“Where's Papa going with that axe?” Charlotte's Web
After 126 years so stable and propitious as to suggest they might never end, the Lambakarnas settled down to that great pastime of the late Vijayan kings – regicide. The preoccupation would test the very stability of the kingdom they has so assiduously built.
On Kanittha Tissa’s death in 193 CE, his son, Cula Naga assumed power, only to be assassinated by his bother Kuda Naga in 195 CE. Nothing is known about the murder, but it unlikely to have been carried out for the greater good of the kingdom. Kuda Naga must have earned the sort of censure that helped despatch him to the uncertain fields of reincarnation when his own brother-in-law, Siri Naga I had him killed that same year.
It seemed as if the Regicide Game has fizzled out. Certainly for the next 41 years family politics took a backseat to good governance. The new king, Siri Naga I, reigning for 20 years, even found time and resource to make good some of Anuradhapura’s most famous buildings - the great stupa of Ruwanweliseya, said to house more of Lord Budda’s relics than anywhere else in the world; the famous Brazen Palace with a roof of bronze tiles, the tallest structure on the island, and a fine new set of stone steps leading to the sacred Bo tree itself. When Siri Naga died in 215 CE his son Voharika Tissa took the throne.
What little the historical records have to tell us about the new king are glowing. A strong proponent of non-violence, he enacted several reforms to promote the practice. Erring on the side of conservative Buddhism, he also attempted to supresses new variants of Mahayana Buddhism which were threatening to eat away at the Theravada Buddhism that had dominated the island since its introduction hundreds of years earlier during the reign of Devanampiya Tissa.
In spite of (or perhaps, because of) the nature of such a king, he found his throne snatched away from him by his brother, Abhaya Naga, 22 years into his reign.
The regicide fizzle was back. Rumoured to be fuelled by the adulterous affair he was having with the queen, Abhaya Naga recruited a Tamil mercenary army and assassinated his brother in 237 CE.
The next 17 years were to see the dynasty plunged a second time into homicidal politics – though, remarkably the new fratricidal king was to die naturally, in 245 CE, an achievement of sorts.
Word of Abhaya Naga’s death was rushed to the Ruhuna redoubt, that place in the far south of the island forever just-so-slightly out of Anuradhapuran control. Here, Siri Naga, Abhaya Naga embittered nephew, son of the slain Voharika Tissa, had been holding out since his father’s murder.
Claiming his rightful inheritance the new king hastened back to Anuradhapura to take to the throne as King Siri Naga II. Sadly, he was to enjoy just 3 years of kingship. His death, in 247 CE was also, apparently natural, and he was succeeded by his own son, Vijaya Kumara.
And this is where the real trouble began. Within a year the young king was dead, murdered by three Lambakarna relatives in 248 CE.
Like the deadly tale behind a bloodthirsty Jacobean tragedy, a plot was hatched by three distant relatives from the Lambakarna clan. Little is known of its details – but one can guess at them by seeing how it played out.
One by one the coup leaders took their turn to be king.
First up was Sangha Tissa, whose reign ended with predictable abruptness five years later in 252 CE. The second plotter took his turn, reigning as King Siri Sangha Bodhi I from 252 to 254.
Despite his earlier handiwork, The Mahāvaṃsa takes a gentle and forgiving tone to him, his devotion to Buddhism so absolute that he refused to execute criminals. Facing a rebellion by the third plotter, Gathabhaya, he voluntarily abdicated and retired to the forest to live as an ascetic after a reign of just three years in 253 CE. And in an end both grisly, contradictory, and anatomically impressive, he then decapitated himself to enable a poor peasant to collect the bounty on his head, bringing to an end nearly sixty years of royal knockabout.
The third plotter, Gathabhaya, was made of much sterner stuff. What he lacked in charm, charity, and religious tolerance, he made up for with the sort of firm government that took the fizz out of regicide.
The illustration is from a painting by Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, one of leading members of Sri Lanka’s Group of 43.