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The seven tsunamis that hit the isle of Lanka
Tsunamis have been more frequent events in the history of the isle of Lanka than many of us have ever thought. Information about at least seven different incidents related to earthquakes and tsunamis can be gathered by carefully scrutinising different sources of history.
By Chanuka Wattegama

On December 26 2004, millions of Sri Lankans, not excluding myself, enriched their vocabularies by a new word: tsunami.

The vast majority of the Sri Lankans naturally took this as an entirely new phenomenon. Not that they can be blamed. The only previous incident they have ever heard was the one that seemed to have happened nearly 2,200 years ago during the reign of the King Kălanitissa. It was the only incident recorded in Mahavamsa that can be directly treated as a tsunami.

Interestingly, now it looks like that tsunamis have been more frequent events in the history of the isle of Lanka than many of us have ever thought. Information about at least seven different incidents related to earthquakes and tsunamis can be gathered by carefully scrutinising different sources of history.

This number can be even higher. There is a high possibility of some of the tsunamis going entirely unnoticed or unrecorded. Please note that the costal areas of the island, especially the east coast, which would have been directly hit by any tsunami were not densely inhabited for a period of at least 2,450 years in the 2,500 years recorded history of the island. Even if they have been inhabited, all the kingdoms we have heard were within the country and adequately distanced from the sea to get directly hit by a tsunami. Therefore, the chance of any evidence of a tsunami getting into the annals of history is extremely less. In addition, the ancient kings themselves had a motive to prevent any news about tsunamis (or any disasters for that matter) because that would have been interpreted as the curse of gods against their misdeeds. So it is not at all a surprise that we have never heard much about tsunamis in the ancient texts or stone inscriptions.


The first incident, which has not been recorded in any of the ancient texts in Sri Lanka, supposedly took place at the end of Ravana’s reign. According to Ramayana, during the epoch called ‘Duvapara Yuga’ the entire area from Mannar to Ravana’s kingdom, with 25 palaces and over 400,000 streets were swallowed by the sea. Before discarding this as a pure legend it is worthwhile to ponder whether it could have actually happened. Though the exact location of the Ravana’s kingdom was not known, the literature sources indicate that it was somewhere near the South-east coast of the island. (Both Ravana-eliya and Sita-eliya are close enough.) So it was quite possible that this pre-historic (or rather pre-Mahavamsa) kingdom near present Arugam-bay has been completely destroyed by a tsunami or an earthquake.

This also provides an answer to the question if there had been actually a ‘Ravana’s kingdom’ in the pre-Mahavamsa period, why we cannot find any evidence of it today. If it were entirely submerged by sea, as described in the script, there could not have been any traces of this kingdom on the land. It is quite probable that the remaining land area of Sri Lanka could have been a tiny portion of the massive Ravana’s kingdom, which had been several times bigger. Why cannot the rock islands, on which the light houses Great Basses (Maha Ravana) and Little Basses (Kuda Ravana) stand were remaining parts of the Ravana’s kingdom?

Another interesting question is whether Sri Lanka had been connected to Indian subcontinent during this period. According to Ramayana, Hanuman could bring his entire army to Lanka without much difficulty. So it is again possible that there had been some sort of land connection between the subcontinent and the isle of Lanka (Even as later as 300 BC, Megasthenes, the Grecian Ambassador of the court of Chandra Gupta, had mentioned that Taprobane was separated from the mainland by a ‘river’. The fact that he opted for the word ‘river’, instead of ‘sea’, indicates that this gap could not have been wide.) It is also quite possible that this connection was destroyed as a result of a combination of an earthquake and a powerful tsunami.

Interestingly, there is also a school that thinks ‘Lanka’, the Ravana’s famous kingdom was the present Sri Lanka, but an island near Sumatra. Even if it were Sumatra, the possibility of a tsunami destroying it is still valid. In fact, if it were so it further proves the tsunami theory. This region too was one of the worst affected areas of the tsunami which came on December 26, 2004.


Now let us have a look at the following paragraphs from the first chapter of Mahavamsa.

