Saturday Magazine

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?