WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka


Ancient ports of call in Sri Lanka

by Rohan Jayetilleke

Sri Lanka being situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean and to the extreme south of the Indian Peninsula, Sri Lanka was the only favourite port of call for revictualling and water for the mariners sea-borne from West to east and Vice-versa. The fleets of Chinese junks carrying silk and ceramic ware to trading stations on the East African coast, and the Arabian Vessels transporting spices of the East Indies to European markets had to call at the ports of Sri Lanka necessarily as a half way port in the long and arduous sea travel in sailing vessels.

Although the foreign traders who lay anchor at these Sri Lanka ports hardly recorded these ports, there is a wealth of references in Pali chronicles and Sinhala literature and additionally inscriptions enable us to piece together the international recognition of these ports during these early times.

Jambukola and Mahatittha are two ports mentioned frequently in the Mahavamsa, in its resume of the history of the island. However 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 aryan colonization of the island, which points to the fact Aryans were only one race of people to arrive in Sri Lanka and they were never the founding fathers of Sri Lanka, as Sri Lankan's history is datable beyond the Aryan immigrants., from India. Thus Sri Lankans are not totally of Indian descendants and Aryan immigrants only provided a cross-cultural impact on Sri Lanka, which already had an advanced civilization.

The Jataka stories which are pre-Buddhistic and later the figure of the Buddha was introduced to them to make them Buddhistic, contain a number of references of voyages by North Indian merchants to Sri Lanka. The account in the Valahass Jataka refer to one of the ports situated on the North Western coast of Sri Lanka.

Port of Jambukola

Jambukola, identified as the present day Kankesanturai, served as the port to North India, more especially to the port of Tamralpiti in Bengal, which was also a port from where Sri Lanka could be reached. It was from Jambukola that the envoys of King Devanampiyatissa set sail the Court of Emperor Asoka of India. (Mahavamsa ch. 19. v23). Jambukola and Anuradhapura were connected by a highway and King Devanampiyatissa had the road prepared ( I bid ch 19 v 25) After the reign of King Devanampiyatissa, Jambukola diminished in importance and Mannar (Mahatitthe) which was only distance-wise to Anuradhapura, was half of it came into prominence. However, references are made in Mahavamsa to Jambukola as the port for religious intercourse from time to time. The Sacred sapling of Sri Maha Bodhia of Gaya (India) arrived in the charge of Theri Sanghamitta through Jambukola, and King Devanampiyatissa marked this event by building the Jambukola Vihara on the banks of this port (Ed.W.Stede; Sumangalavilasini. Part 1., PTS. Edition p.695).

Port of Mahatittha

Mahatittha port, in present day Mannar area, is first mentioned in connection with the landing of Vijaya's second wife and undoubtedly this port was known to mariners and merchants of India even in the pre-Aryan era. The existence of the Hindu shrine Tiruketisvaram, is a clear indication that Indian Hindus did carry on trade connections with Sri Lanka through this port and the existence of pearl fisheries too contributed it to become a port of great commercial activity both for the natives and the foreigners.

Today Mahatittha is a buried city. In the pre 1980 period when travel to Mannar or for public servants from the south to work in the government establishments there were a possibility, the site of the port was a vast mound of piled up ruins, spread over nearly 300 acres and coins and beads laid bear after a shower. One of its main roads excavated many decades ago was almost 40 feet wide. (Archaeological Survey of Ceylon Annual Report, 1907, p 28. It is a pit during the colonial era excavations were done and these surveys have not been continued in the post independence period of Sri Lanka and any recommencement of surveys and excavations are now thwarted by the war situation of the area.

The fragments of Roman pottery, coins and other artifacts suggest conclusively that Mahatittha was a great port in the early centuries of the Christian era. In the Sangam Literature of the Tamils there are refereneses to this port as one of the greatest of the sea board of Sri Lanka and India. (C. Rasanayagam, Ancient Jaffna, p.14ff) It was through Mahatittha that all South Indian invaders invaded Sri Lanka, and the large community of Tamil traders in business at Mahatittha helped them in their military pursuits.

Mahatittha 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, it was landed at this port. The Pali work Dathavamsa fails to call this port as Mahatittha, but refers it to as Lankapattana (Dhatavamsa, Edited by Widurajothi Thero, Kalutara 1939,0.37). Interestingly the 12th century work Daladavamsa describes this port in most disparaging languages, probably of the fact it was a stronghold of the Tamil invaders and the gateway to Sri Lanka for overrunning Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms and also the presence of the Hindu temple therein.

The origin of Tiruketisvaram temple is shrouded in the mists of history, there was still another Hindu temple Rararaja Isarattu Mahadeva named after the Chola conqueror of Sri Lanka of the 11th century AD. (Annual Report on the Epigraphy, South India, No. 616 of 1912) The predominance of Hindu culture, which could be traced to the reign of King Pandukhabaya. The name of Mahatittha was later changed by the Hindu community living there as Rajs-raja-puram (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 Sinhala 'Mayiyokka Handiya' (Maniock Junction, renamed by some of the early Sinhala settlers who went as indentured labour, 500 in number to work in sugar cane fields of then Australia, from the port of Galle in 1882.

A Chola inscription refers to still another temple called Tiruviramisvaram Udaiyar at this port. (Ibid., No.618) Mahatittha was held in veneration both by the Sinhalese and Tamils and slaughter of cattle there was disallowed as a unpardonable crime. (E.Z.Vol III, p.133) the reference in the Saddharmalankaraya of a trader of this port proceeding inland for trading, indicates that there was free and fair access to all communities to this port as well as for other parts of the island on trade and commerce missions. (Ed. Gnanavimala: Saddhammalankaraya, Colombo, 1948. p.675).

King Parakramabahu in the 12th century assembled an armada of battle ships at Mahatittha to invade Pandya Kingdom.

WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka