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 Post subject: Lands in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sat Dec 20, 2008 1:25 pm 
Lands in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

Eppawela inscription (10th century) refers to a sale of one paya of paddy land for eight kalanda by Velatme Mihindu to Ukunuhasa Kotta. Galapatavihara rock inscription (13 century) states that Demela Adhikari Mahinda and his family bought some plots of land from some persons.

@ The Island - 13 Dec 2008
by Kamalika Pieris


Land ownership, property rights, and tenancy regulations in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka differed from those in modern Sri Lanka. It was more complex and varied. The gradation between ownership and tenancy were so subtle that it is sometimes difficult to know exactly where to draw the line between the two.

Historians have had great difficulty researching into land ownership and proprietor ship because the terminology is not clear. The land and water regulations contain many obscure or ambiguous terms. These would of course have made sense to those living at the time. For example, even the term ‘gama’ had more than one meaning. It could mean either a collection of landholdings or a plot of land demarcated by boundaries. The term ‘gamwara’ meant both a holding which covered a whole village and a holding amounting to a small plot of land. The inscriptions do not provide a clear distinction between income, proprietor share and taxes either.

There was private ownership of land. Women also enjoyed this right. The public had the right to buy, sell, or gift the lands they owned. The king had no rights over these lands except to review certain taxes periodically. Eppawela inscription (10th century) refers to a sale of one paya of paddy land for eight kalanda by Velatme Mihindu to Ukunuhasa Kotta. Galapatavihara rock inscription (13 century) states that Demela Adhikari Mahinda and his family bought some plots of land from some persons. Piligama inscription says that the commander and soldiers in an army camp bought a piece of paddy land and donated it to the Pahanabena temple. Land could also be mortgaged. Medieval literature refers to the mortgage (ukas) of immovable property.

The king respected private ownership. He was a land owner himself. Mahavamsa refers to a plot of land which belonged to the family of king Kutakanna Tissa. Gajabahu funded a nunnery on a plot of land belonging to his family. . The king bought land from the public. Gajabahu I, Kumara Dhatusena and Nissankamalla bought lands from various individuals and donated them to the sangha. This shows that owners could not be dispossessed even by the king. Owners did not need the king’s permission to dispose of property either. Inscriptions recording donations do not say anything about permission from the king.

There was joint ownership of land. The grant recorded at Galapita vihara (13 century,) was made by Midalna, his mother, two nephews and another relative. In another inscription, one share belonged to the father and the other seemed to be owned by the family. Hinguregala inscription stated that the monastery had purchased fields from a company of solders stationed at a military camp. It appears that the fields were the common property of the entire garrison. Payment for each field was made to a separate group of soldiers with an officer at their head.

Land could be inherited. Ownership passed on at death to the children by inheritance. Rambava slab inscription (10 century) states that the king had made a land grant to be enjoyed by the recipient, his children, grand children and their descendants. Occupation was considered a claim to land. Mahavamsa states that when king Mahasena wanted to takeover some abandoned land the Mahavihara monks had said that they were in occupation. Seven monks were hiding there in an underground room.

There were royal land grants which carried full rights of ownership. Sagama inscription refers to a grass land that had been granted under the kings’ seal. A goldsmith in service of Parakrama bahu VI was given a plot of land in return for his services. The land grants between 9th and 12th centuries often came with immunities and exemption from taxes.

There were permanent land grants carrying heritable rights in perpetuity which were known from the 9th century onwards as ‘pamunu’ lands. These grants were recorded on rock and pillar inscriptions or as copper plate grants. Pamunu lands were sometimes given as rewards. Kottanage inscription records that king Sirisangabo granted pamunu properties to general Arakmena for his valour in expelling the Colas.

Parakramabahu I gave pamunu land to Kit Nuvaragal to be held in hereditary succession. Nissankamalla made a grant of land to an officer and expressly stated that the land should be held by him and his descendants in perpetuity. A minister in the court of Parakramabahu II, Devapatiraja, cleared a forest, planted a grove of jak trees and settled a village. This village was granted to him in pamunu. Pamunu lands could be donated to charitable institutions.

As in a modern deed, names of donors, recipients and witnesses giving their identity and occupations re recorded. The precise boundaries of the land are stated. The description of boundaries begin from east and go on to south west and north. Boundary stones were set up. Pamunu were subject to no service, except when the king stipulated some contribution such as oil, rice, ginger or money to a temple. In the middle of the 14th century, the term ‘pamunu’ changed to ‘paraveni.’

Certain lands were set aside for service tenure. These were given to royal officials and also to those who performed service at the palace. The lands were held only for the period of service. From the 11th to 16th century these lands were known as divel. Size of the divel holding depended upon the status of the officer. Higher officers received extensive land grants. There were divel poth which showed detail of every individual divel holding and of the service or dues for which the divel holders were liable. This seems to have been maintained by a government department. According to the Gadaladeniya inscription (1344) divel rights could be donated to the temple.

No taxes were paid on divel but sometimes they had to pay a gratuity fee to a charitable institute. Service tenure meant that the king did not have to pay a salary. If the office was a hereditary one, the relation between the officer and his tenant was amicable. When the connection remained unbroken for several generations it gave rise to strong feelings of attachment and loyalty on the part of villagers.

The monasteries owned extensive tracts of land, known as temple lands. Many of these were donations from king and public. Monasteries were not expected to sell these lands. Temples also held lands jointly with private individuals. Monasteries used some of these lands for service tenure. The carpenters, potters, stone cutters and goldsmiths, who worked for Mihintale and Abhayagiri, were given specific amounts of land. Temple workers also got land. Stone cutters and carpenters were allotted one and a half kiri of wet land as well as a plot of dry land for ‘inferior’ grain. The supervisor also got a plot of land on similar terms.