""Now since a great sacrifice by Kassapa of Uruvela was near at hand, and since he saw that this latter would fain have him away, he, the victorious over enemies, went to seek alms among the Northern Kurus; and when he had eaten his meal at evening time near the lake Anotatta, the Conqueror, in the ninth month of his buddhahood, at the full moon of Phussa, himself set forth for the isle of Lanka, to win Lanka for the faith. For Lanka was known to the Conqueror as a place where his doctrine should (thereafter) shine in glory; and (he knew that) from Lanka, filled with the yakkhas, the yakkhas must (first) be driven forth.

And he knew also that in the midst of Lanka, on the fair river bank, in the delightful Mahanaga garden, three yojanas long and a yojana wide, the (customary) meeting-place for the yakkhas, there was a great gathering of (all) the yakkhas dwelling in the island. To this great gathering of that yakkhas went the Blessed One, and there, in the midst of that assembly, hovering in the air over their heads, at the place of the (future) Mahiyangana-thupa, he struck terror to their hearts by rain, storm, darkness and so forth.' The yakkhas, overwhelmed by fear, besought the fearless Vanquisher to release them from terrors, and the Vanquisher, destroyer of fear, spoke thus to the terrified yakkhas: `I will banish this your fear and your distress, O yakkhas, give ye here to me with one accord a place where I may sit down. 'The yakkhas thus answered the Blessed One: `We all, O Lord, give you even the whole of our island. Give us release from our fear.' Then, when he had destroyed their terror, cold and darkness, and had spread his rug of skin on the ground that they bestowed on him, the Conqueror, sitting there, made the rug to spread wide, while burning flame surrounded it. Daunted by the burning heat thereof and terrified, they stood around on the border. Then did the Saviour cause the pleasant Giridipa to come here near to them, and when they had settled there, he made it return to its former place. Then did the Saviour fold his rug of skin; the devas assembled, and in their assembly the Master preached them the doctrine. The conversion of many kotis of living beings took place, and countless were those who came unto the (three) refuges and the precepts of duty""

This incident is something that no Buddhist would want to believe. Why should Gauthama Buddha commit such an absurd and unkind act? Why should he chase the yakkhas away, and to preach only to devas?
Those who know the background of Mahavamsa immediately understand it was only the chronicler, and definitely not Buddha, who wanted to ‘chase the yakkhas away from the island’. It was Mahanama thero who wanted to establish Lanka, ‘as a place where his (Buddha’s) doctrine should shine in glory’. No ancient Buddhist literature, except for the references in Mahavamsa, indicates Buddha involving in petty acts such as choosing any particular country ‘as a place where his doctrine should shine in glory’. (In the same manner Moses selected Israel as the ‘promised land’) Perhaps this was the need of King Dhatusena; who invited Mahanama thero to scribe the chronicle and who obviously wanted to reach the level of ‘Parvatha Raja’ and to encounter the rivalry of the rest of the Buddhist countries, particularly Burma, such a view among people was to his immediate benefit.

So it is obvious that this is another non-event reported in Mahavamsa. Anyway, the question here is not that. Was the description above, purely the imagination of Mahanama thero? Or is he vaguely referring to an incident (Tsunami? Earthquake?), which he might have read or heard (in the form of a folklore, probably) that had naturally destroyed a large portion of the population (yakkhas?)
Are these two incidents real? Are they two different incidents or the same? If they were real when they could have taken place?

The answers can be only obtained by analysing the periods of the powerful and destructive tsunamis occurred in the South Asian region during the said period. An earth quake or a tsunami destroys life and thus leaves enough material which can be accurately Carbon-dated. In fact, some of the ancient tsunamis have already been dated using this technique. (There is a school that think the Great Flood that made Noah to build his arc too was nothing but a tsunami.) However still this had not happened in the South Asian region. So it is just a question of conducting the research. The history we know might entirely change based on the outcome.


The third tsunami Sri Lanka has faced was the most famous one. According to what we know this happened during the time of King Kălanitissa, in Kalyani. This was recorded in Mahavamsa and later Rajavaliya. It might be highly probable that the author of the latter followed the earlier text so one needs to focus only on the former script.

