WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


The ports of ancient Sri Lanka:

Jambukola and Mahatittha

by Rohan Jayatilleke

The ports of ancient Sri Lanka played an important role both in the foreign trade of the island as well as in the inter-oceanic commerce between East and West.

The situation of the Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean and to the extreme southern tip of the India Peninsula, resulted in Sri Lanka being in a strategic position of the sea routes linking countries on either side of the Indian Ocean. Of necessity, the fleets of Chinese vessels transporting silks and ceramicware for sale to the countries on the East African coast. Arabian vessels carrying the spices of the East to European markets had to touch at Sri Lanka ports, half-way in their sea routes for fresh water and re-victualling.

The Pali chronicles and the Sinhala literature as well as inscriptions found scattered in the island provide a wealth of information to garner the antiquity of navigational importance of Sri Lanka ports.

Jambukola and Mahatittha are two ports frequently alluded to in the Mahavamsa unfolding the earliest historical eras of the Island. Presumably the origin of these ports are not datable, however, it could be assumed without any predilection, that they were in existence long before the colonization of the Island by Aryans in the sixth century BC, by Prince Vijaya and his ministers and the retinues. The pre-Buddhistic Jataka stories refer to many voyages by North Indian merchants to Sri Lanka, but none of them refer by name to their ports of call in the Island. The Valah Assa jataka story No. 196 (Jatakas Vol. 11, translated by W. H. D. Rouse) refer to merchants calling at Sri Lankan ports for trade and also inhabitants amassing treasures by salvaging ship wrecks. In the Mahaniddesa Sri Lanka referred to as Thambapannidesha is one of the countries with which India traders had trade relations with. (Mahaniddesa, Pali Text Society Edition p. 154 - 155).

Jambukola now identified as Sambalthurai, in Kankesanthurai (Jaffna Peninsula) served as the port to North India especially to Tamralipti in Bengal, which in turn was the transit port to Sri Lanka. In pre-Christian era Jambukola was exclusively the port of communication with Bengal, by which Sri Lanka had close connection with Bengal and also the port of entry to Aryans from North - East India. It was through this port the envoys of King Devanampiyatissa in the third century B.C. set out to the Court of Emperor Asoka of India.

This was the port through which the sapling of the Sacred Bodhi tree of Buddha Gaya was brought by Theri Sangamitta to Sri Lanka during the same period. Consequently the Jambukola Vihara was built there by King Devanampiyatissa to commemorate this event. Among the lesser ports mentioned in the Mahavamsa are Uratota (modern Kayts), Uruvela on the western coast (referred to as Magana also) Gokanna (Trincomalee) Pallavanka (the port through which King Parakramabahu launched an invasion of Burma in the 12th century) and Godavaya or Godapavata or Golugama in the Rohana at the estuary of Valave river. The first to be mentioned by name in the Mahavamsa, was the port through which Vijaya's second queen and wives for his followers reached Sri Lanka. However, Henry Parker, who was attached to the Irrigation Department from 1873 to 1904, asserts in his work 'Ancient Ceylon' that Panduvasdeva and the princesses in question landed at Gonagama of Ruhuna, now identified as Godapavata. This is a matter that now should be investigated into by the Southern Cultural Authority.

The writer in his investigative career in the public service observed the site of Mahatittha port in Mannar in 1986, a vast mound of piled ruins extending over 300 acres and a road excavated during British times measuring 40 feet in width, leading to Anuradhapura. The ruins of roman pottery, coins and articles of foreign origins, found here are listed in C. Rasanayagam's 'Ancient Jaffna. In the 'Sangam' literature of the Tamils to Mahatittha is referred to as a great port. Without an exception all invading armies from South India landed at this port, attesting the concentration of Tamils in this particular area. The Muslim population of this area would have been Tamils earlier, becoming converts of Islam later which is proved by the fact that Tamil is the mother tongue of Muslims of Sri Lanka and Arabic only being their scriptural language.

It was at Mahatittha that the Sacred Tooth Relic was landed from Kalinga by the royal couple (Danta and Hemamali). There was during this time a Hindu temple at Mahatittha which changed the name of Raja-raja-puram, in view of the Hindu kovil named Rajaraja Isvarattu Mahadeva. A Chola inscription mentions still another Hindu temple named Tiruviramisvaram Udaiyar at this port. Mahatittha was held in venerating by the Sinhala Buddhists and it was considered a grave crime to slaughter cattle here. Mahatittha too was a centre of internal trade and the Sinhala literary work Saddhammalankaraya refers to a trader of this port proceeding to the interior of the Island for trading.

In the light of all these reference one could conclude that Mahatittha was the chief port of Raja-rata up to the end of he 12th century. The finds of different types of pottery from Rome Arabia and China attest the fact that Mahatittha was the important port referred to by Cosmos (Archaeological Survey of Ceylon Annual Report, 1950, p.15). The Hindu humanist Sundaramurthi Nayanar of the sixth century mentions it as a port with many ships. The Hudud al alam written around 982 AD, states,

"There is a large city called Muvas; it is situated at the extremity which lies towards Hindustan. Whatever this island produces is carried to that city and therefore to the cities of the world". In the twelfth century King Parakrama Bahu I, organized a naval fleet at Mahatittha to invade the Pandyan Kingdom. (Culavamsa verse 85) King Nissanka Malla of Polonnaruwa in one of his inscriptions claims to have built an alms hall (Mahapali) at Mahatittha. This reference indicates that there were large monasteries in the area with Buddhist monks.

Mahatittha had lost its glory and importance by the 15th century and Kokila Sandesa written during the 15th century in the reign of King Parakramabahu VI giving a description of important places on the western coast of the Island, does not refer to Mahatittha.

The rise of Colombo as the chief port of Sri Lanka, was in sequel to the fall of Raja-rata and the shifting of the capital to Jayawardhanapura - Kotte, thus ending the glorious and wondrous past of Mahatittha that held sway then for fifteen centuries. It became history, which is not known to the students of the post-independence-born generation, as history is not a special subject taught in schools today.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka