Saturday Magazine
The malay factor in Sri Lankan history

by Norbert Perera

Recent archaeological excavations carried out at various locations across the country have revealed that this ‘resplendent island’ had been inhabited for well over 35,000 years. The recorded history however, dates back to about the 6th century before Christ.

Its unique geographical location, occupying a pivotal position in the Indian Ocean brought with it fortunes as well as misfortunes.

Accessible from the east as well as from ‘the west it became the target of countless foreign invasions from the adjacent Indian states as well as from countries as far away as the Sirivijaya empire and China, beyond that.

Relations with China were on a subdued note which lasted for several centuries. There was only one occasion when China showed agressive intentions by waging war against Sri Lanka in the early years of the 15th century. The relations with the Sirivijaya empire were more intense and enduring. The two factors that bound Sri Lanka and countries of the Sirivijaya Empire were religion and trade. In many ways both these areas were interlinked because it was the trading community which acted as the vehicle of Buddhism, which bound both these countries together. Being a non-aggressive religion it thrived when there was extensive and unhindered trade relations. Both the Theravada and the Mahayana schools of Buddhism expanded from Afganistan to China and from thence to Japan via the famed ‘Silk Route’. There was constant exchange of trade and diplomatic missions to the west through this land route. At the same time there existed maritime powers such as the Sirivijaya empire which exerted a lasting impression on the countries surrounding it. Just as the earliest Aryan settlements emerged as a result of enterprising sea-farers, the chain continued sporadically for many centuries contributing to the island’s rich and colourful history.

The common link which bound the Srivijaya empire and Sri Lanka was Buddhism which lasted from about the 7th century to the 11th century. During this period Sri Lanka was considered the repository of Theravada Buddhism. There is reason to believe that Mahayana also thrived from the Anuradhapura period.

The Sirivijaya empire covered a vast area including Java, Sumathra, Indonesia, Malaya, Siam and perhaps the Philippines. The capital had been Palembang in South Sumathra. It is believed that it was in fact an extension of certain Indian states. Apart from Buddhism, Hinduism was also extensively practiced. At a certain point of time a Chinese traveller records that Sri Lanka was under the Sirivijaya empire. It was after the 11th century that the Buddhist Sirivijaya empire was replaced by the Muslims. It would be interesting to trace the relationship that existed between the Sirivijaya empire and Sri Lanka.

The alliance with this empire was prompted by external as well from internal factors. Constant invasions from the neighbouring Indian states would have compelled the Sri Lankan counterparts to forge links with powerful countries. It was also a diplomatic move to forge connections with Sirivijaya royal families. The common ties of Buddhism and trade would have made things easier.

During the reign of Mogallana II the chronicles record of definite developments taking place. A king of the Kalinga dynasty of the Sirivijaya empire, fled to Sri Lanka with his wife and a minister owing to warfare in his country. Later all three were ordained and were allocated separate temples. Then during the reign of Sena I a massive Pandyan army had landed in the north. They were supported by the Tamil populace in the North. Sena I who knew the might of the Pandyan invaders had taken flight to Trincomalee with his family with the intention of fleeing to the Sirivijaya empire. This proves that there had been some sort of cordial relations with the empire. The fact that the Pandyan prince had sent peace missions to Sena I proves that he did not want to antoganize a strong empire. Next we hear of Mahinda VI who succeeded Sena IV in 956 AD. It is recorded that his first queen was again of the Kalinga dynasty. The Chulavamsa records that the ruler founded the House of the "Sinhalas". This sort of matrimonial alliances with more powerful kingdoms in the vicinity and elsewhere was advantageous in more ways than one. In one way it was recognition by the more powerful partner. It also served as a defence strategy facilitated by the common bonds of religion. Chola supremacy had been established by this time. The only way they could be kept at bay was by forging a close alliance with a sea power, the Sirivijaya empire.

The marriage of Mahinda IV to a princess of the Sirivijaya empire would have been consummated with this end in view. His son Sena V also known as Salamewan was the son of a Kalinga princess. By 982 AD - the ground situation was again changing. The Anuradhapura kingdom was slowly disintegrating due to internal dissension and threats from Indian kingdoms. It is reported that Malay mercenaries in the army had surrounded the palace demanding "pay". This means that the Malay mercenaries had been sufficiently large numbers and had weilded enough power to threaten the throne.

The policy of Mahinda IV bore fruit a century later during the reign of Vijayabahu. The Cholas had by this time invaded the country forcing Vijayabahu to retreat to the south. He had established trade relations with Burma and the Malay kingdom of Sirivijaya through the southern and eastern sea ports. Vijayabahu’s maritime activities would have been protected by the powerful Sirivijaya empire. The alliance also kept the Cholas in check. The alliance was further strengthened by the king’s marriage to princess Thilokasundari of the Kalinga dynasty. She became his second queen. This would have ensured immunity from further attacks by the Cholas. Vickremabahu who followed his father was the son of the Kalinga queen. We hear of the Malay factor again during the reign of Parakramabahu I which lasted for about 50 years. His army was systematically trained and consisted mainly of Velaikkara and Malay mercenaries which constituted the elite bodyguard of the king. They were highly trained in all aspects of warfare including night fighting and breaking into fortifications. This means that implicit trust was placed on them.

The fifty year period from 1184-1235 AD is described as the ‘period of Kalinga kings’ the immediate successors to Parakramabahu I. Kalinga is equated with the description of Malayaru and Malayura. For the first time the Chulavamsa describes the soldiers attached to the army as "Javakas". Sinhala literature discribe them as Malala. This name is used as a prefix as well as a suffix to most present day Sinhala names.

According to the chronicles the Malays being connected to the royal family becomes more evident during the Polonnaruwa period. Apart from the marriage of Vijayabahu I to a Kalinga princess, their son Vickremabahu II also married a Kalinga princess. Parakramabahu’s mother was also the daughter of Vijayabahu I by his Kalinga queen. Parakramabahu’s successor was his nephew Vijayabahu II and was slain by Mahinda who was of Kalinga origin. He was deposed by the legitimate heir to the throne, Nissankamalla. The suffix ‘malla’ ‘malala’ is perhaps used to identify the royalty with the royal house of Kalinga.

Nissankamalla reigned from 1187-1196. His chief queen Subadhra Mahadevi was of Kalinga descent. That the Malay factor had been gaining in strength is evident from an invasion launched by Nissankamalla on the Pandyan kingdom under a Malay general named Tavuru. Since Nissankamalla was the first fully fledged Kalinga king there was resentment within the Sinhala royal families. The fact that he was identified with a great sea power insulated him against foreign attacks. It is mentioned that his successor Virabahu was killed by the General Tavuru which means that he weilded sufficient power in the army probably backed by a sufficient number of Malay mercenaries. For a brief period queen Leelavati of Pandyan-Sinhalese origin ruled. Then we hear of Sahassamalla, a step brother of Nissankamalla restoring the Kalinga dynasty. He was born and bred in the Kalinga kingdom. Some emissaries had been despatched to the Kalinga kingdom to bring back Sahassamalla. The delegation is said to have been led by a Kalinga noble. Later, Nissankamalla’s second queen was elevated to the throne. She was also of pure Kalinga stock. It was around this time that several major Chola attacks were launched.

The turning point came in 1214 during the reign of Parakramapandu who had deposed queen Leelawathie. Kalinga Magha is supposed to have landed with a Malay force of 24,000 and dislodged Parakramapandu. However, Magha unleashed a reign of terror. The Theravada Buddhism which prevailed earlier had been replaced by other corrupt practices. Magha’s reign ended in 1255 in the reign of Parakramabahu II. In the 11th year of Parakramabahu, a "Javaka Buddhist" Chandrabanu launched a sea-borne attack on the southern ports. There is valuable historical evidence which indicate that Chandrabanu originated from a kingdom in the Malay peninsular which was already having close relations with Sri Lanka.

