Our history: Myth upon myth, legend upon legend

The rising seas had now made Sri Lanka an island, and it dropped out of the Indian radar screen. For centuries, it remained a forgotten and an unknown entity till, as time went by, it was re-discovered: first by merchants and later by settlers. We count our history from the first settlers from the continent but this “historical” period is so shrouded in myth and legend that one can only gather bits and pieces of what seems to be fact. In this, the last part of this series, we examine the many legends of the first settlers – who they were, why they came – and discover the alternative legends to the Mahavamsa legend of Prince Vijaya.

The sea around Sri Lanka rose and fell as glacial and interglacial periods followed each other. Finally, 7,000 years ago, the waters from east, west and south inundated the low-lying areas submerging the lowest-lying areas south of the mainland, and leaving the higher ground to remain as an island. The shallows in the north, now submerged, became the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar we know today, and this island that we now live in, emerged as a piece of real estate without an owner. Even as late as the 13th century, Marco Polo had heard of this great inundation.

For thousands of years, before the seas began their last rise, States and settlements, cities and cultures arose and developed on the mainland where, as noted earlier, the more competitive and aggressive tribes had established themselves.

Being land-locked states, they were concerned with the lands around them, for they had no world view. India, we know, had developed quite significantly in many ways. In the north, particularly, nomads and hunter-gatherers had become agriculturists and formed settlements which, in time, became cities and states. Technological advances necessarily underwrote this sociological advance: trade and commerce followed conquest.

Then came the great break-through – discovery of the art of moving on water. In time, shipping developed and, with it, the knowledge of far away lands fringing the coast of the vast Indian sub-continent. The discovery of off-shore islands followed: but their knowledge of us, of this island, remained meagre, shrouded in myth and legend.

People nearest the southern tip, on the other hand, must have known that there was this land just over the horizon. Over centuries a legend grew that, “once-upon-a-time” there had been no sea separating them from that land. So the people of the southern tip of India had some idea of a land just beyond the horizon: but only those who went to sea – chank and other fishermen from South India or merchants from North India – were interested in what exactly was there. Between the fishermen and the merchants the merchants were naturally the cleverer: if there was land, they argued, there would be people and there was the chance of trade. It was to the merchants’ advantage to explore and to keep silent about it, to shroud in mystery the prospective markets and sources of raw material. Gradually a legend – or several legends – began to gain currency, of an island inhabited by demons who could assume the most desirable of human forms, but only to entice merchants to shipwreck and, ultimately, the demons’ dining table. As a strategy of concealing a lucrative source of raw materials it was undoubtedly successful. In fact, we even believe in them today!

While all that was happening across the sea we, on this side of the divide, were developing in our own, different, way. Dr. Siran Deraniyagala’s research indicates that our development kept pace with North India’s. By 800 BC Anuradhapura was a city 10 hectares in extent, which expanded in the next two hundred years to 50 hectares, matching the size of the great cities of northern India. To grow to such size, it must have drawn upon its natural resources heavily: great agricultural potential with fertile soil, much water, advanced iron tools with which to fell the massive rain forest trees, gems, pearl banks and copper mines. It must have been known to seafaring merchants of India at that time, who knew it as a profitable stop, conveniently situated for their voyages to south-east Asia. But they kept the knowledge to themselves. The myths and legends were a useful way of pulling the wool over eyes and keeping competition at bay.

Paintings from the Ajanta caves: The arrival in Sri Lanka of Prince Simhala and (top) A royal procession (a part of the Simhala Avadana illustrating the Valahassa Jatakaya)

In southern-most India, the distant memories of Lanka as a land soon became Myth, and Myth became legend to people whose interests stopped at the sea-shore. The Ramayana tales of the ten-headed demon king Ravana of Lanka added fuel to the fire. Sea-going people perpetuated the legends, to discourage would-be competitors. Only those who could come by ship or boat could approach this island, as the days of walking across were over. The time was ripe for the colonization of this country – this time, by people in ships from across the sea.

