“We did not choose to be the guardians of the gate, but there is no one else.” Lyndon B. Johnson
In 1929, as Wall Street crashed and the roaring twenties came to an abrupt end, archaeologists digging in faraway Trincomalee uncovered the remains of a once-lofty temple, built a stone’s throw from the Indian Ocean, sometime after 307 CE.
Beneath earth, trees, and jungle, stretching out to the shores of a great lake, the Velgam Vehera’s many scattered ruins were brought back to sight for the first time in centuries: brick stupas, stone inscriptions, balustrades, buildings, moon stones – and mura gals.
These mura gals – or guard stones – are especially moving, standing in silent upright pose, guardians of the flights of steps that had led a multitude of forgotten people out of the everyday and into the sacred temple itself. The steps they protect have worn down to just a few flights, the moonstone they encompass is almost entirely rubbed away; the temple beyond is now just an outline of ancient bricks, and the guard stones themselves are plain, almost stumpy, but still doing their ageless job as sentinels of the site.
Similar guard stones stand in many other parts of the island, easy to see if you know what you are looking for, silent guardians of the state within. For to be a guardian is no little thing.
Guardian is an emotive word in Sri Lanka. It can be found incorporated by health and education providers, insurance companies, the army, the priesthood, the home guard, air force, a news website, hotel and even a wedding business. But long ago it was also the meaning given to the Lambakarnas, the dynasty that succeeded the founding Vijayans.
Originating possibly in India, it is likely that the Lambakarnas claimed descent from Sumitta - a prince who formed part of the escort that had brought the Bodhi-tree from India in 250 BCE. From this botanical pilgrimage, they would go on to become one of the island’s great barons, alongside other such families as Moriyan, Taracchas and Balibhojak.
Their own power derived from their position as hereditary guardians or secretaries to the king. They took a prominent part in religious ceremonies. But there was more to them than merely carrying coronation parasols and flags. They were connected to the military, to weapon manufacture and, as writers, must have been involved in much of the important administration of the kingdom.
They managed the transition from one of several aristocratic families to ruling family with what at first appeared to be consummate ease. After the ruinous excesses of the last Vijayans, the new dynasty seemed to grip the one fundamental axiom of kingship: govern well, live long.
They were to rule all or much of the island (depending on the period) over two distinct periods.
The first of these was to last for 369 years through the reigns of 26 monarchs, from 67 CE to 436 CE.
This period, just over half the length of the Vijayans, saw them twice facing utter ruin. The first time this happened they managed to draw back from the regicide and power implosions that rocked them to regain their savoir faire. But the second outbreak propelled them inexorably to their destruction, leaving the state weak, distracted, and unable to fend off an invasion of the island from the Pandyan dynasty of South India.
Just under half the Lambakarna monarchs were to die at the hands of their successors, victims to a predilection for assassination that ran like a malign monomeric thread through their DNA.
Even so, the nation they left behind was bigger, richer, more complex, developed and built out that it had been on its inheritance by them back in 67 CE. Stupas, monasteries, reservoirs, canals, temples, and dwellings filled out the land. The mores of society progressed.
Agriculture flourished and technical advances from construction through to medicine bestowed its benefits on the kingdom.
It was strong enough to weather repeated religious schisms, as well as succession crises; and – ultimately – its 16 year occupation by Tamil kings to enable the country to bounce back, albeit this time under yet another new dynasty.
The illustration is from a painting by Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, one of leading members of Sri Lanka’s Group of 43.