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Home > International Tamil Conferences > Fourth International Tamil Conference Seminar 1974, Jaffna > Matrimonial Alliances between Tamilnad and the Sinhalese Royal Family > The Tamil Heritage - History & Geography
Fourth International Tamil Conference Seminar
January 1974, Jaffna, Tamil Eelam
Matrimonial Alliances between Tamilnad and the Sinhalese Royal Family
in the 18th Century and the Establishment of a Madurai Dynasty in Kandy
Lorna Srimathie Dewaraja
Royal marriages have been instruments of state policy rather than affairs of the heart. It was due to a series of such diplomatic marriage alliances that in the eighteenth century, a youth from Madurai peacefully ascended the throne of Kandy and was unanimously hailed by the chiefs and people as the ruler of Ceylon.
The practice of securing brides from Tamil Nad to the Sinhalese royal family was not a phenomenon peculiar to the eighteenth century. It goes back to the hazy days of the origin of the Sinhalese race when its legendary founder Vijaya, refused to be consecrated unless he had a queen of equal rank. Vijaya's ministers sent envoys, " with many precious gifts, jewels and pearls and so forth, to the city of Madurai in Southern (India) to woo the daughter of the Pandu king for their lord " (1)
The mission was a complete success for the princess arrived and Vijaya was duly consecrated together with his South Indian mahesi.(2) Another one hundred maidens followed the princess, and they were married to the ministers of Vijaya.(3)
The Madurai and Tinnevelley districts of South India were separated from the Island only by the Gulf of Mannar and as a result there had been frequent contacts over the centuries amicable as well as hostile between this area and Ceylon.
Candamukha Siva who ruled in Anuradhapura from 103112 A. D. had a consort named Damiladevi or the Tamil queen.(4) The Sinhalese royal family considered it a privilege to intermarry with the Madurai dynasty for Vijayabahu I (l0551110) "fetched the Pandu king who came of an unblemished line and wedded to him royal sister Mitta by name." (5)
The daughter of Parakramabahu VI, (14121467) who ruled from Kotte was married to the Tamil Scholar, Nannurtunaya, a minister of the king.(6)
Thus we have several recorded instances of both brides and grooms from South India considered very eligible as spouses for Sinhalese princes and princesses These inter marriages, however frequent were contracted if and when it was considered politically expedient to do so, but in the time of the Kandyan kings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it became a matter of policy for the chief queen or queens to be obtained from Madurai.
The kingdom of Kandy situated in the central highlands of Ceylon came into prominence at the beginning of the seventeenth century when it emerged as the only indigenous kingdom in the island. Kandy thenceforth began to play a new role in the history of Ceylon for its ruler, now the sole surviving Sinhalese king, had to bear the brunt of the struggle with the Portuguese and then the Dutch, who had by this time become masters of the maritime provinces of the island. From this time onwards, amidst the troubled politics we hear of a series of matrimonial alliances between the Sinhalese royal family at Kandy and the Nayaks of Madurai. These connections culminated in the ascendance of a youth from Madurai on the Kandyan throne and the establishment of the so-called Nayakka dynasty in Kandy.
The reasons which may have prompted the Kandyan kings after the seventeenth century to contract these marriage alliances with South India, can reasonably be inferred.
One good reason why such marriages should have been sought may be found in the need to curb the growing power of the Kandyan nobles who had by this time become a threat to the security of the throne. Royal intermarriages with the nobility would mean a further growth in the power of the nobles who even at this time were a factor to reckon with. By introducing these South Indian elements to the court, the kings were possibly trying to check the influence of the insubordinate Sinhala nobles.
With regard to the marriage of Narendrasimha (17071739), the last king of the Sinhalese dynasty, the contemporary Sinhalese poem Mandarampura Puvata hints that the king sought the hand of a princess from Madurai in order to quell the power of his rebellious chiefs who were coveting the throne, and also to produce a pure royal line unmixed with the nobility. Therefore he ignored the royal maidens of Ceylon who were of "mixed descent" and invited the daughter of the king of Madurai.(7)
Marriages with the ruling family of Madurai would also solve the dynastic problem created by the disappearance of all the other Sinhalese kingdoms, that of finding brides of appropriate social status.
From the time of Vimala Dharma Suriya I (15921604) onwards, the royal family at Kandy was the only one of that rank in the island. The kings desired a consort of the Suriyavamsa or solar lineage to grace the occasion of their consecration and also to produce an heir acceptable to the people. Since all the other royal houses in Ceylon including the one at Jaffna were extinct, the king of Kandy turned in search of a spouse to Madurai which was close geographically and closer still in historic associations to Ceylon.
Already there existed definite communication between the kings of Kandy and the Nayak rulers. Vimala Dharma Suriya I obtained military help from the Tanjore-Madurai area against a common foe, the Portuguese.(8)
The next king Senarat (16041635) and also Sankili King of Jaffna (16161619) had received reinforcements of troops from the Nayaks of South India.(9) Perhaps the military assistance paved the way for matrimonial alliances, for soon after this, Senarat's successor, Rajahsinha II (16351687) had espoused a princess from Madurai. This was perhaps a part of the price which the Kandyan kings had to pay when they obtained military aid.
According to the Culavamsa, (10) Rajasinha II revived the practice of securing brides from Madurai. Robert Knox the Englishman who spent a long period of imprisonment in the Kandyan Kingdom in the time of Rajasinha II, substantiates the Culavamsa when he says that the king's "right and lawful queen" was a Malabar.(11). The king had a secondary wife, a Kandyan lady of noble birth to whom he gave lands and wealth. But queenly rank and status were reserved from this reign onwards for the Madurai ladies. Rajasimha's queen bore him a son who ascended the throne as Vimala Dharma Suriya II (16871707).
Vimala Dharma Suriya followed his father's example and took as his chief queen a Madurai princesses. (12) On his death in 1707 his seventeen year old son ascended the throne as Sri Vira Parakrama Narendrasimha (17071739). It is little known that Narendrasimha had a Kandyan wife, a noble lady of exquisite beauty, the daughter of Monaravila Disava (13) of Matale, a great favourite of the king's father. (14) However, immediately after his accession he began his negotiations with the royal house of Madurai in search of a consort. His mother and grandmother were both of South Indian origin and he too turned in that direction in spite of all the qualifications of the Moneravilas as parents-inlaw. Obviously the South Indian alliance had become a matter of policy.
The Dutch who were masters of the maritime districts of Ceylon, held the principal ports and controlled the seas round the island. Therefore tacit Dutch approval was necessary for any communication between Kandy and South India. Besides the king of Kandy had no ships and the Dutch were instrumental in conveying the brides and their retinue from South India.
According to Sinhalese and Dutch sources the brides who were brought across to Ceylon were of royal birth. But an interesting Tamil document, perhaps the only available South Indian source which refers to these marriage alliances contradicts this view, regarding the ancestry of Narendrasinha's queen.
According to this Tamil document entitled, Narrative of the Affairs of Kandidesam,(15) found among the Mirtanjaya Manuscripts, the Nayak of Madura at the time Vijayaranga Cokkanatha (1688-1732), was enraged at the audacity of the king of Kandy who had dared to ask a female from the royal house of Madurai. He ordered the Kandyan envoys out of the city and strictly instructed his kinsmen not to give any female to them.
Then a destitute Hindu subject of the Nayak accepted the gifts from the Kandyan envoys and to give them his daughter. The envoys were asked to proceed to the island of Ramesvaram and the poor man and his family met them there under cover of night. Here both parties embarked on a dhoney (16) and when they arrived in Kandy the consecration of Narendrasinha with the so-called " princess" from Madurai was celebrated with great magnificence in 1708.(17)
It is left for us to decide how much credit we should give to this story. Unfortunately we do not know anything about the author of this document in order to establish the aim he had in view; whether he was merely narrating events or trying to bring discredit upon the kings of Kandy.
Nor could we unreservedly accept the evidence of the Sinhalese sources which attribute royal birth to the South Indian brides.
The father of Narendrasinha's bride who is called Pitti Nayakkar, in a Dutch source,(18) obviously had little connection with the ruling Nayak - even if his family had any wealth or influence earlier, it had lost them all. by the time he agreed to give his daughter to the king of Kandy; for he came over to Kandy with his wife, son and wife's brother and continued to resided (19) there. Evidently, Kandy was a far more congenial home than their own for thither they flocked with their kith and kin- we are therefore inclined to accept the Tamil document when it says that Pitti Nayakkar was a destitute subject of the Nayak of Madurai; but it is not unlikely that the family had seen better days.
The question of the parentage of Narendrasinha's South Indian queen is a very pertinent one, for the king had no children by her and as a result it was her brother who ascended the throne of Kandy in 1739 as Sri Vijaya Rajasinha and founded the Nayakkar dynasty in Ceylon.
Why was this Madurai youth chosen as heir to the throne of Kandy following a mode of succession that had never been known in Ceylon ?
The king had no children by his mahesi, but he had a son by a secondary wife of the vellala caste. (20) The bar to his succession was the lack of royal status in the mother. According to the law of succession that prevailed in Ceylon the throne passed almost always from father to son, born of a mahesi or from brother to brother. When Narendrasinha selected the brother of his chief queen, the son of Pitti Nayakkar, as his successor to the throne of Kandy, his act was without precedent in Ceylon's history.
