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Economy and politics of ancient Rajarata

(by R. W.)

The evolution of the island’s economy commenced with migration to Sri Lanka from the Indian subcontinent, which according to former Commissioner of Archaeology Dr. Siran Deraniyagala occurred from around 1000 BC. According to him, migrants arrived attracted by water and prime agricultural land.

How did the economic and commercial development thus begin, impact on the island’s political affairs in the first millenium BC? And how did the economy, cause Rajarata to emerge as the most powerful kingdom with all roads leading to Anuradhapura?

The ancient chronicles focussed its attention on political affairs and the development of Buddhism and any reference to economy were recorded only in a political context. The state of economy as it existed can therefore be analysed by interpreting these references as well as from other available evidence.

There may have been isolated groups of early settlers and they may have had their own regional leaders and their own system of administration as Kuveni’s episode suggests. The monarchical system of administration however was enforced by Vijaya after which we see a distinct pattern of management of the island’s economy.

The location of the island’s early capital cities had always been in close proximity to rivers. The Mahavamsa declares Thammannawa as the island’s first capital and is speculated to have been located by the Malvatu river in the northwest. It is believed that the second capital, Upatissa Nagaraya was located near the mouth of Malvatu river, south of Thammannawa while the third capital city, Panduvasnuwara may have been located mid way of the Malvatu oya. The next capital, Anuradhapura was situated further up on the banks of the Malvatu oya.

However, long before the monarchs set up capital cities, the Stone-Age-Man, 37,000 years ago and his descendants 8000 years later, chose Sabaragamuwa to set up home. But perhaps taking stock of excessive rain and the rough terrain of the wet zone, they moved to the dry zone. And with the flood-gates opened around 1000-900 BC, archaeologists speculate that the northwest got crowded, while the wet zone remained underpopulated.

The pattern of settlements in pre-historic times clearly reveals that our earliest ancestors depended on rain-fed agriculture. They chose to settle down near rivers when they realised that agriculture, their main occupation was not possible during the dry season.

With the demand for more water, the need was realised to store water to be used for agriculture in the dry months. At the beginning, they used ponds and dug wells and later, village tanks were built by regional leaders for small-scale irrigation. The Mahavamsa mentions of a tank built by Vijaya’s minister Anuradha, near the Kadamba river. The drainage from the eastern high ground going waste, was tapped. Villages sprang up around these tanks as shown by names of early villages mentioned in the Mahavamsa such as Sumanavaapigaama, Handavivaapi-gaama and Pelivaapikagaama — vaapi meaning tank.


The evolution of the ancient irrigation system began thus giving way to the birth of a civilisation. The pioneer Hydraulic Engineer, King Pandukabhaya (474-407BC) who may have taken up the cue from small tank-builders, built the first massive tank — Abhaya, as early as the 5th Century BC on the right bank of the Malvatu oya. Devanampiyatissa (307-267BC) built the second tank, Tisawewa, further up, on the right bank of the Malvatu oya in Anuradhapura—which reflects the increased demand that arose for more water from a fast growing population around Anuradhapura.

Early farmers had to pay for water to the private tank-owners paving way for a revenue-system. Once the king became the tank-builder, he imposed taxes for using water and these taxes emerged as the chief source of income of the state. Taxes were initially paid with the produce of the land or with labour but the necessity for the use of currency may have arisen once the foreign traders appeared on the Sri Lankan radar screen.

The vast strides that agriculture made, led the population to boom according to the Mahavamsa. Vijaya’s ministers set up eight janapada (colonies) which when expanded became villages and several villages together graduated into cities and gave rise to an urban culture. According to Dr. Deraniyagala, this phenomenon took place in Anuradhapura parallel to that of the Ganges Valley in North India. Excavations in Anuradhapura showed that Anuradhapura was a city hundred acres in extent by 700-600BC. People cultivated the land, there was use of iron and there was advanced pottery. People were breeding horses and had domestic cattle. This was long before history identified Anuradhapura as the capital city!

With the increase in population, people’s needs expanded. Paddy cultivation involved work only during certain seasons of the year. Therefore, people may have tried their hands at industries when time hung on their hands.

 Birth of industries

Records reveal that from very early history, people engaged themselves in industries involving gems and pearls, bronze, carpentry, textiles, weaving and handloom, sculpture, murals and terracotta. Products thus turned out had to be sold through traders and the next link of the economic development chain was the establishment of trade. When trade developed, the standard of products may have advanced. There is ample historical evidence to suggest that from a very early period in history, foreign traders were visiting Sri Lanka and people had crossed the sea to trade goods.

The Valaahassa Jatakaya says the women of the indigenous Lankans known as yakshas were visiting the coast to meet foreign traders. Once when 500 traders were shipwrecked on Lankan shores, the woman yaksha leader took them to Sirisavaththupura as prisoners and married the leader of the trading group. Kuveni therefore apparently followed a tradition practiced by her ancestors.

The Pujavaliya and Mahavamsa mention the two merchants of Orissa, Tapassu and Bhalluka, who were visiting Sri Lanka on trading missions in the sixth century BC. The first lay disciples of the Buddha, they brought back His Hair Relics and them enshrined in a chetiya they built called "Girihanduseya" near Gonagamaka, now Trincomalee.

These merchants probably were trading with spices and gems, may have sailed from the Eastern coast of India and anchored their vessels in Gonagamaka. The Mahavamsa mentions a port called Uruvela connected with pearl banks, and used as a trading-port by Vijaya’s followers.

Foreign trade, according to Sri Lankan and foreign records had dealt only with exotic items—pearls, gems, ivory and ivory-products, spices, liquor, cotton textiles, elephants, tortoise, turtle and conch shells. The Mahavamsa mentions that Vijaya’s Minister Upatissa built a town on the banks of a river, named it after him, divided it into streets and set up a market place. This area was known as the podilihina sthanaya as products were brought for sale to this place.

Rasavahini mentions a wealthy trader of early history whose import and export trade took him overseas and it has also mentioned a trader by the name of Nandi who, while based in Mahatheertha, conducted trade.

Navigation in the Indian ocean it is believed, was launched in the Arab Sea and therefore, with these navigators exploring the Indian ocean, habitants of West India may have become well versed in seafaring. Chronicles mention that there was a direct trade-route between West India and Sri Lanka long before Vijaya’s arrival through which outsiders may have become aware of facilities available and attracted migrants to the island.

Three main sea lanes had been operating from very early history. The silk route had set off from the Mediterranean sea via Persia and Central Asia to China while the two spice routes had carried spices, mainly pepper from the Far East and the Indian Coast to Europe. These sea lanes that were in operation between the West and the Far East, had brought traders to the Indian Ocean who were exploring markets as early as the 7th and 6th centuries BC from Arabia, Rome and Greece. As sea-faring-trade was the order of the day, the island, geographically positioned at the crossroads of the sea routes, thus came to be served as a bustling central entreport with our markets ending up as excising emporiums of commercial merchandise!

Sri Lanka had besides proved to be a convenient stop-over with navigators of both worlds constantly criss-crossing via our ports-of-call. Old pieces of porcelain, coloured beads and remains of old ships had been found in some of these ports.


The port Jambukola or Dambakola Patuna, patuna meaning port, in the north (near Kankasanture) where King Devanampiyatissa received Theri Sanghamitta, had direct links with Thaamralipthi port in Bengal. King Devanampiyatissa’s first delegation to Emperor Dharmasoka set off from this port. The Mahavamsa and Samanthapaasasdika mention pilgrims coming from "Yonaka" country to Jambukola to worship the Jambukola Viharaya. This port gradually faded in importance while port Mahatheerththa, later known as Mahathiththa/ Mahathota/Mantota (now Mantai) located at the mouth of Malvatu oya developed as a key intersection of sea-routes.

The Pandyan king sent his daughter to Sri Lanka to wed Vijaya via the Mahatheertha port. Sena and Guththika arrived at this port for horse-trading and ended up as rulers. In early history the Mahavamsa calls the port Mahathiththapattanagaama—a port village. Later, the port is mentioned as Mahatheerthaya when it records of Elara’s nephew, Bhalluka’s arrival with an army of 60,000 in 161 BC.

Oysters found in plenty in the shallow seas off the northwest had further attracted overseas traders. Ancient navigators—the Phoenicians who sailed from the Red Sea had known of the existence of the priceless pearls in the shallow waters off Serendipity.

The Mahavamsa mentions Vijaya sending his father-in-law, the King of Madhurapura "a shell pearl worth twice a hundred thousand pieces of money." Devanampiyatissa sent priceless treasures to Emperor Dharmasoka that included eight kinds of pearls. The Greek writer of the fourth century BC Megasthenes, who was the first ambassador in India from Greece in the Maurayan court of Chandragupta notes that "Taprobane was more productive of gold and large pearls than those in India." To Arab traders, Sri Lanka was the fabled land of gems known as Serendib.

