Tsunami during King Kelanitissa’s Reign

By Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The 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, sea flooding.

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 were submerged.

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.



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