By Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai
In his book Proverbs – A Handbook Wolfgang Meider says that proverbs “ reflect the summarization of observations and experiences into nuggets of wisdom providing ready-made comments on personal relationships and social affairs.”
Proverbs offer a perspective and platform to explore various aspects of historical fact. Popular landmarks and destinations have their history preserved through proverbs.
The Colombo port in Sri Lanka has been a destination for several centuries and there are proverbs describing it. One of them is: “Parangiya Kotte giya wage” or “As the Parangi went to Kotte”.
The term ‘Parangi’ refers to the Portuguese and the proverb Parangiya Kotte giya wage puts in a nutshell a popular lore about how the first Portuguese merchants and sailors went to see the King of Kotte. The proverb is often used to signify taking a circuitous route when there is a straight and simple one.
Many colonial historians, followed by others in later years, have described the first encounter of the Portuguese with the local royalty which opened a new chapter in the history of Sri Lanka or Ceylon.
Stuart B. Schwartz (in his 1994 book Implicit Understandings: Observing, reporting and reflecting on the encounters between Europeans and other peoples in the early modern era) says that in the year 1506, Dom Lourenco de Almeida, son of the then Portuguese Viceroy, Dom Francisco de Almeida, “was patrolling the area of the Maldive islands to the south of Sri Lanka when his ships were driven by storms to the coast of Sri Lanka and made their way to Colombo. Colombo was the port nearest to Kotte, the capital city of the major kingdom of Sri Lanka.”
Schwartz made his observations on the basis of the accounts of Portuguese historians like Fernao de Queyroz.
From the port of Cochin in Southern India in the month of November 1505, nine Arab vessels left for the Maldives which was at a distance of 61 leagues. But the flotilla was driven by “contrary winds and finally a violent storm” to the southern Sri Lankan port of Galle, from where they went “coasting upto the port of Colombo, where they anchored…causing much astonishment to the natives and grief to the Moors and Muslim traders there resident for the loss they foresaw…”
The initial interactions had been variously described in different old accounts. The visiting traders were filled with mistrust as well as a keen interest in finding out what is available for trade.
Various old accounts have attempted to capture the reactions of the local population.
The Sri Lankan historian Paulus Edward Pieris ( Ceylon and the Portuguese- 1505-1658 published in 1920) wrote that on November 15, a fleet of Portuguese sailors and merchants led by Dom Lourenco landed at the Colombo Fort. On arrival Dom Lourenco de Almeida, set up a padrao at Colombo and this, a rock carved with the arms of Portugal, was in the Customs premises until removed to the Gordon Gardens on the side of Queen’s House.
P.E. Pieris writes: “The arrival of this flotilla of White strangers was immediately reported to the Court, whither the reputation of the Portuguese had preceded them; a Council of State was summoned, and it was decided to receive them amicably. A message was sent demanding of the strangers what they desired at the King’s port. Dom Lourenco sent back a reply that he was a merchant, a servant of the King of Portugal, who had been driven out of his course to Ceylon, and that he would be glad to open a friendly trade. The King directed that the Portuguese should send a representative to discuss matters with him, and an officer named Fernao Cotrim set out with a Sinhalese escort.”
According to the Rajavaliya: “There is in our harbour of Colombo a race of people fair of skin and comely withal. They don jackets of iron and hats of iron: they rest not a minute in one place: they walk here and there; they eat hunks of stone and drink blood, they give two or three pieces of gold and silver for one fish or one lime; the report their cannon is louder than thunder when it bursts upon the rock Yugandhara. Their cannon balls fly many a gawwa and shatter fortresses of granite.”
However, in spite of royal orders for an “amicable” reception, a degree of skepticism about the new visitors led the Sinhalese to consider the option of not revealing the right direction and the proximity of the royal palace to the port.
The court was only six miles from the port and two hours journey by foot but the Sinhalese guides made it appear to be very far and difficult to reach.
Cotrim’s retinue was led by the Sinhalese through a roundabout route which made the journey several days long.
On this P.E. Pieris says: “For three days he (Fernao Cotrim) travelled crossing hills, and fording numerous streams; for the Sinhalese had no desire to let the foreigners learn that their capital was but two hours’ journey from the sea. As the Parangi went to Kotte is the Sinhalese proverb which still preserves the memory of this ruse.”
However, inspite of the circuitous journey- Cotrim returned victorious and delivered the good news to his countrymen on his fleet.
The meeting with the King of Kotte saw discussions on a promise on the part of Cotrim to protect the coasts of the island and indulge in peaceful trade. In return for that the King of Kotte only needed to send annual gifts to the King of Portugal who would send him gifts in return.
The fruitful mission also led to a jubiliant and celebratory mood.
“De Almeida was highly gratified; in celebration of it he ordered a salvo of artillery to be fired, to the great terror of the peaceful inhabitants of the port, who regarded it as a hostile demonstration,” Pieris noted.
Though the factual details of the celebration still need to be verified, the point that Cotrim’s meeting with the King of Kotte went well cannot be denied. Soon after his visit, a second envoy was sent to the royal court for further discussions and a formal understanding.
Payo de Sousa was sent to conclude the final terms of the treaty with the King. Though he was taken to the capital, Jayawardhana Kotte, on horseback and the King received him with aplomb yet, as P.E. Pieris notes: “the same precautions were observed in terms of the travel as was done during Cotrim’s visit.”
(Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bapai is a cultural and historical anthropologist)