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 Post subject: Trade and Commerce in ancient and Medieval Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Mon Sep 05, 2005 1:16 am 
Trade and Commerce in ancient and Medieval Sri Lanka

by Kamalika Pieris
@ The Island


Ancient Sri Lanka was primarily a commercially oriented trading nation not an agricultural one. It was an export economy, not a static economy of subsistence agriculture, as is popularly supposed. There was trade even before Sri Lanka became a united polity.

Sudharshan Seneviratne says that in prehistoric times, people came into the island to extract the minerals in the hill country and export it to North India. Trade was therefore one of the earliest economic activities of the island. It was also the main source of wealth between 900 to 400 BC. (G. C. Mendis Memorial talk 2004)

There are references to merchants and merchant guilds in the early brahmi inscriptions. The word ‘vanija’ occurs among the names of cave donors in inscriptions at Bambaaragastalava (Ampara district) and Vilba Vihara (Kurunegala district). Merchant guilds are referred to in at inscriptions at Aliyakada (Anuradhapura district), Bovattagala near Kataragama, Gonagala (Hambantota, district) and Madugasmulla (Moneragala district).

These inscriptions, some of which are dated to 1st and 2nd centuries BC, are widely dispersed, indicating that in pre-Christian times trade was conducted in the north, central and southern parts of the island.

In the Anuradhapura period, trade was taking place in all four quarters of the island. The assumption that external trade only took place in the Dry Zone situated in the north and east is incorrect. Trade was going on in west and south as well. Godavaya in Magam pattu, Hambantota, was an important port in the second century. Goods were sent to Afghanistan from there. Large hoards of Roman coins, dated between fourth and seventh centuries, some containing more than a thousand coins at each site, were found near Colombo, Balapitiya, Matara and Debaraveva. Chinese coins of every emperor from 976 AD to 1265 AD were found at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Panduvasnuvara, Dedigama, Yapahuwa, Kurunegala and Alutwewa.

River-based trading centres, with access to the sea, functioning in the third and fourth centuries appeared ‘in excavations conducted on the banks of the Kala Oya at Giribawa, Deduru Oya at Eariyagama, Kelani Ganga at Pilapitiya, Kalu Ganga at Diyagama and Walawe Ganga, at Ridiyagama. The relevant seaports were Salvatotta or Chilaw (Daduru oya), Wattala (Kelani. Ganga), Kalalittha, or Kalutara (Kalu Ganga), Bhimathithta or Bentota, (Bentota Ganga,) Gimhatittha or Gintota (Gin Ganga), Mahavalukagama or Weligarna (Polwatta Ganga), Nilwalatittha, or Matara (Nilwala Ganga) Gothapabbata, or Godavaya, (Walawe Ganga) and Kirindi at Kirindi oya.

From fourth century BC to fourth century AD, the centre for east-west trade was India. Sri Lanka took its goods to Indian ports and sold them to Greek and Roman merchants there. There is evidence that Sri Lankan merchants had camped in Asittapatti in South India and used ports such as Arikamedu.

By the fifth century a network of trade routes centred on Sri Lanka had developed. There were routes connecting Sri Lanka with ports in China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The western trade route also led to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka became the main emporium for east-west trade. Merchants from Persia, Ethiopia, Abyssinia, China, and India exchanged their commodities in Sri Lankan ports. Cosmos, an Egyptian, writing in the sixth century described Sri Lanka as ‘the great emporium which was connected by seaways with trading marts over the world.’ At one time, in the eighth century, there were 35 Persian ships in the harbour. This period, particularly the sixth century is considered the peak of Sri Lanka’s activity in international trade.

Sri Lanka now sold its goods from home. Cosmas said that ships visited Sri Lanka for its own products. As the main emporium for the bulk of the east-west sea borne trade, it functioned as the major collection and distribution centre. 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. Lastly, Sri Lanka functioned as the main intermediary in the southeast Asian trade, together with the Sri Vijaya kingdom. Exports from Southeast Asia were transported in Sri ships. Chinese sources, said that the largest ships arriving in China were from Sri Lanka.

