The story of Lanka: sifting facts from folklore and legend

By: Dr. S. K. Vadivale

    This is the first part of a two-part article.

According to the Sinhala calendar, the Buddha was born in 623 B.C. Indian records however show that the Buddha was born in 567 B.C and died in 487 B.C. It appears that the Buddha had said on his deathbed, “Vijaya,” son of King Singha Bahu is to come to Lanka from the country of Lala (Bengal), with 700 followers (Bengalis).

“In Lanka, Oh Lord of Gods, will my Dhamma be established; therefore, carefully protect him and his men in Lanka.” The Mahawamsa also says that Vijaya and his men landed on the shores of Lanka at the very minute the Thatthagata was passing away into Nibbana at Kusinara on Vesak full moon day.

One is curious to know:


    (a) what spiritual connection there was between the divine Buddha and a Bengali, a descendant of the products of bestiality and incest;
    (b) how Vijaya’s journey was timed to synchronize his landing on Lankan shores on the very minute the Noble One was breathing his last and
    (c) whether the Buddha who denounced prayers and rituals had actually entreated the gods to protect Vijaya and his men in Lanka.

This entreaty of the Buddha is in conflict with his last words to his favourite disciple, “Oh Anand, be ye lamps unto yourselves, betake yourselves to no external refuge; look not for refuge to anyone besides yourselves.” Could it therefore be correct to say that the Buddha had actually entreated the Gods to protect Vijaya and his men?

In the Daily News of 7 August 1995, Dr. Carlo Fonseka poses the question “Who first colonised Lanka?” And he himself gives the answer, “We do not know.” He should have said, “I do not know.”

Historian Chandra Richard de Silva says that the Balangoda culture prevailed over most of the Island from 10,000 B.C. to the sixth century B.C. In the first millennium B.C., Balangoda man seemed to have acquired some knowledge of agriculture, the art of pottery, the ability to shape stone tools and the technique of drilling. By this time his culture resembled that of the people living in neighbouring South India arid there was probably considerable intercourse across the Palk Straits.

In a nearly inaccessible forest of evergreen and deciduous trees in suburban Pallavaram, 90 km from Chennai, lies the largest Palaeolithic or stone age cave of Tamil Nadu. Here in 1863, Robert Bruce Foote, a British geologist discovered in a gravel pit, a stone tool – a hand axe, made, used and discarded by stone age man. This discovery opened up an entirely new area of research about the Palaeolithic age in the Tamil Nadu region and pushed back the antiquity of pre-historic man inhabiting that area to a period prior to 10,000 B.C. (Source: ‘Ancient India,’ by V.O. Mahajan. This appeared in the ‘Hindu’ of June 2000 and subsequently in the ‘Island’ of 10 June 2000.

Archaeological evidence supporting a Tamil civilisation in South India around the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. is available both in South India and in other lands beyond the seas through inscriptions, numismatics, terracotta, pottery, artefacts etc. These finds reveal that the Tamils of South India were a maritime race i.e. able navigators and shipbuilders with ports at Korki, Puhar, and Nagapatanam. They had commercial and cultural intercourse with the people of Greece, Rome, Egypt, Babylonia, China, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia and in the Far East as far as the islands of Fiji and Bali.

Dr. Paul E. Peiris, following his excavations on part of the site at Kantharodai (1918-1919), the earliest known settlement in Jaffna, observed that Lanka, which is only 18 miles at this point across the shallow Palk Straits, would have been visible to Indian fishermen every morning as they went out to fish. He was firmly of the opinion that northern Ceylon was a flourishing settlement long before Vijaya was born.

According to Dr. William Jones, long before the arrival of Vijaya, Lanka was the homeland of the Tamil-speaking Hindus who were having continuous commercial and cultural intercourse with the people of neighbouring South India.

Monk Mahanama claims that the Sinhalese are descendants of the Bengalis. Prof. K.M. de Silva is of opinion that the Sinhalese had come from north India. E. M. C. Amunugama is of the view that the Sinhalese had come from Central Asia. There is only one truth. There cannot be more than one correct answer to a question e.g.: 1+1=2: 1+2 cannot also be 2. As the above three claims are in conflict with one another, one cannot say whose claim is correct. How did the Sinhala language become the common mother tongue of people who had come from three different regions at three different periods of time? What is their parents’ stock?

The Mahawamsa (5 A.C.) states there were kovils for Lord Ishwera in Lanka from pre-Buddha times (623 B.C.) such as Nakulesweram in the north, Thirukketheesweram and Munnesweram in the west and Konesweram .in the east. H. W. Codrington was of opinion that the kovil at Konesweram was more than 2400 years old. Ishwera kovils at Hambantota and Rathmalana are no more due to lack of patronage and subsequent neglect. Hindu kovils in the deep south for Lord Murukan at Kathirkamam and for Lord Vishnu at Devi Nuwara still exist due to continued patronage of both Buddhists (converts) and Hindus.

The location of these Hindu kovils close to seaports cannot be the result of accident or caprice, but was determined by the concourse of a wealthy merchant population whose religious wants called for attention. The situation of these large kovils in widely separated parts of Lanka is a clear indication of the range of distribution of the Tamil-speakers on Lankan soil from very early ages, justifying a strong Tamil population at cardinal points and seaport towns of the Island. On the face of these stark facts, it is deliberate distortion of the truth to claim that there were no civilized inhabitants and kings in Lanka when Vijaya arrived in 543 B.C.

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