Serendipity Revisited

by Asiff Hussein

Serendib, the name given to Sri Lanka by the Arabs of yore today survives in the English language in the form serendipity - the pleasure one derives from discovering something by chance.

Serendipity indeed it was when A Denis N Fernando stumbled upon two very important discoveries during the course of his duties in the Mahaweli area which would eventually revolutionise Sri Lankan historical research, namely, the fortress of Vijithapura, the first real metropolis of the Sinhalese, and the old course of the Mahaweli, whose copious waters fed the ancient Sinhalese hydraulic civilisation based in the Rajarata (The present day North - Central Province).

Fernando, a leading Development Planner and a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences has been involved in the Mahaweli programme for over three decades. After graduating with honours from the University of Ceylon, he had his training in the Survey and Irrigation Departments as well as the International Institute for Aerospace Surveys and Earth Sciences in the Netherlands.

Fernando's training in Aerospace survey techniques proved to be crucial, for with its immense capabilities in identifying archaeological sites not visible to the human eye on the surface, he was able to locate the old course of the Mahaweli river in 1965 and the ruins of Vijithapura in 1979, two finds that have shed new light on the ancient Rajarata civilisation which in its heyday, surpassed all Asia and Europe in hydro-technological attainments.

The civilisation lasted for about 1500 years and was initially centred in Anuradhapura. As a result of Dravidian invasions, the capital was later shifted to Polonnaruwa. Following the sudden collapse of this great civilisation then based in Polonnaruwa in the 13th century, the Sinhalese drifted towards the south-west with their rulers establishing capitals in major cities such as Dambadeniya, Yapahuva, Gampola and Kotte. The fall of the civilisation has been attributed to a number of factors such as Dravidian invasions and Malaria. Fernando, however, has a different explanation.


In 1965, Fernando, then Assistant Superintendent of Surveys (Resources Surveys) was assigned the task of revising certain topographical maps pertaining to the Mahaweli basin by employing air survey methods. The reconnaissance mission was in connection with the Mahaweli project with which he was intimately involved at the time. Says Fernando, recalling his tryst with serendipity, "while examining the aerial photos following our mission I happened to notice what appeared to be an old river course whose width was the same and in some places wider, than the present Mahaweli river. It also appeared to have had the same carrying capacity of the present river judging from its depth."

"What was more surprising to me was the fact that a number of old Buddhist temples (dagabas) including the famous Somavathie Chaitya lay beside what was obviously the old course of the Mahaweli while there were none beside the present river."

"This naturally led me to one conclusion," recalls Fernando, "and it was that these religious edifices had been built near the banks of the river which then followed a course quite different from the present one." He also points out that a rock inscription found near the Somavathie Chaitya and assigned to the period 100 B.C - 100 A.C, states that "the income derived from the ford are to be used for the upkeep of the vihara," which would indicate that the ford was in close proximity to the chaitya. As Fernando notes, "As evident in the aerial photograph, the chaitya is situated about 1.6 km away from the present course of the Mahaweli and it is unlikely that the ford was that far from the chaitya."

"On the other hand," he notes, "the chaitya is just beside the old river course indicating that the ford was not very far from it." From this he infers that the change of the river course at this point would have taken place subsequent to the construction of the chaitya and the carving of the inscription found in its environs, which would indicate that the event occured within the last 2000 years.

But what caused the river to abandon its old course and plough its way along the new course that we see today? Fernando believes the reason could lie in a geological cataclysm that would have depressed a vast area resulting in a sudden deflection of the river course.

In support of his thesis, he notes that in 1965 he had identified a fault running north-south from Trinco-malee to Manampitiya almost along the river valley.

Earlier geological studies had indicated a fault in other places in the vicinity.

From this, Fernando concludes that a massive earthquake hit the region someplace to the south of Trincomalee. He notes that although Sri Lanka is not outside the ambit of earthquake prone areas, earthquakes may occur once a millennium or so. A map showing the distribution of earthquake epicentres recorded recently in and around the environs of the island prepared by the National Earthquake Information Service of the United States does indicate the possibility of the country experiencing earthquakes.

Although Sri Lanka does not appear to have experienced earthquakes for the last five centuries or so, there is literary evidence to show that earthquakes were not uncommon in ancient times.

The Mahavansa, a chronicle of Sinhalese royalty written in the 5th century A.C. does allude to a major earthquake that occured in the time of King Kelanitissa (2nd century B.C.) when a large part of the western coastal area is said to have been submerged by the sea. As to when this disaster occured is another matter that has to be solved. Fernando believes it to have taken place during the early 13th century, the period generally assigned to the collapse of the Rajarata civilisation. In support of this view, he cites a number of clues from which we may adduce certain facts pertaining to this seemingly elusive date.

Firstly, he points out that cave inscriptions found in the vicinity of the Somavathie Chaitya indicate that the vihara (i.e. the monastery attached to the chaitya) was flourishing till about the early 8th century so that event would have occured after this date.

Secondly, a huge life-size rock carving of an elephant 'in situ' that once formed part of the sculpture belonging to the chaitya and which was subsequently submerged by the Mahaweli about 2.3 km from where the river changed its course is similar in many respects to Pallava art such as that of Mahabalipuram in South India, indicating that the event would have taken place sometime after the 7th - 9th centuries which is the era of classical Pallava sculpture.

The elephant carving near Muthugala about ten km north of Manampitiya is today on the left bank of the present river and is partially visible during the early part of the year when the Mahaweli waters subside. Fernando contends that the outcrop and its environs subsided as a result of the earthquake and that the waters of the river which changed course submerged the elephant.

