Keppetipola: The First Freedom Fighter
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“Heroes don’t get happy endings. They give them to other people.”
– Stephanie Garber,
Once Upon a Broken Heart
A hero is a person who is admired for the courage, bravery, and noble qualities he/she possesses. A hero is someone who happily sacrifices his or her life for the betterment of others. Their qualities and their noble sacrifices are to be celebrated and set as examples for others. This is why nations celebrate their heroes and cherish them. The legacy they have left behind will remain forever with us.
Among the many national heroes who are celebrated in Sri Lanka, Monarawila Keppetipola tops the list. He is admired for the extraordinary bravery he showed during the 1818 uprising or the Uva-Wellassa freedom- fight in Sri Lanka.
In old British documents, he has been compared to the great Scottish hero William Wallace. For them, he may be someone similar to Wallace, but for us in Sri Lanka, Keppetipola will always be a great man who gave his life for an independent country during colonial times.
Keppetipola’s life and sacrifices have been celebrated every year on 26 November since 1997 in front of his memorial at Kandy. This year a special event was held on 26 November 2021 in Kandy opposite the sacred Temple of the Tooth near the Keppetipola memorial pillar with the involvement of the Department of Archaeology. The Director-General of the Department of Archaeology, Senior Professor Anura Manatunga delivered the memorial lecture at this event. Prof. Manatunga said that the first independence fight of the Sinhalese started during the latter half of 1817 and was spread all over the Kandyan kingdom because of the leadership of Monarawila Keppetipola.
Born as Monarawila Keppetipola Rajapaksha Wickramasekara Bandaranayaka in Matale, his father Keppetipola Golahalanilame was the Diyawadana Nilame of King Rajadhi Rajasinghe. Prof. Manatunga explained that Keppetipola was one of the three chieftains who signed the Kandyan Convention in Sinhala.
Three months after signing of the convention, the Kandyan chieftains and Buddhist monks were disappointed about British rule as they were not obeying the age-old traditions of Sri Lanka and were not patronising Buddhism as the State religion.
The professor explained that although the people of Kandy were able to get rid of the iron rule of King Sri Wickrama, British rule was worse. By this time, the people of Kandy were of the belief that they should get rid of the British and have one of their own kings back on the throne. People of Dumbara, Uva, Wiyaluwa, Walapane, Bintanne, and Wellassa were faithful to the former Kandyan king and they actually faced a hard time due to British rule. British troops raided villages at Bintanne. The arrogant nature of Hajji Muhandiram of Wellassa displeased the villagers, Butawe Rate Rala and Kohukumbure Rate Rala.
In 1817, the Sinhalese crowned Doresami as their new king. They claimed him to be a descendant of the last king of Kandy. Butawe Rate Rala, Kohukumbure Rate Rala, Kiwulegedaramohottala, Kataragama Mahabethme Rala, Sinhalese villagers, and Veddas of Bintanne all teamed up together to fight against the British. They killed Hajji Muhandiram and later killed Douglas Wilson who came to Badulla to investigate the murder of Hajji.
On 1 November 1817, the British sent Keppetipola with troops to Uva to crush the freedom-fight. What happened next was what the British least expected. Keppetipola sent back the British troops and weapons and joined the Sinhalese. Doresami appointed Keppetipola as his Maha Adikaram. Keppetipola assuming leadership was the reason that the uprising successfully spread all across the Kandyan kingdom.
“The decision he made at that point was on behalf of his country and his people. He had enough chances to return back to the British. But he chose to remain with them till the end and sacrificed his life.”
In January 1818, Keppetipola’s property was seized by the Government. But this couldn’t stop the fighters. The fight was spreading rapidly. Gradually many Kandyan chieftains joined the fight and stood against British rule. In April 1818, the tooth relic was taken away from the Temple of the Tooth. This was a great achievement for the Sinhalese. The professor said that by mid-1818 it was only Molligoda who remained faithful to the British.
By June 1818 the uprising was so successful that it was believed that the British would leave Kandy at any moment. However, unfortunately, by August the same year, the freedom-fight had its final death blow. The British troops followed extremely ruthless barbaric acts to crush the freedom-fight. They murdered villagers, slaughtered their cattle, burnt villages and paddy fields. Additional troops were summoned from Madras. As the paddy fields were destroyed and cattle were slaughtered, the villagers were running out of food.
Meanwhile, Keppetipola suffered from diarrhoea and he was very weak. There was a dalada poojawa at Hanguranketha and Keppetipola couldn’t walk alone without support.
As the professor explained, the downfall of the battle happened when conflicts arose about the caste of Doresami. Doresami was not actually a descendant of Sri Wikrama but an ordinary villager of the Govigama caste. Madugalle and Pilimatalawwe were offended by the revelation. Outraged, the two imprisoned Doresami and Keppetipola at Pitawala.
As Prof. Manatunga would say, this was to continue the battle under new leadership; however, people in Uva and Walapane were of the view that Doresami and Keppetipola were caught to be surrendered to the British. They felt betrayed. This severely broke the morale of the freedom-fighters. One by one, the leaders surrendered to the British.
Although the battle continued, its strength was weakened. By August 1818, the freedom-fight was notably weak. In October 1818, Keppetipola’s wife, son, mother, and brother were arrested at Narangamuwa. On 16 October, they were taken to Pannagama in Matale.
Freedom-fighters were hiding in Thamankaduwa and Nuwara Kalaviya. The British troops were led by Lieutenant William O’Neal. They were able to meet Keppetipola, Pilimatalawwe, and Madugalle and their men at a house in Kahallla. Madugalle was able to escape but he was later captured at Elahera.
The professor said that Keppetipola bravely faced this moment and had introduced himself as Keppetipola and had not hidden or attempted to flee. They reached Kandy on 4 November. Robert Brownrigg was extremely happy and his hatred towards Keppetipola can be clearly seen in his writings.
The trial of Keppetipola and Madugalle was held on 16 November and it was decided to execute them on 26 November at Bogambara.
On the morning of 26 November, the two nilames were taken to the Temple of the Tooth at their request. Keppetipola worshipped the sacred tooth relic. The only belonging he had by that time was the thuppottiya he was wearing. He offered it to the tooth relic. It is said that Madugalle who was horrified had attempted to hide inside the Temple of the Tooth and failed. Kepptipola’s bravery and courage during this time are recorded by the British in their writings. He had told Madugalle not to behave so and asked him to be wise.
Both of them were taken to Bogambara. Keppetipola washed his face and hands and tied his hair and sat down holding a small bush nearby. He had a small ola leaf with him and he took it out and recited a gatha. It is said that while he said arahan (another name for Buddha) he was executed. Madugalle was executed after Keppetipola. Their bodies were buried in the lake bed. Both heads were taken by Dr. Henry Marshall and Keppetipola’s head was taken to England.
After Sri Lanka gained independence, the skull was brought back to Sri Lanka and placed in Kandy.
Descendants of Keppetipola
Bringing back the skull of Keppetipola
Manthrini Monarawila Keppetipola Giragama is a descendant of this great hero. It was her father Upali Monarawila Keppetipola who was responsible for bringing back the head of Keppetipola to Sri Lanka. Therefore, we contacted Manthrini Keppetipola to know more about this.
As she explained, Keppetipola Second Disawe had four sons and Wiliam Armstrong Monarawila Keppetipola was his third son. His son Upali Monarawila Keppetipola was born at Matale Keppetipola Walawwa. His wife was the school principal of the Padiyapelella girls’ school.
One day when they were cleaning the school library, they found some kavi-kola leaflets. This happened in the 1940s. In these kavi-kolas, the execution of Keppetipola and his head being taken to England were written as poems.
“My mother came and told my father, Upali Monarawila Keppetipola this information and my father inquired about this. After that, he wrote to George VI who was the king of England.”
Upali Monarawila Keppetipola had written to the king saying “Your ancestors have executed my ancestor and have taken the head to England, and I want the head back.”
The discussion between George VI and Upali Monarawila Keppetipola continued and finally when the Duke of Gloucester arrived in Sri Lanka, he brought the head of Monawarawila Keppetipola and it was handed over to the Colombo National Museum. The skull of a national hero was not given due respect and honour while it was kept at the museum.
“Once again my father raised his voice.”
Then the authorities had to take measures to exhibit the skull. Arrangements were made in 1954. But on the day itself, it was revealed that the head was about to be buried, not to be exhibited.
“My father was furious and he stepped inside the pit and he opposed the idea. It was then that S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had asked my father to come out of the pit.”
Today there is a memorial pillar erected for this great national hero and his head is entombed inside it.
Manthrini Keppetipola also told us about the Keppetipola Walawwa at Matale. She said that it is a large Walawwa with 15 rooms and at present, it needs to go through restoration work.
Joining us next was another direct descendant of Monarawila Keppetipola, Pearl Karalliadde who was a former District Judge of Kandy. She said the village of Keppetipola was earlier known as Palugama. It was at Palugama that Keppetipola returned the weapons of the British back to them. Later, during the time of Governor Gopallawa, the village was renamed Keppetipola in honour of the hero. During the same time, the Central College located near Akuramboda in Matale was renamed as Weera Monarawila Keppetipola Central College by C.W.W. Kannangara.
When asked about the son of Keppetipola, Pearl Karaliyadde told us that, “After the execution of Keppetipola, his wife, two sons and brother, surrendered with a few close relatives and servants. Through my research, I found out that there were two sons of Keppetipola and the eldest was 10 years old. They were Punchi Banda and Loku Banda.”
Keppetipola’s brother was appointed as the Matale Disawa during the 1818 freedom-fight by the king. He was also involved in the rebellion. He was sent for rehabilitation and their two sons were allowed to stay with their mother. Later the sons were sent to Colombo to give them an English education with their mother’s consent.
“We do not hear much about the youngest son. However, it is evident that they lived in 1822 as some of Keppetipola’s confiscated lands were released to both sons in that year. We only have records of Loku Banda being educated in Colombo and visiting his grandmother in Matale from time to time.
“One of his sons Edmond Monarawila Keppetipola was my mother’s (Seela Monarawila Keppetipola Karalliadde Kumarihamy’s) father, who donated the national heroes’ Kandyan dress, banner/flag of Uva, and so on to the Kandy Museum, to be exhibited to the public”, concluded Pearl Karalliadde.
(Pix courtesy Senior Professor Anura Manatunga, Pearl Karalliadde, and Manthrini Monarawila Keppetipola Giragama)