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A Unique Tradition at Work

P. Sahadevan

By Channa Wickremesekera
Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 228, Rs. 500.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 12 December 2005

In the modern history of Sri Lanka the Kandyan kingdom situated in the central highlands has occupied a very unique place. It not only made significant contributions to the wholesome development and preservation of the Sinhalese Buddhist religion, culture and traditions but also displayed nationalist fervour in pursuit of Sri Lanka’s independence by fiercely fighting against the intruding European colonial powers—the Portuguese, Dutch and British. The book under review makes a brilliant analysis succinctly of the valour and vigour of the Kandyan Sinhalese community in its military resistance to the European expansionism. By challenging the formidable colonial powers by undertaking defensive and offensive operations and frustrating their relentless military efforts spanning over two centuries to subjugate the Kandyan kingdom (which eventually happened in 1815 when it was captured by the British), the Kandyan Sinhalese have established a strong indigenous military tradition. In a country where there was no significant development of military in the past (until the mid-1980s when the state embarked on the policy of militarization in the wake of tremendous ethnic challenges posed by the Sri Lankan Tamils), no culture of strategic thinking and no direct experience in fighting a war (until an internal war broke out in 1983), the Kandyan military tradition remains unique and remarkable.        The uniqueness of the Kandyan wars lay in their asymmetric nature. Characteristically, they were asymmetric wars in the sense that the colonial armies were incomparably more powerful and larger than the Kandyan forces. Given the fact that the structure of the Kandyan society was predominantly based on peasantry and there existed a practice under which the king extracted military service from peasants, the Kandyan army was largely composed of civilians. Their military service was directly linked to the system of land tenure. Peasants rendered general military service and only a small number of militiamen constituted the core of the fighting force. Interestingly, the Kandyan army had a sizeable number of foreign soldiers who enjoyed the status of a standing army. Most of them were drawn from Southern India, testifying to Kandy’s intimate political and social links with India. The supplies for the army were arranged locally. The soldiers brought their own supplies and carried their own small cooking vessels. Interestingly, in the absence of formal training, the peasants learnt their fighting skills in battle. Numerically, the balance was easily tilted against the Kandyan forces. Thus, Kandy’s total military ...

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