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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2641

Response to Dr. Mithra Fernando’s “The Myth of ‘Lion Ancestry”

By Sumanadasa Wijayapala

Dr. Mithra Fernando wrote an article entitled “The Myth of ‘Lion Ancestry’ & adults only tales of the Lala land” expressing concern that the Sinhalese historical tradition has been used to promote ethnic chauvinism against the non-Sinhala minorities of Sri Lanka. Specifically his purpose was to demonstrate the invalidity of the Pali text as a historical document, perhaps hoping that by invalidating the historical tradition of the Sinhalese, he would be promoting ethnic harmony in Sri Lanka. Or at the very least, we would all get a chuckle at Mahanama’s expense.

His piece consisted of a number of parts, the first concerning the supernatural origins of Sinhabahu and his kin, then covering the saga of Prince Vijaya, and then citing a number of scholars including G.C. Mendis, Wilhelm Geiger, Herman Oldenberg, and V.A Smith who had themselves cast aspersions of the validity of the Mahavamsa. He ended with a plea that the “grass root” of Sinhala society gain the courage to put the Mahavamsa to rest as a fairy tale.

The purpose of this response is not precisely to refute Dr. Fernando’s points. I would be the first to acknowledge that the story of Vijaya and his predecessors was most probably a myth, not simply due to the portions of the tale which defy the laws of science but also to the lack of supporting evidence, such as archeology to confirm his existence. I will enquire from Dr. Fernando, however, how a single portion of the document can invalidate the entire text. After all, the Mahavamsa’s basic chronology of events from about the time of King Devanampiya-Tissa has never been successfully disputed by any reputable or other scholar, and its internal consistency has been backed by outside sources such as literature and archeology. One who is ignorant of the Mahavamsa would conclude that the story of Vijaya comprises the sum total of the text, based on Dr. Fernando’s citations. Others (such as myself, I admit) may wonder based on his omissions whether he is familiar with the rest of the chronicle, or even if he had read it.

I have no need to defend the validity of the Sinhala historical traditions, because other scholars far more gifted than myself have already done so. To cite the eminent Tamil historian Prof. K. Indrapala from his excellent book on the history and legacy of Tamil civilization in Sri Lanka:

“In this unfavorable climate of the ethnic conflict, as one would expect, history has been distorted and ancient historical sources have been unfairly used or condemned. One of the notable victims of this unfair treatment is Mahanama, the author of the Mahavamsa, the Pali chronicle that forms the main source for the ancient history of Sri Lanka. Many have been indulging in what Sudharshan Seneviratne has termed ‘Mahavamsa -bashing.’ While, on the one hand, Sinhalacentrist writers have ‘used’ Mahanama to present their own misrepresentations of history, anti-Sinhalese extremists, on the other, have ‘abused’ Mahanama without even reading the Mahavamsa. In between, some others who have engaged in anthropological and archeological as well as historical research are also guilty of unfairly judging the work of Mahanama.”

What I present here instead is the interaction between the Mahavamsa, in particular the Vijaya myth, and the Tamil literary tradition. Contrary to what Dr. Fernando and his fellow travelers may believe, the Mahavamsa had not been a “Sinhala-Only” text in the ancient and medieval period, and nor for that matter had the authors of the Sinhala historical tradition been ignorant of the traditions of their Tamil neighbors. I write not for “the serene joy and emotion of the pious” but rather to educate the ignorant of the Sinhala-Tamil synthesis throughout history.

Vijaya in the Tamil Historical Tradition

Perhaps the most well-known Tamil literature dealing with the origin of the Jaffna Kingdom is the Yalpanavaipavamalai (YVM), written in the 18th century CE by Mayilvakana Pulavar for the Dutch Governor. The text itself was derived from four preexisting texts: Pararajasekeran-ula, Rasamurai, Kailayamalai, and Vaiyapatal, although only the latter two texts have survived to modern times.

The YVM opens with a brief account of the Ramayana, and then proceeds to give its own account of the Vijaya legend which is very similar to that in the Mahavamsa. It states that 2400 years in the past (~700-600 BCE), “Vijaya-kumara” had been exiled from Lata and eventually came to Lanka, and briefly mentions how he drove away his wife and children to marry a lady from the Pandyan kingdom. The text does not describe the subsequent dynasties of the Sinhalese after the passing of Vijaya, except that the descendants of Panduvasu(deva) ruled Lanka for many generations since.

The interesting shift of the YVM’s version is how it describes Vijaya as a staunch Saiva. Vijaya is credited with building four temples to Lord Shiva, including the famous Koneswara koyil, and restoring one more. As nobody in India wanted to colonize Lanka, the kingdom of the Rakshasas, Vijaya brought Buddhists from Siam (Thailand) and they eventually became the Sinhalese (the similarity between this account and the claim of Hugh Cleghorn in 1799 of the Siamese origin of the Sinhalese is worth noting)!

