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Crime and Punishments in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka

Impaled on a stake. Pic courtesy: An historical relation of ceylon by Robert Knox

The concepts of crime and punishment were known in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka. The ancient Sinhalese engaged in deviant behaviour, they were not always law abiding. Many instances of unlawful behaviour are mentioned in the literary records. Inscriptions such as Aturupolaya gama pillar inscription and Kondavattavan inscription of Dappula IV., Timbirivava pillar inscription of Kassapa IV, Kirigallava inscription of Udaya II and Vevalketiya inscription of Mahinda IV speak of prohibited behaviour and the punishments attached to them.

The ‘five great crimes’ lead the list of crimes. Inscriptions speak of these but do not name them, so we do not know what they are. It would have been common knowledge to those living at the time. Ranwella suggests that in the 9th and 10th centuries, the five great crimes were murder, theft, adultery or rape, falsehood or cheating and drunkenness. We do know, however, that treason, murder, assault, adultery bribery, highway robbery, housebreaking, theft, cattle theft and the slaughter of buffaloes, oxen and goats were treated as criminal offences.

Treason was considered one of the worst crimes Punishment for treason consisted of execution, mutilation, banishment, imprisonment or a combination of such punishments. Mutilation consisted of cutting off hands and feet. Banishment could mean expulsion from the island or removal to a remote village or distant coast. Severe social degradation was imposed on the members of the traitor’s family. The properties belonging to the offender as well as those belonging to members of his family were liable to confiscation. Dhatusena confiscated the property of those who had supported the Tamils against him. However, there was the possibility of pardon. Dedigama slab inscription of Buvaneka bahu VI excused those who had rebelled against him in the Sinhala rebellion.

Murder was punished by death, according to Kirigallava inscription of Udaya II. The death sentence was carried out by beheading, hanging, and impaling. Beheading was done on an execution block (dangediya) by executioners. Impaling was intend to cause torture and suffering before death. The bodies of criminals were burnt and displayed in public, on certain occasions, as a deterrent. According to the slab inscription of Kassapa V murderers were also exiled.

In the case of aggravated assault not amounting to murder a fine of 50 kalandas was to be levied as fine for ‘damage to life.’ If this was not paid, then the offender’s house would be confiscated. Adultery was punished by a fine of fifty kalandas of gold or by banishment. Saddharmalankaraya stated that the adulterer’s hands were tied behind his back and he was beaten, kicked and weakened, making him given up any further desires of misconduct.

Theft and robbery met with very severe punishment. According to the Vevalkatiya and Kirigallava inscriptions punishment for the offences of highway robbery and housebreaking was death by hanging or impaling. Robbers were first whipped with thorny whips and paraded in the street with their hands tied behind their backs. Visuddimagga sanniya says the public who had gathered to witness this gave them rice cakes, betel and incense and flowers. Vevalkatiya inscription stated that in the case of property taken by thieves using violence, the stolen items, duly identified, were to be restored to their respective owners

The punishment for the slaughter of buffaloes, oxen and goats was death. Should cattle be stolen but not slaughtered, the offender would be branded under the armpit, with red hot iron after due determination of the charge. Those who had effaced brand marks were made to stand on red hot iron sandals. The culprit was to be beaten if the nature of the offence could not be determined

Ancient Sri Lanka seems to have refused to accept bribery and corruption as a part of the system. The Badulla pillar inscription of Udaya IV records records an instance when the public protested to the king regarding corruption. The merchants and householders of the market town of Hopitigama in Sorabora district petitioned the king, when the king visited the area. They said that they were subject to harassment, extortion, and bribes. The officers delegated by the dandanayake who was in charge of Hopitigama, exacted five hundred instead of the 25 kalandas which was the official payment. The officers accepted presents, had the village surrounded, houses occupied and householders taken away by force. A statute was written on the orders of the king prohibiting these activities and stating that corrupt officers should be reported to the authorities.

Fines were levied for many offences. Fines were imposed for quarreling, for assault and for violating orders of the king. Kondavattavan inscription decreed a fine of two akas to flooding a field, one kalanda for offences related to ploughing a field and five kalandas for ploughing late. Kondavattavan inscription allowed appeals against fines. It stated that if the fine is considered excessive, then the sum shall be decided by the residents of the village. Fines were, oddly enough, also levied for more serious crimes. Kannimaduva pillar inscription of Sena II refers to a fine which was imposed on offenders who have committed any of the five great crimes. A find of fifty kalandas of gold was levied for aggravated assault not amounting to murder. Saddharmalankaraya said that a fine was imposed on adulterers.

Community service was used as a form of punishment. Mihintale tablet of Mahinda IV declared that in lieu of an assessed fine, offenders could be made to perform various duties like construction and repairing reservoirs. Bhatika tissa ordered the cleaning of the royal courtyard as an alternative punishment for a group of persons who were unable to pay the fine for consuming beef. .

Imprisonment is not listed as a punishment, but historical sources refer to prisons. Parakrama bahu I had thrown people into prison where they were fettered and tortured. There were prison amnesties. Mahadathika Mahanaga once commanded the remission of the prison penalties. Prisoners were released when general amnesty was declared by Silamagavanna on the occasion of a festival held to honor the venerable Mahinda. Vijayabahu II released prisoners kept there by his uncle Parakrama bahu I. Vikramabahu II set many prisoners free when his son was born.

