A Short history of Lanka

by Humphry William Codrington | 1926 | 48,606 words

Printed Edition 1926 Macmillan and Co., Limited St Martin's Street, London Web Edition 2000 Rhajiv Ratnatunga Pittsburgh. PA USA...

Chapter I - The Beginnings and the conversion to Buddhism (543 BC—161 BC)

The Island which is known by the name of Lanka, and to the western nations by that of Ceylon, is said to have been called in the time of the three previous Buddhas of the present age Ojadipa, Varadipa, and Mandadipa respectively. To the Greeks and Romans it was Taprobane, in Pali Tambapanni. This properly was the name of a district on the north-west coast, in ancient times the portion of the country best known to seafaring traders; as in the ease of India and of Asia itself the name of the part has been transferred to the `whole. In the Periplus its older name is given as Taprobane and its modern as Palaisimundu. After the Sinhala settlement it was styled in Sanskrit Sinhala-dvipa, and in Pali Sihala-dipa, a name which in process of time passed into Arabic as Serendib, or was known simply as Sinhala or Sihala. This in the form Sinhale still survives in common parlance as the name of the Kandyan districts, which last retained their independence, and is the origin of our `Ceylon,' through the medium of Arabic and Portuguese; in the Tamil it is represented by Ilam. In Sinhala the letters S and H are often interchangeable, and the old language, untouched by Sanskrit and Tamil, is the Helu or Elu, names also derived from `Sinhala.'

The Island in the mediaeval period, like Gaul in Caesar's time, `divisa est in partes tres.' These were Pihiti or Raja Rata or' the King's Country,' Maya Rata or `the Country of the sub-king' (Mahaya, Mapa), and Ruhuna. Of Maya the boundaries were on the north the Deduru Oya, falling into the sea by Chilaw, and on the south the Kaluganga, which separated it from Ruhuna. This last named division extended all over the east and south of the Island, and was cut off from the rest by the Mahaweliganga, and as we have seen, by the Kaluganga. But these boundaries were theoretical only and liable to variation, and Maya in the fourteenth century comprised much of the present Ratnapura and Kalutara Districts.

In early times we only hear of Ruhuna, then perhaps in reality reaching the Kaluganga or even further north, and of Malaya, the `Hill Country.' Later, we meet with the Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western Countries; these were not so named from their position in the Island, but from their situation relative to the capital Anuradhapura. The `Southern Country,' which began in the south of the present North Central Province, developed into Maya Rata and formed the appanage of the sub-king; in the twelfth century it extended over the western part of Matale, the whole of the North-western Province, and the greater part of the WesternS and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. In the twelfth century Ruhuna itself was divided temporarily into two parts, Dolosdahas comprising the south and south-west and Atadahas the remainder. The north of the Island was the `King's Country,' with its centre first at Anuradhapura and then at Polonnaruwa, and was under the immediate government of the king himself.

The earliest map of Lanka which we possess is that of Ptolemy in the first century after Christ. In this the east coast with the mouth of the Ganges (Mahaweliganga) is plainly recognizable; but the `North Point' is the modern Talaimannar, not far from which is the trading town of Talakory, corresponding with the later Mahatittha or Mantota. The Hill Country or Malaya is shown under this name, and the two chief cities were the `Royal City,' Anurogrammon or Anuradhapura, and the `Metropolis' Maagrammon (Sanskrit, Mahagrama) on the Mahaweliganga: this; last has been identified with Mahiyangana, the modern Alutnuwara, but may have been lower down stream and not far from Magam-tota by Polonnaruwa. The termination `grammon,' `village,' instead of `pura,' `city,' is of interest. Before Ptolemy's time the west coast of Lanka was supposed to extend almost as far as Africa. An explanation of this may be found! in, the fact that the east coast of that continent in the neighbourhood of Zanzibar was known to the Greeks as Azania, and that a river on the west coast of Lanka according to Ptolemy was the Azanos.

