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 Post subject: Sea Ports and seafaring in ancient and medieval Sri lanka
 Post Posted: Wed Dec 24, 2008 12:53 pm 
Sea Ports and seafaring in ancient and medieval Sri lanka

From the 4th to the 7th century AD, Sri Lanka was the main trade emporium for east-west trade. Merchants of Persia, Ethiopia, China and India exchanged their commodities in Sri Lanka. Cosmos Indicopleustes described Sri Lanka as ‘the great emporium which was connected by seaways with trading marts over the world.’ The main port used for this activity was Mantota. (Mahatittha) Cosmos said from ‘all India, Persia and Ethiopia, many ships came to Mantota.’

by Kamalika Pieris
@ The Island - Dec 2007


Sri Lanka was a very centrally placed island, accessible on all sides. It was at the point of intersection of the sea-lanes and maritime trade routes that went across the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka figured prominently in the sea routes which criss-crossed the Indian Ocean. By the fifth century AD, a network of sea routes centred on Sri Lanka had developed. The western trade route which started from the Mediterranean went along the Persian Gulf and Red Sea into the Arabian Sea and onto Sri Lanka .This route is used today for the fibre optic cable route for telecommunications.

There were several sea routes going east from Sri Lanka. According to a Chinese text compiled between 785 and 805 AD, there was a sea route from Sri Lanka to China which went via Nicobar Islands and Sumatra. Li Chao speaks of visits paid by Sri Lankan vessels to Vietnam and China every year. This is supported by other sources which say that Sri Lankans were in the habit of visiting and stopping over at Canton. According to I-Tsing (7th century) there was also a sea route from Sri Lanka to Dvaravati (Thailand). A third route linked Sri Lanka with the Malacca islands. These sea routes facilitated the movement of merchants, goods, pilgrims and scholars as well as texts, images and other sources of cultural influence from one area to another. They prevented Sri Lanka from becoming insular.

Sri Lanka had numerous active seaports situated all round the island. Ptolemy (2nd century AD) referred to many ports in the north, north east, and north west of Sri Lanka, some of which have not been identified. The port of Sakkarasobha (unidentified) is said to have been functional in the 1st century AD.

From the 4th to the 7th century AD, Sri Lanka was the main trade emporium for east-west trade. Merchants of Persia, Ethiopia, China and India exchanged their commodities in Sri Lanka. Cosmos Indicopleustes described Sri Lanka as ‘the great emporium which was connected by seaways with trading marts over the world.’ The main port used for this activity was Mantota. (Mahatittha) Cosmos said from ‘all India, Persia and Ethiopia, many ships came to Mantota.’

Mantota was a major port from about 2nd century BC. The eastern and western sea routes met at Mantota and it was the obvious location for utilising the two monsoons. Mantota in Sri Lanka and Bambhore in Pakistan were the main south Asian emporia in the east-west chain of trading ports. Mantota temporarily lost importance when trade moved in the 8th century from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. When trade activity moved back to the Arabian Sea in the 13th century, Mantota became important again. It was the chief port of Rajarata at least up to the middle of the 13 century. In the 15 century Mantota became unimportant.

The eastern ports such as Gokanna (Trincomalee) in the Bay of Bengal were known from very early on. Lankapattana (Illankathurai) in Trincomalee district was in use by 2nd century AD. There was a landing site at Tiriyaya in 8th century. Parakrama bahu I sent his army to Myanmar from a port called Pallavavanka. This has been identified by Codrington as modern Palvakki four miles north of Kucchaveli. In the north, Uraturai (modern Kayts) was an important port in Polonnaruwa period. According to an inscription datable to 1178 AD Parakrama bahu I built his ships and assembled his troops for his south Indian campaigns at Uraturai. There are several other landing places in the north or north west coast which cannot be identified, such as Mattikaratittha, Pulacceri, Bhallatittha and Deberapatan.

Parevi, Gira and Kahakurulu sandesa said that large groups of sailing ships could be observed regularly from several points of the western coast. Ports of Uruvela, Kalpitiya, Wattala and Colombo became important in the 13th century. Salawata or Chilaw was an important landing place from 12th century onwards. Dambadeni asna speaks of foreigners landing at Salavata. Cholas had landed there between 1188 and 1200.

