The Moment of Truth
“When a defining moment comes along, you define the moment, or the moment defines you.” Kevin Costner
A modest mystery immediately greets the hard pressed historian on encountering the death of Sri Lanka’s first and possibly greatest king, Pandu Kabhaya. His impossibly long reign – some 70 years ( - and that following an extended youth tormenting and eventually killing his uncle) – defies all reasonable expectation of life expectancy at the time.
Some scholars, fretting at the impossible arithmetic athleticism of the great king, helpfully suggest an extra king at this point – a shadowy name emerges from antique mists: Ganatissa, said to be a son of Pandu Kabhaya. Or was he a grandson? Or just a royal blind alley? It is a mystery that is never likely to be cleared up, but if Ganatissa was an invisible king, Mutasiva, said to have been Pandu Kabhaya’ son, emits at least the glimmer of glorious light. His existence is not in question. His reign was long, and he is said to have enlarged Anuradhapura creating Mahamevnāwa, an enormous park noted for its flowering trees and fruits. And mindful of his dynastic obligations, Mutasiva also produced 9 sons, 5 of whom would rule after him.
Certainly, something went very right during the reigns of Pandukabhaya, (?Ganatissa) and Mutasiva for during this period, civil war, that had rocked the reigns of Panduvasdeva’s sons, draws not even the merest whisper in the chronicles. This period of calm government would have enabled the state to become increasingly centralised, and in so doing, embedded Vijayan rule and the ascendency of the Anuradhapura Kingdom across the island. Mutasiva’s peaceful death, in 307 BCE, made clear that the Vijayans were there to stay.
It turned out that this was the best of all possible times to take stock of the kingdom, and lift its game. And it was fortunate that when Sri Lanka’s paramount defining moment occurred, it had a king talented enough to make best sense of it, though in the decades after his death, all was nearly lost by feeble heirs and violent invaders.
Devanampiya Tissa, old King Mutasiva’s second son, is described by The Mahavaṃsa as being "foremost among all his brothers in virtue and intelligence".
To get anywhere close to this remarkable king (307 – 267 BCE) you should take yourself off to a mountain in Mihintale, 16 kilometres east of Anuradhapura. There stands a modest, much weathered, armless stone statute of Devanampiya Tissa, just over six feet high, gazing out across the grand ruins and remains of the religious citadel. It marks the very spot where Sri Lanka became Buddhist. Gaze into the stoney eyes of the king – for, unlike so much other statutory, this one, argue the scholars, actually dates from very close to the death of this Buddhist welcoming monarch.
Like the Vijayans, Buddhism also came from India - and it has naturalised so completely across the island that it is impossible grasp any aspect of the country’s past or present, without first comprehending the centrality of this, its main religion. It arrived through a series of intimate stories in which faith follows friendship – for King Devanampiya Tissa had struck up a pen-pal relationship with the celebrated Indian Buddhist emperor, Ashoka.
Gifts followed letters, and a missionary followed the gifts when Ashoka despatched his own son, Mahinda, to Sri Lanka. The young missionary prince was to live on the island for 48 years, out-living Devanampiya Tissa, and dying, aged 80 after a lifetime spent promoting Buddhism, the beneficiary of a state funeral at which his relics were interred in a stupa in Mihintale.
For it was at Mihintale that Mahinda first met Devanampiya Tissa. The king, it was said, was out hunting. Expecting a stag, the ruler instead found himself a missionary. A testing exchange on the nature of things followed, and then a sutra was preached. The rest, as they say, is history.
The conversions began, and the country’s history took the most definitive turn in its long journey, becoming - and remaining to this day - a Buddhist country first and foremost, with all that this entailed. So great were the number of conversions that the king especially built the Maha Vihare (The Great Monastery) in the pleasure gardens of Anuradhapura to house the growing number of Buddhist monks; and for centuries afterwards, the building was to become the centre of Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
The evidence for all this comes, of course, from The Mahāvaṃsa Chronicle. But it is very likely that Buddhism penetrated the island much earlier. Even so, it took the backing of a king to ensure that the religion became so dominant so fast. And as it did so, it accrued some of the many rituals and ceremonies of the pre Buddhist cults, especially those associated with agriculture and demons. It also helped spread a common language and script, and with it, the power of the centre for the king was also the formal guardian of the Sanga – the religious organization.
Clearly, Mahinda, the young missionary had painted a compelling picture of his new island home in his letters home for he was soon joined by his sister, the nun, Sanghamitta. She brought with her a golden vase in which grew a sapling of Bodhi-Tree taken from the very one under which Buddha himself is said to have attained enlightenment.
Accompanied by a number of other nuns, Sanghamitta landed in the north of the island and was met by King Devanampiya Tissa himself. The party were ceremonially escorted to Anuradhapura along a road softened with white sand. The Bodhi sapling was planted in the Mahameghavana Grove in Anuradhapura, where it still grows. Saṅghamitta later ordained Queen Anula and the women of the court in Buddhism and stayed on in the island, promoting the religion. She died in 203 BCE aged 79, her death prompting national mourning. A stupa was erected over her cremation site in front of the Bodhi-Tree in Anuradhapura.
The king himself built a monastery and temple caves at Mihintale, a site that over successive years grew and grew. Indeed temple caves rapidly became the architectural hit of the time with ordinary people funding a stone mason to do all the necessary work. Between the third century BCE and the first century CE nearly 3,000 such caves were recorded.
Other notable buildings followed: monasteries, palaces, the 550 acre Tissa Wewa water tank, still in use today; and the Thuparamaya of Anuradhapura, the county’s first stupa - which enshrined the right collarbone of Lord Buddha and whose remains today stretch out over 3 ½ acres. Devanampiya Tissa’s death after a long reign brought to a gradual end a golden period of Vijayan peace and prosperity.
The illustration is from a painting by Rajni Perera, one of Sri Lanka’s leading contemporary artists; based in Canada.