Years of Plenty
Go buy us pizza. With extra cheese, Richie Rich." Maggie Stiefvater
Overcaution, on behalf of the last (albeit fraudulent) Vijayan king, propelled the new Lambakarnan dynasty and its first king to the throne.
The soothsayers had been busy whispering appalling forecasts into the ear of Subharaja, the reigning Anuradhapuran king, foretelling of his certain destiny with death at the hands of someone called Vasabha.
Herod-like, the troubled monarch ordered the execution of anyone of that name – not quite on the scale of the massacre of the innocents as in Bethlehem in 2 BCE – but certainly in a similarly bloodthirsty league. Had Subharaja not acted as he did, it is quite possible that he would not have created a persecution complex in one particular Vasabha, now bent on excising the source of his danger.
Subharaja had come into the throne by impersonating the then king, Yassalalaka Tissa, so convincingly it seems that he successfully managed to hill him, and carry on ruling. The story, coming to us via the famous Mahāvaṃsa Chronicle, is too bizarre to wreck with close questioning. But true or not, Subharaja was no Vijayan despite his pretence to belong to the ruling dynasty and his grip on power would have been modest at best.
Just a few decades earlier the Lambakarna family had exerted their considerable familial power and plunged the country into a civil war that saw at least one legitimate ruler vanquished.
They were ready to do it all over again, unimpressed as any half way decent aristocrat might be by the pretentions of an imposter king.
Needless to say as the wretched bodies of perfectly innocent men called Vasabha piled up across the island, the one the soothsayer actually had in mind manged to evade capture, betrayal, and execution.
Prince Vasabha was the kind of Lambakarnan that the dynasty could have well done with a few more of as it migrated from aristocratic family to ruling family Rather like the Cavalry in old American Westerns, the new king arrived in the nick of time. The state, if not quite worn out, was stumbling on with the political equivalent of one leg, two broken hips and a congenital heart disease
Recruiting an army, Vasabha wasted little time in putting it to proper use. By 67 CE King Subharaja was dead and the Vijayan dynasty deposited at the sorrowful gates of the historical cul de sac into which they would disappear.
Having taken one prediction to heart and with such apparent rewards, the new king took the next one just as seriously. He would die, the soothsayers now warned, within 12 years. Given that his reign lasted an astonishing 44 years (a feat both credible and unusual), modern pollsters who also went awry can take comfort from the long history of erroneous prophecies (Brexit, "Dewey Defeats Truman," or more locally the 2015 presidential election that saw out Mahindra Rajapaksa).
But the effect of their severe projections turbo charged the new king marking him out as just the kind of man Benjamin Franklin might have had in mind when he said: "you may delay, but time will not."
Almost immediately the new king started a major programme of building works - not only of the obligatory monasteries and stupas which he constructed in a feverish haste to appease his maker, but of massive infrastructure works too.
Eleven reservoirs, such as those at Mahavilachchiya and Nochchipotana, some with a circumference of two miles, were built. Twelve canals were dug to distribute their water. Rivers were dammed, and crops raised in new places with greater certainty than ever before. With plentiful water and the restitution of agriculture, the building blocks on which any centralized power rested were back in place, better than ever before. The state could prosper.
Island-wide inscriptions testify to the power of the resurgent Kingdom stretching once again to Jaffa in the north, Situlpawwa and Tissamaharama in the south, Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the east and Kurunegala in the centre.
The great kingdom of Anuradhapura, brought to a state of civil war and near destitution by the previous Vijayan dynasty, was once again serene and strong, a fully functioning island-wide entity, once more capable of planning for the future and not just mere survival. Truly had Vasabha earned his place as one of the country’s greatest kings, the equal of the best of the Vijayans, Vijaya, Pandu Kabhaya, Devanampiya Tissa, and Dutugemunu.
For decades after his death in 111 CE his shadow loomed across his kingdom as it basked in the success and rewards of good governance, surviving with little effect the disastrous but brief reign of his successor and son, Vankanasika Tissa.
