Blessed Joseph Vaz: Part 14 – Smallpox Epidemic in Kandy


Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A bit of history of the Kingdom of Kotte

The identity of the ruler in power in Kotte at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese has been a matter of dispute for some time. The accepted theory, propounded by historians S.G. Perera and H.W. Codrington was that the ruler of Kotte at the turn of the 16th century was Veera Parakramabahu VIII.

In 1961, Senerat Paranavitana using evidence from the Rajavaliya, the 17th-century Sinhala historical chronicle of Sri Lanka, and evidence from Portuguese sources made a strong argument that the ruler was not Veera Parakramabahu VIII but Dharma Parakramabahu IX and he fixed his reign from 1491 to 1513.

G.P.V. Somaratne in his 1975 monograph accepted this conclusion though he concluded that Dharma Parakramabahu IX ruled from 1489 to 1513. Most scholars have accepted this theory.Somaratne in his 1975 monograph accepted this conclusion though he concluded that Dharma Parakramabahu IX ruled from 1489 to 1513. Most scholars have accepted this theory.

King Veera Parakramaahbu VIII, also known as Ambulagala Kumara, became King of Kotte after killing King Parakramabahu VII. He had two queens. The chief queen bore him three sons: Bhuvanekabahu, Sri Rajasinghe, and Vijayabahu. The second queen bore him two sons: Sakakala Valla and Taniyavalla.

After the death of Veera Parakrama Bahu VIII, his eldest son Bhuvanekabahu became King of Kotte, under the name “Dharma Parakramabahu IX”. He ruled the Kingdom of Kotte from 1489/81 to 1513.

In 1513, when King Dharma Parakramabahu IX died, the people of Kotte wanted his half brother, Sakalakala Valla, then reigning as sub-king at Udagampola, to become their king. However, according to the Rajavaliya, Sakalakala Valla, the half-brother crowned Vijaya Bahu VII as King of Kotte since his older brother Sri Rajasinghe had died.

Vijayabahu had two wives. The first was Anula Kahatuda, also known as Keerawelle Mahabiso Bandara, who Vijayabahu had cohabited along with his older brother Sri Rajasinghe. Through this incestal intercourse, three sons were born: Pararajasinghe later known as Raigama Bandara, Bhuvanekabahu and Mayadunne. Sri Rajasinghe later died at Menikkadawara.incestal intercourse, three sons were born: Pararajasinghe later known as Raigama Bandara, Bhuvanekabahu and Mayadunne. Sri Rajasinghe later died at Menikkadawara.

After Anula Kahatuda died, King Vijayabahu married another princess from the Keerawelle royal family called “Biso Bandara” who had a son named Devarajasinghe from her previous marriage. When Sakakalavalla died, this queen wanted her son to be made the sub-king of Udugampola though he was still seven years old. The king was excessively fond of his new queen, so much so, when she persuaded the King to make her son the king after his demise, the King planned to murder his three sons to fulfil her wish.

Vijayabahu then plotted with Ekanayake Mudaliyar and Kandure Bandara to kill his three grown up  sons. When the sons came to know that their father planned to kill them, the fled the kingdom and sought safety in Kandy. King Jaya Vira II of Kandy, married to their cousin, provided them army to fight their father.

Vijayabahu then plotted with Ekanayake Mudaliyar and Kandure Bandara to kill his three grown up sons. When the sons came to know that their father planned to kill them, the fled the kingdom and sought safety in Kandy. King Jaya Vira II of Kandy, married to their cousin, provided them army to fight their father.

In 1521, the three brothers led their army to Kotte and ransacked the palace while their father, Vijayabahu, hid with his wives in the highest point of the palace. It was decided that the king should die, but no Sinhalese came forward to do the task of killing him. Eventually, a Muslim man named Salman killed King Vijayabahu VII.

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Map showing geopolitical situation in Sri Lanka in the early part of 16th century after the 'Spoiling of Vijayabahu' in 1521. (Source: Nishadhi/Wikimedia Commons)
Map showing geopolitical situation in Sri Lanka in the early part of 16th century after the ‘Spoiling of Vijayabahu’ in 1521. (Source: Nishadhi/Wikimedia Commons)

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As advised by the great minister Illangakon the kingdom was divided into three parts. Mayadunne, the youngest, received Sitawaka, Denawaka, and Four Korales as the Kingdom of Sitawaka. Pararajasinghe received Raigama, Walallawiti, and Pasyodun Korale excluding the sea ports as the Principality of Raigama. From then on he was known as Raigama Bandara. Mayadunne, the youngest, received Sitawaka, Denawaka, and Four Korales as the Kingdom of Sitawaka. Pararajasinghe received Raigama, Walallawiti, and Pasyodun Korale excluding the sea ports as the Principality of Raigama. From then on he was known as Raigama Bandara. Bhuvanekabahu ruled the rest of the territory as King Bhuvanekabahu VII.

