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 Post subject: Trade and travel in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Tue Dec 23, 2008 2:54 am 
Trade and travel in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

by Kamalika Pieris
@ The Island - Mar 2008


Sri Lanka was in a unique geographical position. It was at the point of intersection of the sea-lanes and maritime trade routes that went across the Indian Ocean. It was accessible on all sides and was very centrally placed. V.L.B. Mendis points out that few countries in the world could claim so central a location. Due to this, Sri Lanka was an active participant in international trade, throughout the ancient and medieval periods. This brought in a continuous stream of foreigners.

Sri Lanka was a centre of transit trade throughout the ancient and medieval period. Ptolemy noted that Sri Lanka occupied an important position in the trade circuit. The western trade segment was first handled by Rome, then by Persia and Ethiopia. Sri Lanka was a part of their network. From the 8th century, the western segment was in the hands of the Arabs. Arab writings show that Sri Lanka continued to be a centre of international trade. China entered the trade network, in the 12th century. This caused a major upheaval in the trade network and by the 13th century, east-west trade was dominated by China and India. Sri Lanka continued to be a part of the trade route and its ports continued to generate revenue.

From the 4th to the 7th century AD, Sri Lanka was the main trade emporium for east-west trade. The Egyptian monk Cosmos Indicopleustus writing in the 6th century said that Sri Lanka was the most important entrepot in South Asia during this time. He described Sri Lanka as ‘the great emporium which was connected by seaways with trading marts over the world.’ Merchants of Persia, Ethiopia, China and India exchanged their commodities in Sri Lanka. The goods that were exchanged in Sri Lanka included ceramics and silks from China, gold, pearls, precious stones, spices and fabrics from India, wines, fabrics, glass, ceramics, perfume and horses from Egypt and Persia. Horses were imported from Sind, Oman and Fars. Idrisi, who was a contemporary of Parakrama Bahu I says, wine from Iraq was imported for the ruler of Serendib, who purchased it with his wealth to be resold in his country.

Foreign merchants and their agents were in Sri Lanka from the ancient period onwards. Fa Hsien (5th century), said that foreign traders were resident in Anuradhapura. Historical records indicate that there was a separate quarter in Anuradhapura for them. Persians had established a settlement in Sri Lanka around the 6th century AD. The Indian Buddhist monk, Vajrabodhi who lived in the 7th century saw a fleet of 35 Persian ships at Mantota waiting to sail for China. Records indicate that Sri Lanka had a Persian Christian (Nestorian) church and a presbyter appointed from Persia. A Persian inscription, two stone carvings of Nestorian crosses and three seal impressions have been found. According to Cosmas, there were Ethiopians in Sri Lanka.

The Arabs who replaced the Persians also used Sri Lanka as a base for their operations. There were Arab settlements in the ports of Sri Lanka. Arab coins dating from 8th century onwards have been found. Foreign merchants continued to visit in the medieval period too. The merchants were made welcome and provided with the necessary facilities. Arab texts show how much they enjoyed their stay in Sri Lanka. The Devinuwara inscription of Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) placed restrictions on foreign merchants setting up business in Sri Lanka.

I wish to point out that foreign trade took place in all four quarters of the island. Some of it took place inland. Persian pottery and Roman coins have been found in the gardens of Sigiriya. Chinese coins of every emperor from 976 AD to 1265 AD were found at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Panduvasnuvara, Dedigama, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala and Alutwewa. Large hoards of Roman coins, dated between the fourth and seventh centuries, were found near Colombo, Balapitiya, Matara and Debaraveva. Some hoards contained more than a thousand coins. I suggest that foreign merchants or their foreign agents would have stationed themselves in these places.

The seaports were an important source for foreign contacts. The ports had facilities for long stay. The sailors needed stopovers and traders needed trade centres where they could stay for some time. Merchants also had to stay long at the principal ports. Port cities were used as a meeting place for traders, sailors and travellers. By the 6th century AD, Mantota was a very cosmopolitan city. In the 11th century, ships from Oman and Yemen came to Sri Lanka to place orders for ships to be built in Sri Lanka and to obtain replacement material for ships, such as rope, trunks of coconut trees for masts and timber for planing. A letter preserved in the Cairo Geniza dated 1130 AD says that a merchant in Aden constructed ships and sent goods in them to Sri Lanka. The letter says that three Jewish goldsmiths also travelled in this ship.

Foreign contacts were also made by the Sinhala merchants who went overseas in pursuit of trade. Sahassavatthu pakarana ( pre-5th century), speaks of a merchant residing in Mantota, named Nandi, who undertook trade expeditions lasting as long as three years. The Tiriyaya rock inscription, dated to the latter part of the 7th century, or beginning of 8th, speaks of companies of merchants who were skilful in navigating the sea and in buying and selling. They had sailing vessels of diverse sorts which were laden with goods. These merchants acted as conduits for new ideas. During the reign of Silakala, (518-531) a merchant named Purna who had gone on business to Benares brought back from India, a book on the Mahayana doctrine. The King received it reverently, and had a festival in its honour at Jetavana.