This, our first colonization, is remembered and recorded in Myth and Legend. Today, we even call it History. Let us examine these legends, beginning with the one perpetuated by the Mahavamsa: the legend of Vijaya.

Vijaya (says the Mahavamsa) was the son of King Sinhabahu, son of a royal princess Suppadevi of “Vanga Desa” (Bangladesh) who was travelling to Magadha in search of the joys of an independent life of a “commoner”. Her dreams ended when a lion (“Sinha”) attacked the caravan in which she was travelling, captured her and bore her off to his cave. This unlikely couple had two children; a son, Sinhabahu, and a daughter, Sinhaseevali, whom the lion-father kept inside a cave in Lala (Gujerat), the entrance of which was blocked by a massive rock that only he could move. When Sinhabahu grew strong enough, he moved the rock and escaped with his mother and sister to the homeland of Vanga. The lion-father roamed the land searching for his family and harassed people, becoming a big problem. Sinhabahu, living modestly in a village, was tempted by the reward offered by the king to get rid of this animal. The lion, recognizing his son, came up to him with love in his heart - only to be killed by his son. The event brought to light the story of the royal lineage of the family and, ultimately, when the King died, the kingdom was offered to Sinhabahu which he accepted but turned over to his mother’s husband. He himself travelled back to Lala, built a city called Sinhapura, and married his sister who bore him sixteen pairs of twins, the first pair being Vijaya and Sumitta.

Vijaya, the Prince Regent, turned out to be a hellion. His followers terrorized the peaceful population who, in desperation, demanded that the king punish his son. The King, to bring peace to his kingdom, banished Vijaya and all his followers: men, women and children. The men were put on board a ship and entrusted to the winds and the waves. (Their wives and children were put on board two other ships and they play no further part in the story). The ship touched at Supparaka (Sopara), north of Mumbai; but they repeated their old exploits and were banished again. Ultimately, the ship landed on a beach in the north-west of this island on the day of the Buddha’s parinibbana. (Thus they had sailed from Gujerat down the west coast of India). When Vijaya knelt on the shore, he did not know where he was, but because he found the sand the colour of copper he called the land “Tambapanni”, meaning ‘copper-coloured’. It is at this juncture that Vijaya first laid eyes on a member of a people already ruling the country.

This was Kuveni, a “Yakkha” princess who had assumed human form to capture Vijaya’s men for her supper. This she did, capturing them one by one. When the 700 men all disappeared, Vijaya went in search of them, called her bluff and threatened to kill her unless the men were restored. Life is more important than supper, and the missing men were brought out of imprisonment. This story, interestingly, echoes the story of Ulysses and Circe. Ultimately Kuveni became Vijaya’s consort, betraying her own kind, and helping Vijaya destroy their city of Sirisavatthu. Vijaya settled down at Tambapanni (also called Tammenna), while his men established the settlements (or “cities”) of Anuradhagama, Ujjeni, Upatissagama, Uruvela and Vijithapura, and identified themselves as the “Sinhala” people, descended from Sinhabahu. To create a sovereign state of these scattered settlements they needed a king, and they asked Vijaya to assume Kingship.

Vijaya had, by this time, a son and a daughter by Kuveni but declared that, to be King, he had to be married to a bride of royal lineage. The search began and finally, a princess was found and Kuveni had to go. Spurning Vijaya’s offer of money in return for keeping the children she left him, taking her children, and went to the other “Yakkha” city of Lankapura to face certain death. Vijaya became King, with a royal princess as Queen but did not have any more children. He died without an heir leaving the country without a king for a year till his nephew, Panduvasudeva, the son of Vijaya’s twin brother Sumitta, arrived.

