The Time of Kings
“All I say is, kings is kings, and you got to make allowances.” Mark Twain
The country’s first recorded king was to found a dynasty that would last 600 years – though its first 100 years were anything but plain sailing. Expelled from either Bengal or Gujarat (scholars argue, as scholars do) by his father, Prince Vijaya, the founding father of an eponymous royal family, arrived on the island in 543 BCE, his landing kicking off the start of recorded Singhala history.
Prince Vijaya’s existence is known about only though The Dīpavaṃsa (complied around the 3rd – 4th centuries CE) and the famous Mahāvaṃsa Chronicle. Indeed much of all we know about Vijayan rule, comes down to us courtesy of these works. The Mahāvaṃsa (The Great Chronicle), is epic poem written by a Buddhist monk (with later additions) in the ancient Pali script. It begins with Prince Vijaya’s arrival and ends in 302 CE – but was written many hundreds of years after the events it describes, in the 5th century CE.
A sequel to The Mahāvaṃsa was later added: the Lesser Chronicle, or The Culavamsa, which covered events to 1825, making the pair the world’s oldest, longest historical chronicle. Historians debate the factual accuracy of the works, and many scholars believe that the date of 543 BCE itself is something of a contradiction, being synthetically fixed to coincide with the date of Lords Buddha’s own death.
Although verified archaeological, still less documentary evidence for Prince Vijaya remains tantalizingly absent, this has not stopped him taking centre stage as the nation’s paterfamilias. The many conflicting stories surrounding his arrival, his fights with man-eating wives, flying horses, skirmishes with indigenous tribes, protection under Buddha and willingness to swap his local wife Kuveni for a more glamorous and aristocratic Indian princess, are part of the country’s cherished creation myths. And, in the case of wife selection, Vijayan’s modus operandi set in train a royal habit that persisted to the end of the last kingdom in Kandy, over 2,000 years later – for selecting a wife amongst the dynasties of South India was forever considered a smart move; and did much to foster the continued interaction between rival kingdoms.
Even so, the slimmest of ancient – almost folklore - hints marks his landing on Sri Lanka’s shores - at Kudirmalai Point in Witpattu National Park. Here are to be found the remains of an ancient temple dedicated to a horse and overlooked by a massive horse statue made of brick, stone and coral, its rear leg now all that remains. Inland from here are a further set of ruins – mere pillars standing or fallen in the jungle and known locally as Kuveni’s Palace.
Kuveni was said to be the queen of the Yaksha, a local tribe, often considered to be just mythical, with demon like powers that co-existed with the Naga, another local tribe, one that was linked to the worship of snakes. The young prince was to found the Kingdom of Tambapaṇṇī - the island’s the first Sinhalese kingdom, situated in the north east around Mannar and Puttalam.
Although the Mahāvaṃsa Chronicle portrays Prince Vijaya as the first and only Indian colonist to arrive in early Sri Lanka, it is more than likely that he was but one (albeit the most successful one) of a number of immigrants. He and his successors colonised the island from the north and west, moving inland along the banks of the Malvata Oya. Other settlers undoubtedly arrived on the east coast and followed the Mahaweli River inland. Still others would have landed in the south, following other rivers inland to make settlements that would eventually coalesce into the (often semi) independent kingdom of Ruhana.
Of course, Prince Vijaya did not step into a vacuum – though what was here can still only really be guessed at. Pre-existing communities, possibly even bantam kingdoms, probably preoccupied themselves with interminable wars. The records list at least 4 different clans: Rakkhaka, Yakkha, Naga and Deva. But history is, of course, written by the victors and the Vijayan dynasty was a victor like few others.
The Vijayan progress would have forced the preexisting tribes to retreat inland – and accept a new status bestowed on them by these migrants from the subcontinent, who brought with them a steely view on caste. All Sinhalese castes derive in some form or another from here. The Brahman sat at the very top, with the Ksatriyas just below. This would have also included the Govigama (from govi – literally “housekeeper”); Kavikara (dancers); Durava (low country, and possibly ex Naga); Vahumpura; Navandanna (artisans); Batgama (labourers); Badahala (potters); Radava (dhobis) and Pali (dhobis for lower castes); Berava (drummers and folk priests); Oli and Nakati (astrologers); Panikki (barbers); Hannali (tailors); Hommara (leather workers); Hunna (lime burners); Yamannu (iron workers); Panna (elephants and horses); Kinnara (possibly ex Vedda); Vaggai (from S India) – and the lowest caste of all – the Rodi (untouchable). Centuries later many of these castes generated still more castes such as Hinna (dhobi); Gahala (executioners); Salagama, to which were added late migrants such as Damala Gattara (Tamil captives) and Karava (restricted to coasts parts)
To survive, all new settlers would have had to quickly master the one force central to make a viable settlement: water. Ensuring its plentiful supply in all these dry and semi dry zone areas was critical; and the early settlers focused on it almost immediately, cutting irrigation channels from its rivers to feed tanks and reservoirs, so crops, livestock and people could safely multiply. This preoccupation established a premise for success that runs through the country’s history, from the time of kings into the present day - and such initiatives as the Mahaweli Water Security Investment Program, whose canals and tunnels move water from the Mahaweli River Basin to tank systems and storage reservoirs in North Central, Northern, and North Western Provinces.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.