The Tamil chronicler appears to have gone to lengths to associate Vijaya’s faith with that of the majority of Jaffna Tamils and to illustrate the first Sinhala king as an exemplar devotee of Shiva. If some of us in modern times do not see how the Vijaya legend, even if taken literally serves the cause of Sinhala supremacy, it is quite clear that the Tamil chronicler Mayilvakanapular did not either!

Vijaya’s legacy in the YVM does not end here. The story continues to King Ukkirasingan, who may have been the same as Kalinga Magha of the Culavamsa in the 13th century CE and is credited for establishing the forerunner of the Jaffna kingdom. The chronicler appears to have noted that Magha had originated from the same part of India as Vijaya, and thus he describes Ukkirasingan as a descendant of Vijaya’s brother who had remained in India. Ukkirasingan’s ancestral link with Sinhabahu is further demonstrated in his leonine face, which he cures at Keerimalai, and the chronicler establishes Ukkirasingan’s identity with the Tamils by describing his marriage to a Chola princess.

At this point we must again stop and ask why the Tamil chronicler would want to identify the progenitor of the Jaffna kingdom with the descendant of a lion and a human being—which the Tamil chronicler appears to have genuinely interpreted as a lion-human miscegenation ? For what reason did the lineage of the Jaffna kings have to be traced back to Vijaya? Is it possible that the chronicler acknowledged Vijaya as the original ruler of Lanka, and thus any legitimate claimant to that title had to establish some connection with Vijaya?

The Jaffna chronicle is not the only medieval Sri Lankan Tamil literature where Vijaya appeared. The Mattakalappu: Purva Carittiram, a collection of ola leaf texts from Batticaloa recently edited and published by Mr. and Mrs. S. Kamalanathan contains several sections on “Vicayan” and his origins. The narrative begins with his mother Sirimathi of Vanga and her half-lion children Singavaku and Singavalli, and continues to his exile in Lanka, meeting Kuveni, and becoming the ruler of the island. Like the YVM, the Batticaloa chronicle also describes “Kalinga Makon” and his conquest of the island, although the account more resembles that of the Culavamsa.

By Dr. Fernando’s logic, the medieval Tamils from Jaffna to Batticaloa have all been led astray by Sinhalese mythology and acquired a bizarre fixation with the lion-human hybrid Vijaya. What shall we conclude from their literary traditions? Would it be anti-Tamil to dismiss such texts as “wild fantasies,” despite their value to the Tamils?

Did Mahanama Read Tamil Literature?

Next to the Vijaya legend, the war between Duttugemunu and Elara is the most (in) famous and controversial of the chronicle. Mahanama has been criticized, perhaps rightly for downplaying the deaths of non-Buddhist soldiers. Yet a close look at his depiction of King Elara would demonstrate not simply an admiration for the Tamil monarch, but that the chronicler was quite familiar with the Tamil literature considering the Cholas, and their reputation for honor.

Mahanama described Elara as upright and honorable. Indrapala himself, in citing Mahanama’s description of the practice of honoring the Elara monument built by Dutugemunu has written, “Would the author of the Mahavamsa have gone out of his way to say this if he had considered Elara as an alien intruder whom the people were happy to see dead?” Yet it seems that even Indrapala has overlooked the tale of Elara’s bell, which any denizen of his realm could sound if an injustice had occurred. One story included in the part is of the cow whose calf had been accidentally killed by the son of Elara himself, and the king demonstrated his willingness to end his own son’s life to see justice done. As touching as the story was, it seems that it did not spring from Mahanama’s own imagination. This story had been part of the legends of the Chola kingdom in Tamil Nadu, and that Mahanama had included it to round out the character of Elara.

The two Tamil epics, Cilappatikaram and Manimekalai both allude to the honorable reputation of the Chola kings. Manimekalai in particular refers to a Chola who had executed his own son to uphold justice. In the temple tradition of Thiruvarur, however, there is a story of a Chola king “Manu Nidhi Cholan” who corresponds nearly precisely with Elara; he also has a bell installed for petitioners to seek justice, and he executes his own son for killing the cow’s calf. This story must have originally been widespread throughout the Chola country, if not Tamil Nadu as a whole, because it had developed into a ballad by the medieval era. The Terurnta Colan Yatcakanam is a great elaboration of the tale, beginning with the Chola emperor praying for a son, only to later execute him for the crime of killing the calf (although this version has a more positive ending, with the gods interceding to save the young prince).