Ptolemy's 2nd Century A.D. map of "Taprobane"

Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta (B.C 321-297), knew of Lanka but vaguely; he calls its people Palaeogoni. Pliny records that in the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54), a freedman of Annius Plocamus, who had rented the customs of the Red Sea, while sailing round Arabia was caught by the north winds and driven past the coast of Carmania (Mekran) to Lanka, where he made land on the fifteenth day at the port of Hippuros, presumably on the south-west coast of the Island. He was taken to the `king,' who entertained him for six months, and afterwards sent an embassy to Rome. The port is said to have faced the south, and to have been close to the chief city Palaesimundus on the river of the same name, which had three mouths. This stream as well as another, the Cydara, which ran northwards towards India, were reported to flow out of a vast lake, Megisba, in the interior. The nearest point of India was the Coliac headland, Ptolemy's Cory, or Ramesvaram, four days' sail away. The Periplus apparently derives its name for the Island, Palaesimundu, from this account

The legendary history of Lanka begins with the Ramayana, the epic poem which recounts the ravishing of Sita by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, and her recovery by her husband Rama with the aid of the monkey chief Hanumanta. But, though a few names in the Island refer to the legend, such as Nuwara Eliya, `the glade of (Ravana's) city,' Sita Eliya, `Sita's glade,' and Sitawaka, the epic itself seems to have found but a small place in the folklore of the Sinhala.

To them of much greater interest were the visits of Buddha to Lanka. Of these the first was the visit to Mahiyangana, when, after expelling the Yakkhas or demon inhabitants of the country, he gave to Saman a lock of his hair, which that god enshrined in a sapphire casket. The second! visit was to Nagadipa (the Jaffna Peninsula), when Buddha settled a dispute between the Naga princes, Mahodara and Chuladara, concerning a gem-set throne. The third visit was to Kelaniya, where Buddha stayed at the site of the later dagaba: thence he went to Samantakuta or Adam's Peak, on which he set the imprint of his foot, to Dighavapi in the present Eastern Province, and to Anuradhapura, where he sanctified by his presence various sites, including those of the Bo-tree and of the Ruwanweli Dagaba1 Anuradhapura itself according to the legend had also been hallowed by the visits of the three previous Buddhas of the present age, in whose times it was called Abhayapura, Vaddhamana, and Visalanagara. There is no historical foundation for the visits of Gautama Buddha or of his three predecessors. The legendary inhabitants of the country were the Yakkhas, the Nagas and the Devas, and under these names possibly a kernel of fact may be concealed.

The traditional first king of Lanka is Vijaya. His grandmother, Suppadevi, according to the legend was the daughter of the king of Vanga (Bengal) by a princess of Kalinga (Orissa). She ran away from home and in the country of Lala or Lada, the modern Gujarat, mated with a lion (sinha); whence the names of her children and ultimately that of Sinhala, the designation of Lanka and of the Sinhala. At the age of sixteen her son Sinhabahu carried off his mother and his twin sister to the haunts of men; the lion in his search for his family ravaged the country, and for the sake of the reward offered by the king of Vanga was slain by his own son. The king dying at the time, Sinhabahu was elected as his successor, but abandoned Vanga and built the city of Sinhapura in his native country Lada. His son Prince Vijaya and his boon companions committed such outrages in his father's capital that the king was compelled by popular clamour to drive them forth. They set sail and, touching at Supparaka, a famous port on the west coast of India (Sopara, north of Bombay), ultimately arrived at Tambapanni. Here they found the country inhabited by Yakkhas or demons, and one of them Kuveni, entrapped Vijaya's followers, but was compelled by the prince to release them. She then became Vijaya's mistress, and assisted him to exterminate her fellow-demons, whose chief seats are given as Sirivatthu and Lankapura. These were identified later with the hills Loggala and Laggala, though it is clear from the narrative that Sirivatthu was quite close to Vijaya's landing place, as he heard the noise of the wedding festivities, of which he took advantage to attack the Yakkhas. Vijaya now settled at Tambapanni, a port on the south of the river, perhaps the Malwatu Oya, and his followers formed various villages in the neighbouring country: these were Anuradhapura on the banks of the Malwatu Oya; Upatissa, seven or eight miles further north; Uruvela, a seaport to the west of Anuradhapura, perhaps at Marichchikatti; Ujjeni and Vijita. His followers now wished Vijaya to assume the crown, and dispatched an embassy in search of a queen to the Pandyan king at Madura. The princess and her retinue landed at Mahatittha (Mantota); she espoused Vijaya and her women his companions, while the discarded Kuveni with her two children wandered to Lankapura, and was slain by her enraged kinsfolk. The children fled to Adam's Peak and became the ancestors of the Pulindas (hill-men or Veddas).

