WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Ancient ports of Sri Lanka :

Mathoddam (Mannar), Urkavalthurai (Kayts) & Tiruconamalai

(by Professor Pon Sakthivel)

Mathoddam Port in present day Mannar, is first mentioned in connection with the landing of Vijaya’s second wife. Undoubtedly this port was known to mariners and merchants of India even in the pre-Aryan era.

Sri Lanka is situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean and to the south of the Indian peninsula. Sri Lanka was the only favourite port of call for re-victualling and water for the mariner sea borne from west to east and vice versa. The fleets of Chinese ships carrying silk and ceramic ware to trading stations on the East African coast and the Arabian vessels transporting species of the East Indias to European markets had to call at the ports of Sri Lanka as they were half way in the long and arduous travel of sailing vessels.

Jambukola Pattanam in Jaffna at Sambilthurai and Mathoddam are two ports mentioned frequently in The Mahavamsa, in its resume of the country's history. It is not possible to be certain as to when these ports became operational but it could be assumed without fear of contradiction that these ports were in existence even during the time of colonisation by Aryan-language speakers of the island, which points to the fact that Aryans were only one race of people to arrive in Sri Lanka.

Thus Sri Lankans are not totally of Indian descendant and Aryan immigrants only provided a cross-cultural impact on Sri Lanka, which already had an advanced civilisation.

The Jataka stories are pre-Buddhist and only later the figure of the Buddha was introduced into them. The stories contain a number of references to voyages by North Indian merchants to Sri Lanka. The Valahassa Jataka refers to one of the ports on the north western coast of Sri Lanka.

Then port of Jambukola Pattanam, identified as the present Sambilthurai served as the port to North India, more especially to the port of Tamrapiti in Bengal, which was also a port from where Sri Lanka could be reached.

It was from Jambukola Pattanam that the envoys of King Devanampiyatissa set sail to the court of Emperor Asoka of India (The Mahavamsa CH 19 V23). Jambukolam and Anuradhapura were connected by a highway and Devanampiyatissa had the road prepared (Ibid, V25) after the reign of King Devanampiyatissa Jambukolam diminished in importance and Mathoddam which was closer to Anuradhapura came into prominence. However references are made in The Mahavamsa to Jambukola Pattanam as a port of religious importance from time to time. The sacred sapling of Sri Maha Bodhiya of Gaya arrived in the charge of Therai Sangamithai through Jambukolam.

Port of Mathoddam

Mathoddam Port in present day Mannar, is first mentioned in connection with the landing of Vijaya’s second wife. Undoubtedly this port was known to mariners and merchants of India even in the pre-Aryan era.

The existence of the Hindu Shrine Thivakethiswaram, is a clear indication that Indian Hindus did carry on trade connections with Sri Lanka through this port and existence of pearl fisheries too contributed towards it becoming a port of great commercial activity, for both the natives and the foreigners. Today Mathoddam is buried under the sand and in the pre-1980 period when public servants from the south travelled to work in the government establishments in Mannar there was a possibility that the site of the port was a vast mound of piled ruins, spread over 300 acres with coins and beads strewn over sand. One of the main roads leading to the port excavated many decades ago was almost 40 feet wide (Archaeological Survey of Ceylon annual report 1907-P-28). It is a pity that none of the excavations and surveys done during the colonial era have been continued in post-independent Sri Lanka. Now the unstable conditions in the areas have effctively stopped any excavation from being carried out.

The fragments of Roman pottery, coins and other artefacts suggest conclusively that Mathoddam was great port in the early centuries of the Christian era. In the Sangam literature of Tamils there are references to this port as one of the greatest in the sea board of Sri Lankan and India. (C. Rasanayagam - Ancient Jaffna P. 14FF) It was through Mathoddam that many South Indian invaders were able to invad Sri Lanka. Furthermore the large community of Tamil traders in business at Mathoddam helped them in their military pursuits.

