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 Post subject: Gunpowder and firepower of ancient Sri lanka
 Post Posted: Wed Jan 03, 2007 3:38 am 
Gunpowder and firepower of ancient Sri lanka
Ancient document provides evidence of Gun licensing 700 years ago in ceylon

This ancient Copper Plate inscription had been in the possession of the Herath Gunaratne family for 696 years before it came to be handed over to the government archivist for safekeeping. The document granted by King Parakrama Bahu IV (1302-1326) of Dambadeniya dated "the 10th day of the waxing moon of the month of Binara, in the Saka year of 1224" (1302 AC). This king was also known as King Pandita Parakrama Bahu II. The fact that this unusual grant was made in the same year that he came to the throne may indicate that these services had helped him to reach that goal.

by D. G. A Perera / 1999 Island
Life Member, Royal Asiatic Society, Sri Lanka


Some scholars like H. W. Codrington and Professor Senarat Paranavitana may have known that gunpowder was used in warfare before the Portuguese came, here but they may not have had concrete evidence to prove it. Whatever opinion they may have expressed about the subject, has been largely ignored. Therefore, would not one be surprised when confronted with an ancient document issued under the royal seal of a monarch of Sri Lanka nearly seven hundred years ago, that he had exempted some people paying taxes due to the State for licensing their guns?

This ancient Copper Plate inscription had been in the possession of the Herath Gunaratne family for 696 years before it came to be handed over to the government archivist for safekeeping. It had been issued to their great, great, ancestor by the king for services of a special nature mentioned there. What is so remarkable about it is the statement that he and his descendants had been exempted from paying taxes due to the State (among other things) for gun licenses about 200 years before the arrival of the Portuguese!

King Parakrama Bahu IV (1302-1326) of Dambadeniya had made this grant of Nindagam and immunities, for special services rendered by two persons who were also conferred the titles of Sri Lanka Herath Hamy (Lord) of Yatikaha-bada-Delana and Kacca-Kaduve Patiraja Mudali, respectively. The document is dated "the 10th day of the waxing moon of the month of Binara, in the Saka year of 1224 (1302 AC). This king was also known as King Pandita Parakrama Bahu II. The fact that this unusual grant was made in the same year that he came to the throne may indicate that these services had helped him to reach that goal.

"The two persons (aforesaid) are (declared) exempt from taxes in respect of dairy produce, death duties, gun licenses, oxen and buffaloes and official duties," says the clause relevant to our purpose.

The state archivist has not expressed any doubt about the authenticity of this copper plate inscription. It is now in the safe custody of the Director of Archives Dr. K. D. G. Wimalaratne, to whom it has been handed over recently by Dr. C. D. Herath Gunaratne who states that he had taken it from the iron safe at Galmuruwa Walauwa where it had been always kept. (This is in the village of Galmuruwa near Madampe mentioned in this grant.) The Sinhala copy and English translation has been provided by no less a scholar than Professor Nandasena Mudiyanse who is well known for his numerous publications pertaining to the medieval history of Sri Lanka.

(This Dr. Herath Gunaratne is the brother of the late Dr. Victor Herath Gunaratne of W.H.O. fame. Few indeed would be the number of people anywhere in the world who could claim direct descent from a family that old, and with such great authenticity).

The term translated as "gun licenses" is "kayi tuvakku" in the original document. Codrington gives "tuwakku aya" as the old term for gun licenses. Hence there could be some reservation about the meaning of the term "Kayi" in reference to "tuwakku" here. But there can be no doubt that the name ‘tuvakku’ for guns was in use during the Dambadenlya period of history. In the context in which it occurs, ‘Kayi tuvakku’ can hardly mean anything other than some kind of levy on the use of guns.

Sorata Thera traces the Sinhala word ‘tuvakku’ to its Turkish counterpart ‘tupak’. Winslow traces the source of the Indian Tamil word ‘tuppakki’ to Hindi, while he also says that in Jaffna, the term used in Tamil is ‘tuvakku’ - essentially the same as the Sinhala term. This is understandable, for up to the middle of the 16th century the population of Jaffna consisted largely of Sinhala people.

Hence, the Sinhala adaptation of the name as ‘tuvakku,’ (by substituting ‘v’ for ‘p’ appears to be from Turkish ‘tupak’ passed direct to us by Arab traders and not through the Indians. This is not so difficult to imagine, for connections with the Middle East were there during this time. For instance, King Bhuvaneka Bahu I who ruled from Yapahuva had sent an embassy to Egypt before this. It is on record that the Sultan of Egypt received it in the year 1283. (History of Ceylon, University of Ceylon 1960, (P 631)

But they say that the appearance of one swallow does not make it summer in England. So, should we accept this single instance of the Sinhala word for ‘guns’ as proof of the existence of firearms two centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese? If it was a fact, then why did our historians not mention it in our school history books before this? The problem appears to be that our historians for the period after the arrival of the Portuguese have relied too much on western (Portuguese, Dutch and English) sources which at best, give only one side of the story.

