Godavaya: Ancient Port Near Modern Magamtota




Renowned authority on history and antiquities of Sri Lanka,C.W.Nicholas, in his seminal work "Historical Topography of Ancient and MediaevalCeylon "published by the Royal Asiatic Society in 1959, referred to Godapavata or Godavaya in the Hambantota District as an unimportant small port which could not have been more than a hazardous anchorage for an occasional sailing ship in times past. But theexcavations conducted in and around the present fishing village of Godavaya from 1994 onwards by the Archaeological Department in collaboration with a German team of archaeologists and by the maritime archaeology unit of the Central Cultural Fund along with a team from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines which examined a shipwreck at Godavaya give a different picture. These testify to the fact that Godavaya was a fairly large and vibrant port which contained semi-urban characteristics.

Gotapabbata in the Mahavamsa and the Godapavata in inscriptions can be identified as present Godavaya situated between Ambalantota and Hambantota.The old mouth of the Walawe river located around a huge rock overlooking the Indian Ocean was the site of the Godavaya port .Perhaps in the latter part of the first millennium or even later the river had changed its course along with its discharge mouth due to build up of sand deposits.The present Walave river flows to the sea three kilometreswest of Godavaya at a place near Ambalanthota.


A Brahmi inscription on a rock next to the ancient monastery of Godavaya originally constructed by a provincial ruler named Gothabhaya in the second century B.C. ,states that King Gamani Abaya granted customs duties (suka)of the port of Godapavata to the monastery.S.Paranavitana in an article published in the Ceylon journal of science (section G) in 1930 has identified Gamani Abaya as Gajabahu I (114-136).In an inscription, which can be dated to the later part of the 6th Century A.D the place is named Godava vehera.

In this context, it is worthwhile to note the Dondra inscription of Parakramabahu II (1236-1270) which states that customs duties at the port of Devinuwara were charged by an officer titled "Mahapandite".This points to the fact that some of the mercantile towns and port cities were reckoned as distinct units for purposes of administration.

The Godavaya Inscriptionlike manyothers sheds light on different aspects of ancient Sri Lankan polity, society and economy. Although this is the only occasion where customs duties had been granted by the king to a Buddhist monastery, many other epigraphic as well as literary records reveal that large extents of land, small reservoirs, canals, taxes, buffaloes, cows, and even salterns had been dedicated by the king to monasteries. Thus religious institutions had taken over certain economic and administrative functions which indicate centrefugal tendencies in body politic. The ancient Sri Lankan administrative organization was not centralized as Karl Wittfogel had generalized Eastern political systems in his book "Oriental Despotism" which exercised a great influence on some Western scholars who portrayed Eastern monarchs as autocrats.

Among the discoveries at the site of the Godavaya port mentioned by the archaeologist Susan Jayawickrama (www.virtual.library.sri lanka) are remains of the customs office building, theclay seals bearing the emblem of a lion, utilized for the purpose of endorsing goods which had paid customs duties and an anchoring site with a hole in a stone which facilated the attachment of an anchor-line. The other finds include jars, plates, bowls, potsherds and coins.

The excavations at Godavaya have also yielded an old maritime structure which lookedlike a part of a jetty ora stone bridge.(www.archaeology.lk) According to Susan Jayawickarama ,the landing jetty may have been built of stone pillars upto 3.5 metres in height.


The earlier mentioned team that investigated the shipwreck has dated the wreck to a period between the second century B.C and the second century A.D. In fact no shipwreck which can be dated earlier than this has ever been found in the Asian-Pacificregion. Important findings in and nearthe shipwreck are various sizes of jars, several potsherds, carrinated cooking vessels, quern stones and glass ingots.

As Rasika Muthukumarana has pointed out whether the wrecked ship was a coastal trading ship that sailed around the Island or whether it was involved in international trade remains to be decided by future research.Whether the ship was coming into Godavaya or going away from Godavaya or whether it was plying elsewhere are also questions that have not been answered.

Besides, there are so many other gaps in the history of Godavaya. Its role in the maritime silk route, its communication links with the great port or Mahatittha off Mannar, its decline and extinction and their causes are still hidden mysteries.

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