Diplomacy in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
The first recorded encounter between Rome and Sri Lanka took place during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius (41-54. AD). Pliny says that a Roman collector of Red Sea dues under Emperor Claudius was stranded in Sri Lanka. On his return, he was accompanied by four envoys sent by the Sinhala king to the Roman emperor. In Rome they had talked of travel and discussed the position of the star Canopius in the Mediterranean sky. Canopius is the star which guided the ships navigated in the Indian Ocean.
by Kamalika Peiris - Dec 2008
Sri Lanka was a recognised sovereign state from early times. It had diplomatic relations with several foreign kingdoms. According to R.A.L.H. Gunawardana Sri Lanka had diplomatic and trade relations with the major civilisations of the world. This included Rome, Byzantium, Auxumite kingdom of North-eastern Africa, Egypt, and the Arab world
The first recorded encounter between Rome and Sri Lanka took place during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius (41-54. AD). Pliny says that a Roman collector of Red Sea dues under Emperor Claudius was stranded in Sri Lanka. On his return, he was accompanied by four envoys sent by the Sinhala king to the Roman emperor. In Rome they had talked of travel and discussed the position of the star Canopius in the Mediterranean sky. Canopius is the star which guided the ships navigated in the Indian Ocean. However, D.P.M.Weerakkody thinks that this text has been misinterpreted and that the Sinhala envoys never went to Rome.
Bhatika Abhaya (22 BC- 07 AD) had sent to Rome and got down coral for the Mahathupa. An embassy from Sri Lanka was said to have been received by Roman emperor Julian in 361 AD. Palladus writing in the 5th century said that the Sinhala king was a very powerful monarch. Coins of Byzantine rulers up to Heraclitus (613-641 AD) have been found in Sri Lanka.
There had been diplomatic relations with Persia. Several Arab records speak of an embassy sent to Iranian king Khusraw I (531-78 AD), also known as Anusharwan. The date is not known. Anusharwan's rule extended over six Sinhala kings. One record says the Sinhala king sent ten elephants, two hundred thousand pieces of teak wood and seven pearl divers to the king.
Sri Lanka appears to have been held in high esteem by Persians. Almost all Persian poets, including the national poet Firdwasi (1020 AD) had referred to Sri Lanka. Buzurg Ibn Shahryar, a Persian navigator of the 10th century AD, makes reference in his ‘Ajaib at Hindi’ (Marvels of India) to the treatment of snake bite and other ailments known in Sri Lanka. The ‘Rose garden’ (Gulistan) by Sadi of Shiraz (1291 AD) refers to a physician who had arrived from Sarandib who was able to restore sight to the blind.
Buzurg Ibn Shahryar has recorded that in the 7th century, the Sinhala king (probably Aggabodhi III) had sent an embassy to the Prophet Mohammad. By the time the envoy reached Medina the Prophet as well as the first Caliph had died, so he had met the Caliph Umar. On the return journey the envoy also had died, and his servant returned to present a report to the Sinhala king.
The Muslim writer Al-Biladuri has stated that in the 8th century, the Sinhala king had sent to the Caliph the orphaned daughters of merchants who had died in the island. Buvanekabahu (1272-1284) sent away the ambassador from Yemen saying that he wanted diplomatic contacts with Egypt instead. He sent an envoy by ship to meet the Sultan of Egypt. He wanted embassies in Sri Lanka and at Aden.
India and China are emerging as the dominant economic and political powers of the 21st century. It is therefore relevant to note that Sri Lanka had good relations with north India and China in the pre-modern period. Vernon Mendis commented that India, China and Sri Lanka were the three foremost civilisations in Asia at this time. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh were originally a part of north India. Eastern Afghanistan for example was considered politically and culturally as a part of north-western India.
The Sinhala kings have been very selective in his contact with Indian kingdoms. They seem to have selected only the most powerful or the most useful of the Indian kingdoms. North India had two powerful empires, Maurya (321- 185 BC) and Gupta (320- 510 AD).The Sinhala kings were in touch with the best of the Maurya and Gupta kings. Devanampiyatissa sent an embassy to king Dharmasoka, the greatest of the Maurya kings. Sri Meghavanna (301-328) contacted king Samudragupta. Samudragupta was the greatest of the Gupta kings. The embassy to Samudragupta is mentioned in a Chinese account.
The Sinhala kings were very selective in south India as well. The Sinhala dynasty had friendly relations with the greatest of the Pallava kings, Narasimhavarman I also known as Mahamalla. (630-668).The Pallava dynasty had north Indian connections. The Sinhala kings also had friendly relations with the kings of Kalinga (Orissa). Vijayabahu I had links with Orissa and Karnataka. He sent offerings to Mahabodhi at Buddha Gaya. Nissankamalla entered into friendly relations with Mysore, Nellore, Bengal, Orissa, Andhra and Gujarat. Vijayabahu IV (1270-1272) had Rajput mercenaries. They refused to fight against Bhuvaneka bahu I saying he was the legitimate successor.
