Along the ancient maritime trails

The strategic position of the island of Lanka in the Indian Ocean, in the middle of the maritime silk route from China to Europe, made it a hub for ancient trade. Ptolemy in 150 CE described Taprobane as an island of nearly continental size. From historical sources and archaeological evidence, we can infer international trade links, from the 8th century BCE.

The southwest monsoons carried in the sailing ships across the oceans from the west and the northeast monsoons on their return journey from the East. The natural harbours around Lanka, such as Manthai (3rd century BCE to 11th CE) in the northwest, Godawaya (1st century BCE to 10th CE) in the south, and Gokanna in the east were busy sea ports, with adjacent navigable rivers facilitating trade with inland cities like Anuradhapura and Pollonnaruwa.

Noosing wild elephants (Tennent 1859)

Lanka was one of the great emporiums of the East. Merchants imported items both for export as well as for exchange. According to Knox writing in the 17th century, different coloured cloths of several sorts, velvets, silks, cotton, ceramics, porcelain, drugs of various kinds, opium, camphor, tobacco, musk, Agarwood; saltpetre, sulphur, looking-glasses, glass bottles, were imported to Lanka from ancient times. Lanka had indigenous products of high export value such as gems, pearls, elephants, ivory, tortoise shell, valuable wood, textiles and spices, especially cloves, cardamoms, pepper and cinnamon. In the colonial era, Ceylon was exploited, with the introduction of cash crops such as Coffee, Tea and Rubber which were cultivated mainly for export.

The focus here is on both the import and export of items to and from Lanka, as well as the tools of international trade that portray our ancient history, with the modern vision for the future with the development of the harbour at Magampura, for Sri Lanka to regain the status of the trade hub for Asia.

Ancient ships and navigation

The arrival of Vijaya and his followers from Orissa in India in the 5th century BCE is the oldest historically recorded travel by ship to Lanka. Emperor Asoka's daughter Sangamitta brought the Sri Maha Bodhi sapling in the 3rd century BCE. The Mahavamsa mentions that the mast, rudder and helm of that ship were placed in three "museums" built for them in Anuradhapura.

The Yaathra, large sea going vessels, about 30 metres in length, were in use in Lanka for over two Millennia. They are mentioned in the writing of ancient Greeks and Romans. Much smaller oru transported the goods from the Yaathra when anchored in deep water. Manthai was not only a trade centre, but also a famous dockyard for constructing ships with wood like Halmilla and Teak. In the 9th century AD Li Chao the Mandarin who wrote Tang Kao Shih Pu reports "the ships from the Lion Kingdom (Lanka) were the largest, with stairways for loading and unloading which are several tens of feet in height."

The maritime silk route

The maritime silk route from China to Europe, opened in the middle of the Tang dynasty (618CE-907CE). Ships starting from the Chinese port Hepu, passed Philippines, Indonesia and through the isthmus of Malacca. Crossing the Bay of Bengal, they stopped in Lanka on their way to Europe via the Persian Gulf or Red Sea, and few to the southern coast of Africa. In the 1st century CE the navigators understood the monsoon periods and used them to their advantage. Lanka being at the middle of this trade route grew to be a major hub, contributing valuable exports such as gems, pearls, ivory, and spices.

The island known by many names, as Lanka to the Indians, Serendib to the Arabs, and Taprobane to the Greeks, by virtue of great reputation was projected to be about 16 times larger in area than reality when described in Ptolemy's Geographia (circa 150 CE).

Stone inscriptions on navigation

Brahmi rock inscriptions found in Lanka, which date back to 3rd Century BCE, mention gifts of caves by Navika (sailors) to the Sangha as shown in the few examples. Of special significance is the Duvegala inscription that ends with an illustration of a boat. The inscriptions show that navigators sailing the oceans for trade were a significant part of the ancient Lankan society.

In an inscription, King Gajabahu (113-135CE) grants the income from the Port of Godawaya to the temple of Godapawatha. The Tamil inscription in Nainathivu by King Parakramabahu (1153-1186CE) gives rules that must be followed when ships reached the port of Urathota (Kayts). The trilingual inscription in Persian, Chinese & Tamil letters indicates the multinational trade at the Galle Port in the 15th Century.

Foreign coins, seals and symbols

Direct evidence for ancient international trade is given by a large number of foreign coins of those times found particularly close to the many harbours of Lanka. Coins from ancient Rome, Greece China, India, Afghanistan, Persia have been found and their ancient origin can be established.

Lanka Oru (The Graphic 1887, August 6)

The Roman brass were even imitated for trade and local circulation and hoards with thousands of coins have been found.

Also found are seals that were used to ensure that the goods were transported without tampering. Many items of trade have been found in the Tissamaharama, Akurugoda, Ridiyagama regions of south east Sri Lanka both by archaeological excavations, and farmers tilling the land.

Many large national trade organizations dealt with Lanka. In the colonial era East India Companies, both the Dutch (1658-1795) with the VOC emblem and the British with the Bale Mark are seen on coins used during those periods.

Jewellery and textiles

Lanka has been trading in jewellery and textiles from the ancient to the modern era. Ancient Greek descriptions of the island say that Lanka exported cotton cloth from domestic industry close to Manthai. Persian traders obtained silks from China at the ports of Lanka. Literary sources record that King Saddhathissa used cotton cloth to cover the "Maha Thupa" and King Nissanka Malla used Chinese silk to decorate the Latha Mandapa.

Carnelian beads are found at the Ibbankatuwa burial site which is dated to the 8th century BCE. Carnelian is not found on the island and was imported from the Deccan in India. Some beads found in Jetavana Monastery used material imported from Persia. Beads using semi-precious gems have also been found. The bead industry which peaked in the 3rd century CE, imported much of the raw material and exported the finished products. They give strong evidence for flourishing foreign trade transactions.

