A Dynasty Destroyed
“The exclamation mark (!), known informally as a bang or a shriek, is used at the end of a sentence or a short phrase which expresses very strong feeling.” University of Sussex Guide to Punctation
Buddhadasa’ death in 370 CE left his son, Upatissa I, a most secure throne to sit upon. Little is known about his reign except two things. It lasted a long time – 42 years. And it was to end in disaster, its terminus foretelling the implosion of the dynasty itself in just a few decades time.
That his reign should end in 412 CE with his murder would have surprised Upatissa. His shock would have been amplified had he known that it would be delivered by a monk – his own bother, Mahanama who, according to the chronicles, was busy cuckolding him with the queen. Although the new king was to enjoy dying a natural death in 434 CE, the manor of his ascension legitimised regicide once again.
His death brought to the throne his (possibly illegitimate) son Soththisena, whose one-day rule ended with a draft of poison administered by his queen, Sanga. His stepsister, Chattagahaka Jantu caught the faltering crown - but lasted only until 435 CE. Regicidal palace politics was once again singing a song that would challenge any modern-day soap opera scriptwriter.
The Queen’s chief minister decided to replace her with a more compliant distant relative in 435 CE, Mittasena, who preoccupied by religious devotions was wholly unprepared for the fourth Tamil invasion of the realm in 436 CE.
That the state was so unable to defend itself was no great surprise. For the past few extreme decades family politics would have pushed good governance into a back seat. The eye, as Ford Frick, the famous basketball player might have observed, was firmly off the ball.
The regime fell with minimal resistance. It was a shocking and sudden end. For 369 years the dynasty had ruled, its two periods of firm and effective guardianship tragically balanced by two other periods of regicidal insanity and power vacuums. They had lasted barely half as long as the previous dynasty, the Vijayans. The state had prospered, matured, advanced – but was ultimately put at risk by the dynasty’s unfavourable ratio of dud kings to effective ones.
It could be argued that the invasion that finally toppled them could have come at almost any time, pushing them to the side-lines of history much sooner than it did. Certainly by 436 CE the nation’s defences were laid wide open and wholly incapable of resisting the relentless march of South India’s Pandyan dynasty.
Across the Palk Straights in Southern India, several dynasties vied with one another for power, their internecine warfare persuading even the great emperor Ashoka to limit his own mighty empire from intruding too far into the troublesome boundaries of their states.
On three occasions before the abrupt end of king Mittasena’s rule, Indian strongmen had taken an overexuberant interest in Sri Lanka, beginning with the opportunistic horse traders, Sena and Guttika who interrupted Vijayan rule to rule the Anuradhapuran Kingdom in 237 BCE.
The horse traders were seen off by the Vijayan King Asela in 215 BCE, who was himself despatched by a second Tamil invader, King Elara in 205. This time expelling the invaders took longer – but it was achieved by a later Vijayan, King Dutugemunu, in 161 BCE.
His grandson, King Valagamba, fared less well, losing his throne to seven invading Dravidians in 104 BCE before regaining it in 89 BCE. And there matters rested for five hundred and twenty two years until the next lot arrived.
As the increasingly weak rule of the Lambakarna dynasty over Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura Kingdom descended into a series of gritty palace coups, the Pandians took matters into their own hands and, with ease, invaded the island and took over the kingdom.
The last Lambakarna king, Mittasena was slain in battle in 436 CE and a Tamil king, Pandu, took over his rule. Quite what this meant or how far his rule extended is hard to estimate. It is unlikely that the new king’s edict reached much beyond the north and north central parts of the country.
Pandu was succeeded by his son Parindu in 441 CE and in less than one suspiciously short year, by another son, Khudda Parinda, the third Pandiyan king. Thereafter the family lineage is hard to trace, but not so the revolving door of kingship.
By 447 CE Khudda Parinda was dead, and a fourth Pandiyan took the throne – Tiritara, albeit only for two months, his reign ending with his death in skirmishes with rebels from Ruhuna, led by an emerging Sri Lankan king-in-waiting, Dhatusena, of the Moriyan Dynasty.
The fifth Pandiyan king, Dathiya, was little luckier. By 450 CE he too had been killed by Dhatusena in the war that now engulfed the island. And up stepped the last and sixth of the luckless invaders - Pithiya. Hs rule also ended at the point of Dhatusena’s sword, in 452 CE. Several years of barely documented anarchy followed before the country was able to turn to the task of recovering from the Pandiyan merry-go-round.
The illustration is from a painting by Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, one of leading members of Sri Lanka’s Group of 43.