Three Women in Sinhala History
By P.L.N. de Silva
For me the greatest woman in Sri Lankan history is Vihara Maha Devi, daughter of king Kalanitissa and the mother of king Dutugamunu and also king Saddatissa.
It is strange that there is very little information in our historical records about Vihara Maha Devi. Though many of our present-day scholars have written books on Dona Katarina and Gagaman Nona, no one has written even a booklet on Vihara Maha Devi. Therefore it is difficult to give a full account of Devi.
Princess Devi the daughter of Kalanitissa must have been a fantastic child. There is no evidence at all about her birth, childhood or her education. Therefore it is a mystery as to how she got her courage and her patriotism. It is her love of the country that shines throughout her life. It is said the king Kalanitissa unjustly suspected a high priest and had him murdered in a cauldron of boiling oil and threw the dead priest in to the sea. This angered the sea gods and they flooded the land. The displeased people appealed to the king. The astrologers declared that the way to placate the sea-gods was to sacrifice the most beautiful virgin in the land. It was discovered that the most beautiful virgin was the kingâ€™s only daughter. Naturally the king was reluctant to sacrifice his daughter. However hearing this, Devi came forward and told the king, â€œfather I will sacrifice myself for my countryâ€. Therefore a golden colored boat was built with an inscription, â€œA Kingâ€™s Daughterâ€. Thereafter she was ceremonially sacrificed to the sea-gods. The winds were favorable to her. The boat went down south and landed in Hambanthota. The people reported this occurrence to the king, whose name was Kawantissa i.e. crow colored Tissa. Therefore when Kawantissa met Devi it would have been like the Beauty meeting the Beast. Therefore Kawantissa, who experienced love at first sight, took Devi as his chief queen.
The palace at Kalaniya had close connections with Buddhist monks. Devi was a devoted queen who loved her religion and her country. She gave countless alms-givings and assisted sick monks. There was a well-known pious monk, who was at the end of his life. Devi made several requests from that Buddhist monk to be reborn as her son. It is doubtful as to whether any one could do so. But the Buddhist monks remembered this and when Queen Devi gave birth her first son Gamunu, the story went round that the prince Gamunu was the famous Buddhist monk, reborn in the Royal palace. Therefore there was in-built loyalty of the Buddhist monks to prince Gamunu.
Devi wanted to drive the Dravidian invaders out of Anuradapura. Kawantissa, though misunderstood as a coward even by his son, was a fearless man, but he was also an extremely careful man. On one occasion he went to Seruwila with an army to establish a Vihara there. The Prince in-charge of that area was unable to protest, because if he objected to the building a Buddhist shrine, his own people would have protested. So he allowed Kawantissa and his army to build the shrine and automatically accepted the sovereignty of Kawantissa. This indicates the action of a shrewd tactician.
He selected and trained his famous ten generals and seeing the future he made them swear that they will never intervene in a dispute between the two brothers Gamini and Tissa. In later life when Gamini asked them to help him to fight his brother they mentioned the promise given to the king Kawantissa and refrained from participating in that battle.
When Devi was pregnant she had the strangest â€˜Dola Dukaâ€™ (the pernicious appetite of pregnancy) that we come across in history. Firstly she wanted to have a huge honeycomb and share the honey with a large number of monks. This desire was quite acceptable, and easy to fulfill. The second desire was a deadly one. Devi wanted to drink the water that had washed the sword, which had cut the head of the chief warrior of Elara, whilst standing on that very head. She had a third desire. She also wanted to adorn herself with garlands of lotus blossoms brought from Anuradapura. The honey was discovered in a honeycomb in a boat at Meegamuva. Actually the name Meegamuva means the village of the honeycomb. It is the present town of Negambo. Welusumana Kawantissaâ€™s chief warrior went to Anuradapura and stole Elaraâ€™s state horse named â€˜Vahaâ€™ and rode it out of Anuradhapura. Elara then ordered the chief warrior â€˜Nandasaratiâ€™ to go after Welusumana. On the way Welusumana was able to cut Nandasaratiâ€™s head and bring it to Mahagama in the South. He also brought the Nelum flowers from Anuradapura. Therefore Deviâ€™s pernicious appetite was fulfilled. I wonder whether Devi realized how dangerous her second appetite was. It was undoubtedly a hostile act that could have precipitated a war between king Elara and Kawantissa. Fortunately Elara did not react because he was not prepared for a war with Kawantissa. At that time, he was building fortresses, from the South to the North. In any case I believe that in this matter she overstepped her reason. It was certainly a dangerous act when she perhaps knew that her husband Kawantissa was not ready for a war.
Then we come across the feeding ceremony of the princes. On that occasion Gamini and Tissa were asked to eat a mouthful of rice and promise three things.
1. To be faithful to the monks and the religion.
2. Not to have any dispute between the two brothers.
3. Never to fight with the Tamil invaders.
The three promises were requested by king Kawatissa. The first two promises the brothers accepted. But when they asked to swear the third promise the brothers had dashed the food on the ground and Gamunu went to his room and lay upon his bed drawing his hands and feet to himself. Devi followed Gamunu to his room and seeing him huddled ask him why he was not sleeping with limbs out-stretched. Then Gamunu is supposed to have said beyond the Mahawali are the Tamil occupiers and on this side is the sea, so how can I stretch my limbs? Whether the young prince of twelve years uttered these words or not, we donâ€™t know because we have only Deviâ€™s word for it. Still this shows the training, the mother gave her son to grow up with a desire to free her country from alien domination. When every thing was ready for the war with the invaders, Gamunu entrusted the government to his brother Tissa and commenced his march to Anuradapura with a large army. There were also a large number of Buddhist Monks, and Vihara Devi who accompanied the army. It was no easy march. Gamunu had to conquer eighteen fortresses up to Vigithapura in Polonnaruwa. Thereafter he had to stage a terrible battle at Vigithapura and thereafter at Mahelagama, which was equally strong.
After conquering twenty fortresses he was able to meet Elara in battle in Anuradapura. When Gamunu started the march the second fortress he had to conquer was Ambatitthaka near Bintanna. It was commanded by a powerful Tamil general named â€˜Tittambhaâ€™ who was a great soldier but a foolish lover. For four months he held the fortress. The Vihara Devi was the most beautiful lady in Kelaniya. She still retained her beauty. She allowed her self to be seen by the Tamil general Tittambha who was so attracted to her that he agreed to meet her secretly. When he did, he was killed by Gamunuâ€™s soldiers and the fortress was occupied. Which other queen mother would allow her self to be used in this manner for the sake of the country? Throughout the campaign whenever there was a problem, Gamunu consulted his mother. It is stated that even when commander in chief Nandimitra was recruited it was done after consulting his mother.
In the battle at Anuradapura there was danger from a clever enemy general named â€˜Dighajanthuâ€™. On a suggestion of Vihara Devi the army was divided in to thirty-two sections. Each section had a Parasol bearer with wooden figures of king himself. Gamunuâ€™s champions distributed themselves amongst wooden dummies. Dutugamunu was in charge of one section with Suravimala by his side. Dighajanthu advanced destroying the dummies and came to Gamunu himself and attacked him with his spear but Gamunu saved himself with his shield and before Dighajanthu could proceed any further Suravimala killed him. Therefore at every stage Gamunu appears to have consulted his mother in the conduct of the war.
After his victory when Gamunu ascended the throne he became a really pious man, to whom religion became the most important aspect of his life. In this too he was assisted by Vihara Devi. Gamini built the Mirisawatiya, Lovamahapaya and Ruwanvalisaya most famous of his religious edifices. We really donâ€™t know any thing about Devi during her last days. She was however, the inspiration behind the achievements of great king Dutugamunu.
Our history is recorded in the Mahavamsa originally written by Rev. Mahanama in the 5th century. The hero of Mahanama for his history was king Dutugamunu. Therefore the monk has recorded many facts from the life of king Dutugamunu. But has hardly said anything about his mother â€˜Vihara Deviâ€™, and the monk has written nothing about the wife of king Dutugamunu who was also the mother of the crown prince Saliya. The story of Saliya and Asokamala are too well known to merit repetition. If king Dutugamunu had a crown prince named Saliya, then Saliya would have had a mother who was Dutugamunuâ€™s wife. As the main historical sources do not give information about this queen, we have to depend on folk traditions that have come down to us. It is well known that prince Dutugamunu ran away from the palace after sending the female garments to the king, his father and lived for sometime as an ordinary person in Kotmale in the Kandy district. There he met a beautiful young lady who was not of Royal descent but who bore him his only son named Saliya. At the many Royal functions of king Dutugamunu this lady is not mentioned, perhaps because of her lowly rank before marriage. In fact the Mahavamsa mentions that at public functions and religious ceremonies the presence of dancing woman and other female members of the royal household. However the queenâ€™s name is conspicuous by its absence.
