Statue by Parakrama Samudra and place name, ‘Polonnaruwa’


Dr. Sudath Gunasekera has discussed the imposing statue by the Parakrama Samudra and raised questions about the grain going across the statue and its interpretation as a silver thread of the Brahaminic tradition given by some scholars. I have raised similar issues and also issues about the interpretation of the place name in some of my articles on the Pollonnaruwa statue some years ago, when I was compiling a list of place names in Sri Lanka.

Indeed, learned scholars have confused the issue immensely by reading too much into non-existent clues, without staying close to terra firma, and we have ended up with several mythic constructions that have dominated the historical discourse about Polonnaruwa. I have summarized the situation under the entry on Polonnaruwa at the place-names website:

In effect, while it is obvious to most people that the grain in the rock extends over the sculpture chiseled out of the rock, the grain has been claimed by some scholars as a"Puna-noola". The Puna-noola is a silver thread worn by Brahamins. Ignoring the most likely possibility that the statue is that of Parakramabahu himself, many scholars have tried to claim that the statue is of the Indian Muni-sage "Pulasthi" mentioned in the Rig Veda. Archeological Commissioner Raja de Silva has however speculated that the statue is that of the Indian Muni Agasthiya of South India. Another view has also been proposed, mainly by Siri Gunasinghe, whose thesis was that the statue is most likely to be that of a Lankan Rishi known as Kapila (Siri Gunasinghe, Statue in Polonnaruwa, Oct 26 Island 2011 midweek review ).

The evidence for these claims appears to be quite scanty. So, one may ask, how did this spiral of speculation begin? In reading through the works of these scholars, one comes to the inescapable conclusion (as least for me), that this line of thinking was triggered by the misinterpretation of the origin of the place name "Pollonnaruwa" by a number of scholars, including S. Paranavithana and Godakumbure who claimed that 'Pollonnaruva' is derived from 'Pulaththinagara', presumably giving emphasis to the name used in the Chulavamsa (13th century). Starting from that premise they went on to identify the statue as that of Pulasthi the Indian Muni.

Once a Brahamin Muni is hypothesized, now it becomes necessary to identify on him the customary priestly decorations - hence the need for the Puna-noola. On the other hand, instead of using the Chulavamsa, where the name could have got corrupted by re-copying it over the years by scribes, we can go to earlier sources as well. The Velakkaras were South Indian mercenaries used by King Vijayabahu to guard the Temple of the Tooth. The Vellakkara inscription (12thcentury or before) refers to a Temple of the Tooth built by Vijayabahu at Pulanari, which is most probably modern Polonnaruwa. Polonnaruwa is referred to in the 12th Century slab inscription from the reign of Vijayabahu I, where the names Polonnakara, Polonnakaru are used. On this basis I suggested that the Paranavithana -Godakumbure interpretation should be discarded, even though they are scholars of the highest distinction. The place-name 'Pollon-nakara' probably came from 'Poron-nagara', where 'porana’ or 'Paerani' means old, or precedent, i.e., 'Pala(mu)'. Thus "Poron-nagara" is"Paerani Nagaraya". The Mahavamsa writer, a world-class scholar who should rank with Vyasa or Herodotus, used "Pollasthinagara" to mean "Poorva-shthaavira nagara --Pullatthinagara"; thus it is consistent with "Poronnagara"and the stone slab-inscriptions.


Hence a correct rendering of the Pali, and rendering it into English as "Polatthinagara", rather than "Pulasthinagar" clarifies its meaning and disconnects it from `Pulasthi'. It has nothing to do with "Pulasthi", the Indian Muni-Sage. Any details of the "old town" which gave rise to Polonnaruwa are unknown at present. This would require deeper excavations in the area. Furthermore, Prof. Siri Gunasinghe has stated that "it is important to find out, if at all possible, why Pulatthinagara was so named", and says that "The word Pulatthi,.. (are)... curious Pali adaptations of Sinhala place names by the chroniclers; in this case Polonnaruwa was turned into Pulatthi by Dhammakitti, ... Such phonetically unorthodox transformations of Sinhala place names are quite common in the chronicle, e.g. Sankhanayakatthali (Hatnagoda), Badalatthali (Batalagoda), Guttahala (Buttala), Bhimatittha (Bentota), Jambukola (Dambulla), Donivagga (Denavaka), Gangasiripura (Gampala), to name only a few. If Pulatthinagara is merely the distorted Pali form of Pollonnaruwa, as I suggest, and has no connection to the Indian sage Pulastya".

In our view, the authors of the Chronicles were excellent linguists, and they did NOT make any unorthodox transformations. It is the modern readers who have confused what the Mahawamsa writers have done, by wrong English transliterations, or by paying too much attention to Indian mythology, and being ever ready to plant them in Sri Lanka to the detriment of the country's own history. Today even "Seetha gangula" is claimed to have something to do with "Seethaa", the consort of Rama, while the clear meaning of "seetha" as "cold" is simply ignored. Many of the place names now attributed to"Seethaa" has, in my view, nothing to do with the "Seetha - Raama legend".

Inregard to the use of 'w' or 'v' in the English form for Polonnaruwa,we should note that the 'w' was used in the south for rendering the Sinhala "v" sound into English, while in the north the letter v, and not 'w' is used in English transliteration of Tamil place names. This is true for family names as well. Thus the Sinhalese write their family names with 'W' as in 'Martin Wickramasinghe'. But traditional Jaffna Tamils write their name as, e.g., Vignesvaran, while a Colombo Tamil would write the name as Wigneswaran following the Sinhalese usage. The Dutch 'v' is pronounced as an 'f', and led to this distinction in the south where names were Europeanized prior to those in the North. The Jaffna names were anglicized by the American missionaries who used "v"for the corresponding Tamil sound.

Chandre Dharmawardana

Ottawa, Canada.

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