THE KING THE CHARIOTEER AND THE GATEKEEPER [ Part 2 ]
I reluctantly bade farewell to the venerable monk at the Avukana temple. For the past hour we had discussed philosophy and the teachings of the enlightened one. Apart from discussing the Dhammapada we touched on the Dhatusena - Kassyappa - Moggallana saga, and while he adhered strictly to the account in the Culavamsa word for word, I tried to read between the lines. During all my visits to ancient temples I always sought out the chief priest and found them to be wonderful teachers. There was always a meeting of the minds and I enjoyed a discourse with them. Stepping out, I paused for awhile to drink deep of the intoxicating beauty in the scene confronting me. Before me lay a masterpiece of engineering and hydraulics - the mighty Kalawewa tank built by King Dhatusena. Tiny foam flecked waves lapped its shores, while silhouetted against a clear blue sky, a flock of cormorants took wing. A soothing gentle breeze kissed the trees . Nature had run riot with her paintbrush daubing the landscape with colours of every hue......colours almost impossible to capture on an artists canvas. I travelled the length of the tank, not losing sight of the Avukana Buddha statue because I was here for a singular purpose - to relive and re-enact in my mind - if possible to "witness" - the gruesome drama which was played out here over 1500 years ago - the final confrontation and brutal murder of King Dhatusena. Legend has it that it took place near the bund of the Kalawewa tank and for obvious reasons, his murderers beginning with his son King Kasyappa never wished to perpetuate his memory by any memorial stone or plaque marking the spot. They did not wish to be remembered by posterity as murderers. Finding a shady spot under an old gnarled tree which embraced me in its welcoming shade, I buried myself in the pages of the Culavamsa as I had done many times before, determined to get into the thick of this story and experience the drama of that fateful day in 478 AD. I had only one big disadvantage. I was 1534 years too late...........
As I deployed my thoughts and aligned my senses to the beautiful landscape, I was teleported to another world and thought I heard the sound of a chariot and the sound of voices from a different time............It was King Dhatusena giving the charioteer an ola leaf with an inscribed message, requesting him to give it to Prince Moggallana if ever he became king . This message would play an important part in the humble gatekeeper's life although he did not know it then, for on the ola leaf King Dhatusena had requested Moggallana to give him the post of Gatekeeper [ an important position in court at the time ] as a reward for his kindness if ever he ascended the throne one day. On the way to the audience hall for the final confrontation, they stopped at a temple to visit a monk - a Thera - who had once been King Dhatusena's teacher. Let the chronicler take over here. This is what he wrote "....When the Thera heard that the king had come he put aside the bean soup and chicken he was about to partake, remembering 'The King likes that' and took his seat awaiting his guest. The King came in, greeted him respectfully and took a place by his side....." The sorrow and heartache between Master and pupil meeting under these circumstances must surely have seen a few tears shed. But the joy of meeting dispensed sorrow for awhile, and the chronicler wrote in the Culavamsa ".....There the twain sat side by side, joyful as if they had gained a kingdom and their mutual conversation chased their cares away....." The parting must have been bitter and when it came the Thera preached a farewell sermon emphasising how the world is subject to the law of impermanency. That was their last goodbye.
In the audience hall King Kasyappa seated on a throne of velvet cushions, surrounded by his nobles, courtiers, advisers and ministers awaited his prisoner. The commander of the army, the nefarious Migara sat close at hand savouring his victory. As is the case when political trials are conducted, there were also the sycophants and hangers - on, eager to curry favour with the new monarch. The Culavamsa is at best very sketchy about detail and at this point in the story, there is no mention of King Dhatusena'a queen or even of his daughter, Migara's wife.
When King Dhatusena entered, the babble of voices ceased, replaced by a stony silence. This tragic figure had carried a burden which would have broken most men. Whilst a prisoner in a dungeon, he was sorely smitten by the loss of his kingdom, and separation from his son Prince Moggallana who by now had made good his escape to South India. How short is memory........this was a man who only nineteen years ago had almost single handedly led a rebellion and liberated the Island from five South Indian invaders who ruled the country from 433 - 459 AD. Attaining hero status, he was then the darling of the masses. Uneasy is the head that wears the crown, and the ex king was no exception. When he needed them most, none, even a member of the clergy dared speak in his favour for fear of victimisation and persution - perhaps execution. They were traumatised by the sudden change of political fortunes and the ex-kings fall from grace. His supporters had gone into hiding and some fled the country for refuge in other lands. Two guards led him before the "committee of inquiry". It should be remembered that this was not a trial of a person accused of crimes against the state . In fact it was a family squabble being played out in public.
As the Culavamsa states it was Migara who fired the first barb. Turning to King Kasyappa he said "There are treasures lying in the palace O King - has thy father told it to thee.....?" When King Kasyappa replied in the negative, he continued "Knowest thou not his intentions O Monarch ? For Moggallana he keeps his wealth ."