Thirdly, King Parakrama-Bahu (12th century) is said to have restored the Kalinga and Gomathi channel systems which tradition assigns to King Dhatusena (5th century A.C.), and had such an earthquake occured prior to his reign, it would have totally destroyed the system and there would have been no means by which the king could have restored them. As such we have to look for a date subsequent to the reign of Parakrama-Bahu as the date of this great disaster.

Now, it is well known that the Rajarata civilisation, then centred in Polonnaruwa collapsed all of a sudden in the early 13th century. The inhabitants of the region gradually drifted south-west and settled in those areas, having forsaken a great hydraulic civilisation that had withstood the ravages of time and foreign invasions for well over a millennium. But what indeed caused the Sinhalese to vacate their ancestral lands? A number of scholars who have dealt with the question have come up with a number of answers. Large scale Dravidian invasions and Malaria have been cited as causative factors.

However, although Dravidian invasions from South India may have contributed to the downfall of the Rajarata civilisation it was certainly not the main cause as sizeable Dravidian invasions also figure in the island's history prior to this date, notes Fernando. Such vast scale desolation as seen in the 13th century apparently did not occur then.

Fernando believes he has the answer. He concludes, with good reason, that it was the geological cataclysm and the subsequent shift in the river course that led to the collapse of the ancient civilisation.

Not only did the change in the course of the river disrupt the ancient irrigation system with its intricate network of channels and reservoirs leading to mass scale famine but also contributed to the spread of diseases such as Malaria.

This was due to the fact that once the free movement of water had been stalled, it led to the breeding of Malaria mosquitoes in the stagnant water of the abandoned reservoirs and water courses. Thus not only was the food supply of the inhabitants affected, but also their health. Malaria and other water-borne diseases such as cholera would have considerably depopulated the area before the drift to the south. As such, it is not surprising that the ancient Sinhalese should have forsaken this dying land for greener pastures elsewhere. From all this Fernando infers that 'the cause' of the collapse of the ancient civilisation was the sudden change in the river course. The Dravidian invasions were merely incidental.


In 1979, a detailed aerial survey pertaining to the Mahaweli area for irrigation and land use purposes was undertaken under the direction of Fernando, then Director of Planning in the Mahaweli Ministry. While analysing the aerial photographs taken during the course of the survey, his eyes caught what appeared to be a distinct architectural feature in the shape of a large square surrounded by three consecutive dried-up moats yet visible in the aerial photos. The square was situated in the vicinity of the ancient ruined capital of Polonnaruwa.

It at once struck Fernando that this was indeed the ancient fortress of Vijithapura which the Mahavansa had often referred to. The Mahawansa, in dealing with King Dutthagamani's war against the Dravidian invaders (2nd century B.C.) alludes to Vijithanagara (nagara and pura are synonymous terms meaning 'city') having three moats. According to the Mahavansa, a number of settlements were built by the ancient Sinhalese following the establishment of the city of Tambapanni by the founding father of the Sinhalese nation, Prince Vijaya, about the 6th century B.C.

Vijaya's ministers founded a number of settlements. Anuradhagama near the Kadamba river (Malvatu Oya) was built by Anuradha while Upatissagama on the bank of the Gambhira river (probably a tributory of the Malvatu Oya) was built by Upatissa. Three other ministers also founded, each for himself, Ujjeni, Uruvela and Vijitha - Nagara. There can be little doubt that this Vijitha - Nagara was initially greater than Anuradhapura (as Anuradhagama was later known) in extent and population.

It was a city (nagara) when Anuradhapura was only a village (gama) Indeed, it appears to have been the first real metropolis of the Sinhalese. Anuradhapura would have risen to prominence only after the early Sinhalese monarchs beginning from Pandukabhaya (4th century B.C.) made it their capital.

It is also noteworthy that Claudius Ptolemy in his map of Taprobane (as Sri Lanka was known to the Greeks and Romans) C. 110 A.C. calls Anuradhapura Anurog-rammum Regia which would indicate that it had assumed the position of a Sinhalese capital at the time.

The location of Vijithapura in the vicinity of Polonnaruwa was evidently suspected long before Fernando's discovery.

The Chulavansa, the sequel to the Mahavansa calls Vijitha a suburb of Polonnaruwa. Henry Parker (Ancient Ceylon 1909) identified Vijithapura with a suburb of Polonnaruwa though he was unable to locate it. Fernando contends that although the Mahavansa refers to Vijitha Nagara as being founded by the early Indo-Aryan settlers from Bengal, it is probable that instead of establishing new cities, they had simply built upon the sacked towns of a race known to the chronicles as the Yakkhas, whom he identifies as a Persian tribe.

The Mahavansa relates that Prince Vijaya assumed sovereignty over Lanka after having subdued the Yakkhas. The chronicle locates them in the Mahaweli plain. These Yakkhas were evidently a civilised people and had two major cities, viz. Sirisavatthu and Lankapura.

Fernando is of the view that the Yakkhas of yore are none other than the Persians and cites cartographic evidence to prove his point. Ptolemy, the famous Greek cartographer names the Mahaweli river Phasis fluvius which Fernando believes to mean 'the river of the Phasis or Persians' indicating that the entire Mahaweli basin was the abode of Persian folk.

"Thus it is probable that the early Sinhalese settlers took over the existing towns, built upon them and gave them new names," concludes Fernando. As for Vijithapura, he conjectures that it may have been built upon an ancient Yakkha city, though more evidence is wanting on the subject. Excavations at the site would perhaps one day shed more light on the matter and reveal to us the secrets of this lost civilisation that has eluded us for so long.

@ WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka -