[ 1500-1800 AD]-

Written by Capt MSC de Silva of Ceylon Artillery.

Capt. M. S. C. DE SILVA, C.A.Staff Captain, at Army Headquarters,Colombo.Capt Sally De Silva was the adjutant at the then CEME Base-Workshops when I was a Young Officer- He gave me this article in Spolia Zeylanica  of 1972 and ordered me to write up the history of my unit and improve on  his article in the future. I started with a scrap book and put together  the history of the Sri lanka Electrical & Mechanical Engineers in its first Ten  years.

The sketches are from the book Great Rebellion of 1818- T.Wimalananda.

To get an idea of the early organisationn of the Sinhala Army ,please click An attack on the Portuguese Stockade in Colombo.


From 1505 to 1815 the coastal belt of Ceylon was in the hands of foreign invaders. In the central highlands was the Kingdom of Sinhale. At frequent intervals the invader would send expeditionary forces into the central highlands. The king similarly would send his armies to fight the invader and free his territory. Although by the Malvana Convention the Portuguese guaranteed to honour the customs and laws of the Sinhalese, it is generally accepted that the Portuguese administration of the Sinhalese law told heavily on the people at large who found themselves tyrannized without any hope of redress (Perera, S.G., 1932). From what is known the Portuguese invader indulged in wanton cruelty and ruthless massacre, thus provoking the people to rally round their king to form a modern army to rid themselves of the foreigner.

The Portuguese, Dutch and British armies where the most modern armies of Europe at the time. To fight the invader a modern army was raised, armed and equipped in the European manner.

2.-Recruiting and Training

The king relied on a system where by nobles who held their land by tenure of service were obliged in time of war to provide a company of soldiers recruited from their vassals. In this way, without being put to heavy expenditure through having to maintain a large force of regulars, he was able to bring a sizable Army to the battlefield. Major Johnston (1804) states :

” Each village has its chief, with several inferior officers, in proportion to its size. The chief, on receiving an order from his dessa, or lord, summons every third,fourth or fifth man, according to the nature of his instructions, and proceeds with his feudatory levies to the place  of rendezvous. Each soldier is provided with a musket ….. “.

The arts of war or Angam Saramba [ click to read combative sport of Sri Lanka- PEP Deraniyagala]were taught at Training Centres or Saramba Salawa. The Sudhaliye or Maruvalliye (Infantry or Martial Clans) were trained at the Angam Madille of the Sudhaliye Maruvalliye.

The Saramba or training, comprised of the following :-

Jumping and Acrobatics – Panum or Pinum

Wrestling and Boxing -Malla or Mallaua Pora

Single Stick –     Lee Haramba

Club Fighting–  Polu Haramba

Sword-Shield Combat– Kadu-Palis Haramba.An example of a sword dance , perhaps a training of some sort is shown below.

Fencing– Khatga Silpe

Fighting from Horseback–  Asun Haramba

Managing the Elephant –   Hasti Silpe.[ Hasti- Elephant; silpe- Skill]

Archery–   Dhanu Silpe.

Weapons and ArmsButt of Sinhala Musket.

I .Guns.The use of the Gun by the Army came after the arrival of the Portuguese i.e after 1505 A.D. The Sinhalese, however, did possess and make firearms prior to this date.According to Deraniyagala (1942),” The Sinhala gun is unique in generally possessing a bifurcated butt.  Its nearest ally appears to be the Arab gun, the locks of the two being very similar and frequently placed on the left of the barrel. It is also noteworthy that the Arab is for gun , is ‘Buniluk’ and the Sinhala ‘Bondikula‘ is a corruption of this. In view of the above and the distinctive type depicted in 16th and 17th century Sinhala frescoes, guns were understandably introduced by the Arabs and had evolved into a distinctive Sinhala type by the l6th century.This could not have been so had they been a recent Portuguese introduction “

II. Artillery.-The Sinhalese made their own cannon, Cannons were normally made of brass (Knox, 1681), but according to de Couto, at then seige of Colombo King Rajasinghe I of Kotte used at the siege Colombo one hundred and fifty pieces of bronze artillery.

III. Heavy Artillery (Kalatuwaakku.The Cannon were of one half to one pound calibre. The charge was carried in a linen cartridge case.

IV. Light Artillery (Kodituwakku).-This was called the Jingal. According to CR Sergt Callacline, ” most of them carried two stands of Arms each, and they had a curious kind of small field gun called the Gingjoll……They stood. on a small wooden frame with 3 legs and one man could carry them on his shoulder ” (Diary of CR Sergt. Calladine, 19 th Foot,1793-1835). The weapon is illustrated in the picture gallery of www. prasannaweerakkody.com.

V. Wooden Cannon. According to a Dutch Manuscript in the India Office Library (McKenzie Private Collection), the Sinhalese Army used wooden cannon. The author is not known, but from the script it would appear that he was a Dutch Officer who had a sound knowledge of the Sinhala Artillery of the Dutch Period. This Officer states :-

” To their artillery wooden cannons must also be reckoned, which they make from a hollowed out tree, strongly bound around with canes. The length of those found was from 4 to 6 feet, and their calibre 8 to 10 pounds. They load them heavily, more than half full of powder, and then with large and small iron and stone balls and pieces of iron. They do not use them in their batteries for fear of their bursting, but outside, in narrow passages near a field-work, in the hope of surprising a marching column with a full charge. Usually these cannon lie in the bushes at the side of the path, aimed along this and held in position between small stakes. They are fired by a powder-train, which begins at the touch-hole and runs for 3 or 4 feet in a wooden trough, carefully covered over. At the far end, is a burning match on a movable rod, to which a cord is fastened, this leading further into the bushes, so that by pulling this the match is made to fall on the train and so fire the piece. But if the advance-guard. and flank-patrols are careful they can often be detected, especially if the bushes ahead of the side are seen to be somewhat, trampled down, since this as a rule indicates the proximity of such a cannon or of a battery ” (Raven Hart, 1961).

VI. Rockets.-The Sinhala Army used rockets. These were six and. a half inches long and two inches in diameter. These were filled with powder and tied to round. sticks six feet long and a half an inch in diameter.

VII. Pistols.-The Pistol (Athtuaahku was used by the Army. ” The pistol is similar to the Persian rat-tail handled pistol. In the Colombo Museum is found one with a grip of buffalo-horn pierced in four places with fretwork of floral ornamentation, (Deraniyagala, P. E. P., 1942),

VIII. Muskets.-The Sinhala musket was more accurate weapon than the corresponding European weapon. It had a long barrel and all the energy used to drive the bullet. The European weapon was shorter. To attain greater ranges a heavier charge was used but since a good part of the powder flew out without burning and force was lost , it was not so effective as the long barrel.

IX. Armour.-The Sinhala soldier considered the wearing of armour a proof of fear and weakness.’..(de Queyros, 1688, Bk. 1, p.99). The golden suit of armour of the last king of Kandy is listed in the inventory of Royal Treasury items carried away by the British. The war elephants wore a coat of mail. A 17 th century fresco at Degaldoruwa temple depicts an armoured elephant. The armour of the soldier consisted of chains which were wrapped. Around the body to protect, from sword lashes. Metal neck protectors, shoulder guards and loin protectors were also worn. Shields were made of Gadumba wood, and covered with buffalo hide. The shield had an outer coating of lead which gripped the opponent’s sword and bit it. A silver shield of Levuke Dissave made in the year 1713, is found in the Maha Siva Devale.

X . Spears.-Spears were employed for thrusting as well as hurling. The hurling weapon was the Iluka or Javelin with elongated slender blade-like head and thin shaft.

XI. Daggers.-The earliest, type of dagger had an elongated blade covered with silver panels, but the later type had only the last quarter exposed.

XII. Swords.*The sword arm used was frequently the left. The science of fencing was with the foil or Boru Kaduwa. Visi Kadu or throwing swords, were also hurled at the enemy from turrets carried on elephant back. The earlier swords were straight bladed but those of a later age display Arab and Persian influence and possess curved scimitar-shaped blades.

4. Clothing

The costume of the Sinhala Kandyan dancer with the helmet, neck protectors, shoulder guards, greaves, chains across the body, loin protector and arm bracelets are modifications of the equipment of the Sinhala soldier. The Sinhala soldier did not fight bare bodied nor was he without a distinctive uniform. Pybus (1862)who led a British Embassy to the Court of Kirti Sri Rajasinghe, states : ” In this verandah were placed. twelve Men by the way of Guards dressed in long white Linen Coats, six on each side, with weapons in their hands much like a Sergeant’s Halberd. “

From illustrations in Portuguese and Dutch works about this time, we gather that the Sinhala soldier’s dress was Europeonized to a degree. In a painting in a book by the Dutchman Baldeus (1672) depicting the reception of Spilbergen by King Vimala Dharma Suriya, the king’s guards are shown wearing a helmet with vane, white jacket and kilt and carrying a sword.

The Sinhala kings of the Portuguese, Dutch and British era wore Portuguese costume, complete with hat and shoes.

5. Martial Music.

“The Ilangama, of each martial clan consisted of musicians who accompanied it on the march. The drummers are very despised, being taken out of a special sort of people (tho Cengulians too). They eat bufflars’ flesh and apes. They call them Borrowayen. They tie to their body two little sorts of drums called tamelins made like kettle drums ; others have but one of ‘em but it is bigger. They beat the pace to which the soldiers shall march, fast or slow, with a great deal of art. They beat morning and night, but differently. Their pipers play well together, one with a straight, the other with a large crooked. pipe ” (Chlistopher Scheweitzer’s Journal and Diary in Raven Hart (1968) Translation of ” Germans in Dutch Ceylon “).

6. Tent age and Rations

The soldier was issued. With a musket and carried. With him fifteen days provisions and a small cooking vessel. A leaf of the talipot tree, an extensive umbrella, served. to protect him from the heat, of the sun during the day. By placing the broad end of two leaves together they formed a tent to defend themselves against rain.

The Talipot Leaf for protection of the Sun and from the Rain. Two of them placed broad side up made a tent.

According to Johnston(1804), ” the provisions of the Candian are equally portable with his tent. Two or three cocoa-nuts, a few cakes made of the grain I have just described, and a small quantity of rice, compose the whole of the soldier’s stock for the campaign. His other wants he is certain of being always able to supply. “

7. Arms, Commanders and their Flags

1. The Commander of the Army was called Gajanayake Nilame. He was also Commander of the Royal Elephant Phalanx (Ath Panthiya). Previous to Kandyan times this chief was merely called Gajanayake or Gajanayake Mudali. His flag was the Hasti Maha Kodiya.

1.COMMANDER OF THE ARMY. The Commander of the Army  was called Gajanayake Nilame. He was also Commander of the Royal Elephant Phalanx ( Ath Pntiya) Previous to Kandyan times this chief was merely called Gajanayake or Gajanayake Mudali. is flag was called the Hasti Maha- Kodiya

2. Guards; The Commander of the Guards was Attapattuve Lekam. Attapata- Sinhalese- Attapattu, from Sanskrit hasta, ‘hand’, pratpta, ; ‘presence’;  hence ‘ready at hand’ Attapattuva was originally the title of King’s body-guard.

” On the bastion of Sao Sebastio the attack was greater because it was taken in hand by the Captain of the Attapata(Attapattu) or King’s guard, with all the troops under his Command, who were picked from Raju’s ( King RajasingheI- AD 1581-1592) banners”  ( CoutoThe flag of the attapattu Lekam was the davunde Kodiya[ Drum Flag]

3.Cavalry (As Pantiya). The Commander of the Cavalry or Royal Horse, was the Aspantiya Lekam Mahatmaya. He bore the Flag  of the Aspantiya Muhandiram.