The Sinhala panegyric known as the Dambadeni Asna, on Parakrama Bahu II (1236-1270), was not meant to be a true history in the modern sense. But it does mention the two foreign invasions known to have taken place during that reign. It also mentions nine different kinds of firepower used for defeating the second of these invasions. This refers to the first and abortive attempt made by the king of Tambalingamu (The Javaka, Chandrabhanu) to get a foothold here in 1247 AC. As enumerated in the Dambadeni Asna, the kinds of firepower used on this occasion were:

1. Dum (smoke) vedi
2. Saera [arrow] vedi
3. Muna vedi (a copyist’s error for Mura vedi?)
4. Yaturu (machine) vedi
5. Gal (rock) vedi
6. Gini [flare] vedi
7. Sabda (sound-effect) vedi
8. Vala (trailing) vedi
9. Maha (big) vedi

Scholars may argue that this cannot be accepted as a true statement of the variety of firepower (vedi) available to the Sinhala people so early as 1247 AC. But it does confirm that the use of gunpowder (first used in China in the 9th century), was known in this country by the middle of the 13th century. Local villagers soon learnt to make their own gunpowder. Sulphur was easily imported as it always had been for ayurvedic medicine. They had learnt to extract saltpetre from deposits of bat dung in ancient caves (e.g. Nitre Cave,) even before this. No finer charcoal for making gunpowder could be got from anywhere, than by burning the wood of the common Geduma tree (Trema orientale). The Arabs are credited with making the first guns early in the 14th century, about the same time, or just prior to our copper plate inscription.

The fact that gunpowder could be made locally at this time, also confirms the fact mentioned in our copper plate, that about the year 1302 AC some kind of gun (tuvakkuva) was used in Sri Lanka, though it certainly was not so advanced as the ‘matchlock’ of the Portuguese. The latter type of gun was invented in Europe only about the year 1425. According to what Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia has to say, even in Europe at this time:

"The first hand gun was a rough metal tube closed at one end and fastened to a stick. It was loaded through the open end, with crude gunpowder and shot made from bits of stone or metal. One man held the gun by the stick and while another applied a smoldering fuse, or match, to a touch hole near the back of the tube. The gunpowder in the tube exploded generating gases that propelled the shot out of the tube."

This device was perhaps useful for stalking and killing wild animals but hardy practicable in warfare until two major improvements were made in the 1400s. These were (a) a curved stock with a butt to be placed against the shoulder and (b) a hammer like device for moving the match to a pan of priming powder near the touch hole and the ignited powder flashed through the touch hole firing the gun, which was then called a "matchlock". The "firelock" in which the burning match was replaced by a toothed wheel which that spun against a piece of flint to create the spark that ignited the powder is said to have been invented (in Germany) only in 1515 ten years after the arrival of the Portuguese in this island.

So Coutos’ statement that "there was not a single firelock in the whole island..." at the time they came on the scene (in 1505), is correct, because the Portuguese themselves did not have any firelocks then. The Sinhala people had no need for such clumsy weapons as the earlier type of gun, as their long-range bows and arrows were just as effective in battle. In hand to hand combat their swordsmanship was found to be superior to that of the Portuguese, as the latter often came to realize to their own cost.

The Sinhala armies also had no need to use cannon, for unlike in Europe at this time, there were no castle walls to breach here. There were hardly any walled fortresses in Sri Lanka during the Dambadeniya Period (except in Polonnaruwa city). But it was a fact that the Sinhala people had the technology to outstrip the Portuguese in making better guns, and better cannon. This is confirmed by the following statement put on record by them (with emphasis added):

"... at that time, there was not a single firelock in the whole island; and after we entered it, with the continual use of the war that we made on them, they became so dexterous as they are today, and came to cast the best and handsomest artillery in the world, and to make the finest firelocks, and better than ours, of which there are in the island today more than twenty thousand." [History of Ceylon - Barros & Couto 1597 p. 72.]

If we remember that Portugal at this time had an Empire that was in extent greater than that of Rome at any time, it is difficult to understand why some historians tend to regard the following statement by these Portuguese historians as an exaggeration:

"Since it falls to us to enter upon the wars of Ceilao (i.e. Ceylon] which since we discovered that island has always been to the state of India another Carthage to Rome, because, little by little, it has gone on consuming, in expenses, men and artillery, so much, that it alone swallowed up with its wars more than all the other conquests of the East." [ibid. p. 62)


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