The Ancient Sri Lanka
Copyright © 2002-2005 Lahiru Weligamage
Because of the natural beauty, geographical location, commodities and its hospitable people with smiling faces, a tiny Island in the Indian Ocean was well known to the world since the ancient times. It has been called in hundreds of names including the names Taprobane(Greeks), Palesimundum(Romans), Serendib(Arabs) ,Sinhaladeepa(others)...etc.
According to the great chronicle Mahavansa, the exiled prince Vijaya & his 700 men are considered to be the founder of the land of Singhalese. This is assumed to have taken place around 543 B.C.! The particular version of history states that prince Vijaya's Grand-father is a lion(="Sinha") thus descendents from his blood(="le") are called "Sinhala". According to the buddhist monks, his family and dynasty of father of Lord Buddha were relatives.
According to the legend, he conquered the native 'Yaksha'(demon) tribe to become the first king of present day Sri Lanka. He called the island "Thambapanni"(golden sand). He has married 'Kuweni', a Yaksha princess, to proclaim the right to throne but has abandoned her later. The two children of them, Jeewahatta and Disala, are believed to be the first of Veddas. It is also written that king "Pandukabhaya", whose father is a descendent of Yaksha, assassinated the dynasties of Aryans with the help of native Yaksha tribe and re-won their right to the land.
Without much doubt, we can clearly see 'Vijaya' is something used by the writer to show what Singhalese are and the fable has solutions for all the initial problems. This is very similar to the 'beginning of the world' story in Genesis of Bible.
Then, what IS the truth?
The legends talk about very far away times. It is said that the first native king "Manu" (sometimes I wonder whether it is a coincidence that first king of Egypt is known as "Menas[Namer]"). Then we find powerful kings such as "Bali", "Tharaka(Tharu)", "Rawana"... etc. References to a battle with Rawana, which is thought to have occurred around 3000 B. C. - 2500 years before prince Vijaya's arrival, could be found in the Indian epic "Ramayana"(written in 500 B.C.). Arisen Ahabudu, a Sri Lankan scholar, says that 'Dasis', which is sometimes used as a reference to Rawana, does stands for its literal meaning - 10 heads; the meaning is interpreted as "Ruler of 10 lands - Head of 10 lands". The epic states the king Rawana of tribe 'Monster' (= Raksha), even over-powered Gods in heaven. According to Ramayana, he has come to the land of India in his flying machine and abducts Rama's(a God in human form) wife, which finally ends in Rama killing him. Furthermore it states that Adam's bridge (native - Rama Bridge) at Palk strait(map) was built by Rama's Ape-army to allow passage for the king.
Excavations done in central, north-central, south-eastern has revealed king Vijaya story need not be true. However, the names of places like Rawana Ella, Rawana Kotte... places stated in the epic like Adam's Bridge, Roomassala mountain... and archeological findings like historical cities in Ruhuna before Vijaya-era and the belief of city of Rawana (Rawana Kotte) lied in south....etc indirectly proves existence of a civilization well before Vijaya. Modern scholars accept that the 'demon fable' was invented by merchants to prevent people(apart from them) coming here for gems, ivory & pearl; the story woven around Vijaya is trying to show that Singhalese are the highest race of all.
According to some scholars, there is a different interpretation on the name 'Sinhala'. Sinhala is a form of saying Siv Hela, where 'siv' is four and 'Hela' is the name used to describe the people of the land. Unification of the four (4) main 'Hela' tribes - "Yaksha(Demon), Naaga(Serpent), Raksha(Monster) and Deva(God)" - is what we know as Sinhala.
People of Sri Lanka are believed to be descending from an Australopithecus hominoid type called Homo sapiens Balangodensis (archeologists now say it may be the modern-man\100000-125000 years ago). Humanoid skeletons were found at Fa Hien-lena near Bulathsinhala (34,000), Batadomba-lena near Kuruwita (28,500-11,500), Beli-lena at Kitulgala (over27,000-3500), Alu-lena at Attanagoda near Kegalle (10,500) and Fa Hien Lena has yielded the earliest evidence (at ca. 34,000 ) of anatomically modern man in South Asia. These are among the few places where evidence on pre-historic "modern-man" exist. Even India doesn't have a modern-man fossil dating beyond 10,000 years.
Fire is assumed to be found by him 37,000(ca.) years ago. His people carried salt into the country(27,000 years ago), from natural coastal deposits, 80 km away. Excavations prove that the "Balangoda man" did knew culture. Evidence of painting, pottery, jewelry, traces of burial rituals...etc proves this fact.