It looks at though there was no uniformity in punishments. In my view, this is unlikely. The public would not have tolerated haphazard punishments. I think that the punishments would have varied according to the gravity of the crime taking into account mitigating circumstances. Some punishments may have been intended only as deterrents. Siriweera says that inscriptions provide plenty of evidence to show that confiscation was used as a deterrent. Vevalketiya inscription states that if the offender or his family is unable to pay the fine, the offender’s hands would be cut off. Since this will make the offender a burden to society, I think that this punishment was intended as a deterrent.

Houses could be confiscated by the lesser authorities, but confiscation of land was regarded as a royal prerogative. The king could confiscate the property of offenders who had committed heinous crimes, especially treason. Panakaduva copper plate stated that the lands granted in gratitude to Budalvan by Vijayabahu I could not be confiscated even if the owners committed offences.

Some kings intervened to lessen the severity of the punishments. Parakrama bahu II reduced punishments in a rather eccentric manner. He had let off with huge fine of 1000 kahapanas, some persons who were to be banished. Persons who were to be beheaded were put into dungeons in fetters and then set free. For those sentenced to prison, he ordained a lighter punishment, or reprimanded them. On those who had to pay fines, he looked with indignation and spoke words of rebuke.

There was provision for asylum and sanctuary. Monasteries had the right of sanctuary. This meant that no criminal could be arrested within their limits. Some villages which were granted immunities also had the right of sanctuary. However, those guilty of treason and the five great crimes were not eligible for protection. Traitors to the royal family were not to be given the right of asylum. Ellevewa pillar inscription of Dappula IV indicated that in certain villages where immunities were granted, traitors, murderers, highway robbers, thieves and persons guilty of assault should not be admitted, harbored or protected. They must be expelled.

Communities were kept clean by keeping out known criminals. Kaludiya pokuna inscription of Sena III stated that those who come after committing homicide outside are not to be given admission.. Moragoda Pillar inscription said that highway robbers and vagrants shall not be admitted and murderers coming in from outside should be expelled. Those who committed crimes inside the community were also to be expelled. Kaludiya pokuna inscription said if a person commits a crime in the district, his house should be seized and the offender sent away. Moragoda Pillar inscription said if anyone in the village commits a murder he shall be expelled from the village,

It was an offence to harbour or assist a criminal. Fine of fifty kalandas of gold be levied form person who have aided and abetted a criminal. If he was unable to pay the fine imposed, his house should be confiscated, if he had no house, his hands be cut off. There was provision for the arrest of a person who commits murder and flees. A newcomer who has committed an offence elsewhere was to be sent back there to be dealt with. There were regulations for the apprehension of offenders. Badulla pillar inscription stated that the master may be arrested not his wife and children.

The king’s judicial officers went on circuit and the officers of the smaller administrative units were expected to hand over criminals on such visits. Their powers were clearly laid down. Anuradhapura inscription of Mahinda V stated that officials could come into the place on their twice yearly circuit only to search for criminals who are guilty of the five main crimes. In the dasagam, the apprehension of criminals seems to have been a shared community responsibility. Vevalkatiya inscription stated that dasagam inhabitants were expected to detect and punish offenders within forty five days. If they failed, then the dasagama had to pay a fine of 125 kalandas weight of gold to the state.

The monks also came under the normal laws of the land. Anuradhapura Inscription of Mahinda V and Vevalkatiya inscription declared that if monks took money to ordain other monks, the giver and taker should both be expelled from the monastery. In the time of Mahasena, the monk in charge of Jetavana was charged with a grave offence. The judge found him guilty. In the time of Silameghavanna, a group of monks expelled for undisciplined conduct, murdered the monk who had called for the inquiry. The king cut off the hands of some monks, and expelled the rest to India.

The Pali commentaries (5th century) indicate that there were many disputes between the monks and the laymen over theft of monastery property. This had led to violence. Udamahayage Puliyankulama inscription stated that lay persons and monks must settle their disputes without using weapons. Samantapasadika advises that if a monk finds an intruder felling trees on monastic property, he should not seize the offender’s axe and break its cutting edge by dashing it on rocks. If he did so he is advised to have the axe repaired and returned to owner.

The contradiction between brutal punishments and the Buddhist philosophy was noted. Voharika tissa had attempted to develop a penal code which did away with punishments that caused physical injury to the offender. . Mahanama seeing a criminal who was to be executed, replaced him with a corpse. Amanda gamani, Silakala, Kassapa IV and Nissanka malla decreed that animals should not to be killed. Karmavibhaga (12 century) argued that all violent acts involving physical injury, including even the implementation of judicial punishments were evil deeds, to be meticulously avoided by Buddhist.

The writings of A.R.B. Amerasinghe, M.B.Ariyapala, R.A.L.H. Gunawardana, S. Paranavitana, L.S. Perera, S. Ranwella, W.I.Siriweera, A.V. Suraweera and S.G.M. Weerasinghe were used for this essay.

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