There were many ports in the south. Mahavamsa says that in the 2nd century BC seven ships, laden with valuable cargo, returned in one day to a port in Rohana. Godavaya in Magam pattu, Hambantota, was an important port in the second century AD. Ridiyagama excavations in Hambantota district indicate that, in the Anuradhapura period, goods were sent to Afghanistan from the port of Godavaya. An inscription of Gajabahu found at Godavaya stated that the custom duties obtained at the port were dedicated to the Godapavata Vihara. R.A.L.H.Gunawardana says that the southern ports caught the trade that ran horizontally from China to Madagascar and East Africa. But the south seas were treacherous and on the whole, ships preferred to dock at other ports like Mantota.

According to the historical records, the southern ports came into prominence only in the medieval period. I think that they would have been in use throughout the ancient period as well. According to the available information, Galle had gained prominence by at least the middle of the 14th century. Galle had a natural harbour, so it would have been a very important port. The Chinese ships that came through the straits of Malacca touched at Galle. On his third expedition of 1409-1411 Cheng Ho held a trade fair at Galle. The Sandesa poems indicate that Galle was a well established commercial town with wide streets and shops of all kinds.

There were other important ports in the south. Weligama had come into prominence at least by 12th century. Kalyani inscription says that a ship from Myanmar had docked at Weligama in the time of Parakrama bahu I. Tisara, Parevi and Kokila sandesa indicate that Weligama had become an important and prosperous port about the 15 century.



Beruwela is also mentioned in the historical records. One of the ships in Cheng Ho’s seventh tour of 1431-1433 touched Beruwela. In the 14 century, John de Marignolli arrived by ship at a port called ‘Perivils’ in Sri Lanka on his way to China. One historian suggests that Perivils was Beruwela.

Sri Lanka was a regular port of call throughout the ancient and medieval periods. Ports were used as a meeting place for traders, sailors and travellers. Merchants and traders had to stay long at the principal ports. Sailors needed stopovers. Cheng Ho and his Chinese fleet made seven expeditions between 1405- 1432 in the Indian Ocean. His fleet sailed as far as the eastern coast of Africa. He organised stopovers in Sri Lanka on at least six of his voyages.

Port cities were created. By 6th century AD Mantota was a very cosmopolitan city. It was paved with wide streets by the side of which were buildings constructed of bricks, granite, and coral stone, with tiled roofs. The historical records speak of two and three storied buildings and suggest that the streets were lighted in the night with oil lamps. There were commodity storage centres owned by mercantile guilds. There was easy access from Mantota to Anuradhapura along the Malvatu river.

Sri Lanka was also a hub for international travel. It was a point of embarkation for travel to places within the region. Travellers to China took ship from Sri Lanka. Those travelling to India also took ship from Sri Lanka... Jambukola pattuna which is modern Kankesanturai was widely used as a port of embarkation and landing in the Anuradhapura period. There was a connecting high road from Jambukola to Anuradhapura. It was opposite Port Calimere in India. It had dry docks. There were landing sites at Mannarapatuna (Mannar) and Mantota as well.

The sea route along the eastern coast of India between Tamralipti and Mantota seems to have commenced around 5th century AD. From then onwards, sea travel between Sri Lanka and eastern India became quite frequent. Sri Lanka then became a central point for routes around the Indian subcontinent. According to I-Tsing (7th century) there were routes linking Sri Lanka with the ports in the southern, western and north-eastern regions of the Indian subcontinent.

The Sinhalese had their own ships and were skilled at navigation. According to Pliny (3-79AD) mariners from Sri Lanka ( Taprobane) were in the Indian Ocean in his time. They took birds to sea with them and followed the direction of their flight as they approached land. Devanam Piyatissa sent an emissary to Dharmasoka in a Sinhalese vessel. When the bhikkunis went to China they went in a ship captained by a Sinhalese called Nandi. Nandi did the trip twice because the number of nuns taken the first time was not sufficient. Fa Hsien, Gunavarman, and Vajrabodhi came to Sri Lanka on Sri Lanka ships.

From about the 6th century to the 11th century Sri Lanka together with India and the Sri Vijaya kingdom (which controlled Java, Sumatra and Kedah) participated in the carrying trade between south and southeast Asia. Commodities from southeast Asia were transported in Sri Lankan ships. This included the trade that passed through the Malay peninsula and the Khmer region. Cosmos said Sri Lanka sent out many ships of its own. Procopius (6th century) said that silk from China was transported in Indian and Sri Lanka ships. According to Chinese texts, the largest ships arriving in China were from Sri Lanka. They were about 200 feet long and able to carry 700 to 800 men. The Myanmar expedition of Parakrama bahu I further showed that the Sinhalese had fleets capable of undertaking long expeditions.

