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The Devil Dancers: History Comes Alive


A Tangled Web: the abbot, the widow, the assassin and the Prime Minister

Among the book's historical characters, three have particular significance, namely: Prime Minister Bandaranaike; Buddharakkita Thera, abbot of Kelaniya; and Cabinet Minister Vimala Wijewardene. However, the latter two - particularly Buddharakkita - have practically disappeared from the pages of history although they played an important part in the period covered by this book. It is probably no co-incidence that both were arrested in connection with the assassination of Mr Bandaranaike, although charges against Mrs Wijewardene were subsequently dropped.

It is by chance that I stumbled across the character of Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera; his name having been mentioned - almost as an aside - in a textbook. I started digging and unearthed some fascinating facts about this extraordinary man whose influence on politics was equivalent to that of a medieval king-maker. Information about Buddharakkita's political involvement, his greed for power and need for money emerged largely from court proceedings in which he was involved, including his appeal against the death sentence for the murder of his erstwhile protégé, Mr Bandaranaike.


The assassin: Talduwe Somarama Thera

Talduwe Somarama Thera was a Buddhist monk and an ayurvedic physician. He acquired his post at the Hospital for Indigenous Medicine some time after Mr Bandaranaike's election, possibly due to the direct intervention of Buddharakkita who is recorded as having "interested himself in the appointment".

At the end of 1958, Somarama Thera's appointment came up for renewal. This was, no doubt, the bait used by Buddharakkita to recruit him as an assassin. But was this a sufficient inducement to commit murder? There is little to give an insight into Somarama Thera's personality except what he told the Magistrate in a statement (later retracted) following the assassination of Mr Bandaranaike. However this, together with other evidence, indicates a man whose political and religious convictions bordered on zealotry.

Like many others with similar beliefs, Somarama expected great things from the new Prime Minister. Like them, he was disappointed. He was obviously sympathetic to Buddharakkita's argument that "there is no future for the Sinhalese or the language if things go on like this." The only solution to this problem, according to the abbot, was the assassination of Prime Minister Bandaranaike. Interestingly, Somarama presented no moral objection to this proposal, only a practical one. Who would look after his temple and pupils? Having had his qualms dismissed by the abbot, Somarama Thera meekly agreed to perform the task in the belief that the interests of "my country and my religion and race" justified the murder of "a man who had done me no wrong".

Somarama was given some cursory training for the task by his fellow conspirators. Having been presented with an enormous revolver which he described as being "about a foot long", the short-sighted monk was driven into the countryside and told to practice. His target? Kaduru fruit growing on roadside trees.

On the day of the assassination, the monk took a medicine "to make myself brave". This may have been an ayurvedic potion but a comment in the Court proceedings indicates that it may have been something else. At some stage in his life, it appears that Somarama had been an opium addict.


Widow Wijewardene: the abbot's consort?

Rumour, propaganda and surmise have obscured the true nature of Vimala Wijewardene's relationship to Buddharakkita Thera. However, a number of facts can be stated with certainty.

At sixteen, Vimala married into a wealthy, influential family whose members were devout Buddhists and supporters of a Sinhalese nation. The generosity of her mother-in-law, Helena, had restored the ancient monastery of Kelaniya and ensured its continuing prosperity. Her husband, Don Charles, was a polemicist who wrote a tract entitled ‘Revolt in the Temple' which supported the active role played by monks in affairs of state. It was also Don Charles who introduced a 19-year old monk, Buddharakkita Thera, into the Wijewardene household.


Abbot Buddharakkita Thera: a medieval kingmaker in a modern state

It seems clear that Buddharakkita was the ring-leader of the conspiracy to assassinate Mr Bandaranaike, the man who, only three years earlier, he had helped to power. A vivid picture of the abbot's forceful nature, his involvement in politics and business and his extraordinary lifestyle emerges from the court records of his appeal against the death sentence.

For instance, it appears that he treated Vimala Wijewardene's house as a second home where he spent much of his time socialising and conducting his business deals. It was the scene of some remarkable behaviour. For instance, Buddhist monks normally take their last meal of the day before mid-day, fasting until the following morning. However, at Mrs Wijewardene's house, the abbot is recorded as having had no regular hour for his forenoon meal. Sometimes he ate much later, also eating solid food at night. He took his meal with women, behaving like any other layman and foregoing the marks of respect due to a monk such as a white cloth laid over his chair and the customary salutation.

Even more extraordinary was his active involvement in politics and business. He sponsored a number of political candidates - including Mrs Wijewardene - and mobilised thousands of monks to campaign in rural areas for Mr Bandaranaike's election. However, it seems clear that these expensive pursuits were driving him into debt. This, no doubt, accounts for his business deals and his attempt to get direct control of a bequest to his abbey, left by Vimala's mother-in-law. Mr Bandaranaike's refusal to grant a rice-shipping contract to a business in which Buddharakkita had a substantial interest was to prove fatal both to the Prime Minister and the abbot's career.

In a confession which he later retracted Somarama Thera, the Prime Minister's assassin, recalled a chilling conversation with the abbot. "Buddharakkita told me that several lakhs of money is being lost at the harbour and there is no future for the Sinhalese or the language if things go on like this. Let us therefore destroy the Prime Minister."

Trial proceedings reveal that Buddharakkita was the prime-mover in the plot to kill Mr Bandaranaike. He not only recruited Somarama Thera, a Buddhist monk and ayurvedic practitioner, to carry out the killing but he also provided him with a gun. However, unlike Somarama who was hanged for his crime, Buddharakkita succeeded in getting his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. He died in jail in 1967.

On two occasions, Buddharakkita sponsored Vimala's attempts to become a Member of Parliament (although he also financed other candidates). On the second occasion, she was successful and, soon after Mr Bandaranaike came to power, she was also appointed to a position in his Cabinet: no doubt, in recognition of Buddharakkita's considerable contribution to the Prime Minister's electoral success.

Trial records show that the abbot was not only a frequent visitor to Vimala's house but that, on certain occasions, he stayed overnight. However, it is questionable whether or not this was indicative of an affair. The Appeal Court neatly side-stepped this issue by referring merely to the abbot's "unorthodox behaviour ... at the house of Mrs Vimala Wijewardene." Indeed, when anonymous pamphlets made scurrilous accusations concerning the nature of Vimala's relationship to the abbot, she is reported to have been extremely upset. Having asked the Prime Minister to remedy the situation, she was infuriated by his reluctance to act.

What is beyond dispute is her close political alliance with Buddharakkita Thera and her growing antipathy to Mr Bandaranaike. This alone was sufficient to impugn her after the Prime Minister's assassination. Although the charges against her were subsequently dropped, Mrs Wijewardene was, initially, one of seven suspects accused of complicity in the plot to kill Mr Bandaranaike