Post-classical history

Chapter Thirty-Eight


South of India

Between 1215 and 1283, Sri Lanka is divided between Hindu and Buddhist kings, and the Pandyas of the south bring an end to the Chola empire

IN 1215, the Hindu nobleman Magha fled south, along the eastern coast of India. The sultan of Delhi was bearing down on him from the north; so he left his lands in Orissa and, followed by his own private army, set out to find a new country.

Orissa, now ruled by a string of powerful Hindu kings descended from Chola royalty, was not a place where an ambitious soldier could establish his own power. Nor was the kingdom of Chola, directly south of it, shrunken from its twelfth-century height but still strong. Magha kept going south, crossing over the Palk Strait, and came to the shores of Sri Lanka.

Parakrama Bahu’s carefully constructed kingdom, well watered and prosperous, held together by the net of state-sponsored Buddhism, lay open to invasion. Three years earlier, a newcomer from the south of India had arrived and taken the throne for himself; a Buddhist newcomer who, although a foreign invader, ruled (in the words of the Culavamsa, the chronicle of kings written in Sri Lanka’s Pali language) “without transgressing.” But he could not raise enough support to fight back against Magha, who had swelled his private army to over twenty thousand by hiring south Indian mercenaries.

Magha stormed the north of the island with savagery. He wrecked Buddhist shrines, destroyed sacred writings, forced his captives to convert to Hinduism, confiscated the land that he overran, seized crops and livestock and treasure for his own. He was, in the words of the Buddhist Culavamsa, “a man who held to a false creed, whose heart rejoiced in bad statesmanship, who was a forest fire for the burning down of bushes in the forest of the good.” He captured the capital city of Polonnaruwa, burning parts of it, took the king captive and put his eyes out. He then established himself as king, using his standing army of thousands to keep power over the inhabitants.1

But he did not take the whole island.

“During this alien rule,” says the Culavamsa, “. . . virtuous people had founded [villages] on several of the most inaccessible mountains, and dwelling here and there protected the laity and the [Buddhist] Order so that they were at peace.” In the face of the foreign regime, the native Sri Lankans had retreated farther south into the mountains, where Magha’s mercenaries could not easily reach them. One of the refugees, a man who took the royal name Vijaya Bahu III, claimed descent from the great fourth-century king Sirisamghabodhi, a ruler revered for his moral excellence. It was a convenient lineage; Sirisamghabodhi had fought off rebels and had sacrificed himself for his people.2

Vijaya Bahu rallied together the scattered sanghas, the different Buddhist houses that had been dispersed throughout the safe places, and united the remaining Sri Lankans behind him. His center of operations was the mountain settlement of Dambadeniya; it became his capital. When he discovered that several monks had taken the Buddha’s Tooth* with them in their flight from Polonnaruwa, he ordered the sacred relic brought to him, and mounted a great festival celebrating his re-enthronement as Sri Lanka’s true king. His efforts created a boundary between his conquests and those of the Hindu invaders, dividing the island into two realms: the Buddhist kingdom of Dambadeniya, and the Hindu realm of Polonnaruwa.3

In 1236, when Vijaya Bahu III died, his son took the name of his great predecessor and ruled as Parakrama Bahu II. In his hands, the rebel kingdom of Dambadeniya became a settled place of learning, a refuge for Pali speakers and writers, a center for Sri Lankan Buddhism. Vijaya Bahu III had ordered all of his subjects who had “good memory” and who were “skilled in quick and fair writing” to record everything they could remember of the destroyed Buddhist scriptures, rebuilding a massive library; Parakrama Bahu II had immersed himself in it, earning a reputation for learning. Like the first Parakrama, he weeded out unworthy monks and “purified the Order of the perfectly Enlightened One.” The great religious festivals were resurrected, the rituals performed, temples and monasteries built. The Culavamsa spends chapter after chapter after chapter listing his perfections, his accomplishments, his virtues. Dambadeniya was rising to the heights of the old Polonnaruwa kingdom.4

In 1255, Magha died in Polonnaruwa. He had stayed on the throne for four decades, which suggests that his rule had moved beyond mere military domination; but the Buddhist chronicles have nothing but scorn and hatred for him and his Hindu regime, so that his accomplishments are hard to trace. Nor is it known whether he had an heir. But no one replaced him on the throne at Polonnaruwa, and the north separated into patches of private power, ruled by chieftains called vanniya.5

The northern lands thus were easy grounds for adventurers, who crossed over to Sri Lanka in increasing numbers, driving its native peoples farther and farther south.

One of these, Chandrabhanu, seems to have come from southeast Asia; he was, according to the Culavamsa, “a king of the Javakas,” who landed “with a terrible Javaka army under the treacherous pretext that they also were followers of the Buddha.” But most of the newcomers were from the south of India, where the Pandyan kingdom had managed to free itself from the overlordship of the Chola.6

Under the splendid Jatavarman Sundara, the renaissance of Pandyan power stretched from the central coastal city of Nellore, all the way down to the Indian Ocean. Now Jatavarman pushed the Pandyan kingdom into the north of the island as well. In 1263, he removed the “king of the Javakas,” Chandrabhanu, from his brand-new Sri Lankan throne and put the northern part of the island entirely under Pandyan domination. “Emperor of the three worlds,” Jatavarman’s inscriptions name him; his lands encompassed the north of the island, his own Pandyan realm, and had swallowed the west of the Chola as well.7


38.1 The Pandya Renaissance

The Chola, reduced to a strip of land around the capital city of Thanjavur, soon disappeared. After 1279, there are no more records of Chola kings; the Pandya had taken their place as lords of south India.

But neither the Pandyan kingdom nor their Tamil tongue completely claimed Sri Lanka. In the southern half of the island, both the Dambadeniya kingdom and the Pali language survived.

In 1283, an embassy from Dambadeniya arrived in Egypt, hoping to arrange a trade treaty with the sultan in Cairo. “They arrived at the port of Ormus,” says a contemporary Arabic account, “proceeding up the Euphrates to Baghdad, and thence to Cairo.”

A letter from the king was presented to the Sultan, enclosed in a golden box, enveloped in a stuff resembling the bark of a tree. The letter was also written in indigenous characters upon the bark of a tree. As no person in Cairo could read the writing, the ambassador explained its contents verbally, saying that his master possessed a prodigious quantity of pearls, for the fishery formed part of his dominions, also precious stones of all sorts, ships, elephants, muslins and other stuffs, bakam wood, cinnamon, and all the commodities of trade. . . .8

Parakrama Bahu’s successors still ruled in Dambadeniya; and from underneath the shadow of south India, they were reaching out to the rest of the world.


*See Chapter 16, p. 111.

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