The story of Gajaman Nona – Sri Lanka’s famous poetess whose beauty and prose were legendary

Gajaman Nona stands tall as Sri Lanka’s best known poetess who left in indelible mark on the island’s literary landscape – and in the heart of Sir John D’Oyly, the well known British administrator who was associated with the Kandyan Convention

Nonagama deep in the south of the island, is said to be D’Oyly’s gift to her, when she requested him as the Government Agent for Matara – via a 14 verse poem – for assistance. She had been widowed twice at the time with three children to support. In D’Oyly, she is said to have found a sympathetic ear to her lot of life and also a streak of romance.

Gajaman Nona, originally named Donna Isabella Koraneliya, was born 1746 in Kollupitiya, Ceylon. She was baptized at St. Paul’s Church in Milagiriya, Bambalapitiya, and had been known from an early age for her stunning beauty. 

Her family, led by Don Francisco Senarathna Kumara Perumal and Francina Jasenthu Graivo, played a pivotal role in nurturing her upbringing. Their commitment to Rājākariya, a form of feudal service, eventually led the family to Kahawatta in Beliatta. It was within this close-knit familial circle that she received her initial education, imbibing a unique blend of cultural influences, including the Portuguese, whose presence had left an indelible mark on the island nation. This diverse cultural backdrop would go on to influence her life and work in profound ways.

Gajaman Nona the poetess

The story of Gajaman Nona

Gajaman Nona’s prodigious literary talents were discovered at a young age, capturing the admiration of her community. Her family’s partial Westernization, influenced by the Dutch, set her apart as a young woman of remarkable individuality, reflected in her distinctive clothing and style.

One of the earliest glimpses of her poetic prowess can be traced to a poignant Sinhala poem she composed when her water pot mysteriously disappeared. In this simple yet eloquent piece, she poured her emotions of frustration and longing, revealing her innate gift for poetic expression. This heartfelt poem remains an enduring testament to her early brilliance

The poetic journey – Gajaman Nona

As Gajaman Nona matured, her literary talents flourished in tandem. She quickly earned the honorific name “Gajaman Nona,” signifying her elevated status as a lady of immense promise. Her journey led her to compose a plethora of poems and verses that showcased her mastery of the Sinhala language.

Her poetic themes spanned the spectrum, from love and beauty to profound social commentary and satire. Fearlessly, she addressed controversial topics and challenged societal norms through her work, using her poetry as a mirror reflecting the complexities of her time.

Legacy and Commemoration

Today, Gajaman Nona’s legacy stands as an enduring testament to her profound impact on Sinhalese literature. A statue erected in her honor in Ambalantota serves as a constant reminder of her contributions to the cultural tapestry of Sri Lanka. Nonagama Junction, aptly named after this enigmatic poetess, stands as a symbolic intersection of culture and history.

Emerging as an independent woman

Gajaman Nona was best known for her fearless streak of independence that saw her challenge and overcome the pettiness the society at the time threw at her. Twice widowed, struggling to bring up her children without economic support, she had to teach young girls from well-to-do families for an income.

In the face of her beauty and her widowhood, there were many men who came forward to help her with ulterior motives but she did not give in and did not allow the pressure to get to her. She did have a close relationship with Elapatha Mudali, an admirer who enjoyed poetry with the same dedication as she did.

But her greatest legacy came with Sir John D’Oyly the much admired British administrator who learnt and spoke fluent Sinhala with the same tutor as her – Ven. Karathota Thero, an erudite Buddhist monk in the South who taught Sinhala.

Gajaman Nona and Sir John exchanged poetry and were very comfortable in each other’s company – although this set the tongues wagging at a time when gender roles were strictly observed. But Gajaman Nona was ahead of her time and did not care much for the gossip.

It is said that Sir John had the poetry she wrote to him translated into English and sent to his mother in Britain.

The legacy of Sri Lanka’s pioneer poetess who feared nothing but expressed herself and her eloquence in verse, lives on in the island.

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