It is with a great sense of pride that Sri Lankans commemorate February 4 every year. This year marks 70 years of independence from colonial rule. The journey to freedom was one with many struggles and the island’s resilient spirit remains immortalised in many events, places and monuments across Sri Lanka.
Once the audience hall of the kings of Kandy, the Magul Maduwa with its elaborate wood carvings, will forever be remembered as the location where the Kandyan Convention of 1815 was signed. The leaders of the Kandyan Kingdom transferred their rights to the land to the British after signing the agreement.
It is also at this very hall that the orders for the execution of both Monarawila Keppetipola Disawe as well as Madugalle Disawe, the heroic leaders of the Uva-Wellassa rebellion, were issued by the British rulers.
The Uva-Wellassa Rebellion of 1817 was the first attempt at freedom. It was an expression of the people’s anger against the failure of the British administration to safeguard and foster Buddhism, which had been promised in the Kandyan Convention. British troops were brought in from other colonies to suppress this struggle. Properties were confiscated and all the rebel leaders were executed. Monarawila Keppetipola Disawe was the hero, resilient, unafraid and unbowed up to the point of his beheading at the Bogambara Prison in Kandy.
Therefore, Keppetipola village in the Uva Province has been named in honour of Keppetipola Disawe. He had been originally sent by the colonisers to quell the uprising. Instead he joined his fellow countrymen. There is a statue of the national hero in Uva in the location believed to be where he joined the Sri Lankan rebellion. What is today known as Keppetipola Fort was in fact a British construction used as a stable.
Yet, another struggle for independence was the Matale Rebellion of 1848, led by Veera Puran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda. Angered by the unfair acquisition of land and the imposition of new taxes by the British, the rebellion started with an attack on a British military camp in Matale. The colonisers stopped the uprising, arrested the rebel leaders and ordered their execution.
A memorial built to remember the Matale Rebellion is set along the Kandy-Matale road. This had in fact been commissioned by William Bose, British Government Agent of Ceylon to remember the victory of Captain Lily who was instrumental in defeating the uprising.
Fort Macdowall was built by the British in Matale in 1803 as a garrison during battles against Kandy. It was named for General Macdowall, who led the missions against Kandy. This fort came under siege during the Matale Rebellion. It is unique because it is built inland. What remains today is the gateway and a few ramparts.
Independence Memorial Hall in Colombo is a National Monument that embodies Sri Lanka’s victory over colonialism. It was at this very location on February 4, 1948 that the ceremony to mark Sri Lanka’s journey towards self-rule began. It was where HRH Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester read out the Independence Declaration.
In design, it represents the island’s heritage and is also similar to the audience hall in Kandy. The patterns on the 60 carved pillars were adopted from the 14th century Embekke Devalaya. The lions of Yapahuwa are the guardians while the Punkalasa (pots of plenty) symbolise the beautiful vision that the leaders had for this country. Located in the basement is a museum, which displays images and busts of prominent national heroes as well as other artefacts and information to honour and remember the men who fought for a free Sri Lanka.
Another landmark, which has also become a popular recreational spot, is the Galle Face Green, which stretches along Colombo’s coast- line. It was planned by Sir Henry Ward, Governor of Ceylon in 1859 for the purpose of horse racing and golf. Today the Independence Day parade is held here.
Around this stretch are many monuments and colonial buildings that continue to resonate the memories of a shared past