When Raigama Bandara died in 1538, Mayadunne seized his kingdom. He became a sworn enemy of his eldest brother Bhuvanekabahu.

Saint Francis Xavier and the plague in Mannar
St. Francis Xavier
St. Francis Xavier

In mid 16th century, Saint Francis Xavier the Delegate of the Pope in the East. In a letter he wrote from Cochin addressed to King John III, King of Portugal, dated January 20, 1548, he mentions:

“As to the state of religion and the Christian people in India, the pious and religious men who are going from these parts to you, with the purpose of advancing the service of God, will most fully inform your Highness concerning them. Moreover, Father Joam de Villa Conde, a faithful minister of God, who has had much experience of what is going on in the island of Ceylon, is writing to your Highness concerning them certain things which it is of importance that he should tell you, and that you should know…”

Father Joam de Villa Conde had complained bitterly that the 80-year-old King Bhuvanekabahu VII was placing all possible obstacles to the progress of Catholicism in his Kingdom of Kotte. So, Francis Xavier decided to visit Ceylon and meet with the aged king.

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St. Francis Xavier (Source - catholictradition.org)
St. Francis Xavier (Source – catholictradition.org)

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In early February 1548, Francis Xavier chartered a small vessel from Manapad to Jaffnapattinam. He first landed at Mannar, where he prostrated himself on the ground and kissed the earth.

The plague was raging on the Island and people were dying at a rate of more than a hundred a day. Older writers often gave the generic name “plague” to all epidemics including smallpox.

As soon as the people knew that the ‘Great Father’ had come to Mannar, they came running to him, weeping and begging him to deliver them from the plague. Most of them were Hindus. The priest told them to wait three days. He retired to a quiet place and started praying. After three days, the plague disappeared miraculously and the sick recovered.plague disappeared miraculously and the sick recovered.

Considering the event as a miracle, many asked Francis Xavier to baptize them, and he acceded to their request. He then asked a priest of the Franciscan order from Jaffnapattinam to take charge of the neophytes.

From Mannar, the saint went to Jaffnapattinam to see King Sagara Raja of Jaffna. The King received the saint kindly.

In Jaffnapattinam, Francis Xavier boarded a ship sailing to Galle. The day after reaching Galle, he left for Colombo.

Saint Francis Xavier meets  King Bhuvanekabahu VII

From Colombo, Francis Xavier left for Kotte to pay his respects to the aged King Bhuvanekabahu VII.

King Bhuvanekabahu VII was a weak king. During his reign, his younger brother Mayadunne, along with his son Prince Tikiri Bandara (later King Rajasinghe I), fought the Portuguese incessantly hoping to drive them out of Ceylon. They also attempted to get rid of Bhuvanekabahu and annex the Kingdom of Kotte. This resulted in Bhuvanekabahu allying with the Portuguese since he required their power to defend himself against his younger brother and his son.

Though he was their ally, Bhuvanekabahu was vehemently against the Portuguese, when it came to the spread of the Christian religion in his kingdom..

When Francis Xavier appeared at his Court, the crafty old King understood from the very first that he had to deal with a man could not be easily deceived.

When Francis Xavier discussed the conversion of his religion the King spoke openly with the saint.

A Jesuit priest, Father Fernão de Queiroz, in his bulky manuscript “Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon” has described the conversation between them. The King said:

“I understand father that your religion is the only true one. All others have so much errors and is clear to anyone. I know fully well that continuing the path that I follow I can end only in hell. It is true that my father and my ancestors died pagans. But I see that the religion of Buddum contains errors as intolerable as they are incompatible with reason. I have come to understand that the penitence of the Christians is the true remedy for sins. Though I know the truth Christ, on account of the place which I hold, I am unable to receive Baptism at once, for the least suspicion that they should have of me in this regard would be enough to ruin the whole of my realm. I beg you to patronize cause in front of the Governor of India, that he may come to my assistance more readily and give me 100 soldiers to protect my person, lest my adversaries prevail against me as well as against the prospects of the total conversion of my lieges”.