Since there weren't any Savannatype forests or huge deposits of Sedimentary quartzite(the quartz found in Sri Lankan soil breaks up very easily), tools of Acheulean tradition does not exist. However, evidence on the Mousterioid tradition and Flake tool industry are being found at numerous sites. Evidence on geometric microlithic tool technology (Pleistocene age) is considered as the ending of mesolithic(middle) age and it came as a surprise when such tools were found as early as 28,500 at Batadomba-lena, 28,000 at two coastal sites in Bundala and over 27,000 at Beli-lena(South Africa & Zaire has evidence close to 30,000 but both emerged 16,000 years before Europe).
Though the data does not yet prove of an advance civilization existing around 3000 B.C. (as Ramayana states), one can't assume that inhabitants of Ceylon didn't achieve a high state until Vijaya came. Due to the existence of Adam's Bridge, there's a huge possibility that people were traveling to and fro between India and Sri lanka. Since there is only a handful of reliable information about cultivation, pottery, copper-alloy work...the picture of chalcolithic(Bronze age) age is pretty unclear. But, there are evidence that only major copper deposit out of Indian Madya Pradesh existed in Seruvila, Sri Lanka and Sri lanka, who's already in our Neolithic(last) age(not yet Chalolithic), may have exported copper to India through the port Mantai. Sri Lanka shows very little of its neolithic age when it comes to tools.
Iron age of India appears in about 1200 B.C. and Sigiriya site, Sri Lanka gives evidence of an iron age in 1000 B.C. But, the iron-age is expected to have occurred in 1200 B.C. Excavations done in the inner-city revealed evidence on pottery, cultivation of rice, iron technology, animal farms... done in 900-600 B.C. but not a single stone tool. It signifies an iron dominated culture. Anuradhapura was a 10 ha. city in 800 B.C. The city of Anuradhapura is specifically chosen such that it has equal distances to ports in north-east and north-west, it has a huge area to cultivate and centering handful of resources including iron/ copper deposits. There was only four such cities in this region (all in north India) prior to the Anuradhapura city. It is evident that Vijaya came to a land which already had well-organized government structure and an already civilized culture ruled by the Nagas from the city of Anuradhapura. However Vijaya's interference acted as a catalyst and the event should not be neglected.
It is believed that the art of writing was brought to Sri Lanka in 600 B.C., which marks the end of proto-historic Iron age. The letter-form is given the name Brahmee and the oldest writings in those letters are found in Anuradhapura from a time close to Vijaya's arrival. Even India, where it was born, doesn't have a script dating older than that.[more on writing]
According to early documents of foreign origin Sri Lanka had been known as Sinhala (Sanskrit), Seehala (Pali), Seehala Diva (Prakrit), Salike/ Calei/ Celey (Ptolemy), Ceylandiv (Cosmas), Serndip (Al-Baruni), Sirandip/ Shilan (Iban Batuta), Serndiv (Abiyanus), Sinhal Deeb (Sacho), Theho/ Seeho (Mianmar), Senkiale/ Sunkiale (Chineese), Seehalaka/ Sihala (Panjab), Sihilam/ Eeelam (Maharashat), Eela (Andre), Eelam/ Eela Mandalum/ Singalam (Tamil), Cicilan (Ajaib), Ceylan (Rashid), Ceylon (Arab), Ceylan (Portugese), Sheylon/ Ceylan (Dutch), Ceylon (English). Those names clearly proove that Sinhala people are the indegenous people of Sri Lanka. Note the stem of the word 'Serendipity' arise from 'Serendip'. What more can I say about the glory of the Island when, westerns themselves had to invent a word to decribe it.
Since Roman records claims there was a shrine for one of their gods, Dionysi Sei Bachi Civitas, situated at present day Kirinda area, it is clear that either "God Dionysious or Alexander the Great" was worshipped there. Since we know king Duttugamunu visited Katharagama (160 b.c.) to get the blessing of God of war(Iskandar?) & Skandha-worshiping(Hindu god-of-war) was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1200 a.d., the Tamils have distorted a part in the history.
Ancient world knew very well about the pearl-fishing at Gulf of Mannar,Sri lanka Because this was in practice from a time as early as 2000 years ago. Since Sri Lanka was known by all of the ancient countires from China to Europe, there is no doubt that at least a pearl resided in crowns, scepters & robes of their kings, among women's ware,in religious book-covers, statues, in medicine...etc..