Spice island

Ancient Greek and Indian texts from the 3rd century BCE to 3rd CE describe Lanka as the spice island, famous for cinnamon, pepper, cardamoms, and cloves. Spices are now used mainly to flavour food. However, in the ancient and medieval era spices played an important role in food preservation. Arabs controlled the spice trade and took them overland from the east via Constantinople into Europe where they were a costly, but necessary commodity. In the 15th century European navigators found sea routes to the East, mainly to break the Arab monopoly of the spice trade.

Cinnamon is obtained from the inner bark of a genus of trees. The variety of cinnamon, native to Lanka gave the finest quality in the world, a secret kept by the Arabs. It had many uses in addition to cooking, ranging from an ingredient in top quality perfumes to embalming royals in Egypt. During the colonial era Portuguese and later the Dutch and British cultivated cinnamon in Lanka to extract oil to take to Europe.

Pottery and ceramics

Pottery is the most abundant find at most archaeological excavations. Their source can be identified by the style and technology of manufacture. Excavations at the Jethawana monastery have found imported ceramic ware as well as locally manufactured vessels whose shapes and functions have been conceptually influenced by foreign products.

Imitation Roman coin from Akurugoda

Pottery and ceramics found at sites all over the island indicate a flourishing foreign trade from protohistoric to medieval times.

Jethawana monastery site had red polished ware pottery imported from North India, and some Persian and Roman pottery pieces. Anuradhapura citadel site had some black Hellenistic pots (2nd Century BCE to 1st CE) originating in the Mediterranean.

The Manthai site had black polished ware with orange coloured clay of Persian origin, pottery pieces made using Cayoline clay produced in Middle East and also some huge jars used for transport of goods. Chinese ceramics have been found particularly in Yapahuwa.

Elephant and horse trade

There used to be a large population of wild elephants in the rain forests, which were captured in Kraals, tamed and exported from Lanka since antiquity. The ships were able to carry about 10-12 elephants at a time.

Parakrama Bahu I in the Nainativu inscription written in Tamil said that foreign merchants were welcome and were assured of protection. But in the event of a shipwreck, half the goods would go to the king. If the ships carried elephants and horses he would only take a quarter of the goods.

The 6th century CE Greek description of Taprobane by Cosmos says that horses were imported into Lanka from India and Persia. There are many wild ponies in Delft island off the Jaffna peninsular which were originally imported by the Portuguese. The wild donkeys in Kalpitiya, are a Nubian subspecies from Africa which were brought in by the Dutch and have now bred wild to a stable population.

Social impact and cash crops in colonial era

The merchants who came to trade with Lanka, mixed in their religion, culture and cuisine with the social environment of the island. Frequent invasions from South India left behind a Dravidian population from the Malabar coast. Some of the Arabian traders settled down and their descendants are the Muslim/Malay population in the island. The descendants of the Europeans are the Burghers.

Bead chain found at Ibbankatuwa

The highlands of Lanka had some of the most biologically diverse tropical rain forests in the world. Dutch and then British created plantations for cash crops -- first of coffee, then cinchona and Coca. In the 1830s low-cost plantation workers were brought in from Tamil Nadu. A road and rail system was developed for transport. Finally after the coffee blight of the 1870's tea and rubber plantations removed virtually the entire primary forest cover by 1900.

Maritime archaeology

The large number of shipwrecks found around the coast of Sri Lanka provide many details about ancient trade with Lanka.

The oldest wreck is a wooden ship dating to the 1st century CE which was found off the southern port of Godawaya. Excavations of the wreck have yielded a stone bench with auspicious symbols, a stone anchor, pottery and and few ingots of glaze.

The first important wreck around Lanka was discovered by associates of late Sir Arthur Clarke in March 1961 near Great Basses off the south eastern coast near Kirinda. It had treasure, many thousand coins of Surat silver rupees with the mint date AH 1113 (1702CE).

Colonial era wrecks like the Dutch ship Hercules and English ship Avonstar have been found in the Port of Galle. Each wreck is a time capsule of international trade, and the lives of the merchants and sailors who engaged in this trade.

Magampura port

The Magampura port just 10 nautical miles from one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, was used by up to 200 vessels every day. The port is an inland harbour built on 2000 acres. Today a 50 acre island will be created close to the coast using the soil removed from the port construction and connected by a bridge.

In November 2010 when the Magampura Port was inaugurated, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said he was committed to building Sri Lanka to be the Wonder of Asia. When Asia is progressing rapidly led by China and India, Sri Lanka also seeks to be a part of this emergence, by making it a five-fold hub in naval, aviation, commercial, energy and knowledge.

Exhibition at the National museum

A temporary exhibition on "International Trade with Lanka, from Ancient Times" opens at the Colombo National Museum on February 3 onwards. It is presented by the 4th Batch of the Diploma in Museology, Post Graduate Institute of Archaeology (PGIAr), sponsored by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA).
Contributing to th exhibition are: Dr Kavan Ratnatunga, - Numismatist , Nilmini Nethsinghe, National Museum – Conservation,Priyantha Kumara, National Museum – Ethnography, Ms Rashmi Gunawardena, National Museum – Anthropology,Mrs Tharangi Abenayaka, National Museum – Anthropolog, Nalin Wishwanarth, Archaeology Dept. – Anuradhapura, Mrs Vajira Abeywardhana, Archaeology Dept. – Matara, Ms Ayona Dassanayake – Archaeology and Vidarshana Niwunhella, Teacher, Jayanthi Vidyalaya.

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