The 9m oruwa from the Kelani ganga dated back almost to Vijaya’s arrival

This is the Mahavamsa story. But can we take this mix of myth and legend at face value? Even if we discount the “Indian” part entirely and start with Vijaya’s arrival in this country, we cannot. In fact, the Chinese Buddhist monk Hiouen Tsiang who visited India in the 7th century, has recorded an interesting variation of the legend. The princess (the Mahavamsa’s ‘Suppadevi’)who was captured by the lion was from a “country in Southern India” – not Vanga-desa, not Lala. (Hieuon Tsiang records his visit to Sinhapura, near Kashmir, but not in relation to this story). According to this version, when the princess and her two children (‘Sinhabahu’ and ‘Sinhaseevali’) escape, it is to that South Indian kingdom they return, and are accepted. When the son finally kills his lion-father, he is rewarded for saving the people from the lion, but he is declared persona non grata for the act of parricide.

The son (‘Sinhabahu’) and daughter – not their son (“Vijaya”) – are the ones banished and sent in two well-provisioned, but different, ships. The ship of the son (‘Sinhabahu’) reaches Ratnadweepa and, discovering its precious stones, settles down and he (not the Yakkhinis)becomes the one who preys upon merchants who come in search of gems: killing them and adding their children to the community, which thus grows in size. He has children (by whom, it is not told) and grandchildren, who build towns, “divide the people into classes” (the beginning of the caste system) and wage wars (probably with the indigenous kingdoms of the country) for more territory, and calls the country “Simhala”. The differences between the two versions are interesting. The link to India is with South India. There is no “Tambapanni”. The son of the lion is the one who preys on merchants: not yakkhinis or rakshasas. And, most importantly, there is no Vijaya, no Kuveni and no Yakkhas. In fact, it is an altogether different story.

Interestingly the Dipavamsa, which pre-dated the Mahavamsa, while repeating the Mahavamsa story of Vijaya, leaves out the Kuveni legend. So we have, in fact, three versions of this story. There is, however, another and totally different story of the coming of colonists across the sea, which is worth re-visiting, as it is not known to most Sri Lankans.

It is found as a Jataka story, the book of five hundred birth stories of the Buddha who was born as Siddharta Gotama. Like the Mahavamsa these stories, too, were passed down orally, from mouth to mouth, before they were written down in the form we know, as late as the fourteenth century. But the stories, themselves, are older than the book. They were part of the fund of folk stories that were common to the cultures of the Euro-Asian mainland and can be found in some form or other in such other collections like the “Panchatantra” and “Aesop’s Fables”. (We have already seen the parallel between the Kuveni and Circe legends). They were all morality tales, which carried a message of good conduct. When presented as Birth Stories of the Buddha, “Right Conduct” is emphasized and the Buddha is identified as the Force for Good in the story.

One of the stories is the “Valahassa Jatakaya”(the birth story of the Flying Cloud Horse). It relates a story of the colonization of this country - which is called “Ratnadweepa”, as it is in Hiouen Tsang’s versin - by “Sinhala”, the son of Simha, a Merchant Prince who comes with 500 merchants in search of gems. He comes here, and meets a group of beautiful women who live in an iron city called Sirisavatthu. They are, in fact, cannibalistic Yakkhinis who can change their form, and they prey on shipwrecked sailors and merchants. They live in an iron city with two flags that are “agitated” according to whether danger or shipwreck is nigh. Interestingly, the area in which they were active is said, by Codrington, to stretch from Nagadeepa southwards to Kalyani. Sinhala’s ship is wrecked and he is saved by the Yakkhinis who present themselves as the widows of other merchants who have sailed on trading missions many years ago and are “presumed dead”. Simhala believes the story and ‘marries’ the chief Yakkhini, but finds out who they are and manages to escape with two hundred and fifty of his men who believe him, with the help of a magical flying horse. His ‘wife’ follows him to his kingdom and presents herself, as the woman wronged by his son, to Simha’s father. He believes her and gives her shelter. For his pains, she devours him and his whole household that night and returns to Ratnadweepa, where she kills and eats the 250 men who had not heeded Simha’s call. Simhala succeeds his father as king and invades Ratnadweepa by sea, bringing an army complete with war elephants, by ship. This scene is shown in Ajanta in Cave XVII as the “Simhala Avadana”. The Ajanta caves are dated from the beginning of the Christian era, or earlier, to the seventh century: hence this story may be older than the Vijaya legend. Hiouen Tsiang, too, records his story around this time.

