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 Post subject: South Indian inflence in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Wed Dec 24, 2008 12:39 pm 
South Indian inflence in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

The kingdoms of present day Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa and Tamilnadu are considered to be the south Indian kingdoms of ancient and medieval India. Sri Lanka emerged as a stable kingdom long before the south Indian states had even started to get their act together. The Sinhala state was firmly established as a stable sovereign state by the 2nd century BC. The South Indian states emerged as discernible kingdoms only around the 6th century AD.

by Kamalika Pieris
@ The Island - Dec 2007


South India is defined as the area south of the Vindhya mountains. The kingdoms of present day Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa and Tamilnadu are considered to be the south Indian kingdoms of ancient and medieval India. Sri Lanka is right next to these states and looks, on the map, as though it would like to nestle against them. These south Indian states are bigger than Sri Lanka. It is assumed that they would also have been better than Sri Lanka and that Sri Lanka would have looked up to them. However, the available information does not support this view.

Sri Lanka emerged as a stable kingdom long before the south Indian states had even started to get their act together. The Sinhala state was firmly established as a stable sovereign state by the 2nd century BC. The South Indian states emerged as discernible kingdoms only around the 6th century AD. The known history of the Tamil kingdom, for instance, starts with the Pallava king Simhavishnu (555-590 AD.).

The south Indian states were not settled kingdoms with agreed boundaries and stable dynasties. They had a continuous history of conflict. The kings spent their time invading and fighting each other. This was the accepted norm. Aggrandizement was the ‘recognized duty of the ruler’ observed, Nilakanta Sastri. The ruler had to be a person who wished to conquer, and the result was frequent wars. Any Kshatriya who felt equal to the task of ruling a particular area, and didn’t hesitate to do so, was accepted as the ruler. These successful adventurers then gained respectability by having a fine royal court and patronizing learning.

The Dravidian states were ruled by a bewildering assortment of dynasties. These dynasties rose and fell and rose again. They were fairly equally balanced in political and military strength. The main dynasties had under them lesser chiefs and their followers. The Chalukya dynasty, which started in the 6th century, divided into two independent dynasties. They were the Kannada speaking western Chalukyas, with capitals at Badami and at Kalyani, and the Telegu speaking eastern Chalukyas ruling in Andhra Pradesh. Badami is in Karnataka. I think that Kalyani would have been in present day Maharashtra. The western Chalukya were ambitious and wanted to increase their territory. The Chalukya empire disappeared at the end of the 12th century.

The Rashtrakuta dynasty was established by Dantidurga, a feudal subject of the Chalukyas. He rebelled against the Chalukyas and ruled from Ellora. The Rashtrakutas ruled from 8th century to 10th century. the Yadavas of Devagiri (northern Deccan,) Kakatiyas of Warangal (Andhra Pradesh) and Hoysalas of Dorasmundra ruled from the 10th to the 13th century. Hoysalas started as hill chieftains. They took over small kingdoms from which they built up their own. Dorasmundra was near modern Mysore. The Tamil kingdom contained four major dynasties, Pallava, Chola, Pandya and Chera. Pallavas were based at Kanchi. Chola were in Tanjavur, Pandyas were in Madurai, Chera ruled in Cochin.

The dynasties fought each other continuously. The Chera, Cholas and Pandyas appear to have been continually at war with each other in the 1st and 2nd centuries. There were wars between the Western Chalukyas of Badami, the Pallavas of Kanchi and the Pandyas of Madura throughout the 6th to 9th centuries. All three dynasties rose to prominence in the 6th century and were constantly seeking to extend their empires. The eastern Chalukyas took sides in the conflicts.

Western Chalukyas and the Cholas fought during the 11th and 12th centuries. The frontier between the two kingdoms fluctuated around the Tungabhadra river. Chola king Kulottunga 1(1070-1122) and Chalukya king Vikramaditya VI (1076-1126), fought for about half a century. In the 13th century, there were wars between Pandya and Hoysala in the south, Kakatiya and Yadava in the north. Minor powers like the Telegu Chodas of Nellore also participated.

Because of these wars, the south Indian states did not have highly centralised governments. Nilakanta Sastri says the people ‘looked little to the state’ and the frequent political changes did not affect them. There was autonomy at the village and district level with little interference from the capital. This autonomy was preserved longest in the Tamil kingdom. Village assemblies and mercantile guilds functioned independent of the ruler. The maintenance of temples, roads and tanks and the distribution of water were done by village assemblies. Each kingdom or locality had its own system of currencies, weights and measures. Arab writers said that the south Indians were heavily taxed. The Sinhala kingdom on the other hand, was politically more advanced. It was highly centralized. The king was expected to ensure good governance and stability.