Megasthenes also reports of the export of elephants to India from Mahathiththa: "There were herds of elephants belonging to varied castes and they were stronger, bigger and more intelligent than those in India. Traders made boats with wood to transport elephants to the king of Kalinga." Tuskers may have however been in demand within the country. History mentions a rich trader, known by the name of his village, Dantakaara (meaning toothcraft) in Anuradhapura who got the villagers to turn out crafts exclusively with ivory, probably for export.

While we have had a surplus of elephants to be exported, horses, not being indigenous had to be imported. The horse was a mode of transport of the elite and were used for carriages and in warfare. The Mahavamsa mentions Sena and Guththika arriving from India for horse-trading while Rasavahini mentions Dutugemunu’s army general Velusumana having a "Saindhavi" horse, a breed of the Indus (Sindhu) Valley. Horses were also imported from Persia. The demand for horses was such that kings in very early history, exempted horse imports from taxes.

While trade routes from India, Persia and China had frequently converged in these ports of the northwest, trade with Rome had been direct with Sri Lanka supplying the Roman nobility spices, perfumes, silks, ivory and pearls. Consumption of luxury goods had been criticised in Rome at the time as a drain on Roman wealth but trading links had continued as Roman coins of the fifth century AD had been found in Mantai, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and around Godavaya port in the southern Sri Lanka known as Ruhunu Rata.

Incidentally, how did green-glazed pottery, believed to be Middle Eastern in origin find its way to be used in the ponds of Sigiriya which former Commissioner of Archaeology Dr. Raja de Silva says was a Mahayana Temple and a monastery meant only for the elite from the 3rd century BC? Would this suggest that ancient Lankans too resorted to the import of luxury merchandise?

Mahathiththa had turned into a bustling, cosmopolitan commercial hub by around the fifth century BC with foreign traders from both worlds converging to trade goods.

The hive of activity however, did not confine to the coastal areas. As Anuradhapura was easily accessible from Mahathiththa along the Malvatu river bank, evidence suggests that trade had expanded into the city of Anuradhapura. Coins of 400 BC of the Ganges valley had been found in Anuradhapura. And due to the expanding commercial network as well as the necessity to sustain those involved in trade, the Mahathiththa-Arippu-Anuradhapura triangle had turned into a highly commercialised and a densely populated area attracting navigators, migrants, craftsmen, industrialists, suppliers of goods, tax-collectors, security-personnel and administrators as well. This area had also served as a zone where trade-routes as well as information pertaining to trade secrets, weather and sailing patterns were exchanged when navigators and traders hung around while ships were being serviced in the ports or trade-deals were finalised.

Former Commissioner, Archaeology, Dr. Sirhan Deraniyagala says that in the Anuradhapura city, an area was demarcated for traders and Mahavamsa speaks of a trading-community living in an area allocated by King Elara outside the city. A "Damila" was the leader of this trading-community. Mention is also made of 4 main gates in the Anuradhapura city connected to the main roads - Mahatheertha on the Northwest direction, Jambukola on the north, Gonagamapatana (Trincomalee) on the east and the other towards Mahakandara port.

Mahavamsa relates of Suranimala, Dutugamunu’s giant-general arriving in Anuradhapura from Magama before Dutugamunu’s conquest of Rajarata to meet Kundala, the trader who had gone to Anuradhapura at the time to buy perfume. Even sophisticated merchandise therefore had been sold over the counter before 161 BC. Anuradhapura had thus been an urbanised, bustling commercial centre long before Dutugamunu conquered Rajarata.


With economy in full bloom by around 300-250 BC, taxes had formed an important component in the Anuradhapura administrative-structure. Early records reveal that kings of Anuradhapura posted customs-officers to the ports to collect taxes from foreign traders. Taxes were specified according to the tracing-product. Mention had been made of a specific tax charged for elephants when exported.

A rock inscription mentions of mawatu laddan which probably refers to those who were responsible for Mahathiththa Port or customs-officers posted at this port. Nayantivu inscription mentions of a tax imposed on navigators that allowed ships that needed repair, to enter the ports.

Both chronicles and rock inscriptions mention of a post called Bhandagaraka that existed in early Anuradhapura era. With a tax-system in operation, the need for a Bhandagaraya or a Treasury may have arisen to keep accounts. The person holding the post of Ganaka as mentioned in rock inscriptions, may have been responsible for the keeping of accounts of the Treasury. Mention is also made of Adeka probably Adhyakshaka (Director) and of Panara Adeka (Director of Finance in all probability) to manage the growing and diversifying economy.

