Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean World a historical appraisal
Sri Lanka was one of prime attractions of the Indian Ocean sailors since the early first millennium BCE. This was due to several reasons and notable among them is Sri Lanka’s strategic geographical positioning in this mighty Sea. Sri Lanka was almost in the mid point of the sea routes which linked the South China Sea in the east with the Red Sea in the west at that time (map I). Rich natural resources of the country including its admirable content of fauna and flora, existence of unparallel geological resources especially the attractive precious stones were influential commodities of the pan-regional trade in the Indian Ocean for a long period of history. The trade activities in the Indian Ocean in the pre- modern times covered a vast area that comprised the territory from South China to Eastern coast of Africa and the Arabian coast of the Mediterranean region which was activated collectively. While considering the fact that the symbiotic feedback mechanism maintained by the nations of these far distant lands, researches are considered this vast spanning region as a single geo-cultural entity that is called the ‘Indian Ocean world’.
The objective of this article is to make an historical outline on the longstanding tradition of communication of ideas and exchange of commodities between Sri Lanka and the distant nations of the South Asia and beyond. The article comprises several sections that describe (a) A theoretical premises which is relevant to understand the ancient long distance linkages (b) the historicity of Sri Lanka’s participation to the Indian Ocean voyages (c) Setting of the Sri Lanka’s maritime landscape and (d) Trade commodities and the ancient maritime law.
World system approach
Sri Lanka’s Participation to the long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean during the premodern times could be understood through the world systems approach (eg. Wallerstein 1974). The notion of ‘world system’ stands to describe a web of socio- economic links that developed between different nations based on a feedback mechanism. It is a truism that societies do not function independently. They should be realized in a context of a large system. The questions of how societies interlinked with each other and how they maintained equilibrium in their systems became one of the major theoretical issues in the recent discussions of economic anthropology (e.g., Wallerstein 1993; Ekholm & Friedman 1993). Noteworthy is the Wallerstein’s concept of ‘world systems’ and it much benefits the explanation of the inter-societal linkages mainly in economic terms. His theory exemplifies the emergence of the organization of a single worldwide division of labor and capitalism, which transformed the world economy after I 500 CE (Wallerstein 1974). Ekholm & Friedman attempt to integrate the world system concept to pre-mode societies and search for the
Sri Lanka’s Participation to the long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean during the premodern times could be understood through the world systems approach (eg. Wallerstein 1974). The notion of ‘world system’ stands to describe a web of socio- economic links that developed between different nations based on a feedback mechanism. It is a truism that societies do not function independently. They should be realized in a context of a large system. The questions of how societies interlinked with each other and how they maintained equilibrium in their systems became one of the major theoretical issues in the recent discussions of economic anthropology (e.g., Wallerstein 1993; Ekholm & Friedman 1993). Noteworthy is the Wallerstein’s concept of ‘world systems’ and it much benefits the explanation of the inter-societal linkages mainly in economic terms. His theory exemplifies the emergence of the organization of a single worldwide division of labor and capitalism, which transformed the world economy after I 500 CE (Wallerstein 1974). Ekholm & Friedman attempt to integrate the world system concept to pre-mode societies and search for the possibilities of having a world system in the ancient world and its influence on the rise of civilizations.
Modelski (1987) and Amin (1993) have pointed out that the organization of the world system that existed prior to the industrial revolution is different from what Wallerstein has specified in his concept. Ekholm & Friedman have expressed their view while referring to Polanyi (1947) and Finley (1973) that the capital accumulation of the preindustrial societies was related to gaining of prestige, conspicuous consumption and the maintenance of alliance for ‘social reasons’ (Franke & Gills 1993:59). Gills ( 1993) argues on the significance of hegemonic changes in the formation of world systems. His principle ides describes the hegemonic transitions as reflectors of underlying rhythm of competition in the world system and the cycles of resources and wealth accumulation.
Although he refuses to admit the existence of a single world system, but instead of an existence of a series of interlinks between different hegemonic powers (Franke & Gills 1993: I 15). I preferably share with Gills assumption, which gives a more balanced frame of reference to discuss the complexity of the interactions of different ancient societal systems like those in Sri Lanka and the distant societies of the Indian Ocean world
The records kept by the ancient sailors of the Indian Ocean are a rich source of information that self explain the history of the nature and the intensity of the maritime activities of Sri Lanka. Perhaps the earliest literary reference that relates to a far distance voyage is appeared in several inscriptions that could be ascribed to the period before the Common Era. Notable among them are (i) rock boulder inscription of the Abhayagira area in Anuradhapura .(ii) Paramakanda cave inscription (iii) Baghavalena cave inscription and (iv) Andiyagala cava inscription (Paranavitana 1970). All these inscriptions have mentioned about mariners who frequently sailed to the distant ports in the mainland India such as Bharukachcha (modern Broach in Gujarat) and Bhojakataka that was situated in the western seaboard.