Artillery-Heavy (Kalatuuakhu). The Commander of the Heavy Artillery was the Bondikula Lekam Mahataya. This Arm was created by Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe.

Artillery-Light (Koddtuvakku). The Commander of the Light Artillery was called Kodituwakku Nilame. His Flag was the Kodituwakku Sti kodiya( The flag having a Jingal or small cannon).

Musketeers(Wedikara). The Commander of the Musketeers was the Wedikara Lekam. His flag was the Ratu Pata Kodiya ( Red Silk Banner).

Sharpshooters(Wadanatuvakku-kara) The Commander of the Wadanatuvakku-kara Lekam.His flag was the Sudu Pata Kodiya( White  Silk Banner).

Archers (Dhanukara),This arm was created by King Kirti Sri. His Commander was called

Infantry (Sudhaliye-Maruvalliye) The Commander of the Dhanukara Lekam Mahataya.

Ordnance ( Awudage) The Commander of the Ordance was called Awudage Waddaku Nilame.

Signals & Courier (Panavidakara).The Commander of the Signals & Courier Paidakara( Panavidakara) Lekam.

” the duties of these Lekams were laterly nearly the same carrying messages and the conveying of King’s orders to the people who were chiefly with in the mountains”( Codrington).His flag was the Ratu Pata Kodiya ( Red Silk Banner).

Trumpeters & Drummers (Thambowa Purampettukara Muhandiram Nilame was the . The Commander of the Trumpeters & Drummers.

Fighting Men.

Ribeiro in his Fatalida De Histories written in 1685, describing the Sinhala Army states;-

” Amoung their fighting men are also men of the low cast. The Carias are fisherman, the Mainatos,  washers and the Pachas, Sandal makers. Also these have brave Generals and Captains, but are serving in one army…….. Modelias, Appuames, Adigars and other great folk amoung them wear a shirt and doublet. The fighting men alone use arms;they carry swords of two and half spans which they call calachurros; the soldiers  are lascarins, some are pikemen and their weapons eighteen spans long; others are espinggerdeiros and are skilled in firing; others  use bows which they can shoot accurately. Some carry muskets with a barrel of eight palms and weighing forty pounds from which they shoot a ball of four ounces”.

Jurgen Anderson , a Swedish sergeant under the Dutch in Ceylonin1669 states that a Sinhala Soldiers ” are virile and dextrous and therefore held to be the best Soldiers in the whole of India as indeed the Hollanders have tested and proved , not without great damage tom themselves”.


9. Composition of the Army.

The Army included Men of War, Workers and camp followers, War Elephants, draught-oxens, Smiths, Carpenters and Gunners. At the siege of Colombo by Rajasinghe I( 1587-1588) the Sinhalese  Army was composed of;-

50,000 Men of War                                                 150 Pieces of Bronze Artillery -Large and Small.

60,000 Workmen and Camp-followers           10,000 Axes.

40 Smiths                                                                    3,000 Crowbars

1000 Carpenters                                                      20,000 Bill-Hooks

499 Gunners                                                          2,000 Picks

2,200 Elephants                                                  6,000 Hoes

40,000 Draught Oxens

A large quantity of spare arms were carried together with Sulpher,  Saltpetres and Gunpowder, with Lead and Shot. Sixty five  Tustas and Caturas( naval vessels) together with 400 small boats were also listed as having been used. De Couto also mentions the carrying of large quantities of timber were used to make  Cars resembling Castles each of nine wheels and others height of a man.

10. The Army in the Field  –To give an idea of what the Sinhala army in the field was , and the type of battle it fought, where possible, a few descriptive  accounts have been selected for inclusion. Tactics and Strategy are dealt with in outline only.

1. Watches- The Kingdom of Sinhale was surrounded by dense forest and rugged  mountains. Great care was taken to protect against surprise. Sentries were posted at all entrances( large and small) and they were hidden on tall trees, rocks or heights. This sentry system was designed  to give early warning of the approach of the enemy. This system of watches was complete even to such details as passports. The passport was a print of a seal in clay. It was issued at the court and allowed free passage through the watches. The Seals were different according to the professions of the person to whom it was issued. The soldier’s passport had a print of a man with a Pike on his soldiers. The laborers passport  carried a man with two bags hanging at each end of a pole upon his shoulders., while the White mans  passport was a print of a Man with a hat on his head and a sword by his side( Knox).