Trade activity was temporarily halted by the Chola invasions of the tenth century, but bounced back with the expulsion of the Cholas in 1055. Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) and Parakramabahu I (1132-1153) both engaged heavily in trade.

Vijayabahu I initiated trade with Burma. He had a fight with Burma over the trade of elephants. Parakramabahu I encouraged trade with South India. Bhuvaneka bahu I (1272-1284) wanted direct trade with Egypt. He sent envoys to the Suit of Egypt saying that he could provide pearls, precious stones of every kind, elephants, cotton textiles, brazil wood, and he had trees with wood suitable for spears. He also said that he could supply twenty ships per year. Four Sri Lankan coins were recently found at Mogadishu in Kenya. One was datable to Bhuvaneka Bahu I.

By the 14th century, east-west trade had moved to China and India. Sri Lanka was no longer a flourishing centrepot centre and its own carrying trade was by foreign merchants. Parakramabahu VI (1412-1467) invaded a port in Tanjore because Sinhala traders had been humiliated there. He was the last ruler to play a noteworthy role in the sea trade.

Sri Lanka had numerous active seaports situated all round the island. There was Mantota near Palk Strait and Gokanna (Trincomalee) in the Bay of Bengal. Devinuwara (Dondra) came into use between the fourth and seventh century. It provided access to the gem mines in Ratnapura region. It was a large city when Ibn Batuta visited the island in the 14th century. The first mention of Weligama is in the time of Parakrama bahu I. A ship from Burma had docked there. Chilaw was an important landing place from 12 century onwards. Ports of Uruvela, Kalpitiya and Colombo became important in the 13 century. Beruvala, Bentota and Galle were also in use.

Jambukolapatana, (Sambili-turai) was not a port of maritime commerce but was a port of embarkation and landing in the Anuradhapura period. Uratota (Kayts) was used primarily for building ships and assembling troops in the time of Parakrama bahu I. The ports in the south had also functioned as meeting places for mariners arriving from both sides of the Indian ocean. The ports provided ships for travelling on to India.

Sri Lanka’s imports included textiles from India and Burma, horses, perfumes, wines and glass vessels from Persia, porcelain ware and silk from China, gold, silver, iron cauldrons, camphor, sandalwood from India and South east Asia, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, carnelian from Gujerat, basalt from Deccan and Amaravati marble from South India and copper as well. Most of these were luxury goods for the use of royalty and the nobles.

Gems, pearls and elephants were exported continuously from the ancient period onwards, According to Megasthenes, Ceylon in the third century; had huge herds of elephants of the ‘largest size’. They were more powerful, more intelligent and bigger than those in India. They were exported in specially constructed boats. Conch shells, (chanks) were exported in the early period. Cotton textiles were exported until the 13 century at least.

According to the Rajatarangani, a fifth century text, women in Kashmir wore cloth manufactured in Sri Lanka. Hardwoods have been exported from about seventh century onwards. In the 11th century, ships from Oman and Yemen came to Sri Lanka to obtain rope, trunks of coconut trees for masts, timber for plaining. Sri Lanka’s other exports included ivory, tortoise shell ware, spices, and later steel. Cinnamon joined this list in the 10th century.


Trade was an important source of royal revenue. R. A. L. H. Gunawardene has pointed out that the period from the third to the ninth century, the most prolific activity in the building of irrigation tanks and canals coincided with the most flourishing period of trade. Trade generated the revenue that thereafter went into irrigation, agriculture, and buildings. Agriculture did not generate revenue. Sri Lanka was never a rice exporting country. Political decisions were also based on trade. The move from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa was due to the transfer of trade from western shore to the eastern shore. The shifting of the capital from Polonnaruwa to Dambadeniya was also related to changes in the pattern of foreign trade. The importance of trade could be sew in the fact that the capital city invariably had a link with at least one port on the coast. Tissamaharama, an important regional centre was linked to the port of Kirindi.