Perhaps the choice of the queen's brother was influenced by the marumakkathayam law which prevailed among the Nayaks who had settled in Malabar and who were known as Nayars or Nairs.
The most outstanding feature in the Malabar Nair society was the tarvad (21) wherein the mother and all her children, both male and female, all her grandchildren by her daughters, all her brothers and sisters and the descendants of the sister's side, however distant their relationship, lived together.
Fathers were practically ignored in the law and descent was traced entirely through the mothers. The eldest male was the head of this whole group. The law by which succession was regulated in these tarvads was called marumakkathayam which means succession by nephews.
The name may be misleading for it was not restricted to nephews alone for a brother or any other kinsman on the female side, if he happened to be the eldest male member at the time could succeed' the headship of the tarvad.(22)
The influence of these mother right institutions were markedly felt even in the Tamil areas of Tinnevelly, Madurai, Ramnad and Tanjore.(23) Kandy had associations with all these areas. It is therefore tempting to conclude that it was the marumakkathayam law which influenced the accession of the son of Pitti Nayakkar to the throne of Kandy as Sri Vijaya Rajasinha.
When the new ruler came to face the problem of finding a suitable consort, the same causes which had led his immediate predecessors to look for a ruling family in South India for a bride, obviously still operated.
Moreover events in Madurai had by now made it more probable that an alliance with the Kandyan ruler would be seen as acceptable or even desirable.
In 1732 the long reign of Vijayaranga Cokkanatha over the Madurai Kingdom came to an end. When rival claimants were struggling for the throne the Muslim armies overran Madurai and caused the virtual extinction of the Nayak dynasty.(24)
The surviving members of the family dispersed in various directions and one of them Bangafu Tirumala Nayaka who had once been a claimant to the throne sought refuge in the fort at Vellai kurichchi.(25)
It was at this time, when the Madurai kingdom was reduced to complete anarchy, that Sri Vijaya Rajasinha ascended the throne of Kandy and sought a wife from among his own relatives in South India. For this purpose he sent messengers to Madurai in 1739. Since the Nayaks had now lost the power and prestige they enjoyed in the days of Vijayaranga Cokkanatha, the members of the family thought it advisable and even desirable to accept the offer from the king of Kandy.
The details of the negotiations could be followed in the Tamil document, "Narrative of the Affairs of Kandidesam", which may be corroborated from Dutch sources. Two brothers Rama Krishnappa Nayaka and Narenappa Nayaka, who were kinsmen of Bangaru Tirumala Nayaka made their way to Ramand to meet the Kandyan envoys. Narenappa had a daughter of marriageable age. The brothers now dispossessed and landless, agreed to the Kandyan request and with their families, they accompanied the envoys to Ceylon. There was little to hope for in South India, and once Narenappa Nayaka came over to Ceylon for his daughter's nuptial, he showed no wish to return but settled instead in Kandy with his kith and kin.(26) He was destined to be not only the father-in-law of one king, but the father of the next two kings of Kandy; for his two sons, the one five or six years old in 1740, and the other still an infant were successively to succeed Sri Vijaya Rajasinha.
The process of linking Kandy with Madurai did not stop here for seven years later in 1747, Sri Vijaya Rajasinha married another Madurai princess.
The king, however, died childless soon after, having nominated as his successor, his eldest brotherin-law who had been living in the court ever since his sister had married the king. Thus by this peculiar mode of succession the son of Narenappa Nayaka who claimed kingship with the ruling Madurai Nayak family now ascended the throne of Kandy as Kirti Sri Rajasinha. (17471781).
It is known from reliable sources that the king married four princesses from Madurai; two of them were descendants of Vijaya Raghava (163373), Nayak of Tanjore and the other two were the king's own relatives.
Each bride was accompanied by a host of relatives who made Kandy their permanent home. The strength of the South Indian connection was well displayed at the death of Kirti Sri Rajasinha. He had no children by any of his Madurai queens, but he had two sons and six daughters by his favourite secondary wife, Mampitiye Kumarihamy, daughter of the Disava of Bintanna and grand-daughter of the blind and aged Mampitiye Disava who wielded cosiderable influence in the court.(27) She was never raised to the rank of mahesi or queen. Neither the rank and power of the Mampitiyes nor the king's passionate attachment to his Kandyan wife was of any consequence in the selection of a successor to the throne.
For the claims of Mampitiye Kumarihamy's sons were overlooked and the choice fell on the king's brother who was living in the court. As a result when Kirti Sri Rajasinha died in 1781 the second son of Narenappa Sayaka ascended the throne as Rajadi Rajasinha (178298). He too married several princesses from Madurai but died childless. The fourth and last of this dynasty was Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (17981815), a Madurai youth who was living in the palace and whose parentage is still open to doubt It was in his time that the British who had occupied the maritime provinces, annexed Kandy and banished the king and all his male relatives back to Vellore.
