AN ANCIENT AND LIVING CULTURE
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). An Ancient and Living Culture. June-July 2006. Esteem. PNS Media Consultants (Pvt) Ltd. Colombo. Pages 53-57.
An article on Sri Lanka’s ancient cities, adapted from the book Magic of Sri Lanka.
An ancient recorded history
Very few countries can boast of an ancient culture that has continued to flourish to the present day, as Sri Lanka does. The country’s landscape, its monuments, its people and their customs are strongly interwoven with Buddhism. Little surprise that the country if often referred to in the travel trade as the Land of the Buddha. Even today the country’s main religions, Buddhism and the later arrival of Hinduism, are the defining factors of the country and its people.
What is unique about Sri Lanka is that it boasts one of the earliest recorded histories in the ancient chronicle of Mahavansa. Intended to be a dis-passionate account of events, it’s accuracy of historical events has been borne time and time again by historical researchers and archaeologists. In fact the ramifications of the book extend beyond Sri Lanka as it has provided a useful chronology for events in South Asia in general and in particular with India. The Mahavansa records history in the period from 543 BC, the year the Buddha attained Nirvana to the year 310 AD. However the history was not recorded until the period 459 to 477 AD, by Mahanama.
Subsequent to Mahanama, various scribes continued his work in what is collectively known as the Suluvansa.
The clash of the monasteries
The ancient chronicles provide an honest account of the history and make no secret of the fact that the history of Buddhism has not been one of peace and compassion as taught by the Buddha. On the contrary it is an intriguing story of subterfuge, ambition and war. The original and most orthodox monastery was the Maha Vihara which translates as the Great Monastery. Over time a schism grew and a more liberal sect founded the Abayagiri which followed the Mahayana form of Buddhism. Royal patronage was for some time conferred equally to both. In the reign of Vatta Gamini he actively favoured the Abayagiri He entrusted to them the task of committing to writing the sacred cannons of Pitakattaya and its commentary the Aththakatha.
The fortunes of the rival schools waxed and waned and three centuries later Tissa Voharakaraja favoured the Maha Vihara. Things changed under Mahasena who favoured the Abayagiri to the serious detriment of the Maha Vihara. Sangamitta, the leader of the Abayagiri ingratiated himself with the king and plotted to destroy the Maha Vihara. The Maha Vihara was persecuted, its buildings destroyed and its valuables taken to the rival Abayagiri. The monks of the Maha Vihara fled to the province of Ruhuna what turned out to be nine years in exile. The destruction of the Maha Vihara caused much consternation and finally one of the king’s close friends and ministers rebelled. He rallied an army to fight the king. The two parties were camped on the battlefield when the minister decided to take lunch with the king. Over a good meal the old spirit of friendship was re-kindled and the two decided to cease hostilities. In a dramatic about turn Mahasena supported the Maha Vihara and the monks were called back. The ambitious Sangamitta was left vulnerable without the king’s support and was assassinated by a nun.
During the reign of Srimegavarama, in the year 310 BC, a princess brought the sacred tooth relic of the Buddha from Dantapura in India to Sri Lanka. Fearing for its safety it was smuggled over hidden in her hair. The tooth relic was kept in the temple of Dhammachakka and became an object of veneration.
Fa-Hien during his two years in the country in the 5th century AD records that an annual procession was held to exhibit the relic to the public. Heralds dispersed throughout the country a few days before the procession announcing it. Today the tradition is continued in July and August at the Esala Perahera in Kandy. Nowhere is the living thread of history so visible, so grand and so full of pageantry as here.
The Master Irrigationists
Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of the dry plains, is the numerous man made reservoirs or wewas as they are locally called. The ancient Sinhalese were great hydraulic engineers and every king devoted him energies to adding more of these. The result is that the country is dotted with over a thousand of these with many concentrated in the north-central province. Famous amongst the wewa builders was King Parakramabahu who decreed that not a single drop of water should flow to the ocean without first being utilised. His great work, the Parakrama Sea still survives overlooked by the Polonnaruwa Rest House.
The tanks as they are known, allowed the dry plains to become the rice bowl of the country. A well fed army and populace constructed vast metropolises at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The visitor to these ancient sites can only get a glimpse of the ancient glory. Much still remains buried and what has been excavated is merely the stone skeletons of once magnificent buildings whose timber work has perished.
