2,000 years ago when the big wave hit Sri Lanka

By Upali S. Jayasekera

The sea rolled into the land in the morning of December 26, 2004, spreading death and destruction of a massive scale, never heard or experienced before in Sri Lanka. An estimated 31,000 were killed, 8,000 went missing and nearly one million persons were rendered destitute or were displaced. The damage to property ran into billions of rupees.

Over 2,000 years ago, according to recorded history, similar tidal waves appear to have hit the western part of the country – the Kingdom of Kelaniya. The story behind that first tsunami our country faced is interesting.

King Kelani Tissa of the Kingdom of Kelaniya, had a great respect for a Buddhist preacher, an Arahat, his teacher who had taught the Buddha Dhamma to him and his brother Uttiya. As a result the King made arrangements for the Arahat and his disciple to have breakfast, at his Palace daily. After the meal the King and the Queen led the bhikkhus out of the palace. It was customary for the queen to walk behind the King.

Statue of Vihara Maha Devi. Courtesy

The King’s brother Uttiya was not a disciplined person and had eyes on the Queen and made advances towards her. When this became known to the King, Uttiya fled to Ruhunu and lived in hiding. He was however, intent on continuing his clandestine affair with the queen. Uttiya who had mastered the handwriting of the Arahat, whilst being his student, wrote a letter to the Queen, his brother’s wife, imitating the hand-writing of the Arahat and sent a person dressed as a Bhikkhu, to join the Arahat and his disciples in the morning meal at the palace with instructions to see that the latter reached the Queen.

The person disguised as a bhikkhu, managed one day to join the Arahat and his disciples, unnoticed, and partake in the morning meal at the palace. After the meal whilst the Arahat and his disciples were being led out of the palace, the person disguised as a Bhikkhu, dropped Uttiya’s letter, written on an ola (Talipot or Palmyrah) leaf, in front of the queen.

The King hearing the noise of the falling object turned and picked it up. King Kelani Tissa misled by his brother Uttiya’s plot, on reading the letter, in a fury, without any inquiry, concluded that the letter was written by the Arahat, as the handwriting resembled his, and ordered that the person disguised as a Bhikkhu be put to death immediately whilst the Arahat be thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil for a slow and agonizing death. The King’s order was carried out before a large gathering of Bhikkhus and laymen.

The dying Arahat did not bear ill-will towards the King for putting him to death for no wrong-doing. He pitied and blessed the King and breathed his last delivering his last sermon reciting one hundred stanzas to the crowd assembled. The Arahat’s body and that of the person disguised as a Bhikkhu, were thereafter thrown to the sea. Everyone grieved.

Legend is that immediately afterwards, tidal waves started beating in. The people lost their dwellings as well as their possessions. Coconut trees were uprooted and the cultivations were devastated. It is said that the sea flowed up to nearly 28 miles inside the Kingdom.

A proposal was put forward that the King’s only daughter, Princess Devi, be sacrified to save the remaining part of the kingdom. The pious and pretty Princess, grieving over the plight of her mother the Queen and sad over the cruel killing of the Arahat, volunteered to sacrifice herself for the sake of her motherland to atone for her father’s sins.

A vessel with the inscription that the maiden in it was the daughter of King Kelani Tissa, was prepared. The Princess boarded the vessel and it was launched into the sea. Immediately the boat with the Princess was put to sea, it is said that the tidal waves stopped beating in and the sea subsided. The boat with the princess glided away until it reached a spot called Dovera present Kirinde in the southern end of the island. It was sighted by some fishermen, who on reading the inscription on the boat, towed it back and reported their find to King Kavantissa of Magama. The King went to the spot and got the boat with the princess brought ashore. She was led to the Palace and treated with great respect and kindness.

King Kavantissa finally married Princess Devi and made her his queen. At the spot the Princess landed there had been a Buddhist cave monastery by the name Lanka Vihara, and as such, the Princess was aptly named Vihara Maha Devi. The King, to commemorate the event, built a stupa on the rock overlooking the Kirinda sea. A temple with a dagaba, built on the ruins of the original built by King Kavantissa, now exists, venerated by the Buddhists. Legend also has it that King Kavantissa married Princess Devi at Sithulpahuwa (in Ruhunu National Park) and to mark the occasion the Dagaba at Sithulpahuwa, was built.

According to folklore by the time the King reached Kirinde bay, the boat had drifted away. The King followed and at a point in the East Coast, he enquired from the people on the beach, where the Princess was – “Ko Kumari”. That place now exists under the name “Komari”. The people had replied that the boat drifted to the next village – ‘Aragama’ and she was met there. “Aragama’ is now ‘Arugam Bay’. The Dagaba and the temple buildings in Pottuvil, according to legend, was built to commemorate the finding of the Princess after she was first sighted in Kirinde.

King Kelani Tissa had a tragic end. When on an inspection tour of the devastated area in his Kingdom, he and the state elephant he rode on, (due to an earthquake) plunged into a pit, at a point in present Hendala, Wattala, and the King’s body was never found. With the death of King Kelani Tissa, the Kingdom of Kelaniya ceased to exist.

King Kavantissa and Vihara Maha Devi, continued to reign in Ruhunu and had two sons – Gamini and Tissa. Vihara Maha Devi, the pious and brave Queen, is still revered and treated as a heroine who braved the waves to save the country.

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