Sinhala army in the 16th and 17th centuries
The Sinhala king always had a standing army. This tradition was
continued in the 16th century. The army was composed of persons from all
ranks of society. T B H Abeyasinghe says there was no separate military
caste. Commanding officers came from the elite groups, porters,
drummers, woodcutters and smiths from the lower ranks.
The army was organized under mudaliyars, (commanders) and arachchis
(captains.) The fighting forces were divided into units. There was a
separate division of archers under the command of the Dunukara lekam.
Horses and elephants were used for fighting. Oxen and elephants were
used to transport goods.
In internal warfare, where the fighting was often of short duration
the soldiers were mustered on a territorial basis. They reported for
duty with their arms and a supply of food. After fifteen days of
fighting they went back for fifteen days of rest and further supply of
food.The militia was obliged only to fight within their territory
In the Udarata, mohottalas maintained registers of the soldiers under
their command. Udarata troops had the right to refuse to serve outside
the Udarata. After Randeniwela, the Uva unit refused to participate in
the siege of Colombo though a generous reward was offered. The king
recognized Army service. The widows of those who fought at Randeniwela
were provided with lands by king Senerat.In the Udarata, lands of
soldiers killed in active service were exempt from kada rajakariya.
There were two schools of martial arts in the 16th century. The
Maruvalliye School for general martial arts and Sudaliye School
specializing in fencing and swordsmanship. These schools conducted
training at centers, known as angam saramba and saramba salas. Beginners
in swordsmanship practised with sticks on trunks of plantain trees or
suspended bunches of coconuts.
V L B Mendis has pointed out that the Sinhalese had faced invasions
from the sea long before the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century. He
noted that the Sinhalese had a long tradition of successful warfare
behind them and their reactions were sharp.
The Sinhalese went to war carrying battle flags. Portuguese writers
have referred to flags seen as they were retreating from Badulla.
Drummers accompanied the army in their wars against the Portuguese.
There was a special martial drum known as Davunde. .Davunde can be seen
in one of the banners of the satara korale.
Ribeiro, who was a soldier in the Portuguese army in Sri Lanka for 18
years, observed that the Sinhalese were a naturally warlike race. He
said they attacked with ‘fury and dash.’ Queyroz said the Sinhala
soldiers were wiry, light footed, run like deer, and go for days on
campaign with nothing more that some hoppers or rice, under a scorching
sun or a drenching rain, marching many leagues in a few hours. They
showed no fear of death in the way they charged. They ‘put themselves at
the mouth of the guns.’ At Mulleriyawa massed troops engaged in close
hand to hand battle with sword and spears.
There were outstanding commanders such as Vickramasingha Mudali and
Danture Ekanayaka mudali of the Sitavaka army.
There were outstanding fighting divisions, particularly the armies of
the sath korale and satara korale. Pieris said the martial skills of the
sath and satara korales were ‘always recognized’. The flag of the satara
korale held the place of honor in the army. Satara korale was the most
bitterly opposed to Portuguese rule, the hostility increasing with
proximity to Colombo. The Portuguese also feared the Atapattu division.
Pieris says ‘the very sight of the standard of the Atapattu division
The Sinhalese fought with determination. In one confrontation, the
Sinhalese in fury ‘clung to the very muskets in the soldiers hands’ and
threw their bow strings round their necks. They fought with dedication.
They swarmed up the ramparts, without faltering despite Portuguese fire.
As soon as one fell another took his place. In one confrontation, though
mowed down, they still pressed on ‘reckless of life, clinging to the
tails of the elephants to get within striking distance of the enemy.’
The Sinhalese fought even when it was hopeless. In a confrontation in
the 1570s, the Sinhalese dashed against the Portuguese guns, reckless of
life, though they had no hope of winning.
Non- fighting ranks were as dedicated as the fighting ranks. The
ammunition and surplus arms were carried in war by the wood cutters.
Peiris notes that they were so ‘proud of this duty that in case of a
defeat they would rather lose their lives than abandon their stores’.
To be continued