The Final Curtain
“By blood a king, in heart a clown.” Alfred Lord Tennyson
King Amandagamani Abhaya's ascent to the throne in 21 CE was both fair and orderly. Even so, the dynastic DNA had long before morphed into a penchant for regicide, and in 30 CE this fatal habit was to reappear, heralding the dynasty’s final moments – ones that not even the most sensational or improbable soap operas could ever hope to emulate.
There was little if any warning. It all just happened. Kanirajanu Tissa, King Amandagamani Abhaya’s brother waited just 9 years before wielding the family knife, killing his sibling in 30 CE and seizing the throne for himself.
Proving right the old adage that one’s crimes eventually catch up with you, Kanirajanu Tissa’s own reign was terminated after just 3 suspiciously short and turbulent years when in 33 CE, Chulabhaya, son of the assassinated Amandagamani Abhaya became king. He is down in the records as having died naturally, though this might credibly require a reworking of the word’s definition.
Chulabhaya managed to last little longer, but pragmatists now sensibly took to counting reigns in multiples of months, not years. Three years later, in 35 CE Chulabhaya too was dead and his sister Sivali took the throne in 35 CE.
The ascension of Sri Lanka’s second female head of state, Queen Sivali, in 35 CE probably did more to hasten, rather than slow down, the Vijayan dynasty’s final tryst with oblivion. What she lacked in the blood thirsty and ruthless qualities that had so marked out Anula, the country’s first female ruler, she did not seem able to make up for with any resolute authority.
Perhaps it was already too late for all that. For decades now the kingdom’s rulers had demonstrated a greater interest in seizing the throne than ever ruling it with wisdom or strength.
Sivali’s rule laid bare the incipient civil war that had been raging through the palace corridors earlier. The only difference this time was that the dynasty suddenly found itself with another dynasty to deal with, the Lambakarna - and not just itself, exhausting enough as that was.
Sivali bobs up and down in the months succeeding her ascension vying for control of the state in what looks like a three cornered struggle between herself, her nephew Ilanaga and the Lambakarnas.
Little about this period of Sri Lankan history is certain, except that from around 35 CE to 38 CE civil war preoccupied the entire country and left it without any plausible governance.
For a time Ilanaga seemed to be ahead of the pack. But he then seems to have scoured a perfect own-goal when he demoted the entire Lambakarna clan for failing to attend to him in what he regarded as a right and proper fashion. This abrupt change in their caste, in country held increasingly rigid by ideas of caste, galvanised them into full scale rebellion. The king – if king he really was – fell and fled into hill country, returning 3 years later at the head of a borrowed Chola army to take back his throne in 38 CE.
The Lambakarna Clan were put back in their place, though it was to prove but a temporary place at best. Ilanaga’s reign lasted another 7 years, before his son Chandra Mukha Siva succeeded in 44 CE.
Despite the chaos of this period of Sri Lankan history, and not without a little irony, it is astonishing to record how one of these last Vijayan kings – probably Ilanaga or his son Chandra Mukha Siva - still managed to find time to send an embassy to Rome. Pliny the Elder records the event which occurred at some point in the reign of the luckless Emperor Claudius (41 – 54 CE).
And at almost the same time a reciprocal one seems to have happened back in Sri Lanka with the (probably) accidental arrival of a Roman called Annius Plocamus.
Evidence of links between the two kingdoms can be found in both countries. Archaeologists working near the Via Cassia north of Rome identified an 8-year old mummy from the second half of the 2nd century CE they called Grottarossa. Amongst her artefacts was a necklace of 13 sapphires from Sri Lanka.
And dating a few decades before this in Sri Lanka there is unmistakable evidence of Roman influences at the Abhayagiri Vihara monastery site in Anuradhapura. Here, nestling amongst the sculptured carvings of elephants and bulls are to be found winged cupids and griffins – and the acanthus leaves common on almost all Greek and Roman art.
Back in Rome, as the Emperor Claudius was getting ready to be murdered by his wife, Agrippina so ushering in the calamitous reign of Nero, back in Sri Lanka King Ilanaga’s son and successor, Chandra Mukha Siva, was facing the same fate in 52 CE – albeit at the hands of his own brother Yassalalaka Thissa in 52 CE. The stage was now set for one of most eccentric periods of island governance.
With the ascension of the regicidal Yassalalaka Thissa, the last chorus of the Vijayan throne sounded, in Frank Sinatra style: “and now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.”
With a story too bathetic to be encumbered by any inconvenient disbelief, The Mahavaṃsa recounts the bizarre end of this once great dynasty in 60 CE.
“Now a son of Datta the gate-watchman, named Subha, who was himself a gate-watchman, bore a close likeness to the king. And this palace-guard Subha did the king Yasalalaka, in jest, bedeck with the royal ornaments and place upon the throne and binding the guard's turban about his own head, and taking himself his place, staff in band, at the gate, he made merry over the ministers as they paid homage to Subha sitting on the throne. Thus, was he wont to do, from time to time.
Now one day the guard cried out to the king, who was laughing: `Why does this guard laugh in my presence?' And Subha the guard ordered to slay the king, and he himself reigned here six years under the name Subha Raja.”
Despatched by his own lookalike, Yassalalaka Thissa, the last Vijayan king died, one hopes, seeing the unexpectedly funny side of assassination. King Subha’s own reign lasted 6 years when, whetted by a 3 year rule back in 35 CE, the Lambakarna clan took royal matters back into their own hand and put the ex-palace guard to death.
A new Lambakarna king, Vasabha, was now to take the throne.
After 609 years, the Vijayan dynasty had come to an inglorious end. Despite a rich choice of murderous would-be rulers, kings such as Vijaya, Pandukabhaya, Mutasiva, Devanampiya Tissa, and Dutugemunu, had been able to establish the confidence, culture, and mindset of an entire nation, giving it the ballast and energy necessary to propel itself forward for centuries to come.
With a writ running at times across the entire island, they transformed a series of unremarkable warring statelets and villages into a nation. They bequeathed it with a legacy of literature, architecture, religion, and infrastructure that no other dynasty bettered.
Looking out at water rippling still over the great tanks they built with cutting-edge engineering; sitting in the shade of the magnificent palaces and courts constructed at Anuradhapura, reading inscriptions that point to the bounty of trade routes extending from the island to places as far away as Rome; in the ancient chants of Buddhist priests, the coinage, delicate statutory, frescos and books that survive to this day: in taking all of this in, you take as said an early nation every bit as impressive as any in the ancient world – and way ahead of most.
Its laws regulated an dynamic state, its armies and weapons defended it with a rigour that was effective. Even as they disappeared from history, the achievements of the Vijayans lay before them, the indispensable foundations of an entire island-nation state.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.