And with the economy rolling, transport inevitably had become a vital sector that needed to be administered as we see from the following designations: Sivka Adeka — Authority or Director of Palanquins and other Vehicles, Athi Adeka - Authority on Elephants and Asa Adeka-Director/Horses.

The introduction of Buddhism in the third century BC caused the arts and crafts turned out by ancient artisans to gain further finess. Emperor Asoka sent 18 groups (castes) of people who indulged in 18 kinds of crafts from the subcontinent along with Theri Sanghamitta. The result was a fusion of traditions which set new aesthetic standards. This in turn may have impacted on the economy as exports confined to exquisite items.

And with Anuradhapura becoming a leading centre of Buddhism in Asia, the seaports also played a key role in the propagation of Buddhism. The Mahavihara in Anuradhapura, considered as the all-important centre of Buddhist Teaching enjoying University status was, according to ancient literature the venue of advanced discourses on Buddhism. This institution as well as Abhayagiri in the later years of the millennium BC, attracted many religious scholars, dignitaries and emissaries especially from the Indian subcontinent for scholastic dhamma studies while the pious arrived seeking spiritual attainment in the sacred city of Anuradhapura. Therefore, while Anuradhapura reached the peak in Buddhist activity in the first millennium BC, the two-fold economy of Rajarata, based on trade and agriculture, thrived on the other side of the scale.

Whereas, the economy of Ruhuna, was largely agriculture-based with trade playing a lesser role. An inscription in the South mentions of an Order given by Gotabhaya - the father of Kavantissa that taxes earned in the port - Godavaya should be used to upkeep the nearby Viharaya. During Gotabhaya’s reign in Magampura, goods had been imported and exported with taxes imposed on them but evidence of trade-activities in these ports had been evidently far less than in the ports of the northwestern coast. However, navigators of the silk and the spice routes probably stopped over at Godavaya port for want of servicing of their naval vessels when trading may have taken place.

Foreign Invasions

Therefore, while the high-profile economy and the religious significance of Anuradhapura made Rajarata the most prized kingdom that made rulers such as Dutugamunu and Valagamba restless until they conquered it, the thriving economy also beckoned migrants, invaders to the island. Throughout Sri Lanka’s ancient history, we find invaders from the states of Chola, Pandya, Madhura end Kalinga arriving in Sri Lanka to seize power, through the gateway in the Northwestern coast.

History however, does not record of such invasions when there was political stability under kings such as Pandukabhaya, Devanmpiyatissa, Dutugamunu and Bhatika Abhaya.

Although there had been a severe lapse of defensive measures taken at the entry points in the Northwestern coast, the favourite strategy adopted by many kings to prevent foreign invasions was to seek marriage with the Royal families of India.

Mahavamsa records the first political marriage in history as that of Vijaya who brought a Pandyan princess from Madhurapura to be his Queen. His Royal Court advised him to enter into marriage with royalty as this was a requirement for the royal abhisheka ceremony (coronation). The other reason may have been to befriend a possible invader or to receive assistance in case of invasion from another South Indian kingdom. Mahavamsa mentions of Vijaya sending costly gifts - shell pearls from the shallow seas off the Northwest to the Pandyan King. Was it to exhibit the riches of his kingdom and if he was not ruling a wealthy state, would the Pandyan king have sent his daughter to Sri Lanka?

Panduvasdev (504-474 BC), Vijaya’s nephew who succeeded him, too married an Indian princess, Bhaddakachchana of kshatriya caste. Six of her brothers followed the sister to Sri Lanka. Once again, is it pertinent to ask that if there was no economic prosperity, would the brothers have followed the sister? The kshatriya brothers who set foot in the Dambakola Patuna, set up their own independent kingdoms in the east contributing to the agricultural and cultural development of the area in pursuit of what was most likely a sound economy.

Pandukabhaya — pioneer engineer

The king who made the greatest impact on Sri Lankan economy in the first millennium BC however was Pandukabhaya (437-407 BC). The first indigenous king of Lanka, he was the first to wage a war and bring the country under one rule. Identified as the islandpioneer hydraulic engineer, he built the first massive tank - Abhayawewa launching a hydraulic civilisation that continued to enrich the economy for centuries. He thereafter imposed a systematic revenue system on the farmers who irrigated their land using water of this tank and imposed a tax on the traders.

Under an accelerated economy, Pandukabhaya deemed it necessary to set up three administrative divisions in the island to ease administration and divided the country into 3 divisions - Pihiti Ruhuna and Dhakshina (which later became Maya) using Mahaweli and Deduru rivers as its boundaries, a division that lasted through many centuries.

