Line of Attack
“What goes up must come down” Isaac Newton
The death of Sri Lanka’s visionary king, Devanampiya Tissa, ushered in a period of unnerving calm. All seemed fine with the state – and yet something, somewhere, was going fatally wrong, leaving it wide open to invasion.
If there was a serious shortcoming in the reign of Devanampiya Tissa, it was his apparent lack of children; and in the 30 years that followed two of his brothers and possibly even an uncle took up the royal reins, with little obvious beneficial effect – as far as the country was concerned.
First up was Uththiya, one of old king Mutasiva’s many sons. His ten year rule from 267 BCE to 257 BCE is a marvel of obscurity.
He was succeeded by his brother, Mahasiwa, whose own ten year rule, from 257 BCE – 247 BCE, goes almost as unremembered - apart from the fact that he built the Nagarangana Monastery.
By the time Mahasiwa’s uncle, Surathissa, took the throne in 247 BCE, things were clearly going most seriously wrong, and the young country would have been wise to take to heart the words of the Egyptian writer, Suzy Kassem: “Never follow a follower who is following someone who has fallen. Its why the whole world is falling apart.”
For by now the kingdom itself was falling apart. It had become so ineptly run and poorly defended as to lay itself wide open to invasion – the first recoded invasion of the country from South India.
Three kings, and three decades on from the kingdom’s apparent apogee, the governance of the country had clearly eroded – and badly. The systems, protections, administration, and defences put in by the last two or three great kings had broken down, the reason a matter on which speculation could rest until the return of the dodo itself. Why did it all go so very wrong? No one knows. But the state no long had its eye on the ball. Clearly Devanampiya Tissa’s heirs had in very short supply the ten perfections that make the life of Buddha aspirants positive: morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, forbearance, truthfulness, resolution, kindness, equanimity, and liberality.
The invasion came in the ignominious form of couple of Tamil horse traders, Sena and Guttik.
Spotting the ultimate commercial opportunity (a kingdom) in the weak rule of King Surathissa, the traders met little resistance in conquering Anuradhapura and slaughtering the ineffectual Surathissa. They were to rule it for 22 years, the first of a succession of Tamil invaders.
It was a humiliating end to the golden years of the Vijayan dynasty. And yet, like the immortal jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrnii, dead, in this case, did not mean dead - for the fight had not quite left the Vijayans.
Out there in the wilderness lay Asela, another son of old King Mutasiva. After Surathissa was killed, Asela took refuge far south in the Kingdom of Ruhuna – a sub kingdom that had been established by Mahanaga, another son of King Mutasiva.
Descending on the horse trader kings with much shattered dignity to put right, Asela killed them in battle.
After decades of poor rule followed by a pair of asset stripping Indian merchants, there was much that King Asela had to put right. But the task proved too much for him and his own rule was brought to an abrupt end 10 years later in 205 BCE when he himself was killed in battle by Ellara, an invading Tamil Chola.
That he should meet such an end, after so much trouble to restore his family’s right to reign, seems almost unfair – but as Nicholas Sparks gloomily observed ““life, I’ve learned, is never fair. If people teach anything in school, that should be it.”
Ellara was to rule the Anuradhapuran Kingdom for 44 years, smashing the awesome edifice of Vijayan rule that had already given the island so much of its lasting cultural identity.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.