Midweek Review
Numismatic evidence from foreign sources needed
Search for Sri Lanka’s ancient ports and harbours

by A. Denis N. Fernando
Fellow, National Academy of Sciences, Consultant.
This introduction would serve as background information in respect to Sri Lanka’s contact with the rest of the civilised world from ancient times. Sri Lanka was known as Taprobane Palesimundum Serendib and Sinhaladipa in ancient times to the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and others. She lay across the main shipping lanes of Asia and was strategically placed across the Indian Ocean for all seafaring, trade, commerce and religious propagation activities, etc. Its seaports played a key role in such foreign contact and related activities. See Map I.

In order to ascertain a better knowledge of Sri Lanka in relation to the Indian Ocean, we would first have to examine the external sources of information where reference is made to Sri Lanka directly or indirectly.

The main objective of this chapter is to bring to the notice of the reader the overview of the contacts Sri Lanka had with the rest of the world as our contacts were not confined to South India. This is very necessary to indicate as otherwise our concepts of our early contacts could be warped and distorted like the proverbial blind men describing the elephant.

This would also provide us the information to ascertain that in addition to its unique position in the Indian Ocean as to whether there were other reasons to attract the different people around the world to our shores. This would provide us with the overview and the role played by Taprobane from ancient times resulting in the settlement of different people and tribes from different cultures, resulting in the diversity of the Sinhalese, the Sinhalisation process which led to a blend of different cultures into a unique people and nation.

Fortunately today, we have access to new tools like Aerial Photographs as they also provide us with visual information to locate these places in their environmental setting very convincingly. A few examples of locating places of interest including ports; harbours and emporiums of Sri Lanka would be indicated in the next chapter.

1.1 Sailing, Travel and Immigration in the Indian Ocean

Periplus means sailing around or an account of a coastal voyage which described the form or ancient travel by sea where the ancient mariners coasted in close proximity to the land as they navigated using visible landmarks. This was the practice of the Persians, Cyprians. Phoenicians and Egyptians. These records were called Periploi. This form of travel prevailed till the Arab mariners used the monsoon to sail across the ocean, navigated by the stars, the moon and sun from the Arabian coast of Sabae, Hydramant and Oman to Maldives, Malabar, Sri Lanka and the Golden Cherconese (Indonesia).

The coastal voyage planned by Alexander the Great (circa 326 B. C.) from the mouth of Indus to the head of the Persian Gulf was executed by Nearkhos who gave a written account of it. It is also recorded that Alexander the Great built a fleet of ships during his eastern exploration so as to proceed southwards to explore Taprobane but as he fell sick, he had to return to Babylon where he died and was buried in Egypt. However, Onesicrities the Admiral of Alexander sailed south and mention is made of Taprobane, though there are hardly any details given of it and the sea named the Erythrean sea. Though the description of the voyage is not presented to us in the original, it is available to us in the second part of the Indika of Arrian. It would appear that the Kataragama Ksatriyas were part of that expedition and some would have remained back in Sri Lanka as would be explained later.

Ports from which the fleets sailed to the east from the Red Sea, together with the months of departure and return and the time they took for such journeys is indicated in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. A translation by Dr. William Vincent is quoted.

"Both from Myos Hormus and Berenice the fleets sailed for Africa and Arabia in the month of September and for India in July: dates which agree admirably with the regular winds as stated by Bruce. For in the first instance if they cleared the gulf before November, they in that month fell in with the wind which carried them down the coast of Africa and which served them to return in May. And in their voyage to India, failing in July, if they cleared the gulf before the 1st of September they had the monsoon for nearly three months to perform the voyage to the coast of Malabar which was generally completed in forty days".

We have Pliny (52 A.D.) who records his observation on Palesimundum (by which name Sri Lanka was then known) where he was driven to by the monsoon winds when he was farming for taxes in the Red Sea for the Romans. He says of Sri Lanka as follows:

"There was a haven therein regarding the south coast, lying hard under Palesimundum, the principal city of all that realm and the King’s seat and palace: there were by just account 200,000 commoners and citizens: as for the King, he is arrayed in apparel as Bacchus went in old times but the subjects and common people are clad in the habit of Arabians".

The description fits with Tissamaharama, the Nacaduma of Ptolemy, the Magama of the 3rd century B.C. A closer examination of Ptolemy’s work shows that the township of Kirinda called Dionysi Sei Bachi Civitas was possibly associated with the Greek God Dionysious or Alexander the Great by which name he was also known and the location of Kataragama being described as Nanigiri. Prof. Heinz Bechert is clearly of the view that Skanda deification at Kataragama associated with Deity Siva is a post 12th century phenomenon after there was Chola influence in Sri Lanka. Then the question arises as to who was the War God that King Dutugemunu worshipped at Kataragama in the 2nd century B.C. All evidence so far points to Alexander the Great.

1.2 The Spice Trade in the Indian Ocean

The term Mummia or Mumia was a term used for medicine and certainly not on account of its cadaverous associations but as an aromatic substance. It is well known that these spices were employed in the embalming of mummies in Pharaohnic times. The sources of spices in these times could be very revealing as all the aromatic oils (cinnamon, cardamoms, cloves, etc.) could not have originated from Africa but from the East, better known later as the East Indies or spice countries.

1.3 The Dispersion of Metallurgy and Rice in the Indian Ocean

Though the Bronze Age triggered the forward march of civilization, as is notably seen in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in the Indus Valley, China and Fertile Crescent, it was however the Iron Age that accelerated it by leaps and bounds. The well known cultures that based their advnaces on iron were notably the Assyrians, Sumerians, Philistines as well as the Egyptians in the Fertile Crescent.

It was the fabrication of Steel in Sri Lanka that made it possible to develop our Ancient Hydraulic Civilization. This has been recorded by Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Dr. Gill Juleff. This Ancient Hydraulic Civilization of Sri Lanka was dependent on the irrigation of rice. This civilization was in existence prior to the 6th century B.C. Rice had its origins in East Asia, while the technology of irrigation that was known in West Asia for wheat irrigation was adapted in Sri Lanka for rice irrigation with improved techniques.

1.4 The spread of Religious Beliefs through the Indian Ocean

We note that early religious beliefs like those of sun and moon worship, spread across the seas to islands like Sri Lanka from the Fertile Crescent. We note the presence of pre-Buddhist worship of the Greek Gods, as well, since there were also centres of their worship in Sri Lanka in Ptolemy’s time (150 A.D.) dedicated to Zeus, Dionysius, Iskander (deified as a War God), etc. We note that Buddhism spread not only along the land route across Asia, particularly, along the Silk Route, but also along the sea routes, notably through the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand, Indo-China, the Maldives, etc. The Gandhara Buddhist iconography clearly spread to Sri Lanka along the sea route. A good example is the large statue of the Buddha at Aukana, a replica of what is in Afghanistan.

Mention is also made of the sea route and ports of departure and arrival during the journey in bringing the Sacred Bodhi Tree from Buddhagaya to the city of Anuradhapura in the 3rd century B.C. which indicates the principal seaport Tamalitti of India and Jambukola Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura is only 60 miles from Palavakki which is 5 days travel time when walking both morning and in the evening. Peninsula Jaffna is nearly 200kms away from Anuradhapura and would have taken more than 3 times the time as it has to cross the lagoon and through uninhabited terrains as well. The ancient port of Jambukola has been identified as lying between Tiriyaya and Kuchchaveli, where Tapussa and Balluka used that port as well as Ptolemy indicated that it was an International Emporium called Talakori Emporium.

2. SOURCES OF INFORMATION INDICATING SPECIFIC PLACES IN SRI LANKA

Ptolemy’s Taprobane indicates places of Sri Lanka in Circa 150 A.D. and was the only source that provided us with their absolute co-ordinates giving their specific locations mathematically and their locations are not subject to speculation like in other sources of information which are descriptive. These co-ordinates were corrected by me mathematically to rectify the inherent errors of Sun Azimuth and the size of the earth at Ptolemy had under-estimated the size of the earth by 30%. Sailing ships in that period had access to Sri Lanka either to the eastern seaboard or the western seaboard because of the monsoons operating in two distinct periods that gave rise to sun azimuthal errors which had to be corrected.

2.1 Other Sources of Information

Most of the information provided by several other authors in respect to place names in Sri Lanka, both foreign and local, often do not provide us with sufficient information to locate them on the ground, except where their locations have been supported by Archaeological evidence during excavations.

Descriptions of ports, harbours, coastal port cities and settlements and emporia are indicated in literary sources and chronicles like the Mahawamsa compiled in the 4th century A.D. from the collective memory and recordings by Buddhist monks. That provide us with much descriptive information of places during different periods of time, as well as places associated with different events of special significance like the bringing of the Sacred Bodhi Tree from India. But often, their descriptions have not been location specific, which has led to much confusion. Their locations have been interpreted at the whims and fancies of the interpreter, using etymology and present names as their guide, which had led to further confusion as there are several places with the same name.

3. PORTS, PORT CITIES, HARBOURS AND EMPORIUMS FROM ANCIENT TO MEDIEVAL TIMES

Claudius Ptolemy in c. 150 A.D. provided us with the locations of nearly fifty places with their co-ordinates that fixes their position on ground. They comprise the capitals, major townships. International Emporiums and harbours as well as the location of the major tribes distributed in the different parts of Sri Lanka (refer RASSL sesquitional Vol. 1995 for further details).

In describing the coastal trade outposts, namely, the harbours, ports emporiums and associated cities and settlements, I would be using Ptolemy’s Taprobane, as it definitely indicates to us these place names together with their locations with co-ordiantes.

These would be supported by not only literary sources but also observations made by me on the ground with field verification in the course of several visits to these places in the last four decades in the course of my official duties and private explorations. I would indicate their presence both before and after 150 A.D. with reference to Ptolemy’s Taprobane which I have used as the benchmark survey for my presentation.

This map compiled by me gives the absolute positions of places in Sri Lanka for which Ptolemy provided three dimensional co-ordinates in addition to the relative positions of regional names in relation to the absolute position of places for which he had provided co-ordinates. After these co-ordinates were corrected by me they were subsequently plotted on a Transverse Mercator Projection.

Subsequently in the 13th century there were incursions by Magha and Chandrabanu. The large scale settlement of Jaffna commenced with the introduction of Tobacco in the Portuguese era after 1550 A.D. There were mass scale migrations from the Coramandal and they used the lift irrigation technology of well and shadaff to cultivate tobacco.

We have today, topographical maps compiled in the last century by the British which provides with place names some of which existed from ancient times but could sometimes confuse us because there are several locations with the same place names which cannot be linked with any period of history due to lack of other corroborative evidence. Sometimes new places are given old names lest historical names are forgotten when they settle in new places.

4. CONCLUDING

Though the tradition and collective memory of the Sri Lankans have indicated important ports and places of interest, there has been confusion in relation to their location in regard to some of the more important ones. This paper has attempted to locate some of them that were in doubt using the exact locations provided by Claudius Ptolemy and confirmed by modern Aerospace Technology and field verified together with related archaeological evidence and writings of erudite scholars.

Some of the important places of the B.C. period located in this presentation are places like Kelaniya, Nagadipa, Kuduramalai, Jambukola, Potana, coastal cities of the Chandanagama Kshtriyas of the Buddhachchana clan the coastal city of the Kataragama Kshatriyas, etc. The ports around Sri Lanka together with harbour sites and coastal settlements were occupied by several races and tribes who migrated to Sri Lanka in different periods as evident from the names in the above-mentioned maps and other literary sources indicated in this paper and I am sure, this would be of interest to the conference and the public in general.

Sri Lanka being centrally located on the hub of the sea routes was fortunate to be the recipient of cultures and technologies from all parts of Asia (ref. Advent of Rice and the Ancient Hydraulic Civilization of Sri Lanka 1998).

In fact, the settlement of different people and tribes from different cultures and races resulted in the diversity and the Sinhalisation process led to the blend of different cultures into a unique people and nation, who called themselves Sinhalese in the Island of Sinhaladipa and included pre-Islamic Arabs and Tamils of the pre-colonial period. Their language was likewise a fusion of many vocables from different languages. It also evolved a unique hydraulic civilization based on gravity irrigation, as distinct from the lift irrigation techniques of the Vellalar Tamils in Peninsula Jaffna. With the advent of Islam, the Muslims lived in a very closely linked community because of religious reasons.

It is only in relatively recent times with the dawn of the Colonial Era that tobacco was introduced by the Portuguese. During both the Portuguese and Dutch periods of occupation, they encouraged large numbers of Vellalar Tamils to grow tobacco in Peninsula Jaffna, using lift irrigation systems, which is quite different to irrigation systems practised by the Sinhalese. In the British period, with the introduction of coffee, tea and rubber in the hill country, large numbers of indentured Tamil labour were brought from the Madras area for planting these crops under rain-fed conditions. It is in this colonial era that the assimilation of these new immigrants to the body politic was slow, resulting in their relatively isolated existence from the rest of the community who had settled much earlier, have a bearing to the present problem which the country is facing today which is basically socio-economic. It is very clear that all measures have to be taken at the earliest to integrate them with the rest of the community.

Finally we would have to examine our Ancient Ports and Harbours indicated in this presentation if one is seriously interested in gathering further numismatic evidence and contacts we have had from aboard, especially in the submerged ports and harbours in southern Sri Lanka which were the first contact points of foreign traders in Sri Lanka.


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