 Kandyan villagers lost their traditional rights to land. Land was not demarcated, plans not drawn, but their natural boundaries such as a rock, a tree or a stream, were known to the village community and no one challenged those boundaries. British did not accept this type of traditional land ownership. Due to devastation of villages and households by the British troops in 1818 and 1848 uprisings people who had sannas or talpath pertaining to land grants lost whatever evidence they had to claim for the land they enjoyed under the provisions of the said Ordinance.

H. C. P. Bell became an expert in identifying genuine sannas and all the problematic documents were sent to him by British administrators for his expert” opinion thereafter. 


Next: Land claims of chieftains, Village Committee elections, elephant kraals organised by chieftains, visits of Royalty, Governor’s visits to Provinces and Districts, Presentation of Addresses.

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