This situation changes because of the industry and scholarship of one great man Dr. S. Paranavithana, commissioner of Archeology. He discovered interesting and valuable evidence in pre-Christian Brahami inscription, which can be ascribed to the first, second or third centuries BC. The inscription is on a rock bolder at the ancient Vihara at Kossagama Kanda near Maradankadawala in the Anuradapura district. The inscription as translated by Dr. Paranavithana reads as follows:
â€œBy Kati the charming wife of the great king Gamini Abaya, dear to the gods has the convent of Milaka Tisa being caused to be established.â€
The name Kati is certainly common enough name that seems to justify the popular tradition that Dutugamunuâ€™s queen was not of Royal blood. Her non appearance at Dutugamunuâ€™s Royal functions cannot be fully explained due to the absence of evidence but the inscription proves that her name was Kati, that she was charming, and that she was a very pious lady who established the convent of Milaka Tisa.
Some believe that the queen may have died soon after she established the convent, but this does not explain as to why she is not mentioned when Dutugamunu ascended the throne. It may be that unless a prince married from a high cast he didnâ€™t become entitled to the throne. That is why according to tradition king Vijaya gave up Kuveni and married a princess from India. There are in Sri Lankan tradition two factors that disqualify a person from occupying the throne. That is, as was probably the case with Dutugamunu, the consort had to be from a high class, and he should possess an unimpaired body. There is the story of a crown prince whose eye was damaged by a bird and he lost his right to the throne. He gave the throne to his younger brother and went to the jungle to spend his life as a recluse. It is a pity that more information is not available regarding the beautiful story of the charming queen Kati. Her life at Kotmale with young and handsome Gamunu would have been the love story of the century. Of course her sonâ€™s love story surpassed in interest all others because he gave up a kingdom for a Chandala girl. Even though Kati was not from a Royal family she was a person from a "good" caste in Kotmale. But Asokamala was a Chandala girl. History does not record of any other queen of king Dutugamunu. That may show that even if Kati could not have been made the official queen, Dutugamunu did not make any other person his official queen. It perhaps shows that Kati remained the charming queen to king Dutugamunu as long as she lived. And other wonderful fact discovered by Dr. Paranavithana is that the rock inscription of queen Kati is in the form of a Sinhalese Gee (verse). Therefore the very first known Sinhala Gee is found in Katiâ€™s inscription. She may not have composed the Sinhala verse in the middle of the second century B.C. But it must have had her approval. Therefore we may assume that Sinhala poetry started from the middle of the second century B.C. and that too by a queen.
Now I come to the third subject, the worst woman in our history. Her name has survived to this date because of the immensity of her cruelty. King Walagambahu had an adopted son Mahachuli- Maha-Tissa who reigned for 14 years after Walagambahu. He was a very good man who helped the Buddha Sasana. He once worked as a laborer in a paddy field and gave alms to a Thera with the little wages he earned. Then as King, he established monasteries and there was peace in the country. Walagambahuâ€™s own son named Naga was a rebel and wandered about the country. He had been turned away from 18 monasteries, as an undesirable. Because of his behavior, he was also called ChoraNaga. After the death of Mahachuli- Maha-Tissa, ChoraNaga became king. The first thing he did was to destroy the eighteen monasteries that refused him shelter. This period (middle of the first century B.C.) of Ceylon history is known for activities of his wife the wicked queen â€˜Anulaâ€™ who started changing husbands like musical chairs.
1. She poisoned ChoraNaga, because she was infatuated with a palace guard.
2. Mahachuli- Maha-Tissaâ€™s son, Tissa ascended the throne, and ruled for three years. But was poisoned by Anula and she placed the palace guard Shiva on the throne. He ruled the country for one year and two months.
3. Then Anula developed a relationship with an architect, a Tamil named Watuka for one year and two months. She poisoned him too.
4. She fell in love with a wood carrier named Tissa, who ruled for one year and one month. He too was disposed by poisoning.
5. Then Anula became interested in a Tamil Brahmin named Niliya. He ascended the throne with Anula as his queen and ruled for six months. He too was poisoned, because Anula wanted to have a good time with the palace guards. Therefore she ruled for four months without giving power to any one. Mahachuli -Maha-Tissaâ€™s second son Kuta Kanna Tissa had run away from the palace at Anuradhapura because he was afraid of Anulaâ€™s wickedness, and had become a Buddhist monk. However, he was able to raise an army and march to Anuradapura and take over the kingdom.
Anula though an expert in poisoning husbands, was careless enough to allow Kuta Kanna Tissa and his army to come to the palace. At last queen Anula got her punishment. Kuta Kanna Tissa and his army burnt the palace with Anula inside. Thus ended the most inglorious period of Sri Lankan history.
This experiment in SriLankan history of having a queen who was a king maker and sovereign failed miserably and there is no mention of a lady who ruled this country till we come to the 20th century, except king Parakramabahuâ€™s wife queen, Leelevathi who ruled for a short time. She was a good queen.
P.L.N. de Silva The writer is a retired senior civil servant
- Asian Tribune -