Although we have no dates for the new king’s age, Vankanasika Tissa would have been no youngster on assuming his throne, given how long his father’s reign had been. It was his great misfortune to time his reign with that of Karikala the, the greatest of the early Chola emperors in Tamil India. Having taken most of south India under his control Karikala sighted next upon Sri Lanka.
A military genius, Karikala was ever bound to win in any war, and his brief and surgical strike across the seas dealt Sri Lanka a bitter, albeit, fleeting, defeat - and left it much poorer in manpower.
The impetus for this particular Chola invasion appears to have been recruitment - for Karikala for busy building the famous Kaveri Dam that would later provide a major part of southern India with the water necessary for the growing quantities of millet and maize on which his kingdom depended.
Dams need builders and Karikala, needing a lot of them, took away 12,000 Sinhalese men to work as slaves on his new dam.
There is no evidence that the defeated Vankanasika Tissa died anything but a natural death two years after taking the throne in 113 CE. But his convenient departure made way for his son Gajabahu I to become king, a monarch who had the winning ways of his grandfather, Vasabha.
This third Lambakarnan king was to rule for 22 years,. His governance remembered for its predictable religious sensibility – and its military might, the two not often going hand in hand.
He built monasteries (in Matuvihara and Rumika) and a stupa (Abhayuttara).
More remarkably, he also co-opted the Hindu goddess Pattini to Sri Lanka. Several of her temples remain on the island, and she is still worshipped, the Buddhist patron goddess of fertility and health, an iconic ancient link that evokes deep and pacific links between the island’s two main religions that are often overlooked. She is even one of just five figures honoured in the annual Kandy Perehera, the country’s supreme Buddhist festival – which some historians date to around the reign of King Gajabahu himself.
The king also managed to find her sacred anklet, said still to be hidden in the Hanguranketha Temple near Nuwara Aylia. This move which did not stop him also liberating the alms bowl of Buddha from India to Sri Lanka, a vessel with a history and provenance now every bit as complex as that of the Holy Grail.
But it is his military capabilities that are most honoured today, not least in the Sri Lanka Army’s infantry regiment, The Gajaba Regiment, or the country’s Navy with its ship the SLNS Gajabahu. For Gajabahu did that rarest of things: he took the fight with the Cholas, to the Cholas, leading an army to southern India to liberate the 12,000 thousand Sinhalese prisoners seized in his father's reign.
Ancient sources also mention other visits to Tamil kings, this time more peaceful. Trade too seems to have flourished. Excavations at the ancient (now partially underwater) port of Godavaya in the far south have unearthed his regulations regarding custom tolls – as well as a collection of seventy five thousand Roman coins.
Almost little is known of his personal life, and nothing to explain why he was succeeded in 135 CE by his father or son-in-law, Mahallaka Naga.
Said to be the wrong side of late middle age at the time of his ascension, Mahallaka Naga, the new king still managed to live on until 141 CE before handing things on with the sort of blameless succession choreography that more modern leaders like Mugabe or Trump might have learnt much from.
Little is known about his son, Bhatika Tissa’s relatively long 24 year reign but if, as Thomas Carlyle noted, “silence is golden,” the kingdom’ s golden years continued; and the monarch, though obscure, must have a much deserved place amongst the dynasty’s more successful rulers.
The reliable historical record is also mute on the next ruler too - Kanittha Tissa, a brother to the late king and another son of Mahallaka Naga.
Kanittha Tissa chalked up a rule 4 years longer than that of his brother, governing from his brother’s death in 165 CE to his own in 193 CE. “No news is good news,” noted a later English king renowned for being “the 'wisest fool in Christendom.” And so one might assume of this indistinct reign. Certainly, in the years that followed, the reign would have looked – along with 4 of the 5 previous ones, as the lush salad days of the Lambakarnas.
The illustration is from a painting by Justin Pieris Deraniyagala, one of leading members of Sri Lanka’s Group of 43.