The Sinhalese were a seafaring people. Maligatenna inscription given in very early Brahmi script, indicates that Sri Lanka mariners engaged in voyages to western part of India. Sinhala and Pali texts of the medieval period, such as Samantapasadika, Manorathapurani, Rasavahini, and Saddharmalankaraya refer to Sinhalese who sailed to Southeast Asian kingdoms.

There is evidence to show that the Sinhalese had settled in foreign countries. The earliest recorded Sinhala presence in Southeast Asia is in a Mon inscription dated 550-650 AD, found in the Narai cave, in present day Saraburi province of Thailand. It mentions that ‘town people from Anuradhapura’ were settled in a community in the Dvaravati kingdom. There is also an inscription dated to 1344 which says that Sinhalese laymen were living in five villages in Sukhodaya. 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 Maldives was known to the Sinhalese. The commentary to the Buddhist text, Kuddakapatha, which was written by Sinhala monks, speaks of the thousands of smaller islands opposite Sri Lanka. Maldives lies directly on the path of the north-east monsoonal current which flows westwards from Sri Lanka, between October and March, touching the southern coast. Anything drifting in its path during these months would have made its way towards the Maldives.

In recent times, fisherman in the Galkissa area, near Colombo, found that when their engines failed, they drifted towards the Maldives. Vini Vitharana also found that the navy made use of the North east monsoonal current when they travelled to the Maldives. Vitharana contests the view that Maldives was colonised from the Deccan in India, helped by the south west monsoonal current. Vitharana points out that this current does not go anywhere near the Maldives.

Francois Pyrard, who had been in the Maldives between 1602 and 1607 had stated in the account of his travels that ‘ the islanders hold that the Maldives began to be inhabited only four hundred years ago, and that the first who came and peopled them were the Sinhalese of the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka)." H.C.P.Bell was also given a similar story. He was told that a prince of royal birth, Koimala, who had married the Sri Lanka king’s daughter, had made a voyage with her to the Maldives where they were temporarily stranded. The Maldive islanders on hearing that they were of ‘Ceylon royal descent’ invited them to remain and proclaimed Koimala as their king. The ships were sent back to Lanka to bring more Sinhalese.

The anthropologist C. Maloney, researching in the 1970s had found other variants of this legend. One myth collected by him from Manadu island in Noon atoll, stated ‘A hunter-king of Sri Lanka while hunting one day caught a man-beast in his net. The man-beast later married the king’s daughter. But he made political trouble in Sri Lanka and was forced to leave. He and the princess arrived in Rasgetimu island in the Maldives and they lived there for some time. The people asked them to rule" The Maldivian language, ‘Divehi’ shows a marked resemblance to Sinhala. Ruins of Buddhist monasteries in four inhabited islands of the southern atolls were similar to the Buddhist monasteries in Sri Lanka.

The group of about two dozen coral islands, known as the Lakshadweep islands, are today a union territory of India. They were formerly known as the Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi Islands. The islanders speak Malayalam and follow Islam. They were at one time under Kerala. But in Minicoy the language spoken is Mahl. Mahl is a mixture of Urdu and Sinhala and is written in right to left. The Sinhala in Mahl is based on early forms of Sinhala. Bell took Minicoy to be a part of Maldives and therefore exposed to Sri Lanka influence.

The large Ilavar community of Kerala say that their ancestors migrated from Sri Lanka. K Indrapala in his book, ‘The evolution of an ethnic identity’ says that Kerala traditions are full of legends about the migration of Ilavar from Sri Lanka to Kerala. These legends talk of how the Ilavar came from Sri Lanka and introduced coconuts to Kerala. There is some mention of this in Keralotpatti, the well-known book of historical traditions relating to Kerala. Indrapala adds that the ancient Tamil word for coconut is ‘Ilam.’ The coconut tree was called ‘Ila maram’, which could mean ‘tree from Sri Lanka ‘. Indrapala thinks that the coconut probably came to Sri Lanka before it came to the Indian peninsula. It is considered to have been introduced to Asia from the Pacific islands.


The writings of L Dewaraja, H. Goonatilake, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, K. Indrapala, S. Kiribamune, V.L.B. Mendis, W.M. Sirisena, W.I.Siriweera and V.Vitharana were used for this essay.


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