Here again the chronicler records the event correctly, but with so many other related information which might or might not be accurate. Not that he can be blamed. Mahanama thero was placing the incidents of ‘history’ more than seven hundred years after they have taken place, and with the help of whatever little correct information coated with layers and layers of fascination, and passed down from generation to generation. (We can only blame the so-called modern ‘historians’ who take Mahavamsa as the truth and nothing but truth!)
Mahanama thero places King Kălanitissa’s kingdom, ‘Kalyani’ exactly where the present ‘Kelaniya’ is. (According to Mahavamsa, the land was to the left of Vihara Devi, once she started sailing) Surprisingly, even Prof. Paranavithana, who boldly questioned the authenticity of Mahavamsa at so many other occasions, takes the same view.

However, there has been a school of historians who thought Kălanitissa’s Kalyani was not the present Kelaniya, but a kingdom in the eastern coast of the island, somewhere near Potuvil. Of course, till December 26, 2004, they did not have much evidence to support this argument. They simply found that if the literary sources were to be believed, the kingdom of Kalyani could never have been in the west coast. For one thing the Kalyani dynasty was a branch of the Anuradhapura one. Kălanitissa was a directly descendent from Prince Mahanaga, the brother of Devanampiystissa who fled to Magama (Mahagama) after a failed attempt on his life by the wife of the latter. If Prince Mahanaga had come to Magama (near Kataragama), King Kălanitissa could not have his kingdom at a place close to Colombo. Secondly, the princess Vihara Devi could not have travelled along the sea for such a long distance from present Kelaniya to Kirinda by the sea. Thirdly, Kălanitissa was the only king we have heard who had made a kingdom at Kalyani. What about his predecessors? Where were his descendents? How come there was only one king in this kingdom? All these questions finally point to one conclusion. The ‘Kalyani’ had been a kingdom in the eastern cost of the island. The river mentioned in the text could not be the present Kelani Ganga, as many still think it to be, but Heda Oya in the Eastern province. The ruins of an abandoned kingdom had been found near Nuwaragala in the Moneragala district and this could well have been Kălanitissa’s ‘Kalyani’.

The recent tsunami incident sheds any doubts about the exact location of Kalyani. The historians who put it near Potuvil could not have been more accurate. Potuvil- Arugam Bay area was one of the worst hit areas in the 2004 tsunami. There were no casualties recorded anywhere near present Kelaniya, which was about 10 kilometres from the coast. Do we need any more proof?

Further, if it were a tsunami that hit Kălanitissa’s kingdom, (we are now almost sure of it!) that proves some more thing, which was doubted for decades. The first phase of Mahavamsa has either missed some of the kings (inadvertently, probably) or presented a less than accurate timeline for the Rajavali. Illogical timings were something common for Mahavamsa for this period. For instance, king Pandukhabaya was said to have reigned for a period of 70 long years, which could not have been correct. The new information on tsunamis reverberate these doubts.

There were records about an earthquake / tsunami taking place in the South Asian region in 326 BC. Alexander the Great was returning to Greece after his conquest and wanted to go back by a sea route. But an earthquake of large magnitude destroyed the mighty Macedonian fleet as reported by Lietzin. This could have been the same tsunami that destroyed the city of Kalyani, but if we were to believe the timeline given in the Mahavamsa, this took place during the period of Mutasiva (or Kălanitissa’s great grandfather!) This mismatch of the recorded event against facts proves only one thing. Mahavamsa is not as accurate as many Sri Lankan historians think, at least when it comes to this period.


Surprisingly, Mahavamsa does not speak even a word about the fourth tsunami recorded in our history. This happened somewhere around the second century A.D. Again, one might argue that this could have been the same tsunami that hit Kalyani, but it is difficult to account for the four centuries in between. This particular event is recorded in two different Tamil texts, Manimekalai and Perumpanarrupadai, in the form of legends. Let us hear what Manimekalai (By the way, ‘Manimekalai’ is the name of the sea goddess) says about the event:
[Quote] When Pilivalai, the pre-eminent among women, the daughter of the ruler of Naganadu with her young child born on the dynasty of the Sun, went around and worshipped the Great seat placed in this island, by the God of the Celestials (Indra), Kambala Chetty’s ship came there. She having ascertained from him whither he was bound, entrusted to him her child to be taken and delivered to his father, the king. He who was pleased at being selected for the purpose, received with due reverence, the son of the woman of faultless beauty. But on the very day the harbour was left behind, the vessel was wrecked in a storm, and the ship-wrecked sailors carried the news of the loss of his son to the king Killi of the sharp javelin. The king, unable to bear the loss, wandered over, shore and sea, like unto a cobra that lost its gem, so that the city neglected to celebrate the festival (in honour) of Indra. Manimekalai, incensed at this negligence, uttered a malediction that the sea should engulf the city, and accordingly the broad waves of the sea swallowed the great city. [Unquote]