The country was divided into 3 provinces. Officials titled "Eaepa, Maapa & Senevirath"(all king's closest relations) ruled over "Ruhunu(southern Kingdom), Maya(western part) & Pihiti(Rest of the Island)" respectively. The relative position of office hinted the people, the ministers, the Monks...who'd succeed the throne. In fact, the king allowed his successor-to-be to show the people what he can do & since he had delegated authority, he had more time to look into matters like safety of buddhism, strenghtening cultivation & irrigation systems, peace keeping, ...etc.
Most of the times, the heir arose from Pihiti(In the first 2 -3 kingdoms; Later this distinction faded away). But Ruhuna is very important because
It had another native-dynasty called "Kshathreeya"s. Most of the time when Pihiti kings are weak at defending the land & its people, either a king arose from Ruhuna or it provided refuge for the king until he regains strength. It shows the the roots of the gigantic hydrolic civilization in Pihiti was not imported.
Maagama was the capital of the Southern kingdom.
Whether it was Persians, Cyprians, Phoenicians or Egyptians, when it comes to sea-travel they all traveled in the same way, keeping close to coasts. Nearkhos says Alexander the great(326 b.c.) built a fleet to explore Thaprobane(he never made it since he fell sick, returned to Babylon and died) and one of his admirals, Onesicrities reached it.
"Both from Myos Hormus and Berenice the fleets sailed for Africa and Arabia in the month of September and for India in July: dates which agree admirably with the regular winds as stated by Bruce. For in the first instance if they cleared the gulf before November, they in that month fell in with the wind which carried them down the coast of Africa and which served them to return in May. And in their voyage to India, failing in July, if they cleared the gulf before the 1st of September they had the monsoon for nearly three months to perform the voyage to the coast of Malabar which was generally completed in forty days"..........(Perplexes of the Eritrean Sea)
And a record of a tax-collector(Roman), who was driven off Red sea due to a storm says,
"There was a haven therein regarding the south coast, lying hard under Palesimundum, the principal city of all that realm and the King’s seat and palace: there were by just account 200,000 commoners and citizens: as for the King, he is arrayed in apparel as Bacchus went in old times but the subjects and common people are clad in the habit of Arabians".......(52 a.d.,Pliny)
This location is now identified as the Nacaduma(according to Ptolemy), present day Tissamaharaama. Ptolemy also states of an International Emporium called Talakori Emporium. Sri lanka possessed some items which were very valuable things in the ancient world. Ivory , Pearl, Gems, spices, Elephants, peacocks...are few among such. In the14th century, John De Marignolli arrived by ship at the port of Perivils in Sri Lanka, on his way to China.
Claudius Ptolemy in c. 150 A.D. provided us with the locations of nearly fifty places with their co-ordinates that fixes their position on ground. They comprise the capitals, major townships. International Emporiums and harbours as well as the location of the major tribes distributed in the different parts of Sri Lanka (refer RASSL sesquitional Vol. 1995 for further details)...(quoted from a paper by Denis Fernando)
The Chineese monk Fa Hiun's records (399-414 A.D.) states a lot about Sri Lankan society in Anuradhpura days. Also, Hudud al alam written around 982 AD, states,
"There is a large city called Muvas; it is situated at the extremity which lies towards Hindustan. Whatever this island produces is carried to that city and therefore to the cities of the world".
There are much more indirect evidence on usage of ports.
Spices used in Pharotic times did not originate in Africa but in Eastern lands e.g.-black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, clove...
The Indian chronicleRajatharanganee states that India imported Sri Lankan- made silk cloths and garments, for the use of their kings 200 years before Vijaya came. "Perplexes of Eritrean seas" (Gr.) produce similar evidence. Even Mahavansa states that natives were weaving cotton garments when Vijaya sees them for the first time.
Common believes and art e.g.-Ghandara style Buddha statues in Afghanistan/Sri Lanka, places of worship of Greeks in Sri Lanka...
Vast number of ports around the country. e.g.-Gokanna(Trincmalee), Jambucola pattana( Dambakola patuna), Maha Thiththa....
Indo, Roman , Chineese, Greek coins found in Abhayagiriya temple complex(Anuradhapura), coins and Porcelain-ware at port cities proves of an international trade center.
Maps of Sri Lanka by Ptolemy(Greek)