It is seen from the foregoing account that whereas the earlier Tamil invaders who, on several occasions had occupied parts of the island, did so by force of arms, in the case of the Nayaks the throne passed peacefully and almost imperceptibly into their hands. Whereas in the tenth century the Colas maintained their power in Ceylon by military might in the eighteenth century the Nayak rulers maintained their position by adopting a different policy. They identified themselves with their subjects, openly professed and patronised Buddhism and proclaimed themselves not as the pioneers of a new era but as the upholders of the existing order.
Paradoxically, the close and continued contact that was maintained with the mainland, and the influx of royal relatives due to the chaotic conditions that prevailed in Madurai, resulted in the culture of Tamil Nad pervading every aspect of Kandyan court life.
Court ceremonial was elaborated on patterns prevailing in South India. Contact with Tamil culture resulted in interesting developments in Sinhalese dance and music.(28) There is evidence that dancing girls were brought from Madurai for the functions in the Kandyan court.(29) The cultural impact of Madurai is seen in the art and architecture of the eighteenth century as well. Over and above all this the influence of Hinduism which had always been strong became dominant not only in court circles but at every level of society, so much so that popular Buddhism became saturated with Hindu beliefs and practices. It could be said that the process of Tamilisation of the Sinhalese court which was accelerated by the Cola occupation reached a climax in the eighteenth century when a Nayak dynasty held sway.
1. The Mahavamsa, or Great Chronicle of Ceylon, translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger, London, 1934. Chap. VII, verses 4950.
2. The Kings of Ceylon were polygamous and only a lady of royal blood could become mahesi or queen with an important role to play in the abhiseka or consecration. A king could have more than one mahesi and the first of them would normally would be entitled aggamahesi or chief queen. He could have any number of secondary wives of lower rank but their offspring were not considered as legal claimants to the throne.
3. .Mahavamsa, VII, 53.
4. Ibid., XXXV. 48.
5. The Culavamsa. translated by Wilhelm and from the German into English by Mrs. C. Mabel Rickmers, ( Parts I and II), Colombo 1953. Crap. 59. verses 40-41.
6. Salalihini Sandesaya, (ed.) N. D. de S. Wijesekera, Colombo 19'4, Verse 96.
7. Madarampura Puvata, (ed.) Labugama Lankananda, Ceylon 1958. verses 43336.
8. Fernae de Queyroz. Temporal and Spiritual Conauest of Ceylon, translated by S. G. Perera, Colombo. ]930. pp. 535536.
9. C. R. de Silva. The Portuguese in Ceylon 16181638, Colombo, 1971. pa ge 42.
10. Culavamsa, 97. 40.
11. Robert Knox. An Historical Relation of Ceylon, Glasgow, 1911. page 54.
12. Culavamsa, 97.2
13. A provincial governor of the King of Kandy.
14. Kalingubodhi Jatakaya, a contemporary Sinhalese poem found in the Hugh Nevill collection of Ballads in the British Museum No. 857.
15. Edited and translated by Rev. William Taylor in, Oriental Historical Manuscripts in the Tamil Language, Vol . II, Appendix G. pages 4249. She same information is found in a document in the India Office Library, London among the Collin Mackenzie Collection (general) Vol.4, pagelO7. This is entitled, "Kegardlng thekingsof Candia and their connections with Madura." and is an English translation of an original Timil document.
16. A small boat used in the shallow waters between IndiaandCeylon.
17. A. C. Lawrie, A Gazetteer of the Central Provinces of Ceylon. (2 vols.) Colombo 1896 and 1898. Vol. I, page 41. The king gave a generous grant of land to the ministers who went to Madura and fetched the " princess ".
18. Memoir of Joan Schreuder for his successor, 1762. Translated by E.Reimers, Colombo 1946. page30.
21. K. M. Kapadia, Marriage and family in India Bombay, 1966. pages 336339.
22. T. K. Gopal Panikkar. Malabar and its folk Madras, 1900. pages l4.
23. Heinz Becherl. " Mother Right and Succession to the Throne in Malabar and Ceylon." in The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies. Vol. Vl. Jan.June 1963, No. or, page 26.
24. R. S. Aiyar, The History of the Nayaks of Madura, Madras, 1924. pages 232234.
25. William Taylor, Oriental Historical Manuscripts in the Tamil Language; Vow. II, pages 4143.
26. Memoirs of Joan Schreuder, page 30.
28. E. R. Sarachchandra, The Folk Drama of Ceylon, Ceylon 1966. pages 1213
29. Minutes of the Dutch Political Council, 11 February 1747, Ceylon National Archives/Dutch Records, Vol. 90.