V.L.B. Mendis says that Sinhala traders went to Ethiopia. He says the merchants at Adulis included Sinhala merchants. Adulis was a cosmopolitan centre visited by foreign merchants from India, the Middle East and Egypt. Moira Tampoe says that Sinhalese merchants were visiting China up to the 8th century. There are records of Sri Lanka ships in China in the 8th century. One of the Sinhala envoys to Rome had said that his father had gone on several trips to China. Li Chao speaks of visits paid every year by Sinhala ships to Vietnam and China. This is supported by the statement of Kientchen (Tang period). Li Chao said that the Sinhalese were in the habit of visiting and stopping over at Canton. There was a single run from Mantota to Kunlun in Malaysia, a longer run all the way to China. There were also visits to ports in between.

The Sinhala trader visited India. The Mahavamsa relates how a young merchant of the sixth century went to Baranasi in north India for trade. Pottery inscribed in Sinhala prakrit, dated from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD, was found at Arikamedu, Kodumanal, Algankulam and Kaveripattnam on the south-east coast of India. This confirms the presence of Sinhala traders at these seaports. Liyanagamage says there is a South Indian inscription which refers to merchants of Sri Lanka who had camped in a place called Asittapatti in South India. Parakramabahu VI (1412-1467) invaded a port in Tanjore, South India, because Sinhala traders had been humiliated there.

The text of Akhbar-al-Sin-w-al-Hind indicated that in the medieval period, some places in Southeast Asia were visited by trade expeditions from Sri Lanka, independent of the China route. The text says that ships reached Kalah, which was on the west coast of Malaya peninsula, via Nicobar. Sri Lanka merchants used to frequent Javanese ports in Surabaya region in the 11th century. An inscription from east Java, dated 1021, showed that Sinhala traders were in Java. The Balawi inscription dated 1305 mentions Sinhala traders. Rasavahini (13th century) refers to a merchant of Anuradhapura who went to Burma for trade. W.M. Sirisena says that in the 12 century, the upper peninsula of south east Asia became the centre of interaction among the Sinhalese, Burmese and the Khmers.

The seaports of Sri Lanka were used for travel in the region. Sri Lanka was a point of embarkation for travel to places within Asia. Travellers to India and China took ship from Sri Lanka. Jambukola was used for travel to India. Sri Lanka was also a port of call. Cheng Ho and his Chinese fleet made seven expeditions between 1405- 1432 in the Indian Ocean. He used Galle as at port of call on at least six of these visits.

The Sinhalese were themselves a seafaring people. They had their own ships and were skilled at navigation. They travelled to other kingdoms. They went to India. The Maligatenna inscription, given in very early Brahmi script indicates that Sri Lanka mariners engaged in voyages to western part of India. Another inscription refers to a mariner who frequently travelled to Broach (Bharukachcha) in Gujarat. Broach was a popular trading centre in the 3rd century BC. Andiyagala inscription dated to 250 BC refers to a visit to the present Bhojpur in Bhopal.

Sinhala and Pali texts of the medieval period, such as Samantapasadika, Manorathapurani, Rasavahini, and Saddharmalankaraya speak of Sinhalese who sailed to Southeast Asian kingdoms. The Sinhalese travelled to Indonesia. The Sri Vijaya kingdom which included present Java, Sumatra and Kedah, was a strong ally of Ceylon. An inscription dated 883 AD, from Central Java includes Sinhalese in its list of foreigners. A later Javanese inscription dated 927 AD also mentions Sinhala persons. An 11th century record of Javanese king Airlanga refers to Sinhalese as one of the communities who lived in Java.

The Sinhalese also settled in Thailand. a Mon inscription dated 550-650 AD, found in the Narai cave, in present day Saraburi province of Thailand mentions that ‘town people from Anuradhapura’ were settled in the Dvaravati kingdom. An inscription dated to 1344 says that Sinhalese laymen were living in five villages in Sukhodaya. I suggest that these immigrants would have kept up their link with Sri Lanka.

Foreign travel was not confined to seafaring. There were land routes as well. Between the 3rd century BC and 4th century AD, India became criss-crossed by trade routes which extended into central Asia and western Asia. The most widely used highway went westwards from Taxila to Kabul, from where it went in various directions to different ports in western Asia. There was an overland trade route from these ports to the Mediterranean countries. Travellers avoided mountains and the rainy season. They followed highways, the river valleys and the coast. In south India, Andhra Pradesh provided routes into the peninsula. It had roads which led to Karnataka, to Maharashtra and to north east India via Kalinga.

The ancient Sinhalese used the land routes. The Dipavamsa indicates that initially, travellers to India crossed the Palk Strait and proceeded on the land route. Pliny (24-29BC) said that Sri Lankans had gone to China by land, long before they went by sea. In 405, the Sri Lankan envoy went to China overland, via India and Central Asia. Kiribamune says that the Sinhalese seem to have used the land route through Burma to Cambodia during the time of Parakrama bahu I.


(The writings of S Deraniyagala, L Dewaraja, M. Prickett Fernando, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, S. Kiribamune, V.L.B. Mendis, C.W. Nicholas, W.M. Sirisena, W.I.Siriweera, M. Tampoe, R. Thapar, Walpola Rahula, D.P.M. Weerakkody, S.G.M. Weerasinghe, and M. Werake were used for this essay.)


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