Saturday Magazine
Kings of ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
This article is the second in a three part series, continued from last Saturday
by Kamalika Pieris

Kingship in Sri Lanka was neither absolute nor despotic. In theory the king was supreme and did not have to account to anybody. He could inflict capital punishment and could demote a person from his social position. Bhatika-abhaya degraded some people to the level of scavengers for eating beef.

There were also constraints that prevented the king from exercising arbitrary power. One such was popular opinion, which was a formidable check on the king. Any act that was unpopular would help a pretender to the throne. The king was also expected to respect tradition and custom (pera sirit) when taking decisions. For example, though the king was the fount of justice, there was a body of accepted laws. If he violated these, he invited disaster. There was also a code of conduct for the king. He was expected to rule according to the ten kingly virtues (dasa raja dharma).

Great care was taken in the training of the future king. The heir was chosen by the king and given the designation of yuvaraja, uparaja or mahapa. This heir apparent was put in charge of a major province, so that he could have some experience of governing. Sena II appointed his younger brother as uparaja and assigned Dhakkinadesa to him. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the heir apparent governed the north western province.

Since the king was expected to be learned and wise, the heir to the throne was also given a sound education, According to the, Dambadeni asna, Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) was expected to plough through an enormous number of subjects. The subjects included the three pitaka of the Buddha dhamma and several languages, including Sanskrit and Pali together with the two schools of grammar that existed at the time. Because of the Tamil threat, he had to know Tamil as well. He also had to master eighteen crafts and study sixty-four arts, some of which are named in the asna. They include astrology, law, and logic. He was also trained in archery and sword ..Q. Historians point out that this was probably an ideal list rather an account of the actual attainments of any king.

On the whole, the Sinhala kings did well and the island prospered under them. There were periods of peace and calm. Here are three instances. Firstly, the period from Kutakanna tissa (44-22 BC) to Mahadathika Mahanaga (7-19 AD). Secondly, the period of Mahallaka naga (136-143) and his two sons, Bhatika tissa and Kanittha tissa (143-186) Thirdly, the Dambadeniya, to Yapahuwa period from 1232 to 1293. Some dynasties lasted for a considerable length of time. The dynasty of Manawamma (684-718) lasted for well over three centuries.

The kings supervised the central government, a ministered justice and saw to the poor. They encouraged scholarship and literature. Many ‘vamsas’ were written in the reign of Parakrama bahu II. The court of Aggabodhi I was adorned by twelve accomplished poets (maha kaveen). Parakrama bahu VI helped a large number of writers and poets. His minister Salavata Jayapala, asked Vaftave to write Guttila kavya. Some of the, kings were themselves scholars and poets.

Moggallana II was described as an intellectual and an incomparable poet (asadrusha) Sena I wrote Siyabaslakara. Parakama bahu VI composed Ruvanmala, a lexicon for poets. Kasyapa V wrote Dampiya atuvava, getapadaya and Parakrama bahu II wrote Visuddhimagga sannaya. These two books were based on many sources. These writers must have been extremely learned.

The kings have also been interested in scientific disciplines such as medicine. King Buddhadasa, wrote Sarartha sangraha, a text on medicine. Aggabodhi VIII (766-772 AD) studied the medicinal plants in the island to find out whether they were wholesome or harm for the sick. Parakramabahu I (1153-1186) also knew something about medicine. It is possibly this bent for scientific thinking that led to their interest in irrigation and engineering.

The Sinhala kings were responsible for the much-admired irrigation and water management schemes of ancient Sri Lanka. These schemes were extensive and complicated and needed much advance planning. Vasabha constructed eleven reservoirs and twelve canals including Alahera. Mahasena constricted 16 reservoirs and tanks, including Minneriya, Kavudulu, Hurulu and Vahalkada. He built reservoirs using the tributaries of the Deduru oya and developed the Kala- Malvatu network. Dhatusena constructed the Jaya Ganga and eighteen reservoirs, including Kala wewa, and Giants tank. Moggallana II built the largest tank, Padaviya as well as Nacchaduwa, the key reservoir for all the Malvatu oya irrigation projects. Moggallana ranks third below that of Mahasena, and Dhatusena when it comes to tank building. The kings made mistakes as well. In the time of Vira Parakrama bahu VIR (1477-1489), a canal intended to connect Kotte and Negombo, brought in salt water that destroyed the cultivation in the surrounding areas.

Life was not always rosy for the Sinhala king. Some kings had to face rebellions. Mahinda II had rebellions in Malaya, Ruhuna, Dhakkina, and Paccinadesa. The kings did not give into these rebellions. There was an island wide rebellion when Bhuvaneka bahu VI took office. During this, in 1470, a mission from Burma had arrived at Valigama. The king sent his brother, Ambulugala Raja by sea to Valigama to engage in operations against the rebels. The rebels were led by Garavi amatya who occupied the coastal regions between Kotte and Valigama. The mission had to stay several months at Valigama, until the rebellion was suppressed and then proceed to Kotte.

Some kings were ineffective. Mahinda V was so weak that he could not properly organise even the collection of taxes. Some kings were unable to exert authority over the whole island. Malaya and Ruhuna were independent during the reign of Silamegliavanna. (619-628) AD). Kassapa, I did not have territorial authority over the whole island during the last years of his reign. Parakrama bahu IV had no control over Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa or even Yapahuwa.

Some kings did not last long. Khujjanaga, eldest son and successor to Kanittha tissa, was slain after one year and replaced by his younger brother Kuncanaga, who lasted only two years. Pandita Parakrama bahu, VII was murdered before he could reign for even a few months. King Sangha tissa loved to eat jambu. He used to take his retinue and visit a place that had jambu trees. These frequent visits were a nuisance to the people of the am So they poisoned the king, and thus got rid of this unwelcome guest.

(to be continued)


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