Furious, King Kasyappa then posed the same question to his father. One never knows if he was surprised, amused, or relieved on hearing his father answer " Take me to the Kalavapi (Kalawewa) tank....." Thinking that his father had hidden the treasure somewhere near the tank, his demeanour changed instantly on hearing this reply. The raging lion was transformed into a gentle lamb, and he hoped this whole affair would soon be over with the treasure - or his share of it - in his possession. Accordingly, the ex king was taken to the tank, and taking them by surprise he requested for permission to bathe in its waters. Permission was granted and as the Culavamsa records it, " Dhatusena plunged as he liked therein, and bathed and drank in its waters...." For a sense of theatre, sheer drama and panache, his next act could not be equalled by the best actor on any stage. Raising himself from the water and pointing to the waters of the tank with a sweep of his hand he addressed the impatient Kasyappa and his retinue thus " This here my friends is my whole wealth !" They stared at him dumbfounded at a loss for words on hearing this but it was not long before the dam of pent up anger in King Kasyappa burst forth. In a towering rage, his dreams of treasure now shattered , he commanded Migara "Slay my father !" Revenge at last ! Adorning himself with his ornaments (as recorded in the Culavamsa) Migara went before Dhatrusena and as the chronicler wrote "strutted up and down before him". What happened next is poetic and almost holy because the ex-king unaware that he was doing what a certain carpenter and teacher from the town of Nazareth in Palestine had commanded about 500 years before his time, and was recorded in the New Teatament section of the Christian Bible. He turned the other cheek. Seeing Migara King Dhatusena told him "I have the same feelings for thee as for Moggallana". Migara on hearing this laughed out aloud and shook his head. It was then that Dhatusena finally realised he was doomed. As recorded, he thought " Today he will slay me...." But even in these last moments of life, I aver that he would never have imagined what manner of death awaited him.
Evil incarnate walked the earth that day - or, at least made its presence and influence felt in that part of the island where his murder was planned. Whoever devised the manner of his death had fine tuned the word "cruelty" and taken it to barbaric and demonic heights. On hearing King Kasyappa's order, Dhatusena was immediately stripped naked . They stood him upright, and bound him with chains and fetters in a niche in the wall. The Culavamsa is not specific about which particular wall. It records that "they bound him with chains and fetters in a niche in the wall, and and with his face outwards, closed it up with clay....." I humbly opine that since they would not place him in the wall of any public building, the wall referred to by the chronicler is in a section of the bund of the Kalawewa tank. They would not have built a special wall for the purpose as this was time consuming. The words "closed it up with clay" has deeper and horrific meaning. It means that as the ex king was being walled alive, the sadists must have gloated seeing the sheer terror on his face. My interpretation of this line is that Dhatusena's torture even in death was increased by the fact that he was a "witness" to the slow process of his death, by "watching" himself being buried alive from his feet upwards. Even after the wall was completely sealed, it does not mean that he died immediately. His spirit must have fought to the bitter end, and his final moments are best left to one's imagination. Immured while still alive in a wall of clay, death came to him bit by bit in agonising gasps...........More horrible to contemplate is what his final thoughts were before he drew his last breath. He may have died breathed his last - if breathing was possible under these circumstances - with stoic dignity, or he may have died cursing the Gods.
Nobody knows if the charioteer was a witness to this gruesome murder. What a story he had to tell his children and grandchildren ! He kept the ola leaf given him by King Dhatusena with meticulous care. As will be seen in the next chapter, this ola leaf changed his life........
.........I awoke with a sense of dread having "witnessed" a tragedy of Grecian proportions, my soul chilled with the sheer terror of what I had seen. It was now almost dusk and very soon night would fall.....At night this area must be a place of restless spirits who find no rest because life was so cruelly taken away from them. King Dhatusena was not buried, neither was he cremated. The fact that he was immured while still alive in a wall made me wonder if he was trapped in time and still finds no rest. There is a legend in this area that his restless spirit can never leave these environs.... But now, there is a bitter pill to swallow. Admirers of this great King will have to sip the dregs of the bitter chalice. There is a line in the Christian Bible which says "As you reap so shall you sow....." In the vernacular of today's world the phrase is "What goes around comes around". In other words " Every action has a reaction...." Dhatusena is the luckless victim in this tale, who lost his life, because he had the courage of his convictions. But when he was King and the Kalawewa tank was under construction with building activity going on at a frenzied pace, King Dhatusena was guilty of a dastardly deed of wanton cruelty. A Buddhist monk lost in meditation was directly in the path of construction one day. The engineers asked him very respectfully to move aside so that they could continue with their mammoth task without interruption. This venerable monk, in his meditative and ecstatic state of mind was perhaps unaware of his surroundings. Frustrated the engineers reported the matter to King Dhatusena telling him that this monk was holding up construction, refusing to move. There are two accounts of what happened next. One is that the King himself enraged, "flung a clod of earth" (Culavamsa) at the monk's head. The other is more dire. It states that on the King's orders, the workmen piled up the rubble around the monk, thus burying him alive.......What a bitter twist of fate and cruel irony befell this King about twenty years later when he was immured alive in his own masterpiece.
The parricide King Kasyappa, in some way draws a parallel with another fictional character in the Christian Bible - The Prodigal Son. In this story, the prodigal son demands his inheritance from his father, goes to a foreign land but squanders it in wasteful living, ultimately ending up working in a pigsty to keep body and soul together. He then repents and goes back home to his father where he is welcomed with open arms. Conversely, the prodigal
King Kasyappa ( "prodigal" in the sense of being rash and reckless) demanded his share of wealth from his father and when it was denied him resorted to murder. But he was a parricide with the soul of an artist, and against all the odds battled his own demons and ruled the country for eighteen peaceful years - a reign marked with numerous good deeds and meritorious works. His crowning glory and architectural and engineering wonder evokes awe and admiration from all who visit it - the royal city and palace complex of Sigiriya which must have been, apart from human beings who defied gravity, built by giants and angels.
All things pass but history. History never dies. It is what defines us as a civilisation, and we live out our collective histories everyday - both good and evil..
Eighteen long years were to pass before the charioteer makes a dramatic entrance once more in this story.........
[ To be continued ]
Written by : Bernard VanCuylenburg