King Vasabha’s (66-1 10 CE) inscription at Perimiyamkulam of the Anuradhapura District has mentioned about a mariner named Ayi Sayi. Paranavitana (1980:66) has made an attempt to identify this personal as a mariner who traveled frequently to Southeast Asia. Information pertaining to the trade relations of Sri Lanka with Southeastern archipelago in the early periods is meager except few epigraphical references. Several inscriptions reported from Mottayakallu of the Ampara District are referred to a person called Jahvaka naya (javaka nayaka) or a leader of Javakas. This reference reiterates the fact that there was a group of people who migrated to the southeastern part of Sri Lanka from the Malay Peninsula in the late first millennium BCE.
The first recoded diplomatic mission was held during the reign of King Bhatikabhaya (22 BCE -7 CE). The king has sent a team to the Royal court of the Emperor Claudius I in Rome. According to the Mahavamsa Tika, the objective of this visit was to obtain a mass of glass beads for the King in order to perform a ritual at the Maha Stupa in Anuradhapura. In a later instance, King Gajabahuka Gamini Abhaya (I 12-134 CE) he himself attended to a religious ceremony in South India. According to the Tamil poem Silappadikaram, that ceremony was held in the Chera country.
Besides the historical textual refernces, the most important evidences of the international affinities of the pre- modern times are the archaeological rnaterials which some of them will be discussed in section 7 below.
Sri Lanka through foreign perspective
Statements of praising the natural environment and the culture of Sri Lanka can be seen in the records kept by the sailors and the travelers who were in the Indian Ocean in the Past. These records could be considered in one hand as the evidence that show how Sri Lanka was reputed in the ancient world and on the other hand such appear as the important historic references.
The description of Onesicritus (326-323 BCE), a Greek, about Sri Lanka is the first record that came to know about the island. He designated the Island as Taprobane and discussed about several factors including the size of the Island, the duration to reach it from Indian sub-continent, the nature of her ships. Palesimundu (Skt. Parasamudra), Salike (Sinhala), Silediba (Sinhaldvipa) were the other names used by the Greeks in order to designate Sri Lanka. Alexander of Ephasus (100 BCE) has described Sri Lanka as an
Island which crowned by the Sea and has elephants who bear long nose. Strabo (100 CE) has preferred to identify Sri Lanka as a country that exported high quality ivory and tortoise shells.
Artimidorus (104-10 I BCE) quoted by Pliny stated that the people who inhabited Taprobane were healthy and consume long life. The earliest Roman records about Sri Lanka could be ascribed to the period of Annius Plocamus (41-54 CE) and Sopothros, one of his contemporaneous. The names Serendevi or Serendib that were used during the Byzantine period are also the derivation of the word Sinhaladvipa. This word has been evolved subsequently and appeared as Ceylo, Seylan and Ceylon. In the documents of Ping Dynasty (1-6 CE) in China, Sri Lanka was designated as Sang- kia-Io. It was an attempt to write the word ‘Sinhala’ in Chinese language. As an Island situated in the extreme south in the south Asia, which has a pack of important natural and cultural resources and the geographical center of the ancient trade routes in the Indian Ocean that connected the East and the West, Sri Lanka received a continuous attention of the foreigners through out the historical period.
Ports and anchorages
Distribution of ancient ports and anchorages along the seaboard of the country (map xxx) may suggest the intensity of the long distance traffic in Indian Ocean which links Sri Lanka. Among the various ports, most frequently mentioned in the historical chronicles are Matota (Mahatittha) in the northwestern shore, Trincomalee (Gokannatiththa) in the eastern coast and Dambakolapatuna (jarnbukolapattana) in the northern coast.
Matota was functioned as the major international port cum a cosmopolitan city of the extreme south Asia at least since the late first millennium BCE. One of the 9th century inscriptions refers this port and the city as Mavotu patuna. Historical chronicles refer this important entre port as Mahavoti, Mahaputu and Mahapattana. The excavations conducted at the site in early 1980’s have yielded a rich assemblage of earthenware shreds that has a foreign origin (Carswell 199 I).
Moreover, there were several ancient ports scattered around the seaboard of Sri Lanka that could be ascribed to several phases of the history. Some of them are Nilavala tiththa (modem Matara), Mahavalukagama (Valigama), Gimha tiththa (Gimtota), Kala tiththa (Kalutara) ect. (see, map 2).