There was considerable flexibility in the enjoyment of land rights. The king could transfer the tax owing to him from a tract of land, leaving the original holders of the land undisturbed. Mihintale pillar inscriptions dated to Sena II says that certain dues in respect of plots of land which had been previously enjoyed by the royal family were now donated to the Sagiri monastery. Gadaladeniya inscription (1344) records that a certain Anura Attara granted land to the image house, but reserved certain rights in the land for his relatives to enjoy provided they paid some dues to the image house.

Property was transferred through deeds. There was the ‘hasin pamunu’ and the ‘divel patkada.’ Ruvanwelisaya inscription of Kanitthatissa says that deeds should be deposited in royal archives. Boundaries were demarcated when land was transferred. Bakkiela inscription tells us that king Lanjatissa built a priory called Sajani and demarcated the limits by ploughing with a plough of gold.

Land transactions were based on precisely measured areas or definite extents. Mahadathika Mahanaga donated to a vihara, a tract of land half a yojana round. Vasabha donated a thousand and eight karisas of land to a vihara. Later the terms ‘keta’ and ‘kumbura’ were used to indicate extent. In the medieval period land was measured in terms of amuna. One amuna was subdivided into four pala.

Agricultural lands appear to have been divided into equal portions. King Buddhadasa allotted the produce of ten fields to each physician. This implies certain uniformity in the fields. Agricultural land was measured according to sowing extent as well. From the 13th century onwards, land was farmed out to the middleman using the ‘ande’ system. The tenant cultivated a plot of land held by another, and paid a part of the crop to the owner. Regulations protected the cultivator from being ejected by the leaseholder. Disputes were settled in consultation with other tenants. The ande cultivator was penalised for negligence in cultivation.

Abandoned and ownerless land belonged to the king. The king also had authority over jungle and waste lands. He could get them cleared and cultivated. The king could transfer such properties to any individual or institutions he desired. . Aggabodhi I granted a coconut garden he had planted to the Kurunda monastery.


Confiscation of land was regarded as a royal prerogative. The king could confiscate the property of offenders who had committed heinous crimes, especially treason. Dhatusena confiscated the property of those who had supported the Tamils against him. Inscriptions provide plenty of evidence to show that confiscation was used as a deterrent. There were exceptions as well. Panakaduva copper plate stated that the lands granted in gratitude to Budalvan by Vijaybahu I could not be confiscated even if the owners committed offences.

There was proprietary ownership over villages. A whole village could belong to an individual or institution. Parakrama bahu I had reserved a number of villages for royal use. They were known as ‘rajabhoga’. After the 17th century these were known as gabadagam. A person named Mahaya Kitambava owned a village. Udaya I converted it to a descendible property and also gave it immunities. King Kavantissa gave a village as batgama to Nandimitta. Jetthatissa I gave Magama as a batgama to his minister Sangha. A person who received a village or estate as his fief was known as ‘gamladdan’

The temples also received donations of villages. These were known as ‘revenue’ or ‘maintenance’ villages.’ (bhogagama) .There is a spate of such grants beginning with king Buddhadasa. Kasssapa I is said to have purchase a whole village and granted it to a vihara. Jettatissa III granted as many as ten villages as ‘revenue’ villages to viharas, for the supply of food. He assigned to Kassapagiri vihara the village of Ambilapika. Udaya II made out of the poor revenue village of Ussanavitthi a rich one. This probably means that he made the village more productive. Vijayabahu I granted the whole district of Alisara to a temple, together with the services of the people living there. Lankatilaka inscription records a land grant which included the services of the people living there.

Villagers in temple lands were exempted from service to the king. L.S.Perera thinks that the responsibility for cultivation lay with the villagers. The vihara sometimes sold its rights out to people. The queen of Udaya I redeemed villages which had been sold and returned the villages to the vihara in question. What was sold was the right to the village. The people in the village would have remained.

Tanks and canals had owners. Samantapasadika refers to communally owned reservoirs constructed by villagers. There was also private ownership of tanks. Kanittha tissa and Kumara Dhatusena owned tanks. . Tanks could be bought, sold or donated. Veheragala inscription stated that Subha bought Upaladonika tank for five hundred kahapanas. Bakkiela inscription recorded that a reservoir named Abala Ketavi had been bought by Lanjatissa to be donated to a vihara. Nagirikanda inscriptions records that Kumaradasa purchased four vevasaras for donating to sangha. the king probably provided the water free to the tanks held by the sangha. Tanks granted to individuals carried a quit rent, but grants to sangha were exempted from this.

There were small privately owned canals, which branched off form the main canals and took water to privately owned fields. These channels passed through the paddy field and some skirted around the paddy fields. The fish bred in these were also considered to be private property. Inscriptions of Kanitta tissa refers to the right to the fish in tanks and canals. This right had a name ‘matera majibaka.’ These fishing rights could be inherited or purchased.

There is a special complication in the case of tanks and canals which does not arise with land. Irrigation systems were linked. Water went from rivers to storage tanks to smaller tanks, to village tanks and canals and then to the fields. The tanks and canals would therefore be using water which came from other tanks and canals. Perera thinks the larger tanks would have belonged do the king while the fields belonged to the cultivators. Historians who looked into this subject note that in the case of irrigation lands, and lands involving service obligations, a multi cantered and complex pattern has emerged, instead of a highly centralized, autocratic model.


The writings of M.B.Ariyapala, M Dias, and A.S .Hettiarachchi, T. Hettiarachchy, N. Mudiyanse, C.W. Nicholas, L.S.Perera, M.H.Sirisoma, W.I. Siriweera and S.G.M. Weerasinghe were used for this essay.


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