South Indian states did not emphasize record keeping and do not have clear histories. There is very little information available on the Tamil kingdom between 300AD to 600 AD. Much of the information on South Indian states is taken from copper plate charters. The history of the Pandyas from 7th to 10 century AD rests largely on two copper plate records. The Chalukyan history is almost completely based on copper plate charters. Some of the copper plate charters are suspect. Sri Lanka knew the value of records and tried to keep a systematic record of its political and religious history.

There was Sinhala influence in South India. Kerala legends say that Kerala was colonized by the Sinhalese. Kerala architecture was also influenced by Sri Lanka. Ashley de Vos says there is a strong similarity in architectural forms and designs. For some idea of what the roof of a vatadage looked like, he says, we only need to go to Kerala, where such a roof is preserved. He adds, "there is a theory that that the roof you find in Kerala went from Sri Lanka and not from Kerala to Sri Lanka."

K. Indrapala says that scholars studying the pottery graffiti from various sites in Tamilnadu found unmistakable evidence of the Sinhala language in Brahmi inscriptions. Potsherds found at Arikamedu, Alangulam, Kodumanal and Kaveripattnam, were in Sinhala Prakrit written in the Sinhala Brahmi script of 2nd century BC. S. Iracavely and P. Jeyakumar have independently stated that these show the influence of Sri Lankan Brahmin and Sinhalese Prakrit in the Tamil kingdom. Irthavan Mahadevan in his monumental work on Tamil epigraphy had also drawn attention to several instances of Sinhala influence in the brahmi inscriptions of Tamilnadu.

Sri Lanka was ahead of the South Indian states when it came to international trade. Sri Lanka was a part of the east-west trade network from around the second century. At one point, Sri Lanka was the main emporium for east west trade. South India could not compete because it had only a few good natural harbors. Most ports in South India were totally unsuitable in terms of natural features. Only Cochin, Goa and Bombay on the west coast offered ‘fairly safe anchorages for ships.’ Sri Lanka’s ports offered greater protection to ships than the ports of west or South India.

Sinhala traders had been active in South India from an early period. They were present in the seaports of Arikamedu, Kodumanal, Algankulam and Kaveripattnam from 2nd century BC to 1st century AD. 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 earliest inscriptions regarding merchants or maritime trade in South India are dated from the ninth century. Siriweera says that South Indian merchants traded at Mantota, Padaviya, Viharahinna, and Vahalkada between 8th and 13th centuries. Much prominence has been given to the mercantile organizations operating from south India in the 12th century. They include the Ainnurruvar based in Karnataka. But these organisations were not exclusively south Indian. The Anjuvannam based in Kerala consisted of west Asian traders, not south Indians. The Nandesis were ‘merchants from different countries.’

The Sinhala king had links with Orissa (Kalinga). During the reign of Moggallana II (531- 551) the king of Kalinga, his queen and a minister sought sanctuary in Sri Lanka, from the war in Kalinga. All three entered the Buddhist order and were provided with dwellings in three separate viharas. Vijayabahu I (1055-1110), married Tilokasundari of Kalinga (Orissa). Their son ruled as Vikramabahu I. Nissankamalla and Sahasamalla also came from Kalinga.

There were diplomatic links with Karnataka. When Vijayabahu I expelled the Cholas, the Western Chalukya king, Vikramaditya VI sent envoys and gifts. Vikramaditya VI was the greatest rival of the Chola king. The Chola king seized Vijayabahu’s envoys and maimed them. Vijayabahu summoned the Chola envoys and sent then back dressed in women’s clothing. There were marriage links with the Tamil kingdom. According to Nilakanta Sastri, Suttamalli, daughter of Chola king Kulottunaga I, (1070-1122) married Virapperumal, a Sinhalese prince. Vijayabahu’s sister Mitta married a Pandya prince. Parakrama bahu I was their grandson.

Sri Lanka had pleasant relations with the Pallavas. The Pallavas were the first major Tamil dynasty. They appear to have been a dynasty of north Indian origin which moved to the south. Their use of Prakrit indicates north Indian origin. Hardly anything is known of the early Pallavas. The known history starts with Simhavishnu (555-590). The Pallavas built up the first great empire south of the Tunghabadra river. This consisted of parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh as well as Tamilnadu. Later it became a purely Tamil kingdom.