Interestingly, this has happened during the era of King Gajabahu I. (However, the text above refers to a Chola king in India, and not to Gajabahu I.) Early Sinhala literature sources claims Neela, the great giants of king Gajabahu ‘divided’ the sea so the king and his army could visit India and bring back 12,000 Sinhalese taken as slaves for the works in the Kaveri banks. Early Tamil literature sources say King Gajabahu I ‘visited’ India on invitation. Both these references are significant. None of the early Sinhalese kings except Gajabahu I has ever recorded to have visited another land, whether by force or by invitation. Does this imply that during the era of this particular king, the sea between the Indian continent and island of Lanka was so narrow that he could cross it without much difficulty? If so, was the gap become wider due a result of a tsunami / earthquake? These are some of the questions, the future historians have to explain.


The fifth tsunami was what Arthur Clarke too had mentioned in one of his books. This happened as a result of an earthquake took place in the Krakatoa region (near Indonesia) on the morning of August 27, 1883 and led to a tsunami that propagated across the Indian Ocean. The total energy released by the explosion was estimated to be equal to that would be leashed by 200 megatons atomic bombs. At least 36,000 people were killed particularly in Java and Sumatra; where wave heights were reported to reach 15 to 42 meters.

In Sri Lanka (3113 km from Krakatoa) three descriptions of the tsunami are available:

At Galle: "An extraordinary occurrence was witnessed at the wharf at about 01:30 local time. The sea receded as far as the landing stage on the jetty. The boats and canoes moored along the shored were left high and dry for about three minutes. A great number of prawns and fish were taken up by the coolies and stragglers about the place before the water returned".

At Negombo: " The rise of the tide was so much above the usual water-mark that many of the low morasses lying in close proximity to the seaside were replete with water that flowed into them. However the water thus accumulated did not remain long, but, forcing into a stream, wended its course in a southerly direction, through low lands, to a distance of nearly a quarter of a mile, and found a passage back to the sea; thus the water that had so abruptly covered up such an extent of land did not take many days in draining off"

At Arugam Bay in the Southeast: "Three moor-women, three children and a man were crossing the bar about 03:00 local time. A big wave came up from the sea and washed them inland. Soon after the water returned to the sea. The man said that the water came up to his chest: he was a tall man. These people were tumbling about in the water, but were rescued by people in the Kalapuwa (inland estuary). They lost the paddy these were carrying and one of the women died two days after of her injuries.”


Then the mysterious sixth tsunami, which could have definitely hit the island (It too happened due to an earth quake near Andaman islands, so there is no reason why it could have missed Sri Lanka.) but left no local evidence at all. This was in 1941 and as a result of an earthquake of magnitude 8.1 occurred in the Andaman Sea on June 26, 1941. There were records to the effect that a tsunami hit the east coast of India. As per non-scientific / journalistic sources, the height of the tsunami was of the order of 0.75 to 1.25 meters. Mathematical calculations suggest that the height could be of the order of 1.0 meter.

Most probably this would have been taken as another case of sea erosion in Sri Lanka. Please note the population of the entire eastern province (Trincomalee, Ampara and Batticaloa together) plus Mullaitivu district was not more than 250,000. (By 2001, this has increased by six times to 1.5 million) Only a tiny percentage of this would have been living along the costal areas. Probably few fisherfolk might have encountered this, but the chances of identifying a one metre high wave hitting the shore as a tsunami was almost nil.


This brings us to December 2004. This is the seven tsunami that hit the island. It needs no elaborations. Still a question remains. Is it really the seventh? Were there any more tsunamis that were went unobserved or unrecorded? Is tsunami a common phenomena for Lanka than any of us think? Will we ever find answers to these questions?

By Chanuka Wattegama
chanuka@gmail.com, January, 2005

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