The inclusion of Chola mythology in the Mahavamsa proves that the chronicler, far from representing a provincial outlook was quite familiar with the traditions of the neighboring civilizations. It would behoove critics such as Dr. Fernando to take some time to study Tamil literature to properly understand the links between the Sinhalese and Tamils in ancient times.

Mahavamsa Establishing Tamil History

It is rather perplexing that Sinhala nationalists have used the Mahavamsa to argue Sinhala hegemony in Sri Lanka. The story of Vijaya itself confirms that Tamils were in the island as long as the Sinhalese, with the arrival of the Pandyans from Tamil Nadu, although we can only accept this symbolically if the Vijaya story is accepted as myth. Yet it is even more perplexing that the “liberals” Sinhalese like Dr. Fernando and some Tamils have essentially accepted the flawed reasoning of the Sinhala nationalists! As I will show below, the Mahavamsa confirms the existence of people and places in classical Tamil literature.

The Mahavamsa describes the Pandyan ladies as originating from “Dakkhina Madura”“Then Madurai,” translating to “southern Madurai.” Historians believe that Then Madurai was a real city on the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu near modern Korkai, which would have been very close to the settlement of “Thambapanni” which Vijaya had constructed in Lanka. If “Then Madurai” can be equated with “Dakkhina Madura” of the Mahavamsa, then we would have evidence that the seat of the first Sangam was a historical city, and not a myth.

Tamil historians are well-acquainted with the “Gajabahu synchronism” which dates the Tamil king Senguttuvan to the 2nd century CE. Senguttuvan is a ruler of the Chera dynasty who is a major character in the Cilappatikaram and Manimekalai, and the Cilappatikaram describes the arrival of King Gajabahu from Lanka to congratulate the former’s triumphant campaign to the Himalayas. The Sinhala chronicles describe Gajabahu as a ruler who had fought to free Sinhala irrigation workers held in bondage in southern India, and it is likely that he had struck an acquaintance with Senguttuvan. Thanks to the Culavamsa, we can provide a date for Senguttuvan’s reign and the events of the two aforementioned Tamil epics.


The above evidence of the Sinhala-Tamil interaction which helped produce the Mahavamsa and allowed the Mahavamsa in turn to contribute to Tamil civilization should serve to remind both Sinhala liberals and Tamil moderates that one does not build harmony by belittling the accomplishments of another people or one’s own people. For example, someone who aspires to improve gender equality in Tamil society would be ill-advised to condemn literature like the Thirukkural or Cilappatikaram as misogynistic and anti-female, as such derogatory language would only alienate those whom the activist is trying to influence. Similarly, no Tamil nationalist in his right mind would criticize the 19th century Saiva revivalist Arumuga Navalar, even though his ideals of Vellala supremacy and his anti-Christian stance had probably done more to divide the Tamils than unite them, because criticizing him would alienate the Jaffna Hindus who still revere him and his work.

The Sinhalese and Tamil moderates are advised to rethink their approach of opposing the politics of Sinhala nationalism. The goal is admirable; the methods and means are not. As I have shown above, there is plenty of material in the Sinhala historical tradition which can refute the Sinhala hegemonists. Yet ignorant invectives as demonstrated in Dr. Fernando’s article actually do far more to undermine the cause of Sinhala-Tamil unity. The Sinhala liberal is no “mithra” (friend) of the Tamils with his ignorance of the Tamil language and the achievements of Tamil literature. In this ignorance, the Sinhala liberal is the same as the Sinhala chauvinist. The Tamil moderate for his part does not help his cause by parroting such tirades, betraying his own lack of knowledge of his own literature and that of the Sinhalese.

It is appropriate here for me to echo Dr. Fernando’s appeal for courage and wisdom- although this appeal is primarily directed back to him and his ilk. It is not easy to admit one’s shortcomings and mistakes, but for the sake of the cause of healing the ethnic conflict self-reflection and criticism cannot be ignored. The sooner they gather courage to start this process of self-examination, the better it would be for this generation and many generations to come.


The Cilappatikaram: The Tale of an Anklet. Transl. R. Parthasarathy. Columbia University Press, 1993.

K. Indrapala. The Evolution of An Ethnic Identity: The Tamils in Sri Lanka c. 300 BCE to C. 1200 CE. MV Publications, 2005.

Manimekalai. Transl. P. Pandian. South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society, 1989.

Mattakkalappu: Purva Carittiram. Ed. S.E. Kamalanathan and Kamala Kamalanathan. Kumaran Book House, 2005.

Terurnta Colan Yatcakanam. Ed. P. Subramaniam, Transl. G.S. Balakrishnan. Institute of Asian Studies, 2000.

- Asian Tribune -

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