The Kingdom Maker
"It was the nearest thing to heaven." An Affair to Remember
Barely 100 years into their first royal dynasty, Sri Lanka had the great good fortune to encounter Pandu Kabhaya’s - one of its greatest kings. Inheriting, at best, a kinglet, he passed onto his successors a fully functioning kingdom that for over 200 years became a byword for opulence, sophistication, and progress.
Pandu Kabhaya’s (improbably long) 70 year reign (437 to 367 BCE ) would have come as a blessed relief to family and subjects alike after so much dynastic squabbling. Had he failed, it is likely little more would ever have been heard of this fledgling dynasty.
Credited with a smart intelligence that helped him see off repeated pre-ascension assassination attempts, the king set in train the real beginnings of the Anuradhapura Kingdom when he moved his capital to the site and, in Louis XIV-style, began building.
By then the site of Anuradhapura was already some 200 years old and covered over 20 acres. Pandukabhaya took it to still greater heights.
His rule harnessed the country’s expertise in all areas of human endeavour - from farming and engineering to administration and construction, in order to build a capital, and through it, dominate the entire island. Documented remains of a great survey he conducted to assess his kingdom show some 700 villages spreading out across the island from the city of Anuradhapura across land described as raja Ratna – the King’s country. This domination was to take time; and for several centuries the kingdom co-existed with other smaller realms to the east and south before it was able to asset its pre-eminence.
From the start Pandu Kabhaya’s rule respected his Vedda allies, the Yakkhas, Cittaraja and Kalavela, clans of the island’s earliest original inhabitants. The Mahāvaṃsa records his beneficial diligence:
“He settled the Yakkha Kalavela on the east side of the city, the Yakkha Cittaraja at the lower end of the Abhayatank…and on festival-days he sat with Cittaraja beside him on a seat of equal height, and having gods and men to dance before him, the king took his pleasure, in joyous and merry wise.
He laid out also four suburbs as well as the Abhaya-tank, the common cemetery, the place of execution, and the chapel of the Queens of the West, the banyan-tree of Vessavana and the Palmyra-palm of the Demon of Maladies, the ground set apart for the Yonas and the house of the Great Sacrifice; all these he laid out near the west gate.
He set 500 candalas to the work of cleaning the town, 200 candalas to the work of cleaning the sewers, 150 candalas he employed to bear the dead and as many candalas to be watchers in the cemetery. For these he built a village north-west of the cemetery and they continually carried out their duty as it was appointed.
Toward the north-east of the candala-village he made the cemetery, called the Lower Cemetery, for the candala folk. North of this cemetery, between (it and) the Pasana-mountain, the line of huts for the huntsmen were built thenceforth.
Northward from thence, as far as the Gamani-tank, a hermitage was made for many ascetics; eastward of that same cemetery the ruler built a house for the nigantha Jotiya. In that same region dwelt the nigantha named Giri and many ascetics of various heretical sects. And there the lord of the land built also a chapel for the nigantha Kumbhanda. Toward the west from thence and eastward of the street of the huntsmen lived five hundred families of heretical beliefs.
On the further side of Jotiya’s house and on this side of the Gamani tank he likewise built a monastery for wandering mendicant monks, and a dwelling for the ajivakas and a residence for the brahmans, and in this place and that he built a lying-in shelter and a hall for those recovering from sickness.
Ten years after his consecration did Pandu Kabhaya the ruler of Lanka establish the village-boundaries over the whole of the island of Lanka.”
As the ancient Athenians were putting the finishing touches to the Acropolis and the nascent Roman Republic issuing its first laws, the palaces and structures of Anuradhapura rose up through the jungle, a tropical Versailles founded on land that betrayed evidence of human occupation going back to at least 10th century BCE – roughly the same time when Solomon became king of Israel.
Anuradhapura was to become one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities – and for 1,500 years was the capital of the island state. As the Dark Ages fell across the West and society there returned to wattle and daub, the kingdom’s engineering, and architectural talents, nurtured over centuries, endowed Anuradhapura with an almost inexhaustible tally of spectacular new temples, pools, stupas, gardens, palaces, and dwellings. Nor did he appear to neglect the utilitarian, building hospitals, cemeteries, sewers and, in a marvellous feat of ancient engineering, constructing bisokotuwas to regulate the outflow of water from tanks and sluices to secure them against destruction in the annual floods
Trade thrived exponentially; and there are even intriguing hints, documented by The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, of a small group of Greek merchants living in the royal city itself.
Credited with ending the guerrilla warfare that marked the resistance of the original island dwellers against the Vijayans, Pandu Kabhaya’s reign not only brought stability but bequeathed future constancy to the island, as his own son, Mutasiva, came to the throne in 367 BCE for a reign (to 307 BCE) that was almost as golden. Sometimes, not often, a country gets lucky, and with this father-son duet, Sri Lanka undoubtedly did.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.