The external trade was under the king. Mahavamsa refers to a separate quarter near the western gate of Anuradhapura for foreign merchants. Parakramabahu I set up a department known as to organise the export trade. Export producing areas were placed under this department. The export of gems, pearls, elephants and later cinnamon remained the monopoly of the king throughout the ancient and medieval period. The King owned all gems of a certain value and exceeding a certain weight. The king had officials, watching the gem pits. Pearl fishers had to give him one half of their collection. The merchant communities that operated in the country had to give a part of their revenue to the king. Many of the ports also came directly under the king and the king’s officers were stationed there to collect taxes to the state. Foreign traders were not allowed to set up in business in Devinuwara without permission during the reign of Parakramabahu IL (1236-1270).

There was an influential merchant class from very early on in the island. According to the Mahavamsa, Devanamoiyatissa (approximately 250-210 BC) had included a merchant (setthi) among the group of envoys he sent to emperor Dharmasoka. There was also merchant Kundala who imported camphor, sandalwood, and other items from abroad during. Dutugemunu’s reign, (161-137 BC). He sent the king some fabulous gifts. Fa Hien found a very wealthy community of local merchants living in attractive mansions inside the citadel of Anuradhapura in the fifth century. During the Polonnaruwa kingdom, trade had become so important, that the Kings Council had a post titled Chief Merchant. This was held by the chief of the setthis, or the head of the mercantile corporations.

There was a well co-ordionated mercantile sector, where merchant guilds worked in association with other mercantile establishment. There were efficient mercantile guilds in port towns and elsewhere. At Mantota a guild of merchants provided banking facilities and accepted deposits of money. The Tonigala inscription of King Kirti Sri Meghavarna Abhaya (301-328) refers to a bank run by a merchant guild. Mercantile guilds also provided banking facilities where customers could deposit grain such as paddy, black peas and green gram and obtain an annual interest on their deposits. Grain deposited in these guilds earned an annual interest as high as 50% for rice and 25% for other cereals. There was a commercial demand for grain and a well-organised grain trade that catered to this. Land owning groups in the city of Anuradhapura lent trading capital to the urban merchants and were sleeping partners in trading ventures.

Merchants also engaged in internal trade. There are references in the ancient period to merchants selling jaggery and tamarind. Rasavahini, a text dated to 12th or 13 century, referred to a merchant who traded in the area to the west of Anuradhapura and to others who collected various commodities from Mantota, and sold them in the interior. The trading occupations also included the itinerant traders who travelled about from one place to another as well as traders who went into the interior, by ox cart, in search of ginger, tumeric, and pepper.

There was a strong commercial orientation in the island. Individuals were allowed to mine gems on payment of a fee. There was a tax on fishing in tanks and canals. Saddharmalankaraya and Pujavaliya, 13-century texts, touch on internal trade. They talk of villagers who took pingo loads of grass and cartloads of firewood from the villages into the cities for sale. One villager took herbs and fiuits from a forest and sold it in town. He bought essential foodstuffs, rice, salt, chillies, and oil from the proceeds

In Anuradhapura, there were market centres, for ‘privileged classes’. These traded in luxury goods. Mahavamsa, records that Suranimila, bought perfumes from one of these shops. The four trading centres outside the gates were public market places. There were market towns throughout the country as well. Items that were bought and sold included firewood, fruits, herbs, honey, ghee, textiles, oil, rugs, flowers, betel, arecanuts, meat ginger, turmeric, buffaloes, goats, and oxen. Samantapasadika, a twelfth century work, refers to food centres within the city where one could purchase meals, including cooked meat and sweets. There was trade in the village too. Contrary to popular assumption the villages were not wholly self sufficient. Salt had to be brought in from the coast and metal products from manufacturing areas. Products such as pepper, ginger, arecanut, coconut, and handicrafts were also needed.

The king regulated the in which internal trade was conducted. He regulated weights and measures. The use of scales in trade is mentioned. Tolls were levied on goods taken from one place to another. If such goods were hidden from the officers but detected subsequently, double tolls were to be levied. Tolls were collected by officers appointed by the king or by mercantile communities who were assigned that task. The Badulla pillar inscription of Udaya IV (946- 954) gives some interesting information on trade regulations. The traders of Hopitigama had complained to the king that the bailiffs of the market exacted illegal dues. The King ordered that a statute of the council be promulgated for the proper conduct of the market place. Shop owners were not to purchase anything until the goods came to market. There should be specific places in the market for the sale of commodities liable to tolls. Trading on poya days was prohibited.

Currency was in use from an early age. Coins datable to a period starting at third century BC have been found. The Mampita, vihara inscription in Kegalle district also dated to third century BC refers to indicating that trade by this time was money base& It was initially thought that Sri Lanka only used foreign coins though the Periyakadu vihara cave inscription in Kurunegala district had referred to coin minting. However, the recent Akurugoda excavations, unearthed coin moulds that indicated that coins were also locally produced. They also showed that the south had its own inscribed coinage.

The first indigenous coins appeared in first or second century AD. Currency was widely used export transactions. Buddhagosha stated in the fifth century, that there were money changers in both India and Sri Lanka who knew ‘at what village, town, city, mountain or river’ a coin was manufactured. Money and barter existed side by side. Wages of labourers were paid in kind, usually with rice, but cash payments were also known. The system of barter continued in the medieval period- The writings of M. B. Ariuyapala, Osmund Bopearacchchi, H. Ellawala, R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, Sirima Kiribamune, A Liyanagamage, C. W. Nicholas, S. Paranavitana, W. I. Siriweera and Moira Tampoe were consulted for this essay.

Trade was an important source of royal revenue. R. A. L. H. Gunawardene has pointed out that the period from the third to the ninth century, the most prolific activity in the building of irrigation tanks and canals coincided with the most flourishing period of trade. Trade generated the revenue that thereafter went into irrigation, agriculture, and buildings. Agriculture did not generate revenue. Sri Lanka was never a rice exporting country. Political decisions were also based on trade. The move from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa was due to the transfer of trade from western shore to the eastern shore. The shifting of the capital from Polonnaruwa to Dambadeniya was also related to changes in the pattern of foreign trade. The importance of trade could be sew in the fact that the capital city invariably had a link with at least one port on the coast. Tissamaharama, an important regional centre was linked to the port of Kirindi.

The external trade was under the king. Mahavamsa refers to a separate quarter near the western gate of Anuradhapura for foreign merchants. Parakramabahu I set up a department known as to organise the export trade. Export producing areas were placed under this department. The export of gems, pearls, elephants and later cinnamon remained the monopoly of the king throughout the ancient and medieval period. The King owned all gems of a certain value and exceeding a certain weight. The king had officials, watching the gem pits. Pearl fishers had to give him one half of their collection. The merchant communities that operated in the country had to give a part of their revenue to the king. Many of the ports also came directly under the king and the king’s officers were stationed there to collect taxes to the state. Foreign traders were not allowed to set up in business in Devinuwara without permission during the reign of Parakramabahu II (1236-1270).

There was an influential merchant class from very early on in the island. According to the Mahavamsa, Devanamoiyatissa (approximately 250-210 BC) had included a merchant (setthi) among the group of envoys he sent to emperor Dharmasoka. There was also merchant Kundala who imported camphor, sandalwood, and other items from abroad during. Dutugemunu’s reign, (161-137 BC). He sent the king some fabulous gifts. Fa Hien found a very wealthy community of local merchants living in attractive mansions inside the citadel of Anuradhapura in the fifth century. During the Polonnaruwa kingdom, trade had become so important, that the Kings Council had a post titled Chief Merchant. This was held by the chief of the setthis, or the head of the mercantile corporations.

