The Nayaks of Kandy ruled over the Kingdom of Kandy in present-day Sri Lanka for over 85 years. This began in 1739 and ended in 1815. In terms of the broader context of history, this is a relatively short reign. However, if we look at it closely enough, we can see that their time presiding over Kandy was significant in terms of social development.
The genesis of the dynasty is pretty unique. They did not come into power through outright conquest or diplomacy. Instead, they inherited power in an unusual fashion. Prior to the Nayaks of Kandy, the region was ruled by the Kandy Mahanuwara dynasty. In 1739, their final king, Vira Narendra Sinha, died without leaving any heirs. Although he had a son, this was from a second marriage, and it was not permissible for him to inherit the throne. Instead, the power passed to the brother of Sinha’s wife, who was named Sri Vijaya Rajasinha. He was the first of the Nayak’s to rule over Kandy. He was related to the Madurai Nayak dynasty and Thanjavur Nayaks as well. The Nayaks of Kandy were Hindus of Telugu origin, spoke Tamil or Telugu, and used both Tamil and Sinhala as their court languages.
Sri Vijaya Rajasinha showed early signs of what was to come. Despite being a Hindu, he encouraged participation in and practicing both Hinduism and Buddhism. This may have been in an effort to strengthen local religious fervor against the foreign colonial Christianisation brought by Portuguese traders. Indeed, much of his reign was spent resisting foreign influence. Although, in retrospect, this may seem like the behavior of an aggressor, an objective view might show that it was actually the Portuguese who were the aggressors, and Rajasinha was merely protecting the interests of his own people.
The regions and kingdoms of Sri Lanka were often turbulent in the 18th century due to local political and social differences. Rajasinha did his best to placate others, offering positions of importance to other Sinhalese. Although the success of this policy was variable and sometimes negligible, it shows a genuine desire to keep the peace in what was an unstable period.
Similar to his predecessor, Sri Vijaya Rajasinha died without having any kids. In the absence of an heir, he repeated the policy of electing his eldest brother-in-law to succeed him. His brother-in-law was named Kirti Sri Rajasinha and took the throne in 1751. Largely, he continued the policy of religious tolerance, choosing policies friendly towards the advancement of Buddhism instead of religious repression. This is shown in his renovation of various Buddhist temples. He is also well-known for the revival of literature in Kandy, striving to improve local culture.
Perhaps the most challenging part of Sri Vijaya Rajasinha’s reign was his relationships with the Dutch. Keeping balanced between a defensive mindset and a willingness to trade was a constant battle. He did manage to negotiate this reasonably competently. Whilst there were some conflicts with the colonizers, it never boiled over into a full-scale war, nor did it result in a considerable loss of territory or autonomy. Sri Vijaya Rajasinha was eventually killed when he fell off his horse. The fact that this dismayed much of the populace is a testament to his contributions to society during his reign.
Following his death, his brother ascended to the throne in 1782. His name was Sri Rajadhi Raja Singha. He shared the literary passion of his brother and is even said to have been a practicing poet himself. He was also known as a man of culture and was able to speak many languages, including Tamil, Telugu, and Sinhalese. This undoubtedly allowed him to navigate the complex political landscape of the time, despite being only 18. He did not preside over Kandy for very long and died in 1798. The pattern of childless monarchs continued as he died without an heir.
A new heir had to be chosen by the Prime Minister of the time. He chose Sri Vikrama Rajasinha as the successor, who was Sri Rajadhi Raja Singha’s nephew. He immediately took the throne in 1798. Like his predecessor, he was just 18 years old. Like others in the dynasty, he was a Hindu who encouraged the growth of both Hinduism and Buddhism to ensure religious harmony in the region. However, by this time, other forces were at work against his government. No longer concerned with internal Sinhalese politics or relations with the Dutch, a greater threat was on the horizon. The British Empire was now taking an interest in the governance of Sri Lanka.
While Sri Vikrama Rajasinha did manage some notable achievements, including some architectural development of Kandy itself, he will largely be known as the king who ceded Kandy to the British. This may have been inevitable for any king of the time and is unlikely to have anything to do with the individual himself.
Sri Vikrama Rajasinha brutally put down a rebellion led by his nephew, who was also Prime Minister at the time. The severity of this action gave the British an excuse for seizing control. They did this under the guise of saving Sri Lanka and Kandy from the king’s tyranny. After a short invasion, the king was captured by the British. He later signed what is known as the Kandyan Convention, which was essentially a surrender of Kandy to the British. It meant that Sri Lanka became a colony of Britain, and Sri Vikrama Rajasinha was exiled in Vellore. It brought an end to 85 years of Nayak rule in Kandy and over 2000 years of Sinhalese control of the region.
The Nayak dynasty of Kandy was perhaps always doomed to collapse in the face of imperial behemoths. Nevertheless, their contribution to their subjects during their rule cannot be understated. Most notably, the 85 years of control to a revival of Buddhism and incredible religious tolerance. Essentially, it was a peaceful time despite a turbulent political climate. Areas such as literature and culture were also advanced during this time. Aside from its inevitable capitulation, the Nayaks can be looked upon with a degree of respect for their influences on the kingdom.