II, Field Works.To hinder the progress of a marching forces there were stockades and batteries sited on all approaches. “The Sinhalese normally set their stockades or Batteries  on the curve  of the path, whether on flat ground or where it leads up a hill, or where the path runs besides a water course, so as to surprise an advancing detachment   with a great Salvo” (‘ War with the Sinhalese” Translated by Raven Hart (1961)

III. Tactics against a camp or Post. TO MASTER THE SURROUNDING COUNTRY THEY SENT ROVING BANDS TO RAVAGE THE NEIGHBORING COUNTRYSIDE. THEY WOULD BLOCK THE APPROACHES AND  attack the camp from various directions to  divide it self.The attack by night was meant to alarm and deny the enemy of rest, whilst the main assault was made by day.

IV. Tactics against a Garrison-The Sinhalese paid great importance to high ground and if one  has not been foresighted enough to provide the nearest height to a position with sufficient out posts , they will at once try to set up batteries there”.( Ravan hart,1961).

At the siege of Negumbo they set up a strong line of entrenchments extending for an hour from the sea shore in a zig zag form and blockaded the Fort. In the captured entrenchments were found a sort of wicker basket shield Ten feet by three feet behind cover of which they advanced close to the fort.

They also use fascines of straw behind which to advance. They lay behind these to fire, and pushed them forwar as they advanced. The fascines  were tough enough to stop a Musket Ball. It was made of tightly twisted ropes of straw, wound over to form a screen.

Ribeiro (1658) in his Fatalida Historica gives a descriptive account of the capture by the Sinhalese of a Portuguese Fortress:-

” On the 3rd of January , 1644, the enemy’s ships reached Negumbo. The enemy advanced in 7 squadrons of 600 each, all in ine line and 30 paces from each other. The enemy, after two volleys fell on us vigorously that everyone who was not hit by he balls trusted to the speed of legs. Don Antonio Mascarenhas and the Captain Major of the field, seeing every thing was lost, threw then selves amoung the enemy with few followers and sold the lives dearly. The enemy , continuing on their course with the same rapidity reached the fortress which they at once entered.” ( Date 9 th Jan 1644).

In attacking a large and well defended Fort, however , their tactics were different. The Sinhalese normally entrenched them selves, and used Artillery to bombard the fort. It is on record that Rajasinghe I used mines during the great siege91587-1588. An extract from a descriptive account of this siege will illustrate the tactics used.

” Rajasinghe now resumed  the work of draining the lake….. Having drained the lake dry, he brought the approaches with in paces of the city walls and entrenched himself with stakes, revetments, fort-lets, and trenches while his Artillery kept up a continuance ire on the city. The three bastions on the land side were repeatedly and desperately attacked and mined but gallantly and successfully defended” ( SG Perera 1932).

V. Tactics against an Enemy in open country.In attacking a large enemy force in open country they would surround the enemy, and then open up with heavy Artillery.

” At dawn the General learnt that the Balane road was occupied and that it was impossible to withdraw. The enemy soon appeared on our flanks under cover of the forest and opened such heavy fire that few escaped being killed. Their numbers was overwhelming and our men were soon  utterly defeated and put to the sword. The route was complete” The Battle of Gannoruwa fought on 23 and 24 March 1638: Ribeiro 1658″. Sunday Observer 1 April 2012- S.B .Karaliadde.

If the enemy force was retreating, they would follow from the rear and flanks. In  defile and difficult passage they would assault the rear guard.” In defiles they are very skilled in making the best use of nearby heights so as to be able to fire on the flanks of a detachment traversing it, while at the same time keeping up a heavy fire on the rear guard and pressing closely on this as they can”( Ravan Hart,1961).

Capt MSC de Silva


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