Dr. Deraniyagala reveals that Anuradhapura was a bustling commercial centre long before the reign of Pandukabhaya. Therefore, Pandukabhaya’s historically significant landmark decision to officially shift the Capital City from Panduvasnuwara to Anuradhapura, may not have seemed strange at the time.

Devanampiyatissa, following his ancestor’s footsteps, built the second giant tank - Tisawewa in Anuradhapura. His genius however, was as a strategist. To prevent invasions from the southern states of India, he befriended Emperor Asoka by sending emissaries with precious gifts and requesting him to send the necessary regalia for his abbisheka ceremony. There is no proof to say that this action of King Devanampiyatissa was to demonstrate his allegiance to the mighty Mauryan monarch. But it was certainly a ploy to strengthen his rule and to seek the Emperor’s assistance in case of any invasions from southern Indian states. The result was the introduction of Buddhism to Sri Lanka which changed the entire course of Sri Lanka’s history.

His brothers however who succeeded him, did not possess his strategic foresight. The reign of Suratissa (274-237 BC), came to en end when Chola adventurers - Sena and Guththika, the horse-traders, ended up as rulers for 22 years from 237-215 BC.

King Asela, Devanampiyatissa’s youngest brother, chased them away but barely ten years later, the Chola prince - Elara from the Pandyan state invaded and ruled Rajarata from 205-161 BC - for 44 years, which proves that the Sinhala kings did not realize that invasions had to be expected when economy flourished. These invasions affected the economy of Rajarata in the later years of the first millennium BC and ancient records also mention of an epidemic that occurred in the second century BC which led monks to leave Anuradhapura.

Mahavamsa describes these invaders as "Damila." The panellists of a popular tv show pointed out that at the time there was no "Damila" kingdom in India. Mahavamsa used the common name "Damila" to describe invaders and traitors but the word did not mean Tamil as it is meant today. Mahavamsa for example describes Dheeghagamini - a son of a lesser Queen of Kavantissa as a "Damila". Dheeghagamini was sent to guard a strategic point in the Mahaweli bank by Kavantissa but he decamped and joined Elara’s Army. In the inscriptions however, the word "Damila" had not been used to describe invaders or traitors.

Even during the reign of the much celebrated Dutugamunu, Elara’s nephew Bhalluka arrived from South India with an army to be however defeated by the highly motivated, Dutugamunu’ army. It should be noted that Dutugamunu’s war-march from Magama to Anuradhapura lasted 3 years and the attack on fort Vijithapura took 6 months. Therefore, Elara may have sensed the seriousness of the threat posed by Dutugamunu and made a request for assistance. Dutugamunu however was unaware of Bhalluka’s arrival until he arrived at his doorstep but annihilated Bhalluka’s army at Kolombahalaka where Bhalluka had set up camp. No other invader dared challenge Dutugamunu thereafter, whose reign was marked with political stability, a spectacular religious upliftment and economic prosperity.

Diplomatic mission

Yet, just 34 years after Dutugamunu’s reign, five South Indian invaders, lured by the prosperity, succeeded in capturing and reigning Rajarata for 14 years from 103-89 BC until King Valagamba recaptured it - an occurance that continued throughout the first millennium AD and finally forced Sinhala kings to shift the capital to Polonnaruwa.

The economy however drummed back and the high-point at the close of the first millennium BC in the Anuradhapura-administration was the reign of King Bhatika Abhaya (20 BC-09 AD). With the economy thriving during his reign he desired to penetrate further afield and making a bold decision, sent diplomatic missions across high seas to the mighty Roman Court and other regional kingdoms.

Roman historian Pliny had found the audience the four Lankan ambassadors had with Emperor Claudius and the information of the island as related by these emissaries as worthy of being recorded. Pliny had documented that the mission was sent to Rome with a navigator who had been stranded on Sri Lankan shores and had been granted permission to reside here with the status of a privileged person.

What one can however assume of this recorded mission is that King Bhatika Abhaya’s emissaries were probably expected to explore new markets and of other goods that were in demand in the outside world. With Romans already importing luxury goods, the delegation may have been commissioned especially to seek further items for which there was a demand in the Roman kingdom, as would a trade-delegation. Nevertheless, documentation of the visit by a historian of the most powerful nation at the time — Rome, serves as en enlightening piece of historical material of an illustrious era at a time when sound economy and political stability prevailed at the highest levels. (@The Island)

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