Such is the received story in Lanka. But it is to be noted that there is no mention of the Kuveni legend in the oldest chronicle, the Dipavansa. Another and Indian version of the colonization of Lanka relates the story of the princess and the lion; but here the son, though rewarded for slaying the wild beast, is banished for his parricide and retires to the Island of Gems (Ratnadvipa). Merchants coming to the country in search of precious stones, the lion's son kills their chief and detains his family. In course of time, his descendants becoming numerous, a king is elected and a state established, when the country is called Sinhala from the name of the original founder. A third account tells how demon women dwelt in an iron city in Ratnadvipa, and how they allured mariners ashore. Sinhala the son of King Sinha in India comes with 500 merchants to the country in search of precious stones. They marry the demon women. Sinhala, however, finds out their true nature,and by means of a flying horse carries off his companions. The women pursue and induce them to return. But Sinhala is obdurate. His wife, the queen of the demon women, follows him to India, and being rejected by him is taken under his father's protection. She summons her people and kills all in the palace. Sinhala is then elected king in his father's place, invades the Island of Gems, rescues his men, and bringing colonists establishes the kingdom of Sinhala. This tale is founded upon the ` Birth Story of the Cloud Horse' (Valahaka Jataka). in that legend the demon city Sirisavatthu in Ceylan is peopled by she-demons, who catch shipwrecked sailors and scour the coast between Kalyani (Kelaniya) and the Island Nagadipa. Five hundred merchants are wrecked and are entertained by the demons. The chief merchant finds that their hosts are demons, and escapes with 250 of his men by means of a flying horse, who is the Buddha in a previous existence. The remainder are devoured by the demons. It is evident that the story of Vijaya is a combination of various fairy tales.

Shortly before his death, Vijaya, who was without an heir, sent a letter to Sinhapura, asking that his brother Sumitta should be sent to succeed him. Sumitta, however, was now king in his father's place, and dispatched his youngest son, Panduvasa, who in due course arrived in Lanka and reigned at Vijitapura. Of this king a late legend tells how the perjury of which Vijaya had been guilty in repudiating Kuveni was visited on his nephew, and how the god Sakra, to whom Lanka had been entrusted by Buddha, obtained his cure. Isvara instructed by Sakra called upon Rahu, who, turning himself into a boar, ravaged the garden of Mala Raja. The last named summoned his men to surround the garden and beat the jungle; but the boar escaped, and, pursued by Mala Raja, leaped into the sea at Tuticorin, and swam, still pursued, across to Uratota (`Boar landing-place,' or Kayts) in Lanka. When Rahu had enticed Mala Raja into the heart of the country he disappeared, leaving in his place a rock at which Mala Raja stood gazing in wonderment. Sakra now appeared and bade him cure the king, which he did. Panduvasa married the daughter of the Sakya Pandu, the first cousin of Buddha, who was followed to Lanka by her brothers. To them also is attributed the foundation of Anuradhapura, Uruvela Vijitapura, as well as of Dighayu and Rohana, identified later with Magama in Hambantota District. Panduvasa was succeeded by his son Abhaya, and he in turn after an interregnum of seventeen years by his nephew Pandukabhaya, who made Anuradhapura his capital. Here he constructed the Abhaya tank, now called Basavakkulam, and also established two Yakkha princes, one of whom sat on a throne of equal eminence with the king's. From this it is clear that the Yakkha or aboriginal population was not treated as a conquered race. Vijaya's followers espoused Pandyan women, and it seems probable that in course of time their descendants married with the people of the country, on whom they imposed their Aryan language. Further dilution of the original Aryan blood undoubtedly has taken place in later ages, with the result that, though the Sinhala language is of North Indian origin, the social system is that of the south. In the twelfth year of his reign Pandukabhaya `fixed the boundaries of the villages in all parts of Lanka.' He was succeeded by his son Mutasiva.

It is obvious that many of these events assigned to the early reigns are purely mythical. Two points call for comment. In the first place, if there is any truth in the account of Vijaya's ancestry at all, it is difficult to admit the probability of any connection between petty kings of Bengal and Gujarat on opposite sides of the Indian continent: the evidence all points to Vijaya having come from the western coast, and it seems likely that the tale of his mixed ancestry is due to the fact that there were two streams of immigration, one from the western and the other from the eastern side of India. The story of the double origin of such places as Anuradhapura, indicating two incompatible traditions, points this way, and without some such theory it is difficult to account for the early settlements at Magama and its neighbourhood on the south and south-east coasts. It is possible and even probable that Vijaya (`the Conqueror') himself is a composite character combining in his person the two conquests. In the second place, there is manifest a desire to connect the early history of Lanka with that of Buddha. Vijaya is made to land at Tambapanni on the very day of Buddha's death. To give effect to this, the reigns of Vijaya and his four successors are extended over the impossibly long period of 236 years, of which 130 have to he divided between Pandukabhaya and his son Mutasiva. The latter's successor, as we shall see, came to the throne about B.C. 247, and it will be safe to place the arriva] of Vijaya in the last years of the fifth century before Christ.


The detail on a Lakshmi plaque fragment. Follow link for more information on these ancient Lankan coins.

Though history really commences with the reign of Devanampiya Tissa (Devanape Tissa, B.C. 247-207) and the conversion of Lanka to the Buddhist faith, it must be remembered that many events recorded in the chronicles are still of a fictitious nature. Tissa was the second son of Mutasiva. It is stated in the Mahavamsa that on the day of his coronation many wonderful treasures miraculously appeared and that the king resolved to present them to the Indian Emperor Dharmasoka, with whom he had been long united by ties of friendship. Accordingly an embassy was dispatched to Pataliputra (Patna). The emperor in return sent back the ambassadors with all the requisites for a coronation, and with instructions to celebrate the inauguration of the Sinhala king, whom at the same time he invited to embrace Buddhism. On their return to Lanka the king was solemnly crowned a second time.

Dharmasoka, or Asoka, as he is commonly called (B.C. 268-231),1 was the grandson of Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya empire and the contemporary of Alexander the Great. His remorse at the miseries caused by him in the conquest of Kalinga drove him to seek refuge in Buddhism. He was ruler of most of India, and used his power for the extension of his new faith, eau sing missions to be sent to various countries, even to the Greek kingdoms in Asia and Africa.

The question may be asked why Devanampiya Tissa should have sought confirmation of his sovereignty from Asoka. He may have done so on account of the commanding position of Asoka in India, though his imperial authority did not extend to the southernmost kingdoms of the peninsula. Or, again, it may have been due to family connections. Asoka was the head of the Maurya elan, and later on in Lanka we find the Moriyas as a branch of the th royal family. The Mahavamsa relates that the Sakya Pandu, the father-in-law of Panduvasa, owing to war left his home and retired beyond the Ganges. Later works state that the new city then founded was called Moriya, and that from its ruling family, the Sakyas, known throughout India as Moriyas, sprang Chandragupta; that Asoka himself married a Sakya princess and that her eight brothers accompanied the Bo-tree to Lanka. Of these eight, the two elder, Bodhigupta. and Sumitta, received the offices of Lak Maha Le (Chief Scribe of Lanka) and Jaya Maha Le (Chief Scribe of the victorious Bo-tree), and from them descended the Mehenavara and Ganavesi branches of the Sinhala royal family; another, who Was given the Moriya district in the Island, is stated to have belonged to the Sakya race called Moriya.' As Pandukabhaya was the son of a Sakya prince, a nephew of Panduvasa's queen, it follows that Devanampiya Tissa, his grandson, also was a Sakya. If there is any truth in this account Devampiya Tissa was related to Asoka. The identification of Panduvasa's brothers-in-law and of the Moriyas with the Sakyas doubtless was due to the desire to connect the royal family of Lanka and the Buddhist Constantine with the race of Buddha himself.

As we have seen, one of the principal events of Asoka's reign was the dispatch of missionaries to propagate the Buddhist faith. Among these was his own son the Elder Mahinda who arrived in Lanka in the year of Devanampiya Tissa's second coronation, and met the king while hunting at the hill afterwards known as Mihintale, eight miles from Anuradhapura. The sovereign, whose attention already had been drawn to Buddhism by Asoka, lost no time in embracing the new religion, and with him large numbers of his subjects. What his religion had been is not known: from the fact that Pandukabhaya built a temple for a Nighantha it may be supposed that it was Jainism, but Hindu ascetics also are mentioned. Devanampiya Tissa now dedicated to the priesthood the Nandana and Mahamegha royal pleasure gardens, situated to the south of the city, and built there the famous Maha Vihara2 for many centuries the centre of Lanka orthodoxy. This event took place when eighteen years had passed since Asoka's coronation, and 236 years since the death of Buddha, or, reckoning this as having occurred about B.C. 483, in B.C. 247. The king's next work of piety Was the construction of the Vihara on Mihintale, on which hill the `bed' of Mahinda still is to be seen : this was followed by the enshrining of the right collar-bone of Buddha, obtained from the god Sakra, in the Thuparama, the first of the dagabas erected in Anuradhapura. The alms-bowl of Buddha was given at the same time by Asoka and kept in the royal palace.

The desire of the Princess Anula with her attendants to enter the Second Order, or that of nuns, led to an embassy to the Court of Asoka with a request for the dispatch of Mahinda's sister Sanghamitta, a member of that Order, with the right branch of the Bo-tree, under which Gautama had attained Buddhahood. The branch, which miraculously severed itself from the parent tree, was conveyed down the Ganges together with Sanghamitta, and arrived in Lanka at the port of Jambukola (Sambilturai in the Jaffna peninsula), where it was received with all honour by Devanampiya Tissa. Conveyed to Anuradhapura it was planted in the Mahamegha garden, where it still exists, the oldest authenticated tree in the world.

Other religious buildings erected by Devanampiya Tissa were the Mahiyangana Dagaba, in which Buddha's collar-bone was enshrined by the king's younger brother, and the Isurumuniya and Vessagiri Viharas at the capital. He also constructed the Tisa-vewa tank at Anuradhapura. He died after a reign of forty years; Mahinda survived his royal convert until the eighth year of his successor Uttiya.

We are confronted again with a chronological difficulty. DevAnampiya Tissa was succeeded by four of his brothers, to each of whom is assigned a reign of ten years, a suspiciously symmetrical figure. The reigns of the last two are divided by the rule of two Tamils, Sena and Guttika, the first of many such intruders, lasting for twelve or twenty-two years. The youngest of the brothers, Asela was succeeded by a Tamil, Elara, who reigned forty-four years. We thus find that the reigns of five brothers and of the two Tamils lasted 92 or 102 years, an impossible figure, the more so as Kakavanna Tissa of Magama, the contemporary of Elara, was the great-grandson of Mahanaga, another brother of Devanampiya Tissa.