There was a well co-ordinated mercantile sector, where merchant guilds worked in association with other mercantile establishments. There were efficient mercantile guilds in port towns and elsewhere. At Mantota a guild of merchants provided banking facilities and accepted deposits of money. The Tonigala inscription of King Kirti Sri Meghavarna Abhaya (301-328) refers to a bank run by a merchant guild. Mercantile guilds also provided banking facilities where customers could deposit grain such as paddy, black peas and green gram and obtain an annual interest on their deposits. Grain deposited in these guilds earned an annual interest as high as 50% for rice and 25% for other cereals. There was a commercial demand for grain and a well-organised grain trade that catered to this. Land owning groups in the city of Anuradhapura lent trading capital to the urban merchants and were sleeping partners in trading ventures.

Merchants also engaged in internal trade. There are references in the ancient period to merchants selling jaggery and tamarind. Rasavahini, a text dated to 12th or 13 century, referred to a merchant who traded in the area to the west of Anuradhapura and to others who collected various commodities from Mantota, and sold them in the interior. The trading occupations also included the itinerant traders who travelled about from one place to another as well as traders who went into the interior, by ox cart, in search of ginger, tumeric, and pepper.

There was a strong commercial orientation in the island. Individuals were allowed to mine gems on payment of a fee. There was a tax on fishing in tanks and canals. Saddharmalankaraya and Pujavaliya, 13-century texts, touch on internal trade. They talk of villagers who took pingo loads of grass and cartloads of firewood from the villages into the cities for sale. One villager took herbs and fruits from a forest and sold it in town. He bought essential foodstuffs, rice, salt, chillies, and oil from the proceeds

In Anuradhapura, there were market centres, for ‘privileged classes’. These traded in luxury goods. Mahavamsa, records that Suranimila, bought perfumes from one of these shops. The four trading centres outside the gates were public market places. There were market towns throughout the country as well. Items that were bought and sold included firewood, fruits, herbs, honey, ghee, textiles, oil, rugs, flowers, betel, arecanuts, meat ginger, turmeric, buffaloes, goats, and oxen. Samantapasadika, a twelfth century work, refers to food centres within the city where one could purchase meals, including cooked meat and sweets. There was trade in the village too. Contrary to popular assumption the villages were not wholly self sufficient. Salt had to be brought in from the coast and metal products from manufacturing areas. Products such as pepper, ginger, arecanut, coconut, and handicrafts were also needed.

The king regulated the markets in which internal trade was conducted. He regulated weights and measures. The use of scales in trade is mentioned. Tolls were levied on goods taken from one place to another. If such goods were hidden from the officers but detected subsequently, double tolls were to be levied. Tolls were collected by officers appointed by the king or by mercantile communities who were assigned that task.

The Badulla pillar inscription of Udaya IV (946- 954) gives some interesting information on trade regulations. The traders of Hopitigama had complained to the king that the bailiffs of the market exacted illegal dues. The King ordered that a statute of the council be promulgated for the proper conduct of the market place. Shop owners were not to purchase anything until the goods came to market. There should be specific places in the market for the sale of commodities liable to tolls. Trading on poya days was prohibited.

Currency was in use from an early age. Coins datable to a period starting at third century BC have been found. The Mampita vihara inscription in Kegalle district also dated to third century BC refers to indicating that trade by this time was money based. It was initially thought that Sri Lanka only used foreign coins though the Periyakadu vihara cave inscription in Kurunegala district had referred to coin minting. However, the recent Akurugoda excavations, unearthed coin moulds that indicated that coins were also locally produced. They also showed that the south had its own inscribed coinage.

The first indigenous coins appeared in first or second century AD. Currency was widely used export transactions. Buddhagosha stated in the fifth century that there were money changers in both India and Sri Lanka who knew ‘at what village, town, city, mountain or river’ a coin was manufactured. Money and barter existed side by side. Wages of labourers were paid in kind, usually with rice, but cash payments were also known. The system of barter continued in the medieval period.


The writings of M. B. Ariyapala, Osmund Bopearac-chchi, H. Ellawala, R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, Sirima Kiriba-mune, A Liyanagamage, C. W. Nicholas, S. Paranavitana, W. I. Siriweera and Moira Tampoe were consulted for this essay.


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