Can we, then, pick anything out of this mixture of myth, legend, fiction and fantasy that tells us how the Indians came here by sea, settled down and became the “Sinhala” people? When we look at these stories, above, and match them with known facts, some interesting things emerge.

  • This country was known by the name of Ratnadweepa to merchants in India. Only Vijaya did not know the name.
  • The indigenous people had “cities”, were aware of the Indian merchants and had contact – perhaps traded – with them.
  • If the merchants really believed that the indigenous people were non-human cannibals with magical powers why did they risk death by shipwreck, or worse, by coming here? Shipwrecks, after all, frequently figure in these stories.
  • There is a strong maritime strand connecting the stories – ships being cast adrift, shipwrecks, signalling flags, stranded families of missing merchants etc.
  • The power of the Yakkhinis is limited to the north-western shore, limited in the north by “Nagadeepa” and, in the south, by “Kalyani”.

“Nagadeepa” is mentioned in the Mahavamsa before the Vijaya’s arrival: the Buddha visited it to settle a dispute by two Naga kings (Chulodara and Mahodara) over a “gem-set throne”. The ship carrying the children of Vijaya’s followers landed at “Naggadeepa” – the island of the naked.
“Kalyani” is the river along which the interior of the island could be accessed: it could lead one to the gems that gave the country its name of “Ratnadweepa”.

The identification of this particular stretch of land can well mean that the merchants sailed along the western coast India.

  • At Kelanimulla ferry, in 1952 a large, very well made dugout boat was found (now in the Colombo Museum) that has been radio carbon dated to 2300BP ± 100, which is 380 – 480 BC: which makes it very close to the time of Vijaya’s arrival (on the date of the Buddha’s paribbana on 543 BC). At this time the sea-levels had not settled down to today’s level: it was yet fluctuating, as we saw in Part 2. From the location it was found (Kelaniya) and the skill of the maker, one can say that Kalyani was occupied by a technologically advanced people. At Kelaniya, archaeological excavations have brought to light pottery named “black and red ware” which can be dated to.
  • This country has been known both for its copper deposits (perhaps that is the origin of “Tambapanni”) and iron: in fact it has been said that we did not have a copper or bronze age, but that we went straight from the stone age to the iron age. Hence the reference to an “iron city” is intriguing. In fact, the slag heaps found in uncountable numbers all over the country is proof of a long-established industry which lasted into the 19th century, if not later

It is fascinating to try one’s hands at this type of detective work. But the purpose of this story is to find out who, were our first settlers, how did they come, and who did they meet here. The stories are there, but they are only stories. But scientific data is also there – and that data is probably more reliable. All that I can safely say, is that the settlers who came by sea along the western Indian coast were merchants: that they knew of our gems and therefore called this country “Ratnadweepa”; and they met an advanced people who knew how to mine and work in iron and copper, had the means of accessing the interior of the country by boat, lived in ‘cities’ and traded with Indian merchants. The Reality is therefore a long way from the fantasy land of the legends.
Even after the settlers had established themselves as a kingdom of some consequence, Indian merchants still lusted after control of this source of raw material and came with armies to wrest control. The first mentioned in the Mahavamsa are Sena and Gutthika, the “horse traders”, in whose footsteps came another, Elara.

And to add another twist to the tale, let me pose the question: did the merchants come here only for gems, iron and copper? Codrington provides a fascinating “May be not”. He says -
“Let it be noted that in Sanskrit ‘sinhala’ has the meaning of ‘bark’, ‘Cassia bark. (‘cinnamomum cassia’).

Now, this is a plant found in southern China and Indo China. Its bark is often used as a substitute for ‘cinnamomum verum’ (also called ‘cinnamomum zeylanica’) which is native to Sri Lanka.
Could it have been possible that Cinnamon – in addition to Gems, Copper and Iron – was another thing that brought the Indian merchants here: just as it brought the Europeans here two thousand years later?

And this is a good place to stop and let readers carry on their own efforts to make sense of all this.

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