In this chapter we have seen the arrival of the immigrants from the north, the gradual establishment of the Sinhala monarchy, and, most important event of all, the conversion of the country to Buddhism. The profession of this faith in later times has sharply separated Lanka from her immediate neighbours and has had an abiding influence on the national character. Her renown as the centre of orthodoxy and of Pali literature, however, is due to Buddhaghosa and his school in the fifth century.

As the Island in the course of its history was in constant communication, peaceful or otherwise, with the mainland, the principal political divisions of South India for the sake of convenience are noted here. The chief Tamil-speaking kingdoms were: (1) the Pandyan, comprising the greater part of the Madura and Tinnevelly Districts, with its capital first at Kolkai and later at Madura; (2) the Chola, extending along the Coromandel Coast northwards as far as the Penner River, the chief city at one time being Uraiyar or Old Trichinopoly: and (3) the Chera or Kerala on the south-west coast, where the language gradually developed into Malayalam; with this was united (4) the once independent Kongu country, stretching over Coimbatore and part of Salem Districts. The royal emblems were a pair of fishes for the Pandyans, a seated tiger for the Cholas, and a bow for the Cheras. That of the later Sinhala kings was a lion.

1 Dagaba. A relic shrine, a solid hemispherical monument surmounted by a spire. 2. B.C. 274-237 according to the Cambridge History qf India. 3. Vira. A residence of Buddhist monks; a Buddhist temple.


For implements attributed to the Palaeolithie and Neolithic ages see John Pole, Ceylon Stone Implements, Calcutta, 1913. For the old names of Lanka, see Dpv. i. 73; ix. 20; xvii. 5, 6; and Mhv. xv. 59, 92, 127; Periplus, ed. W. H. Schoff 1912. The identity of the `Southern Country' is discussed in `Notes on Ceylon Topography,' J.R.A.S., C.B., xxix No. 75, p. 62. For Ptolemy see Ancient India, by J. W. M'Crindle, 1885.

Hippuros usually is identified with Kudiraimalai. `Horse hill,' a promontory to the north of Puttalam. But it, has not been shown why this one name should have been translated into Greek, and the wind would have driven the ships to the part of Lanka indicated in the text.

The visits of the four Buddhas are recorded at some length in Dpv. ii. 66-69; xv. 25,37, 47, 48, 54, 59; xvii. 30; and Mhv. i. 20-84. As to the Vijayan conquest the view that there were two streams of immigration is that of the Cambridge History of India, p. 606. For Tambapanni see De Q., p. 4. Parker's view that it was in the south of Lanka is based on a mistranslation of Dpv. ix. 33, the `south' referring to the river. But De Q. mentions a tradition that Vijaya landed near the Walawe in addition to legends as to two other sites.

The two stories of Sinhala are given in Si-yu-ki, by Hiuen Tsiang, translated by S. Beal in Buddhist Records of the Western World. Sirisavatthu of the Jataka is called Thinmenna in the Sinhala version. These legends are given in English in `Prehistoric Ceylon,' by A. M. Gunasekera (Ceylon National Review, 1906, pp. 149 ff.). Sirisavatthu presumably is the Sirivatthu of the Mahavansa; the Tammenna of the Sinhala version is the place of the name in the neighbourhood of Putta]am, the traditional landing place of Vijaya. It may be noted that in Sanskrit `sinhala `has the meaning of `bark,' `Cassia bark' (Cinnamomurn eassia).

For Devanampiya Tissa, see Dpv., Mhv., and Puj. The tentative suggestion that the king's embassy to Asoka was due to relationship has been made by the Archaeological Commissioner, Mr. A. M. Hocart; the details have been elaborated independently. For the account of the Sakyas and their identity with the Mauryas see Mhv. Tika pp. 119 if., and Saddh. pp. 265, 295, 296, and 325.

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