By Dhanesh Wisumperuma
tsunami that struck Sri Lanka and other south Asian, Indian
Ocean countries has drawn our attention to several matters. It
is a widely discussed topic in many aspects. Many say that
ignorance among the people, of tsunamis and their effects, was
the cause for such massive devastation to life and property.
However, there are documented descriptions on tsunamis in
history. The first was in the early Anuradapura period. The
others were within the last few hundred years. There has also
been mention of the historical occurrences of tsunamis in Sri
Lanka. I am hereby attempting to examine these descriptions of
tsunamis in our history and what scientific means we can acquire
from these. Although I am using the word ‘tsunami’ to describe
the events, writers who wrote or translated the accounts of
these events, used other words, such as tidal waves, sea deluge,
There are stories that there were similar events
of sea flooding or submerging of land prior to written history,
which begins from King Vijaya’s period. One such event was
during the reign of King Ravana. According to the Rajavaliya
this was because of the wickedness of King Ravana and it
submerged a large part of the country including his fortress.
Similar inundation occurred during king Tharaka’s reign too.
However, the existence of these kings is mainly mythical and not
agreed on by most of the historians. Therefore I am only
considering the ones that happened in the historical period.
Tsunami during King Kelanitissa’s reign
When we consider the tsunamis in the written
history of Sri Lanka, the first such event we can learn of is
from the time of King Kelanitissa’s reign. His kingdom was in
Kelaniya and controlled the coastal areas of the country.
This tsunami occurred around 2200 years ago. The
daughter of the king of Kelaniya, was sacrificed to the sea and
she was married to the king of Ruhuna, Kavantissa. Their son,
Prince Dutugemunu reigned as the king of Anuradhapura from 161
BC to 137 BC. Therefore, this event took place some time around
200 BC. (Recently, an article, which is available on the
internet has incorrectly said that this event took place about
2075 years ago, in 100 BC !)
When we summarise the event that led towards the
tsunami, it is something like what is dealt with below. The
tsunami was a punishment to King Kelanitissa, who executed a
Buddhist monk as the king suspected the monk of writing a letter
to the queen. However, it was written by the younger brother of
the king, who had a secret affair with the queen and sent
through a person disguised as a monk. Gods and deities got angry
with the cruel action against the monk and caused the sea to
flood as a punishment. Devi, the King’s daughter, was placed in
a vessel and sacrificed to the sea gods to save the country. The
vessel landed near a temple called the Lanka Vihara in the south
(present day Kirinda). After coming to know that she was the
daughter of the king of Kelaniya, King Kawantissa, of the Rohana
kingdom married her.
This event was well documented in the Mahawamsa
and also in other sources like the Rajawaliya and the
Saddharmalankaraya. However, the description of the tsunami in
the Mahawamsa is very brief. It says that "Wrath of the sea gods
made the sea overflow into the land".
The description of the damage done by the
encroaching sea in the Rajawaliya is descriptive, although it
was written around the early 18th century. According to this
description the effect of the tsunami was really destructive.
According to the Rajawaliya, 100,000 patunugam
(towns or villages with a harbour - a port city) and 970 kevul
(fisher’s) villages and 470 villages inhabited by pearl fishers
were destroyed by the sea. Also, it is said that 11 of the 12
territories of the Kelani kingdom were swallowed by the sea.
There are some other references stating that 35,500 ports and
anicuts, fields and tanks were lost. For some, these numbers may
be overestimated. However, the categorization of the villages
gives us an idea about the village structures. The damaged
included villages for fishermen, villages for pearl fishers (or
divers) and well developed port cities or villages. The Kelaniya
kingdom may have suffered a major blow to its economy. According
to the Rajavaliya, King Kelanitissa was caught in a fire of hell
due to his sin. We do not hear about the Kelaniya kingdom again.
According to the sources, the distance between
the sea and Kelaniya was seven gawwas. (In some copies of
Rajawaliya, this distance was only three gawwas.) The
encroaching sea has come about six gawwas according to
Saddharmalankaraya. However, according to the book called Tri
Sinhale Kada-Im-Pot, this distance was six gawwas, before the
tsunami and was reduced to five gawwas. However, some copies of
this book state the original distance was seven gawwas and six
Although it is said "swallowed by the sea" this
may be meaning a huge damage by the sea flooding. This may be an
over estimation of the inundation, a considerable devastation
had happened during this tsunami. It is not easy to calculate or
estimate the devastation now. Merlin Peries in an article titled
‘King Kelanitissa’s Crime’ which appeared in the Journal of then
Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka describes this situation and
says wave or waves would have hit a considerable length of the
west coast belonging to the Kelaniya Kingdom. This is the best
assumption we can come to on the tsunami damage.
However, there are some interesting points
regarding this damage. There are few places that were specially
mentioned as not damaged by the tsunami, including the port city
of ‘Katupiti-Madampe’. In some copies of the Rajawaliya,
Meegomuwa (Negombo) and Mannar are also mentioned apart from the
above port city. These should be the areas around present day
Madampe, Negombo and Mannar. This reveals that this tsunami had
not damaged some areas in the north western and western coast.
However, special mention of the undamaged areas expresses some
sort of importance of these places during that period.
Although the effect of the sea was devastative
in the western coast of the country, there is no mention that it
struck the south or south eastern coast, where the vessel, which
Princess Devi was on board, landed. What we are told is that the
tsunami damaged the western coast.
Importance of the tsunami
Thus, the tsunami of king Kelanitissa’s reign
does not yield a great deal of data on the impact of the
tsunami. Sources mainly discuss the sin of Kelanitissa and the
sacrifice of Princess Devi, as it was the main theme because she
gave birth to prince Dutugemunu, who saved the country from the
Chola invader King Elara.
However, there are well documented tsunamis during the last
few centuries, which I wish to discuss next week.