Meandering thoughts on the Early footsteps of Sinhale
It is debatable at what point in history the island of Sri Lanka, earlier known by a variety of different names, became populated and her civilization started to take shape. The earliest human remains found on the island are that of a man referred to as the Balangoda Man, which date to about 35,000 years ago. Further evidence of human habitation on the island during this period have been found in several localities in Sri Lanka such as Belilena – Kitulgala, Wavula Pane – Ratnapura, Batadombalena – Kuruwita, Fa Hien Cave – Kalutara, Bellanbandi Palassa – Pansadara Chena, Balangoda Horton Plains and Dorawaka Lena – Kegalle. Present day veddha people are said to be possibly the closest living beings related to the Balangoda man. However, problems exist. Certain samples of Balangoda Man were estimated to be 174 cm tall for males and 166 cm tall for females, significantly taller than the modern day Veddha people. Nothing is perfect, so we accept that despite these anomalies our Balangoda ancestor was the first known people that lived in our resplendent island.
The proto-historical period begins roughly in the 3rd century, based on Prakrith chronicles like the Mahavamsa, Dipavamsa, and the Culavamsa. These chronicles cover the period since the establishment of the Kingdom of Tambapanni in the 6th century BCE by the earliest ancestors of the Sinhala.
It is a fairly well agreed supposition that the earliest ancestors of the Sinhala/ Sinhela people started their story on the island with the arrival of Prince Vijaya. The very same legend of Vijaya, mentions a local queen or a princess called ‘Kuveni’ who co-habited with Prince Vijaya and produced two children- Jivatissa and Dissala. It is possible that Kuveni was a descendent of the veddha tribe who could be descendants, in turn, of the Balangoda people.
Legend has it that Kuveni was spinning cotton at the time Prince Vijaya first saw her. Was there a well-developed cotton weaving industry at the time? Remember this was 543 years before Christ- 2563 years ago! In my minds’ eye I see beautiful earthy colors and indigenous patterns in the fabrics worn by a graceful, cultured people! Fabric coloring may have been known by now, as not soon after, with the arrival of Buddhism in the country, the monks wore saffron robes. What other industries thrived in this period on the Island of Lanka?
The Mahavamsa, written around 400 AD by the monk Nagasena, using the Deepavamsa, the Attakatha and other written sources available to him, correlates well with Indian histories of the period. Indeed, Emperor Ashoka’s reign is recorded in the Mahavamsa. According to the Mahavamsa, Vijaya was a son of King Vanga of India. Banished by his father for errant behavior, he arrived in Sri Lanka with 700 followers with him on a sea vessel.
In the Mahawamsa version, Vijaya’s grandmother was a princess, whose ancestry is traced to the Vanga and Kalinga kingdoms (present-day Bengal and Odisha). She bore two children with Sinha (“lion”), who kept them in captivity in a forest. After the princess and her two children escaped from captivity, her son Sinhabahu killed Sinha. Sinhabahu was the founder of a new kingdom called Sinhapura and Prince Vijaya was his son. Vijaya became the prince-regent of Sinhapura, but was exiled with 700 of his followers to Lanka as mentioned earlier.
Kuveni helped Vijaya destroy the Yakkha city of Sirisavatthu. Once established in Lanka, the Vijaya’s group felt the need for a king. Advisors exerted pressure on Vijaya to marry a Kshatriya princess in order to become a legitimate ruler. Vijaya married the daughter of a Pandu king, from Madura in India. Vijaya offered to house Kueni in one of his dominions but the proud woman refused and left with her two children for the Yakkha city of Lankapura.
Kuveni was killed by the Yakkhas for betraying them. May be Kuveni’s curse took effect; and, Vijaya died without an heir. Panduvasudeva, the son of his twin brother Sumitta, arrived from India, and took charge of Vijaya’s kingdom. Prince Vijaya is said to have ruled Sri Lanka from 543 BC – 505 BC i.e., 38 years. The community established by Vijaya gave rise to the Sinhala race.
The Mahawamsa story has other parallel versions that offer similar stories of Vijaya with minor variations. Not only that, it is a story that is also supported by folklore in parts of Indian sub-continent; particularly in Bengal. I found the story narrated by a learned Bengali, named Siddhart Sarkar from Calcutta in West Bengal, on social media. Sarkar’s letter is re-produced verbatim below so that none of the local nuances surrounding the story is lost in translation.
“The tale of Bijoy Singha is a very old legend that Bengalis even today narrate with pride. However, it is still treated as myth or a legend only and not exactly held like factual history by the Bengalis. I have searched around in Bengali bookstores, but have not found a single book in which Bijoy Singha’s tale is formally documented in book form as in say folk tale books or as in historical tales books etc. Since ages, this great legend has strictly passed on from generation to generation, purely by word of mouth. I myself heard Bijoy Singha’s story from my Grandmother, when I was very little child and then again from my mother, when I was growing up as a teenager.
Prince Bijoy Singha is still today, proudly referred to, in West Bengal as ‘Banglar daamal Chhele, je Lankar raja hoyechilo’, meaning, the Valiant son of Bengal, who became the true king of the Kingdom of Lanka.