Prince Manavamma, son of the Sinhala king Kassapa II, entered the service of Narasihavarman I (630-668) considered the greatest of the Pallava kings. Manavamma was joined by his wife and their three sons were born in the Pallava kingdom. Manavamma was given command of an army division. He proved to be a very able army commander and helped Narasihavarman defeat the Chalukyas when they invaded the Pallava kingdom. In return, Narasinhavarman supplied Manavamma with ships, army and equipment to challenge the ruling Sinhala king Dathopatissa II (Hattadatha). But before Manavamma could take over the throne, the army decided to return to India, since they heard that the Pallava king was seriously ill. Manavamma also went back to the Pallava court.

Manavamma returned to Sri Lanka twenty years later, with an army provided by Narasihavarman II. He defeated Dathopatissa, took the throne and ruled from 684 AD to 718 AD. Manavamma was succeeded by his three sons Aggabodhi V, Kassapa III and Mahinda I (730-733 AD). I think that the Pallava and Sinhala kings would have been friends in the royal period between 684 and733 AD.

However, the only evidence of this link is in Pallava style sculpture. There are very few of these. Most seem to be unfinished. There is the Gedige at Nalanda built of stone in 8th century Pallava style. This was a Mahayana shrine with Tantric leanings. This is the only example of a stone temple built in this period. At Isurumuniya there is a seated figure of a man and horse in 8th century Pallava style. It is in a difficult pose. There is a similar figure in a cave at Andiyagala. Isurumuniya also has high relief carvings of sporting elephants. There are more elephants in a tank near Isurumuniya. These carvings are dated to 7th or 8th century. I think that the Pallava sculptures and the Gedige were done by visiting Pallava craftsmen.

The Sinhala king readily meddled in the politics of Tamilnadu. Historians say that the Sinhala king was trying to maintain a balance of power in the Tamil kingdom. The Sinhala king supported the Pandya against Cholas and tried to place his nominee on the throne. This happened at least three times. The first was in the 9th century. The son of King Sri Vallabha rebelled against his father and sought the assistance of Sena II (853-887). Sena II sent an army to India under senapati Kuttaka. Kuttaka captured Madhura, the Pandyan capital in 862 AD. He placed Srimara’s son Varaguna II, on the Pandya throne as the nominee of Sena II and came back with Pandya valuables.

Then in the 10th century, Chola king Parantaka I (907-953) challenged Pandya ruler Marvarman Rajasimha II (905-20).Rajasimha sought the assistance of Sinhala king Kassapa V. who dispatched an army. Rajasimha lost and fled to Sri Lanka taking with him the crown and other regalia. He arrived in reign of Dappula IV (924-935). Dappula wanted to continue the fight, but the army objected. So Rajasimha went to Kerala, the home of his mother, leaving the crown jewels with the Sinhala king. Rajasimha’s regalia remained in Sri Lanka until Chola king Rajendra I invaded and took them.

In the 12th century, there was a dispute over the Pandyan succession. One of the claimants, Parakrama Pandya turned to Parakramabahu I for support while his opponent, Kulasekhera ran to the Colas. Parakrama bahu sent an army. When Kulasekhera killed Parakrama Pandya Parakramabahu issued instructions to depose Kulasekhara and place a Pandya prince on the throne. The Sinhala general placed Virapandu, the youngest son of the late king on the throne. Since Virapandu was in a ‘destitute condition’. Parakrama bahu had sent him the necessary clothes, jewels and ornaments. Eventually, Kulasekhara defeated the Sinhala army and deposed Virapandya.

This campaign shows that the Sinhalese had an intimate knowledge of the topography of Tamilnadu. The army entered Madura along the Vagai river, systematically taking over the villages in the Vagai region They could not have engaged in such a campaign without knowing where they were going. The campaign lasted for two years. After some time Kulasekhera turned against the Colas. .Parakrama bahu entered into an alliance with Kulasekhara and provided him with an army. The Colas defeated Kulasekhera and put Virapandya back on the throne. Then in 1186 Virapandya also turned against the Cholas. Parakrama bahu sent an army to support Virapandya but they too lost to the Cholas.

E.V. Naganathan said that Sri Lanka was the backyard of south India. It could be argued that South India was the backyard of Sri Lanka since it provided mercenaries (soldiers) for Sri Lanka. Sinhala princes, who could not find military support in the island, went to south India for troops. The first to do this was Ilanaga (33-34 AD) followed by Abhayanaga. (231-240) and Moggallana (491-508). Records show that in the late Anuradhapura period, mercenaries were recruited from Andhra Pradesh. The officer commanding them was known as ‘andha senevi’.

