“No matter how rough the sea, I refuse to sink.” Unknown
Prince Vijaya’s greatest achievement, apart from surviving, was less what he did than what he left behind – a dynasty that ran (ignoring regnal interruptions) for over 600 years, putting it comfortably ahead of Mings and Moguls, Valois, French Bourbons, German Hohenzollerns, Tudors, Stuarts, and Aztecs.
The very earliest foundation stories of the Sinhala nation start with him, covering 47 monarchs (including, that is, more than a handful of extraneous royal interlopers), from Vijaya to the unrelated rogue, Subharaja, ruling 3 ever larger kingdoms - Tambapanni, Upatissa Nuwara and Anuradhapura, facing off three major Tamil invasions, until in the end, they toppled themselves.
But just as the Vijayan dynasty started, it almost came to a premature end for Prince Vijaya died in 505 BCE, after a 38-year reign, leaving no credible son to inherit the throne.
Fortunately, one of his followers – possibly his chief minister, Upatissa - had founded a petite kingdom of his own close by - Upatissa Nuwara. And he appears to have loyally stepped into the breach when Prince Vijaya died, ruling for a year until Panduvasdeva, Vijaya’s nephew arrived from India to assume the throne.
With Panduvasdeva arrival, the time of kings was robustly on its way, albeit at first, little different from the many kingdoms that vied with one another across Tamil Nadu and into India.
Ruling for 30 years (504 - 474 BCE), Panduvasdeva was just what the nascent dynasty needed to entrench itself, his greatest achievements being to rule for decades and produce heirs, albeit ones fixated on familicide. Whether his many sons all came from the same wife or not is unknown, for the harem was to be a key institution of the royal court, and a magnet for intrigue and politics until the last king of the last kingdom breathed his last.
Panduvasdeva moved his capital to the fortress of Vijithapura, close to what would later become its great capital, Anuradhapura. Today, he is chiefly remembered for the chaos that later enveloped the country as his 10 sons battled against the morbid predictions of a court soothsayer who predicted that they would all be killed by their nephew, Pandu Kabhaya, son of their only sister, Princess Citta.
Abhaya, Panduvasdeva’s eldest son took the throne from his father in 474 BCE. It seems possible that he was smart enough to know that, as king, he had been promoted beyond his level of competence. He ruled with eroding confidence until being dethroned by his brother, Tissa in 454 BCE.
Abhaya’s ousting was merely the most public expression of the rising sibling civil wars that had overtaken the country as Panduvasdeva’s sons vied for prominence. Spared his life, Abhaya retreated into a wise obscurity, sensibly declining his nephew’s later offer to retake the crown, settling instead for the far less pressured job of running Anuradhapura.
Tissa, Abhaya’s immediate replacement, was of a haunted man. Chief amongst his brothers, he was eager to head off the sinister predictions of the court soothsayer. But it was not to be. His rule was characterised by an ultimately unsuccessful balancing act: feuding with his bothers (many of whom died in the troubles) whilst keeping at bay his nephew Pandu Kabhaya. As civil war rocked the new nation, Tissa’s repeated attempts to find and slay his nephew, Pandu Kabhaya, were all foiled and his reign (454 BCE – 437 BCE) came to a predictable end when Pandu Kabhaya killed him in battle.
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.