“And then there were none” Agatha Christie
With the murder of Khallata Naga, the Anuradhapuran Kingdom made the leap to regularizing regicide as if it was no more unusual than brushing one’s teeth.
Valagamba – the rightful heir and son of King Saddha Tissa – had first to defeat and kill Kammaharattaka, Khallata Naga’s nemesis, before he himself could take what he clearly saw as his rightful place at the head of things.
This he seems to have achieved with reasonable briskness, for by 103 BCE he was king. And obviously one who felt uncommonly safe –one of his first acts was to adopt the general’s son and marry his wife.
But decades of royal misrule had set in train a reaping of deadly consequences. Barely had the celebratory kiribath had time to be digested than all the hounds of hell slipped their leads.
A rebellion broke out in Rohana. A devastating drought began – a less than positive development in a land where the king was considered to have the power to cause rain. The kingdom’s preeminent port, Māhatittha (now Mantota, opposite Mannar) fell to Dravidian Tamil invaders.
And at a battle at Kolambalaka, the hapless King Valagamba himself was defeated, racing from the battlefield in a chariot lightened by the (accidental?) exit of his wife, Queen Somadevi.
In a 14 year tableau reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s novel “Five Little Pigs” the grand Anuradhapura Kingdom was then manhandled to atrophy. Two of the Dravidians returned to India, leaving one of the remaining five, Pulahatta, to rule from 104-101 BCE, with history struggling to keep up.
Pulahatta was killed by Bahiya, another of the five remaining Dravidians and head of the army, who was in turn murdered in 99 BCE by Panayamara, the third Dravidian who had been unwisely promoted to run the army.
Proving those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it, Panayamara was assassinated in 92 BCE by his general, the fourth Dravidian, Pilayamara. Seven months was all Pilayamara managed to last - before dying in skirmishes with rebels and passing the throne to the last Dravidian and army commander, Dathika who ruled until his defeat in battle in 89 BCE.
Despite losing his throne back in 103 BCE, the deposed king Valagamba had evaded capture, his many escapes and hiding places illuminating the map of Sri Lanka like a Catch-Me-If-You-Can treasure hunt. His most famous hideaway was probably the Gunadaha Rajamaha Viharaya in Galagedera, just where the flat plains of the Anuradhapura Kingdom rise into the mountains that enfold the centre of the island, and with them, protection and cover. From that time to the final routing of the invaders in 89 BCE, Valagamba carried out a guerrilla war that, month by month, won ascendency.
Eventually grappling his way back to power in 89 BCE, Valagamba retook his crown through a series of small, successful incremental skirmishes - although, given the murderous incompetence of his Dravidian interlopers, it may have been like pushing on an open door.
Valagamba’s long and determined campaign to win back the throne he had earlier enjoyed just for a few months marks him out as one of the country’s pluckiest rulers. His defeat and killing of the upstart Dathika in 89 BCE, gave him 12 years of real rule, and put the dynasty back at the centre of the state.
Valagamba set to work building a monastery, stupa and more memorably converting the Dambulla caves in which he hid during his wilderness years, into the famous Rock Temple that exists today.
Less adroitly, Valagamba managed to drive a wedge between the monks, his favouritism of one sect for another, setting in motion the island’s first Buddhist schism.
Despite this, it was under Valagamba’s patronage that 30 miles north of Kandy 500 monks gathered at the Aluvihare Rock Temple to write down the precepts of Buddhism.
It was to be momentous moment. Until then Buddha’s teachings had been passed on orally - but repeated Chola invasions from India left the monks fearful that his teachings would be lost. The challenge they had set themselves was immense. Firstly, they had to recite the doctrines. That would have taken several years. Then they had to agree on an acceptable version of the teachings before transcription. That must have taken even longer. Finally came the lengthy work of transcribing them, using ola leaves from talipot palms.
The Pāli Canon became the standard scripture of Theravada Buddhism, written in the now extinct Pali language, an ancient Indian language, thought to be the language spoken by Buddha and used in Sri Lanka until the fifth century CE. Scholars argue (as they do) about how much of the work can be attributed to one person or to Buddha himself – but believers are largely free of such elaborate debates. The Cannon lays out in clear and unambiguous terms the doctrines, and rules of conduct Buddhists should follow. It is made up of three parts:
The Vinaya concerns itself mainly with the rules for monks and nuns.
The Sutta Pitaka is the Cannon’s practical heart, comprising around 10,000 teachings and poems of Buddha and his close companions that focus on the typical challenges of life.
The Abhidhamma Piṭaka is where the higher teachings sit – the ones most focused around Enlightenment.
Running to some 80,000 pages, the Pali Canon is roughly the size of a dozen Bibles. The cave temple in which it was created still exists, with numerous caverns and old inscriptions to view, despite parts of it having being destroyed in the 19 CE Matale Rebellion.
The monks were probably still hard at work on The Pāli Canon when Valagamba died in 77 BCE, bringing his adopted son, Mahakuli Mahatissa to power.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.