The seventh century saw a large influx of Tamil mercenaries. They arrived on five occasions to participate in the power struggles of local princes. Three of these occurred in the reigns of Silameghavanna (619-628), Aggabodhi III (629-639), and Dathopatissa I (639-650).When Mahinda V (982-1017) came to the throne, Anuradhapura was ‘full of’ Kerala and Karnataka mercenaries.. Tamil drums, tudi and soli became popular in the 9th and 10 centuries due to their introduction by the mercenaries as war drums.

The Chola kings kept a special team of guards called the Velaikkaras recruited from the Telugu country. A set of professional Tamil soldiers known as Velaikkara were similarly employed in the service of Vijayabahu I (1055 - 1110) According to one source, they looked after the tooth relic temple and the villages attached to it. The chief Buddhist monk of the time had asked for them. Parakrama bahu I had Kerala soldiers in his army. Kotte had Tamil mercenaries. There is no mention of Sinhala mercenaries in south India. I could not find any.

A South Indian-Sri Lankan region (SISL), has been mooted on the grounds that south India and Sri Lanka constitute a common geographical and agro climatic zone. Sri Lanka’s montane segment is similar to the Western Ghats of India but the nearest parallel to the lowland rain forest is in Seychelles and Madagascar. One historian has said that south India is also a part of Sri Lanka’s history and Sri Lanka should reach out and relate to the south Indian states. The question is, on what grounds Sri Lanka should reach out to south India. Most of the links are negative ones.

To start with, Sri Lanka was invaded on several occasions by Tamil armies. Chola king Parantaka II and Rashtrakuta king Krisna III invaded, without success, in the time of Mahinda IV (956-972). The Rajarata was occupied by the Cholas from 1017 to1070 AD. Sri Lanka deeply resented these occupations and got rid of the invaders as soon as they could. Then there is the issue of language. South India with the exception of Orissa spoke Dravidian languages, Kannada, Telegu, Tamil and Malayali. Sri Lanka developed Sinhala, an Indo-Aryan language.

Thirdly, Sri Lanka remained a Buddhist state while south India abandoned Buddhism and Jainism in favor of Hinduism. Till the 5th century, there was considerable support for Buddhism in south India. Andhra Pradesh had many Buddhist sites such as Nagarjunikonda and Amaravati. In Tamilnadu, Kanchi was an important Buddhist centre from the time of the Pallavas. Over three hundred Buddha statues dating from 9th century were found at Nagapatam. There was Buddhism on the west coast of south India at Belugami.

Sri Lanka influenced south Indian Buddhism. Most of the Pali works attributed to South Indian scholars were expositions of the teachings of the Mahavihara. Nagarjunikonda, (Andhra Pradesh) had a Sinhala vihara dated to 3rd century AD with a permanent community of Sinhala monks. A monk at Sihala vihara translated into Pali the text of Sihalavatthu pakarana. South Indian monks came to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism. Buddhagosa was sent to Sri Lanka from Andhra (Telegu country) in the 5th century, to translate the Sinhala commentaries. Vajrabodhi, a south Indian monk, came to Sri Lanka for one year, probably in 714 AD. He studied at Abhayagiri and climbed Sri Pada. R.A.L.H. Gunawardana says that relations between the Buddhists of south India and Sri Lanka were close’.

However, Buddhism did not flourish for long in South India. Sastri says that after the 5th century there was there was outspoken hostility towards Buddhists and Jains. The Tamils began to entertain fears of the whole kingdom going over to Buddhism and Jainism. They started the Hindu bhakti movement in opposition to these two religions. The movement reached its peak in the early 7th century and continued into the 10 century. Since the kings supported Hinduism, Buddhism lost patronage.

Huien Tsang who visited South India in 642 AD when the Hindu revival was gathering momentum found that Buddhism was declining. I think that Sri Lanka tried to prop up this declining Buddhism. The wife of king Udaya I (797-801) had sent a donation to Tamil monks. Parakramabahu II (1236-1270), invited to Sri Lanka many respected Chola monks who were well known for their moral conduct and versed in the Tripitaka.