King Bhuvanekabahu VII was reluctant to become a Catholic since he did not want to incur the wrath of his subjects who were mostly Buddhist. Also, he did not want to be portrayed as a puppet of the Portuguese. Finally, the Portuguese gave up their effort to baptize the King.

Epidemic of Small Pox in Mahanuwara

The mummy of the Egyptian Pharoah Ramses V indicates that more than 3000 years ago, around 1145 BC, the Pharoah, after contracting smallpox succumbed to the disease. It has been speculated that Egyptian traders brought smallpox to India during the 1st millennium BC, where it remained as an endemic human disease for at least 2000 years.

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Picture of Shitala Devi, the goddess of sores, ghouls, pustules and diseases. From 3rd quarter of 19th century.
Picture of Shitala Devi, the goddess of sores, ghouls, pustules and diseases. From 3rd quarter of 19th century.

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The Hindus worship the deity controlling evil spirits, sores, pustules, measles, chickenpox and the dreaded smallpox, as the goddess Sitala Mata in North India and as the goddess Mariamman (also known as Amman) in South India and Sri Lanka.

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Statue of Sri Mariamman in Singapore (Source: Joda Entertainment / panoramio.com)
Statue of Sri Mariamman in Singapore (Source: Joda Entertainment / panoramio.com)

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In South India and Sri Lanka, measles, chickenpox and the dreaded smallpox, are collectively known as “ammai” meaning “mother”. Smallpox is known as “peria ammai” (“big ammai“) and chickenpox is called “chinna ammai” (“small ammai“). Smallpox is more virulent than chicken pox. These diseases are traditionally believed to be ‘visitations’ caused by the wrath of the goddess, and people take measures to pacify the deity. People believed that one should not seek or take any medicine or treatment, and only poojas should be offered to the goddess.

A young girl infected with smallpox (Source: CDC/James Hicks)
A young girl infected with smallpox (Source: CDC/James Hicks)

Towards the middle of 1697 smallpox ravaged Mahanuwara, the Capital of the Kingdom of Kandy. As soon as a person showed signs of being infected, that person was abandoned by the whole family and left alone somewhere to die of starvation. Often the afflicted was left in the jungle, to be devoured by jackals and other wild animals. The dead were not buried, but flung away into some ravine.

The epidemic spread rapidly.

King Vimaladharmasurya II, the nobles, and all the wealthy people left the capital and sought refuge in the country. The poor fled to the surrounding hills and lived in huts made of branches and foliage.

The abandoned houses of the city sheltered only those stricken by the plague, left to their doom by their kith and kin. Heaps of corpses littered the streets, with dogs, jackals and crows feasting on them.

Joseph Vaz and his nephew Joseph Carvalho refused to leave the city. Day and night they attended to the needs of all, irrespective of whether they were Catholics or not. They went house to house and performed the most menial services. They sought out those abandoned in the jungle and built them shelters of foliage.

They administered the Sacraments to the Catholics and opened the doors of the Catholic Faith to the others. They converted many in their last stages of life to Christianity. They baptized many dying children. When the pestilence gained ground, the two priests selected four abandoned houses near the church and converted them into a hospital.

The Catholics of Colombo sent them alms that helped them provide the necessities for the afflicted.

After saying Mass before sunrise, they prepared food and carried it to their patients. They did the cooking because Joseph Vaz had sent John, his faithful companion, to Goa with letters to the Archbishop and to the Superior of the Oratory.

Whatever time they did not spend in their hospital, was used by the two priests to bury the dead. More often they carried the corpses on their shoulders to their last resting place. There was an average of ten to twelve funerals a day. When possible they buried the Christians with the religious pomp they could afford in such circumstances. After consigning the dead Catholics to their graves, they buried the others.

The non-Catholics admired the charity and self-denial of the two Catholic priests.

The pestilence lasted for almost a year. After the disease had ceased, those inhabitants who had left the capital, returned to their homes along with their King.

King Vimaladharmasurya II spoke highly of the two priests before his courtiers. He had decided to reward the two priests, but was much astonished when his officials told him, that the two priests would not accept any money or wanted any high post in his court.

The King more than once declared in public that if it were not for the charity of the two priests, not a living soul would have survived the epidemic in the Capital of the Kingdom of Kandy.

Saint Francis Xavier is said to have ended the plague in Mannar in three days resorting to the miracle of prayer. But, Father Joseph Vaz and Father Joseph Carvalho served humanity by toiling almost a year among the diseased and the dying.

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Next → Part 15 – Six more Missionaries Come from India

← Previous: Part 13 – Missionaries Arrive from Goa

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