Midweek Review

Continuing Economics of politics in ancient Rajarata
A'pura - a commercial hub

Continued from Saturday Magazine of Feb. 22

by R. W.
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.