“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler
It took over barely 40 years for the penultimate Vijayan kings to lay out the full and final road to oblivion, years that made the mafia tales of the Prohibition era or a Shakespearean tragedy appear tame. But travel them they did – and with unforgettable horror.
History hints that the Valagamba’s succession may not have been entirely orderly; if so, then Valagamba’s earlier trust in adopting Mahakuli Mahatissa, the son of his slain and traitorous enemy, can be read as a suicidal move.
But however he came to the throne, Mahakuli Mahatissa stayed the course, though whether he did anything constructive remains a niggling historical curiosity. What is known however, is that what came next proved right the Calvin and Hobbes’ astute observation: “It's never so bad that it can't get any worse."
On the face of it, Mahakuli Mahatissa’s succession seemed to go to plan. His stepbrother, Choura Naga, the son of King Valagamba took the throne in 62 BCE and married Anula.
Anula would turn out to be one of the island’s more colourful characters. What little is known of poor King Choura Naga is that he managed to get himself poisoned by Anula in 50 BCE. The widowed queen placed his little step nephew, Kuda Thissa on the throne. But not for long. Anula was ever a lady short of patience. Tiring of her ward, she poisoned him in 47 BCE and installed her lover, a palace guard, as Siva I.
Clearly the problems they faced in their relationship were beyond mere counselling for Siva was despatched in the same tried and tested method, and the queen installed a new lover, Vatuka, to the throne in 46 BCE. This was something of a promotion for the Tamil who had, till then, been living the blameless life of a carpenter.
By now Anula was well into her stride. The following year the carpenter was replaced in similar fashion by Darubhatika Tissa, a wood carrier – who also failed to measure up.
Her last throw of the love dice was Niliya, a palace priest who she installed as king in 44 BCE before feeding him something he ought not to have eaten. At this point Anula must have reached the logical conclusion: if you want something done well, do it yourself.
And so, from 43 to 42 BCE she ruled in her own name, Asia’s first female head of state, beating President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga by two thousand and thirty six years.
Anula’s own reign ended at the hands of her brother-in-law, Kutakanna Tissa, who, having sensibly become a Buddhist monk during Anula’s reign, remained alive and so able to rescue the monarchy. He did so by burning the queen alive in her own palace in 42 BCE, bringing down the curtains on a royal career that eclipsed that of the entire Borgia clan put together.
As the queen’s palace fragmented to ash, clockwork royal leadership took the place of palace coups.
Could it be that after all this turmoil, the kingdom was given time to recover, repair and heal?
For eighteen blissfully uneventful years Kutakanna Tissa ruled with monkish devotion.
He was succeeded by his son, Bhathika Abhaya in 20 BCE.
The peaceful passing on of power seemed a welcome new trend set to continue when King Bhathika Abhaya was himself succeeded by his younger brother Mahadatika Mahanaga in 9 CE.
And then, yet again, in 21 CE when king Mahadatika Mahanaga was succeeded by his son, Amandagamani Abhaya.
But, as Woody Allen noted, “if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.