Today, a visitor to the Gal Vihara admiring the serene beauty of the Buddha statues can scarcely imagine the turmoil that the ancient kingdoms have undergone as they finally succumbed to repeated Tamil invasions. For centuries they lay swallowed beneath the advancing jungle tide. Today, a new generation of archeologists are busy carefully unearthing the past.
Sigiriya – Rock Fortress Palace
If there is one place that leaves a deep impression on visitors it is Sigiriya. The Sigiriya rock can be seen from afar as it rises out of the plains. The gardens have been restored to a degree to enable the visitor to understand that centuries before water features and landscaping became popular in Europe, it had been raised to a perfection, in fifth century AD Sri Lanka.
Rising 200 metres above the surrounding land, the Sigiriya rock or ‘lion rock’ obtains its name from the Sinhala word ‘Singha Giri’. This giant rock has a setting of natural beauty and forest around it and a certain mystery or aura surrounding it. One wonders at its unusual history, how a king created and lived in a palace at the summit of the rock, at the developed state of urban planning, at the hydraulic and engineering works.
The story of Sigiriya centres around Prince Kasyappa, the son of King Dhatusena (459-477 AD). Unfortunately the story is a tragic one. Being the King’s son by a non-royal consort, in order to gain the throne Kasyappa executed his own father. The Crown Prince, Mogallana fled to India in fear of his life. In order to protect himself from future attacks from the rightful king Mogallana, Kasyappa made Sigiriya his capital with a palace on the summit of the rock.
Kasyappa with his artistic and creative genius brought to fruition his vision of ‘heaven on earth’. The area around the rock was converted in to landscaped gardens with water pools, fountains and terraces. There were water gardens, boulder gardens and terrace gardens. The Sigiriya Gardens is one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. There were also moats, ramparts and a man-made lake. In addition to the beauty of the layout surrounding the rock, the palace at the summit had a large rock-cut pool and gardens and halfway up the rock are the famous paintings of the Sigiriya ladies. The urban planning of this city is of considerable interest to archaeologists due to its preserved form and excellent design.
Polonnaruwa Ancient Capital
From the tenth century AD, the capital of the most powerful kingdom in the island shifted to Polonnaruwa from Anuradhapura. Polonnaruwa was seen by rulers to have military and strategic advantages as compared to the latter. It was better located to meeting a threat from the south and closer to several important crossings of the Mahaveli river for trading purposes. It was the capital from around 993 AD to 1250 AD.
The Chola’s from India who conquered Anuradhapura in the late tenth century were the first to make Polonnaruwa capital of the northern kingdom. After 77 years the Sinhalese King Vijayabahu I seized the north driving the Chola’s off the island. He kept Polonnaruwa as his capital. In his rule of 55 years he restored irrigation works and was able to bring about a renaissance of Sinhala Buddhist activities including the return of Sinhala monks who had fled to Burma.
The greatest king of Polonnaruwa was Parakramabahu I (1153 –1186 AD). In his ‘golden reign’ the whole area flourished. Agriculture developed to its highest peak and Sri Lanka became the ‘Granary of the East’. With the new economic prosperity came several new building projects. The buildings were grand and impressive such as the Royal Palace and the Lankathilaka image house. The Gal Vihara with its great sculptures of the Buddha was created. The Culavamsa, a chronicle of records states that he repaired or built 165 dams, 3910 canals, 163 major tanks and 2376 minor tanks. He is most famous for creating the enormous Parakrama Samudra (‘Sea of Parakrama’) a 2500 hectare tank with a capacity of 134 million cubic metres. He also established a centralised system of administration where the whole country came under the personal rule of the king.
Nissankamalla was the last king of Polonnaruwa to rule the whole country. It is said he established king’s courts in various districts to settle disputes relating to legal issues and crime. He also constructed the beautiful Vatadage, the Hatadage and the Nissankalata Mandapa. The Rankot Stupa is another one of his achievements.
Anuradhapura Ancient Capital
The scale and size of Anuradhapura was comparable to a modern city. To truly appreciate its dimensions only an aerial view would do justice. Over the last two decades, Anuradhapura has been subject to a major conservation project and some key monuments have been restored. The restoration has been undertaken with a view to leave as much as possible intact of the trees that have grown around the ruins. This does mean that some of the grandeur of the site is lost, as there is no sweeping view of an immense city. But this has been the right decision as the scrub jungle lends much needed shade in the burning heat and provides a certain degree of ‘lost city’ charm.
Just as Egypt is associated with its pyramids, Sri Lanka is perhaps best associated with the bell shaped stupas. Nowhere are these more conspicuous and of such staggering proportions as at Anuradhapura. The stupas of Jetavana, Abayagiri and Ruwanveliseya soar skyward, making for a unique skyline. This skyline is best viewed from across an ancient wewa like Baswakkulama, one of the many giant reservoirs built by the ancient kings to irrigate these dry plains. To the west of Anuradhapura lies Mihintale, where Buddhism was first introduced. This is one of the most important monastery complexes in the country set amidst a small range of hills.
Anuradhapura is considered the most extensive and the most important of the ancient cities in the north-central region. It served as a capital city of this region for over 1,000 years and hence was residence to many ancient kings from 377 BC. King Pandukhabhaya first made it a capital, naming it after the constellation Anuradha. He was followed by King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BC) in whose reign Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka. The city became great and a centre for Buddhist devotion. The great Sinhalese kings Dutugemunu (161-137 BC), Vasabha and Mahasena belonged to the Anuradhapura period.
Kings of this era engaged in impressive irrigation projects building tanks and canals to provide water for the cultivation of rice. The tanks are considered engineering feats taking into account they were built around 60-300 AD. King Vasabha (67-111 AD) constructed 11 reservoirs and 12 irrigation canals. His large investments in agriculture helped to maintain a period of peace as his reign enjoyed a period of economic prosperity. King Mahasena was another important influence in irrigation projects.
The great kings are also famous for constructing the monumental stupas or Dagabas such as the Ruwanveliseya, Jetavanarama and Abayagiriya. Built in one of six shapes (e.g. bell shape, bubble shape etc.) these huge structures are excellent examples of Buddhist architecture and demonstrates the high standard of building techniques employed during such early times. The 4th century Jetavana stupa has a diameter of 367 feet at the base and is almost 400 feet high. It is the largest stupa in the world.
The kings patronised Buddhism and encouraged the Buddhist monks to spread the philosophy. In such an environment, from the 3rd century AD, three famed monasteries developed in Anuradhapura, namely the Mahavihara, Abayagiri and the Jetavana.
Kandy the hill capital
Kandy, 500 metres above sea level, is Sri Lanka’s second largest city but quite different from Colombo due to the hills and cooler climate. The lake in the heart of the city provides a tranquil setting with houses built on the slopes of the hills, looking down onto the lake. It is a pleasant place for walking either in the town, in the surrounding hills or in the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. Kandy is a major tourist centre with the famous Temple of the Tooth Relic.
The spectacular Esala Perahera is held for 10 days at the end of July and beginning of August in Kandy. It is a procession of magnificently dressed elephants and dancers amongst others and is a world famous event. The Tooth Relic of the Buddha is borne on the back of an ornate tusker guided by officials of the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
The Peradeniya Botanical Gardens close to Kandy are extensive and boasts of many indigenous and rare plants. ‘Peradeniya has almost everything from Kipling’s ‘Palm’ to ‘Pine’ thanks to the climate’, states Raven-hart in his book Ceylon History in Stone. There is a good collection of orchids and a famous avenue of royal palms. The herb garden contains various herbs used in local medicine and as remarked by Robert Knox ‘ the woods are their apothecaries shops’.
The history of Kandy is a saga of courage, cultural renaissance, debauchery and treachery. In its four centuries of existence it has witnessed the full range of human emotions from nobleness to depravity.
As with the founding of many cities a number of conflicting legends exist. What we know as Kandy today was the ancient capital of Senkadagala. The name Kande, the root of the modern name, was derived from the Kanda Uda Pasrata which translates from the Sinhalese as the five counties of the hills.
The European Powers arrive
In 1505 the Portuguese had arrived on the maritime provinces and the succession struggles now had the added factor of an European presence. During the reign of King Senarat, the Portuguese under General Azevado entered the city and destroyed much of it.
The next to ascend the throne was Rajasingha II. He was a skilled warrior and engaged the Portuguese in two decisive battles. At Randeniwela in 1630 he routed the Portuguese. But peace was short lived and in 1638 the Portuguese destroyed the capital. This was closely followed by a battle at Danture where they the invaders were destroyed. Rala.
To strengthen his defence Rajasingha II formed an alliance with the Dutch. Given their common interests in securing the Cinnamon trade it was only a matter of time before the Dutch made a move. In 1659 the Dutch began their invasion in earnest. In a series of battles the king lost in three years territory he had won back from the Portuguese over twenty years. Troops under the command of Van Eck burnt the palace to ashes. Rajasingha counter attacked in two important battles in 1665 and 1675, defeating the Dutch and winning back his territories. Like Wimaladarmasuriya I, he managed to be a warrior as well as a patron of Buddhism. A good portrait of the country in this period is had as a result of Robert Knox and his father being held as captives of the king. Robert Knox escaped to England to write a best selling account, that inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
In 1760 the Dutch battled with the King Kirti Sri Rajasingha for control and submitted a peace treaty. The king refused and withdrew from the city taking the tooth relic from the city allowing the Dutch to enter and plunder it. Ironically the Dutch had gained a stranglehold when they were invited to help ward of the Portuguese. Now help was sought from the British to fend off the Dutch. In 1762 the British sent John Pybus, but showed no interest at first.
In 1781, on the death of his brother, Rajadhi Rajasingha ascended to the throne. He was wary of the British and kept his distance although he agreed with Governor North that the Dutch were a common enemy. In 1798 he died, in the same year that the British won control of the maritime provinces from the Dutch. There was a growing realisation on the British that they could gain control of the entire island. But the seeds of destruction were ultimately sown not by the British but by the Kandyans themselves with their petty disputes, jealousies and personal ambitions.
Rajadhi Rajasingha died without leaving children opening a succession struggle. The crafty prime minister Pilimatalawa who aspired to the throne appointed Kannasami, an eighteen year old distance relative of the king, as Sri Vikrama Rajasingha, a belligerent and violent character. The king was suspicious of Pilimatalawa and they both sought relations with the British.
Sri Vikrama Rajasingha sought to hold power by creating enmity amongst his own chiefs so that they would not unite to challenge him. On one hand he punished his chiefs who had been unjust and won popularity with the masses. On the other hand he moved the sacred shrines of Natha, Vishnu, Kataragama and Pattini to Peradeniya from Kandy which angered the Buddhist public. Perhaps his lasting contributions are the Kandy Lake and the Octagonal Room at the Dalada Maligawa.
The British governor Sir Robert Brownrigg was biding his time to declare war and this came when several British merchants were taken as spies and mutilated and a village under the British control was torched. The British went to war and Sri Vikrama Rajasingha was captured and sent to Velloe in India.
The intention of the Sinhalese chieftains who cooperated with the British was that once the tyrant was deposed, one of them would be appointed king. But the British had other ideas. On the 2 March 1815 representatives of the two sides had a momentous meeting at the council chamber in Kandy where they signed a convention. Under the terms Sri Lanka in its entirety became a British territory and the King of Great Britain became its sovereign. After four centuries of war with European powers, the island had been handed on a plate by its own chiefs to the patient and tactical British.
Temple of the Tooth Relic – the symbol of sovereignty
The Sacred Tooth Relic, housed in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy is an object of veneration to Buddhists and the most important sacred relic in the country is. The temple is one of the most sacred places in the world for Buddhists.
From ancient times kings have kept the Sacred Tooth Relic in their kingdoms as a symbol of power. History records that the Tooth Relic was first brought to the Island by Prince Dhantha and Princess Hemamali during the reign of King Kirti Sri Meghavanna (301 – 328 AD). It is a traditional belief that whoever takes possession of the Tooth Relic, ruler or invader, has the power to rule the people.
The original temple built to house the Relic was by King Vimala Dharma Suriya I in the 16th century when the Tooth Relic first came to Kandy. Several decades later the temple was renovated by King Narendra Singha which is what stands today with additions to its design by various kings. The moat, gateway, drawbridge and Octagonal Room were added by Sri Vikrama Rajasingha. The inner shrine was built by Kirti Sri Rajasingha. The temples is heavily ornamented with carvings on the stone doorways, painted timber ceilings and timber doorways richly inlaid with metal and ivory carvings.