The fact that Chandrabanu’s invasion came at a time when another countryman was ruling Polonnaruwa is seemingly out of place. One reason would have been to divert the attention of Parakramabahu from attacking Magha. There could have been external reasons also. Chandrabanu’s country was under threat from kingdoms in the vicinity. Therefore, Chandrabanu would have wanted to establish himself here with the help of his own countrymen. It is said that although Magha was a Kalinga he had support of the Cholas. Once Chola power was vanquished by the Pandyas Magha’s fortunes also changed. Chandrabanu was subsequently by a combined attack launched by Vijayabahu and Vickremabahu. The "Javaka" kingdom existed in the north for seventy five years and acted as a threat to the other kingdoms in south.

It is noticed that around the latter part of the 13th century Parakramabahu who ruled from Dambadeniya being keen to establish relations with Arab powers. This indicates that by this time the Arabs had established themselves as a sea power.

A Sinhala inscription of 1360 refers to Arya Chakrawarthi who ruled the north as ‘Savulupathi’ and the territory which he ruled as "Javaka". Vijayabahu V is said to have belonged to the ‘Savulu’ dynasty. It also noteworthy that by this time the Muslims had established themselves in certain coastal areas of India.

The Dambadeniya kings had to seek the aid of Pandyan kings in an effort to keep the ‘Javakas’ at bay. However, with the Pandya power weakening the "Javalas" were able to keep the Sinhalese under their control even for a short time. By this time the Sirivijaya empire was slowly disintegrating and by the end of the 14th century the Muslims had gained power in the Strait of Maalcca. At the same time the Chinese were also knocking at our doors this time with aggressive intentions. One incident is worth mentioning. A Chinese Muslim admiral named Ch’ing Ho with a fleet of sixty four ships (Sampans) landed in Sri Lanka. The first incursion was repelled and during the second the Sinhala prince was taken prisoner. The fact that the Chinese were able to arrive unhindered through the Strait of Malacca indicates that the former empire had ceased to be a force any more. In fact the 13th century marks the disintegration of not only the Sirivijaya empire but also of the Sailendra, the Pagan kingdom of Burma, the Cholas in South India as well as the Tang dynasty of China. The final blow on the Sirivijaya empire came with the Chola invasion.

In 1403 the Muslims had founded the port of Malacca. A century later the Portuguese maritime power had dislodged them. In 1641 The Portuguese were defeated by the Dutch. It is at this point of time that the Malay factor re-emerges but under different circumstances. This is the second phase of the story. B. D. K. Saldin in his book ‘The Sri Lankan Malays and Their Language’ mentions that that the Dutch brought Malays to Sri Lanka by force. They were the dissident rulers, princes and chieftains who were considered a threat to the interests of the Dutch East India Company. Saldin points out that the first batch of ‘exiles’ had arrived in the country in 1708. They came from several countries, Java, Sumathra, Indonesia Mollucus.

Once the British India Company took over from the Dutch the Malay ‘exiles’ became a bone of contention. Although they were to be repatriated to their mother countries most of them chose to remain in Sri Lanka. Saldin mentions that four Malay regiments were formed by the British the first being in 1802 followed by 1803, 1805 and finally in 1811.

Today, there is a tendency to categorize the "Malays" under the definition of Muslim. The Malay language however, belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian language family written in either the Roman script or the Arabic script. They have a distinct cultural identity.

The Malay community although microscopic in number today, have contributed to our rich and colourful heritage for several centuries. Be it politics, trade and finance, education, the sciences, they have made an indelible impression. From Hambantota (sampan+tota) to Chavakachcheri from Ja-ela to Sammanthurai (Sampan+thurai) Java lane to Ja kaduwa (Mawathagama) and from the hairy Rambuttan to the spiky Durian, from Babath and Manipittu to the all time favourite Watalappan, to the spicy Malay Pickle and the tangy Sathe to Nasi Goreng the list is endless.

With the ‘globalization’ process taking place at a rapid pace just as everything else, the Malays are fast losing their identity. It won’t be long before the Watalappan and Nasi Goreng will be replaced by the insipid Burghers and Pizzas!