The story goes that some thousand years ago, Bijoy Singha was a prince of the Kingdom of Tamralipta (modern day ‘Tamluk’, in Midnapore district in the Indian state of West Bengal; however, in those times, Tamralipta was a part of the province of Kalinga (i.e. modern day Odisha). He was a very great warrior and had great physical strength, who could kill a Lion (‘Singha’, in Bengali) with his bare hands. Bijoy was however, the son of the King’s second wife (termed ‘dooworani’ in Bengali). The king’s chief consort (termed ‘Patorani’ in Bengali) was getting extremely jealous of Bijoy Singha’s popularity among the Kingdom’s commoners/subjects and feared very much that Bijoy would some day usurp the throne and jeopardize the chance of her own son’s becoming king. This led to the Patorani hatching a political conspiracy to murder Bijoy Singha and his young wife.
Bijoy Singha’s loyalist spies came to know about this heinous plot and on hearing about this, Prince Bijoy escaped from Tamralipta with his wife and along with 700 of his most loyal followers who were courtiers and warriors, both and also their wives and children commandeered a flotilla of Saptadingas i.e. 7 Mayurpankhi Naos i.e. 7 large sailing ships and under the cover of night set sail on the raging seas for an unknown destination. The flotilla however, got caught in a raging storm and was swept ashore on the mystic island of Lanka (that is what we Bengalis have always referred to Ceylon/Sri Lanka). On landing there, they found that the island was an island of paradise of rare scenic beauty and with strange birds and trees.
Bijoy and his 700 people got warmly welcomed by the local inhabitants who were tribals (called ‘Adibasis’, in Bengali) and they gave them food and shelter and clothing. With no chance of ever getting back to his original homeland, Bijoy Singha decided that he and his people would never return home to Tamralipta, but would settle down there. Days passed, days turned into months and months into years; One day, the local Lankan inhabitants decided that they would like Bijoy Singha to be their king and requested him to lead them as their crowned king. Bijoy Singha gladly accepted this honour and became the King of Lanka and valiantly protected the Kingdom till the end of his life.
Thus a distant exotic island became forever ‘Banglar Awngo’ i.e. forever a virtual part of Bengal.
That is how the story ends.”
For the Sinhale of course, that is how the story began!
So, in the Bengali folklore, there was no Kueni; and, Prince Vijaya already had a wife travelling with him! Hmmmm….mystery unsolvable at present but we accept as is and move on!
Vijaya’s ship reached Lanka, on the copper-hued sands at a place known as Supparaka in Tambapanni, somewhere between Mannar and Kudiramalai. On the same day, Mahawansa relates, the Gautama Buddha’s parinirvana took place in northern India! Sadhu! Sadhu!! Sadhu!!!
Those who believe that Vijaya set out from the west coast of India (i.e. Sinhapura being located in Gujarat) identify the present-day Sopara as being the ancient Supparaka. As always, there are others who believe that the group came from the East coast of India- so we allow for variations for the legend to flow uninhibited!
Once landed, Vijaya and friends trekked along the tracts in the course of Malwathu Oya (river) banks to find flat fertile land – lands fit for extensive rice cultivation, which from then on became the homeland of the Sinhala.
Malwathu Oya is the second longest river in the country and the oldest river mentioned in the ancient chronicles. I read a beautiful article by Somasiri Devendra in the Island newspaper two years ago, titled “Where have all the flowers gone? Musings on the Malwathu Oya”. Malwathu Oya has its headwaters in Dambulla and Ritigala, winding through the heartland of ancient Sri Lanka, flowing through sacred city of Anuradhapura, across the north-western plains to the ancient shore where Vijaya may have landed. The river is beautiful, it’s full of history, legend and, of course, contradictions. I quote Devendra: “It (the river) is long, but carries little water- a seasonal river, dependent on the none-too-abundant north-east monsoon, unlike the perennial rivers of the south and south-west. More akin, on more modest scale, to the seasonal rivers of India, with sandbanks home to nomadic communities. It’s a river without the abundant flow that, alone, can encourage the growth of riverside communities, river traffic and lively interaction.”
Malwathu Oya, has been mentioned by colonials over 400 years ago. Robert Knox, escaped capture by the King of Kandy through the jungle covering the ancient Anudhapura kingdom, says:
“…..we came up with a small River, which ran thro the Woods, called by the Chingulayes Malwat oyah: the which we viewed well, and judged it might be a probable guide to carry us down to the Sea…”
Sir James Emerson Tennent who was the Colonial Secretary of Ceylon (circa 1848) mentioned in his writings:
“From Anarajapoora, I returned to the west coast, following the line of the Malwatte-oya, the ancient Kadamba, which flows into the Gulf of Manaar, north of Aripo.”
What is Tennent’s reference to the Kadamba? Could the connection take us back to Vijaya? Remember, Malwathu Oya was the river along the banks of which Vijaya’s men accessed the interior and Anuradha built a city which in time became Anuradhapura and Upatissa travelled further North (Jaffna) and built Upatissa Nuwara! King Vijaya’s queen was the daughter of the Pandu king and came from Madura. And where was Madura?
“Maddur, (was) earlier known as Marudur…and also as Arjunapuri, as Arjuna, of the Pandavas…was also called ‘Kadamba Nadi Kshetra’ as Kadamba rishi supposedly worshipped the waters and performed penance here.”
So, (says the Mahavamsa), the Princess, herself came from “Kadambi nadi” (Madura) to reside on the bank of the “Kadamba nadi” in Lanka.
But how and when did “Kadamba nadi” become Malwathu oya? Was Kadamba Nadi just a name of endearment for a beautiful and nourishing river, preferred by those who loved her and revered her? I have no answer to this question yet.
Ramanie de Zoysa
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