Ancient kingdoms have intrigued us with conquest, murder and enigmatic diplomacy. The Northern Province was once home to a dynasty of Kings known as the Ariya Cakaravarti who ruled for almost 300 years. Today there is little left in terms of palaces and royal inscriptions, yet their reign was majestic. Being an island ancient Ceylon was subject to three waves of colonization: Portuguese, Dutch and British. Prior to this era there was dominant interference from the Pandyan Kingdom of India.
The Ramnad District (Ramanathapuram) had an area known as Cevvirukkai Nadu. These men of Brahmin origin excelled in military service to the Pandyan kings. As such Cinkai Ariyan was a descendent of a Brahmin general. Cakaravarti Nallur was the ancestral homeland of this clan. It is interesting to note that subsequently the Nallur area in Jaffna, which was the capital of these rulers, bears the same name.
The chronicler of the Cekerasacekaramalai describes the bestowing of royalty on this family in South India. At a temple ritual Sri Rama garlanded two of these men with a Thulasi garland ‑ a symbol of royalty and gave them the standard (flag) of the Bull (Nandi). A single conch shell was also gifted. When one looks at the ancient flag of Vavuniya we can see its borders displaying four conch shells which prove this ancient rite of honour. Over the next three centuries the Ariyan kings used the throne names Cekarasacekeran and Pararasacekeran. The first 12 monarchs ruled independently but following the Portuguese invasion the remaining kings had to rule under suzerainty.
Cankili I was one of the most controversial and flamboyant kings of this dynasty. Prior to him assuming the throne there were a series of mysterious deaths of others aspiring to the throne. Such incidents have plagued ruling families for centuries. The father of Cankili I had three wives and a host of concubines.
The first wife Rajalakshmi bore him two sons, while the second wife Valliammal bore him a son, Paranirupasingham. The third wife gave birth to Cankili (Sangilian) along with a daughter. It is strange how society views culture with the change of time!
Cankili I was a man who often seemed to act on impulse. His young son had been acquainted by a Portuguese named Andre de Souza. This mutual bond gave De Souza the chance to gently persuade the Prince to follow the Christian faith. The converted Prince was planning to go to Goa to be baptized. When his father, the King became aware of this, in a violent rage he ordered the son to be murdered in November 1544. The monarch then buried his son with royal honours. Another native Antonio Fernandez is said to have built a small chapel in the thick forest border on the spot where the crown Prince’s ashes were buried, naming the spot ‘Emilda de Cruz’. Thus the son of Cankili became a Christian martyr. It is said that a shining Cross would appear randomly on this spot. Some believe that this is the present location of the St. Mary’s Cathedral, Jaffna.
The defiant Cankili I would soon be involved in another bloody massacre which ultimately led to his downfall. Jaffna was a relatively calm place at this time in history. In 1543 many in Tuticorin converted to Catholicism, due to the dedicated efforts of Francis Xavier. Thereafter the Portuguese had to settle these new Parava converts and eagerly eyed the Northern islands. They also had a hidden agenda to wield control of the lucrative pearl business which was thriving in Mannar. At this juncture Mannar had a vibrant harbour called Manthai (Manthottam) which was a vital trading point.
Soon a young priest arrived in Mannar and went about preaching, without the consent of the ruling King. Shortly the Hindu priests began to inform the King of the activities of the zealous priest. Cankili I frustrated with this act of disloyalty by his citizens ordered the Military garrison stationed in Mannar to control the conversions. He was shocked to find his own Commander; Ilavarasn Ilansigham and his soldiers had also embraced the Christian faith and would not obey the royal command. Cankili I began to realize that the people of Mannar and the garrison may support the Portuguese, whose invasion was an imminent threat. Also around this time the Portuguese Commandant had destroyed the Ketheeswaram Temple and was using the same bricks to build the Mannar Fort, which upset the king.
The infuriated monarch mounted his army of almost 5000 troops and entered Mannar. He sent a royal edict asking the converts to renounce their new faith. They remained steadfast. In a violent display of terror the enraged Cankili I ordered his troops to attack killing 700 people, including children in a blood bath. The young Priest Francis and Commander Ilansingham were put to the sword. The entire province was horrified. The monarch then buried Ilansingham with royal honours. As a tribute to the dead the bewildered Portuguese would refer to Mannar as Illa dos Matryres – Island of Martyrs. To this day there are wild horses roaming in Mannar, from the cavalry horses of the Portuguese. Sometime thereafter Cankili I was rejected and his son Puviraja Pandaram ascended the throne.
In 1617 Cankili II aspired to rule the Kingdom of Jaffna. Like his predecessor he too displayed a darker side. He manipulated an attack of the reigning heir, the Princess Arasasekari and murdered her. He assumed power as Cekerasasekeran VIII. Many believed he received military help from Thanjavur for this palace raid. The mercenaries landed at Nedunthivu. Once again his reign was rejected by the Portuguese.
Over the next few years he was ambushed by the Portuguese under the direction of Philippe de Olivera who arrived with a battalion of soldiers sailing in a flotilla of 70 ships. Cankili II was overpowered and sent to Goa, where he was subsequently hanged. Some members of his family embraced Holy orders and became monks and nuns. Cankili II was the last King of Jaffna, though their bloodlines have endured for many decades since then. After this from 1644 to 1678 the areas of the North came to be known as Pannemgammam (land of the palmyrah trees).