Lastly, modern Sri Lanka was able to retain its position as a sovereign state. The South Indian kingdoms were unable to do so. When the Republic of India was formed in 1947, the South Indian states were prevented from breaking away. Nehru put a clause in the constitution to prevent this. Today, they are federal states of the Republic of India.

The south Indian influence in Sri Lanka is very limited. Administration, architecture and religion did not come under this influence. The prefix ‘varman’ used in south India for the king was not used in Sri Lanka. Paranavitana said that the architecture of ancient and medieval Sri Lanka was indigenous. He pointed out that Polonnaruwa architecture was not influenced by Cholas. The capitals of Buddhist temples in Polonnaruwa were quite different to those in the Siva devales. The vaulted brick buildings such as Lankatilaka and Thuparama did not have prototypes in south India. The Devundara temple dedicated to Upulvan was the result of translating the wooden architecture of the Sinhalese to stone. It is very well balanced in design, and exhibits a restraint in the application of ornaments which is foreign to Dravidian styles of all period.

Sri Lanka is adjacent to Tamilnadu and it is assumed that the greatest influence would have come from there. One source of influence, it is assumed, is the Tamil language. Paranavitana states that in its basic characteristics ancient, Sinhala differed from Tamil. Tamil was the language of administration in the Rajarata during the Chola occupation. The Sinhala kings who over threw Cholas threw out Tamil as well. Tamil did not become a national language of Sri Lanka. Modern Sinhala and modern Tamil also differ sharply from each other. Village was ‘kottam’ in Tamil and Malayalam. It was ‘gama’ in Sinhala.

However, historians suggest that many obscure words found in the inscriptions between 800 AD and 1200AD, denoting court officials, such as perenattuvan, melassi, perelakkan as well as the words connected with administrative functions and land tenure ‘probably have a Tamil origin’. J.B. Disanayake said that the Sinhala language contains hundreds of words borrowed from Tamil from earliest times. The loss of aspiration is also attributed to the influence of Tamil. No examples are given. Tamil words such as idangam, (iron spikes) and pulimukham (tiger faced traps) were used for the fortifications of Jayawardenepura in the 15th century. Jayawardhanapura was originally a fortified city. ‘Kotte’ is derived from the Malayalam word ‘kottei’ (fortress). Sidat sangarava (13th century) followed the Tamil grammar of Virasolian.

South Indian influence can be seen in the Gampola (1351-1400) and Kotte (1408-1508) periods. These periods coincide with the Vijayanagara period in south India (1366- 1646). During this period, the south Indian states, including Tamilnadu had lost their independence and were under the Kannada speaking Vijayanagara kings. I am wondering whether the south Indians arriving in the Sinhala court were émigrés escaping the Vijayanagara rule.

There was considerable south Indian contact during the reign of Parakrama bahu VI (1410-1468) . He gave land to 24 Brahmins, the majority of whom were Tamil, the rest Telegu. He had two Telegu Brahmins as purohita. According to the Oruvala sannasa the ‘Tamil Brahmins’ in the court of Kotte were influential. Tamil was used at court by the Tamil courtiers. Kokila sandesaya said that poems composed in Sinhala, Tamil, Pali and Sanskrit were recited at his court. Parakrama bahu VI’s daughter Lokanatha married a Tamil prince Nannurutu nayyar and changed her name to the Tamil Ulakudaya Devi. The Tamil prince in the meanwhile became Sinhalised. He composed a Sinhala lexicon, Namamalaya. Selalihini Sandesaya was composed at his invitation.

Padmavati and Vijayaba pirivenas taught Tamil in the Kotte period. Gira sandesaya (15 century) tells us that Tamil drama was studied at Vijayaba pirivena. The principal of Tilaka pirivena, who wrote the Kokila sandesaya, is said to have been able to give sermons in Tamil and Sinhala. However, Tamil remained a scholarly language. The average person did not know Tamil. Subhasitaya was written by Alagiyawanna for the common people who did not know Tamil, Sanskrit and Pali. South Indian influence can be seen in the Gadaladeniya and Lankatilaka temples. I have found just one reference which labels this as Vijayanagara style.


(The writings of Ashley De Vos, Malini Dias, J.B. Disanayaka, S. Gunasinghe, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, K. Indrapala, H.B.M. Illangasinha, S. Kiribamune, R.C.Majumdar, C.W. Nicholas, S. Paranavitana, S. Pathmanthan, L.S. Perera, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, W.I.Siriweera, G.V.P. Somaratne, R. Thapar, M. Werake, N. Wijesekera and W.M.K. Wijetunga were used for this essay).


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