The Just King
“The sword of justice has no scabbard.” Antione De Riveral
Invaders are rarely liked and often forgotten. But the 44 year reign of the Tamil king, Ellalan, merits much more than a modest footnote in the island’s story. Unlike almost all other conquerors before or since, Ellalan cherished his kingdom as much as any man might his own home. He came to rule – not rape and pillage.
In the northern Tamil city of Jaffa stands a curious white clock tower, with Italianate windows, Roman pillars, and a little minaret. Built by subscription to honour the 1875 visit of Prince of Wales, it was damaged in the civil war and repaired, partly with the help of a later Prince of Wales, Charles, in 2002. Before it, as if leading a charge, is a golden elephant, ridden by a golden king – Elara, or in Tamil, Ellalan.
Ellalan (205 BCE – 161 BCE) is a strange figure, his Tamilness eliciting not even a scintilla of condemnation in The Mahavamsa, which notes instead “a Damila of noble descent, named Elara, who came hither from the Cola-country to seize on the kingdom, ruled when he had overpowered king Asela, forty-four years, with even justice toward friend and foe, on occasions of disputes at law.,”
The ancient text then goes onto illuminate Ellalan’s many acts of justice and generosity. Just, to the point of terrifying, he even executed his own son for transgressing the law. Virtuous though he was, Ellalan was, all the same, a footnote for the Vijayans were not yet finished with their rule. The main line of succession had been destroyed, but a cadet branch existed in the southern Kingdom of Ruhuna, a Vijayan redoubt ruled over by the descendants of King Devanampiya Tissa’s brother, Mahanaga.
The Kingdom of Ruhuna had never really been part of the Anuradhapura domain. Indeed, since at least the reign of King Surathissa the Anuradhapura Kingdom itself had begun to fracture, The Mahavamsa pointing out the presence of 32 semi-independent Tamil states coexisting alongside King Ellalan’s Anuradhapura.
Ruhana at this time was fortunate enough to be ruled by the Vijayan King, Kavantissa, who pursued a focused and implacable strategy of soaking up the little would-be challenging kingships the boarded his land. By the time of his death he had created a powerful southern state, one that was perfectly poised to help the family regain control of Anuradhapura itself.
The death of King Kavantissa let loose a predictable sibling spat, carried out by his two sons, Dutugemunu and Tissa. In a series of trials involving elephants, the kidnapping of the dowager queen, and set-piece battles, Dutugemunu emerged victorious. His victory in his home kingdom was to have a profound impact on the island as a whole for it was in his reign that the Vijayans were to finally assert their dominance across the entire island.
A notable adherent of Walt Disney’s modus operandi (“Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long”), Dutugemunu, throne secure, set off for the north with an army of chariots, monks, horses, a lucky spear, his favourite elephant (Kandula) and, states The Mahavamsa, Ten Giant Warriors (Nandhimitra, Suranimala, Mahasena, Theraputtabhya, Gotaimbara, Bharana, Vasabha, Khanjadeva, Velusamanna, and Phussadeva). Composed, as was normal of four units – elephants, horses, chariots, and infantry – the army was spectacularly successful.
Having learnt much from his sagacious father, Dutugemunu began by first mopping up the splintered Tamil statelets in the north. The campaigns reached their climax outside the walls of Anuradhapura.
The old king Ellalan, mounted on his elephant Mahapabbata, faced his younger rival, mounted on his elephant, Kandula. Did he tremble when he heard Dutugemunu call out 'none shall kill Ellalan but myself'?
We can but guess. The ancient texts report that the deadly combat was honourable but decisive, a spear thrust finally ending Ellalan’s life in 161 BCE. The records state that "the water in the tank there was dyed red with the blood of the slain'. And perhaps in acknowledgment of Ellalan’s fine reputation, the king had his victim cremated properly and a stupa constructed over the pyre. “Even to this day,” comments The Mahavamsa, “the princes of Lanka, when they draw near to this place, are wont to silence their music'.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.