China and Sri Lanka had established relations as early as the 1st century AD. There are records of contact between the 1st and the 5th centuries. That may be the reason why some of Sigiriya’s well-endowed women have Chinese and Mongolian features. The Sinhala kings communicated with the Chinese emperors. Mahanama (406-428) wrote a letter to the Chinese emperor. The letter indicated that the Sri Lanka king was well aware of developments in China. Dhatusena had sent a letter to the Chinese king around 456 AD. Kumara Dhatusena (508-516) had sent a message to the Chinese king on his (Kumara’s) coronation, and said he would love to visit China.
There were numerous diplomatic missions to China dating from the time of King Gajabahu I (114-136). There were six recorded missions between 618-905, of which four were during the time of Aggabodhi VI (733-772). Chinese coins belonged to every emperor from 976 AD to 1265 AD have been found in Sri Lanka. Envoys were sent regularly to China in 13th and 14th centuries. Chinese records indicate that China offered to help the Sinhala king get back the tooth relic when in 1284 Pandya king Maravarman Kulasekhara (1268-1310) got hold of it.
Between 1273 and 1294, there were five missions. Parakrama bahu VI (1412- 1467) dispatched six missions. Kavyasekera says that there were Chinese soldiers in the army of Parakrama bahu III (1287-1293). China has shown respect for Sri Lanka. When Cheng Ho, an envoy of the Chinese emperor was attacked in Sri Lanka, in the 15th century, China took a lenient view. Instead of beheading the Sinhala offenders, who were taken to China, they sent them back with food and clothes.
The greatest bond between China and Sri Lanka was that of Buddhism. Mahanama in his message to the Chinese emperor said that a government based on Buddhist principles is the ideal government and said that the bond of friendship between the two countries was based on their adherence to the Triple Gem. Silakala (518-531) in his message to China said that despite the great distance between Sri Lanka and China, there was awareness in Sri Lanka regarding the developments in China. Silakala was also adhering to the dhamma and wished that the relationship between the two countries would strengthen with the blessing of the Triple Gem. Mahayana Buddhism was flourishing in Sri Lanka at that time and Silakala’s contemporary in China, Emperor Wu was an ardent supporter of Buddhism
Southeast Asia started to develop stable kingdoms only in the medieval period. Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) initiated diplomatic relations with King Anauratha (1044- 1077) of Myanamar (Burma). The two countries also exchanged envoys. Vijayabahu sought Anauratha’s help in the war against the Colas. Anauratha responded with economic aid. He sent a shipload of goods. Vijayabahu I sent relics to the Burmese king. He obtained Buddhist ordination from Myanmar in order to re-establish the sangha after the Cola occupation.
Parakramabahu (1153-1186) kept up the link. In 1167, Ven. Panthagu, the sangharaja of Myanmar sought refuge in Sri Lanka and stayed for six years He had left Burma in disgust because king Narathu had poisoned his elder brother who was the legitimate heir to the throne. Nissankamalla (1187-1196) sent relics to Myanmar. Vijayabahu II (1186-1187) had friendly relations with the Burmese king. He had written him a letter in Pali. King Narapati of Ava (1433-1469) sent offerings of gold and precious stones to the Tooth relic and bought some land in Sri Lanka to provide accommodation for Burmese monks visiting Sri Lanka. His successor King Thihathura (1469-1481) and his queen made a broom using their hair, studded its handle with gems, and sent it to sweep the floor of the tooth relic temple in Kotte.
There were diplomatic links with Thailand. Records indicate that King Indraditya of Sukhodaya (now a part of Thailand) communicated with Parakrama bahu II (1236- 1270). Sri Lanka also had diplomatic relations with Cambodia. A Sinhalese princess was sent to Cambodia during the time of Parakramabahu I. An inscription of Nissanka malla shows that he was friendly with Cambodia. The son of Cambodian king Jayavarman VII. (1181-1219.) studied Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Historians note that diplomacy was linked to trade. During the 11th and 12th centuries Cambodia played an important part in the regional trade of Southeast Asia. Burma and Cambodia were rivals in trade.
Sri Lanka’s knowledge of foreign kingdoms seemed to have expanded as time went on. Dambadeni asna which deals with the life of Parakrama bahu II (1302-1326) mentions sixty countries. Parakumba sirita, written on Parakrama bahu VI (1470-1478) also refers to many countries, including ‘Hingula’. This is considered to be Korea since in Korean language it was known as Hangul.
The writings of Hema Goonetilake, P.A.T. Gunasinghe, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, S.A. Imam, S. Kiribamune, R.C. Majumdar, S .Paranavitana, W.M. Sirisena, W.I. Siriweera, R Thapar, M. Tampoe, D.P.M. Weerakkody, S.G.M. Weerasinghe, M. Werake and N. Wijesekera were used for this essay.