Originally Posted by Jim McDougall
It seems that the kasthane, or its prototypes, was at one time a battle sword long before it became a symbolic badge of rank or office. It would seem that less lavishly decorated examples may have existed contemporarily which were used as combat weapons, much as was typically the case with military officers using fighting rather than dress swords
A sword used by King Rajasinghe III at the battle of Gannowruwa in 1638 (now held at Dodanvela Devale) had a hilt with beast pommel and simple upturned knuckleguard with single downturned quillon, no sideguard or langet.
The sword of Bhuvanakabuhu I of Yapuhuva of 13th c. (r.1272-1284)?
was apparently with a lionhead but no further details yet found.
I think it may be helpful to add some of the nomenclature pertaining to the hilt features of the kasthane:
A : Gediya, pommel
B: Mitta or hilt often known as 'sinha manu mitta' (=lion faced hilt)
C: Ath vasma or ath hade= knuckleguard
D: Vari sarkuva-quillons also known as serependiya mana as they
are generally formed of serependiya heads.
E: Alluva....side plates
F: Kadu patha , isa -blade
G: Peeli -grooves along the blade
Source: Deraniyagala (1942, p.113)
It would appear as is often the case that the battle sword was of loosely the same form however understandably considerably more austere. In Deraniyagala it is noted that "...the development of the ceremonial sword of rank soon unfitted it for fighting purposes as the elaborate crest of the lion headed hit comes into contact with the heel of the users hand or wrist, while it is also significant that swords so ornamented generally appear to be too small for war, unlike the larger ones which have no such crests. The latter swords also possess as many as four quillons" (op.cit. p.113) .
While the projection on the guard extending as a langet (termed alluva or side plate) takes a more vestigial presence in the elaborate kasthane of rank, it serves well as the palate for symbolically placed devices.
Turning to the discussion of the kirtimukha in this location on the hilts of some kasthane, Robert Elgood has observed regarding such instances "...in view of the decisive concern with protection against the spirit world that characterizes Hinduism, the kirtimukha is the perfect device to place upon a weapon for prophylactic reasons; but reflecting the duality of all aspects of Hinduism it contains within it the reverse facility of ferocious aggression" (Elgood, 2004, p.134). The author also discusses the placement of kirtimukha or makara at the base of the blade on many sacrificial weapons to protect the user from spiritual forces unleashed by violent use of the blade
These kinds of symbolism may seem more likely to be placed on actual combat weapons, or as noted on sacrificial weapons, however it is important to remember that in the same sense of 'spiritual combat' with which ritual and ceremonial weapons are used, the weapon worn as a badge of rank may have similar properties. It may be considered that the individual of rank or office is signified as having authority and power in which they might require similar apotropaic protection from consequences or results of necessary actions. Naturally this is my own speculation as I confess less than adequate understanding of these matters.
Returning to these kirtimukha and makara heads (Elgood, p.134) the author notes that the use of this feature at the base of the blade "..appears in the kris in SE Asia where a mask to ward off evil is often carved at the base of the handle above the mendek. The probability is that this is a very ancient practice, because the makara head occupies the same place on the phur-pa and other Tibetan edged weapons and because the design has not changed since the time of the Buddha we may point to the likelihood of it being a feature of the Indian vajra".
As has been noted by Ibrahiim, the presence of these kinds of symbols, devices and representations are of course very much in line with the architecture of temples and many religious monuments and iconography.
In these respects, the kasthane and its profound iconography has become an important reflection of the many facets of the diverse heritage of Sri Lanka, and I hope that here we will continue gaining better understanding of their history.