Mathoddam was not confined for intercourse with South India alone. There are authentic records of voyages from North India too. The Sacred Tooth Relic that was brought by the Kalinga Prince Danta and Princess Hemamali to Sri Lanka in the fourth century AD was through this port.

The Pali work Dathuvamsa fails to call this port Mathoddam. But refers it to as Lankapattana (Dhatuvamsa, edited by Widurajothi Thera, Kalutara 1939) interestingly the 12th century work Daladavamsa describes this port in most disparaging language, probably due to the fact that it was a stronghold of the Chola king and the gateway to Sri Lanka for overrunning the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms.

The origin of Thirukethiswaram temple is shrouded in the mists of history, there was still another Hindu temple "Rararaja Isawara" Mahadeva named after the Chola conqueror of Sri Lanka of the 11th century AD. (Annual Report on Epigraphy, South India No. 616 of 1912) The predominance of Hindu culture, could be traced to the reign of King Pandukhabaya. The name of Mathoddam was later changed by the Hindu community living there as Rajsraiapuram (Annual report on Epigraphy, South India No. 616 of 1912) This is not an uncommon happening as there is a place outside of Melbourne, Australia called in Sinhalese ‘Mayyokka Handiya’ (manioc junction, renamed by some of the early Sinhala settlers who went as indentured labour; 500 in number to work in sugar cane fields of Australia from the port of Galle in 1882) A Chola inscription refers to still another temple called Terdvimasivanam Udayar at the port (No. 618) Mathottan and was held in veneration both by the Sinhalese and Tamils. Slaughter of cattle there was disallowed as an unpardonable crime (E.Z. Vol. 111 P 113) and the reference in the Saddhamalankaraya of a trader of this post proceeding inland for trading indicates that there was free and fair access for all communities to this port as well as to other parts of the island on trade and commerce missions (Ed. Gnanawimala Saddhamma-lankaraya, Colombo 1948 P - 675).

King Parakramabahu in the 12th century assembled an armada of battle ships at Mathoddam to invade Paniya Kingdom (Culavamsa PTS editions 2 vols of 78V85) and King Nissankamalla in one of his many inscriptions is reported to have built an alms hall at Mathoddam.

This shows the importance of Mathoddam despite the capital being transferred from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa in the 12th century.

Sasadavata and Kokila Santhesaya of a later period refer to Mathoddam as an important port along the western sea board of the island.

This port which was in ascendency for fifteen centuries lost its importance with the fall of the Rajarata and the gradual shift of the capital to Kotte.

Port of Urkavalthurai

Modern Kayts, then known as Urkavalthurai in the Jaffna peninsula is of importance and is referred to in the story and verses of the ritual Kohombakankariya. This port being a port of call of foreign merchants, is mentioned in an inscription found at Nainethivu (Ancient Jaffna p 208)

The Pujavaliya also mentions this port as one fortified by Megha, the Kalinga invader of the 12th century who ransacked the country most ruthlessly (Pujavaliya p. 739). Uruvela on the western coast is another port mentioned in The Mahavamsa (ch 28, v. 36) this reference is connected with pearl diving, and should have been in the vicinity of present day Arippu in Mannar.

Port of Trincomalee (Tiruconamalai)

Trincomalee is another port mentioned in The Mahavamsa. The chronicle records that Panduvasudeva landed at the mouth of the Mahakandara river.

Later in the same chapter it is mentioned that Badhahakacayana landed at Trincomalee. The name Trincomalee consists of three different words. "Thiru" and "Malai" in Tamil means "holy hill" respectively and "Kona" is none other than a corrupted form of gona, kona in Tamil. The Veya Purana refers to Trincomalee.

Like Mathoddam, Trincomalee too had a Hindu cultural set up. King Mahasena built a Buddhist Vihara after demolishing a Hindu temple (The Mahavamsa ch 37,v.41) The Culavamsa also refers to this port.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka