MATOTA: The Great Port of Ancient Sri Lanka



The site known in ancient Pali literature as Maha(the great) tiththa (port) is located opposite Mannar on the north-western coast at the mouth of the MalvatuOya. It was known as Mahavatutota and Matota in Sinhala and Mantai and Matottam in Tamil. Being the most important landingand trading port of the Island during the period of the Rajarata civilization,the site provides a fair amount of archaeological data substantiated by textual material on ancient import-export trade. Its location at the mouth of the Malvatu river facilitated transport of commodities along the supply route which existed by the river to Anuradhapura.

Excavations at Matota have been conducted in 1886, 1907, 1926-28, 1950-1951, 1957,1976 and recently from 1980 to 1983. Evidence indicates that the port consisted of a fairly large settlement extending to about 8 hectares during the initial period up to about the fourth century A.D. The buildings in this phase had been wattle and daub constructions. But after about the fourth century A. D. they had been constructed with stronger materials such as bricks and stones. From this period onwards, the port had functioned as the central turn table of the Indian Oceanic trade.

The final stage of the development of Matota had taken place between the eighth and eleventh centuries. During this phase, it had been an impressive, symmetrically planned city of almost 50 hectares, surrounded by a horse-shoe shaped double moat and a wall. Each moat varied from 20 to 50 metres in width. The length of the city was approximately 800 metres from north to south and 600 metres from east to west. Substantial remains of masonry and brick buildings datable to this period have been found in excavations.

Among the vestiges of imports found at the port were Chinese, Indian, East Mediterranean and West Asian ceramic ware, West Asian glass vessels, carnelian from India and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Of course there had been other imports such as fabrics, wines and perfumes but archaeological evidenceis mostly confined to imported durable goods.

The available specimens of exports indicate a considerable level of luxury ornament production in ancient Sri Lanka. Some of the items datable to the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries discovered at Matota include ornaments madeout of ivory, bone, horn, coral and tortoise shells, chank bangles, terracotta figurines as well as copper and iron ornaments. Besides, items made out of local green and blue glass, marble and gems as well as pieces of aromatic and hard woods have been found at the port.

It should be noted however, that the specific nature of imports and exports, the volume and variety of materials and exchange mechanisms cannot be decided with any degree of precision.

The evidencepoints to the presence of a composite population of various religious denominations at Matota. The medieval refuse deposits contain the bones of cattle, goats, pigs, deer as well as the remains of fish and sea turtle which demonstrate a widely varied diet of different groups frequenting the port. Perhaps the main groups who occupied the site were the Sinhalese and Tamils. Medieval Pali and Sinhala literature refers to Sinhala merchants travelling between Matota and the interior for purposes of trade. There was also a strong South Indian element in the population of the port during most periods of its occupation. A Chola inscription datable to the eleventh century states that money for the purpose of burning a street lamp outside the Tiruiramisvaram temple at the port were deposited by a certainTevan with the trade guilds Cankarapatiyar, Verrilai-Vaniyar and ValakkaiVaniyar all of Matottam. The Persian presence during the early medieval period has been testified by the excavation of a Nestorian cross and an old Persian inscriptionin 1983. This is in fact in addition to an earlier excavated stone, carved with a Nestorian cross, presently placed in the Anuradhapura museum.

There had been at least one Saiva shrine at Matottam from the tenth century onwards. Four eleventh century Chola inscriptions including the one mentioned earlier refer to grants of land, cows, gold and money to the shrine named Tiruiramisvaram or Tiruketisvaram. But its architectural remains are missing because the Portuguese completely destroyed it and built Catholic churches and the Mannar fort with some of its materials. When they captured Mannar in 1591, the old port was also abandoned in favour of the Mannar fort which could be defended by the shallow channel between it and the mainland from a surprise attack through land.

The site where the temple had existed previously had been a mound until the end of the 19th century. As a result of the leadership provided by the champion Hindu reformer, ArumukaNavalar, the Hindu community took great interest in reestablishing the Tiruketisvaram temple and the clearance of the site commenced in January 1894. Thereafter a small temple was erected and it was consecrated or Kumbabhisekam was performed in 1903. But the shrine did not function well due to inhospitable climate, scarcity of water and lack of sufficient patronage. There was just one Brahmin priest living in an old dilapidated house who attended to devotees coming from far away places. Therefore an organization called the Tiruketisvaram Restoration Society met at Bambalapitiya in 1948, and planned a project of great magnitude. The society was able to construct a new Tiruketisvaram Temple and its consecration or MahaKumbhabhisekam was conducted on 31st October 1960. Subsequently, several other stages of the building programme continued until all work stopped with the outbreak of ethnic violence in 1983. The temple was once again abandoned. However, during the era of cessation of hostilities in2002-2003, the shrine was revived and the end of the war in 2009 has brought in better hopes for the Tiruketisvaram Temple as well as the area around Matottam or Matota.

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