Evidence of the earliest long-distance trade between Sri Lanka and the out side world could be ascribed to the mid first millennium BCE. Two commodities that were imported to Sri Lanka during that period are semiprecious stones and horses. Ancient beads made out of Carnelian (plate I) and Onyx (also see plate I a), are the most frequent artifacts that recovered from the archaeological sites of this period. Earliest examples of the carnelian beads have been unearthed from the 500 BCE level of the excavation at the ancient citadel area of Anuradhapura (Prickett 1990). A beautiful necklace (plate 2) recovered from the megalithic cemetery at the village Ibbankatuva of the central province has been dated to the 450 BCE. The stones included in to that necklace might have been imported from Deccan or if not from the area around the Narmada valley in the mainland India. A r c h a e o l o g i c a l evidence suggests that the horses were imported from Oman in the 600 BCE. Enforcement upon the importation of such commodities was invariably associated with the demand made by the emerging aristocracy of the internal society
of the contemporary Sri Lanka and the rise of the urban way of life through the accumulation of production surplus resulted by the continuous practice of agriculture and animal husbandry. The role of the international trade was decisive in order to maintain the prestige among the rising
local power nucleus identified such as those of Parumakas which is frequently appeared in the early inscriptions of the 250 BCE (Paranavitana 1970: Gunawardhana 1982: Senevirathne 1989).
The durable materials recovered from the archaeological explorations and excavations help us to understand the nature of the ancient imports of the country. Most abundance among them is the earthenware and the ceramic (plate 3) and also they are only durable things that could be escaped from the disastrous hazards of the tropical environments. A study of the complexity of such durable materials shows a vast extent of distribution of the International trade in the ancient Indian Ocean World. Followings are some of the earthenware varieties and ceramics that were imported to Sri Lanka during the historical period.
One of the major indicators that elaborate the independency of ancient Sri Lanka in the trade in the Indian Ocean is the Maritime law that was in operation during the historic period. It had been composed in accordance with an objective of strengthening the economy of the country. One of the descriptive records that show the nature of the maritime law in ancient Sri Lanka is the inscription located in Nagadvipa (Nainativu) of the Jaffna peninsula (plate 4). It describes the provisions of the maritime law of the country that prevailed during the twelfth century CE, This inscription was set up by King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 CE). This inscription basically consists of legal instructions that should be imposed while in a case of shattering the foreign ships within the limits of the Sri Lankan seaboard. It further describes as the all foreign ships, which arrive Sri Lanka are allowed to anchor at her Ports but in a case of shattering any such ship that carries Horses and Elephants within the limits of the seaboard of the country _ of the total number of horses and elephants should be sent to the government treasury as a fine. If the foreign ships that carries other goods, the fine will be the half of the total goods carried. Nagadvipa inscription had the Jethavanarama stupa premises in Anuradhapura. been set up in accordance with the administration of the ancient port at Uratota (Kytes).
It is explicit that the State of ancient Sri Lanka was thoroughly concerned about the income generated by the import and export economic transactions. Earliest material manifestation at hand provides us an ample evidence of the legal framework of the authorization of export items. An explicit verification of such has been discovered from the ancient urban mound at Tissamaharama in the year I 999. It is a small (3cm x 1.5cm) carnelian seal (plate 5) of a conical shape. This shape suggests that it was fixed to a ring. The exterior surface of this seal bears a short inscription written in Brahmi characters. The inscription comprises of 5 letters that could be read as atukurasa. The prototype of this word is attakura in Sanskrit which gives a meaning of ‘spices’. The last letter ‘sa’ is a postfix that represents genitive case singular. According to this derivation the word atukurasa in our seal could be translated as ‘belongs to spices’, but it seem that it propagates an unintelligible meaning. However the existence of the postfix ‘sa’ at the end of the word gives us an important clue about the unforeseen content of this short inscription. The letter ‘sa’ was
appeared as the postfix of genitive singular only for masculine gender (see Paranavitana 1970, introduction).The subject of the unwritten phrase of the inscription on the seal was a word of masculine gender singular. We can infer that the individual who used this seal was a person who was responsible for authorizing the transactions that Invoved spices at the warehouse of the ancient city of Magama. If this interpretation of the inscription is
acceptable, then perhaps our carnelian seal is the most explicit material evidence of the legal formality that involves in the custom regulation of ancient Sri Lanka.
An inscription which describes about the custom duties that incurred at the Ports when exchange of goods has been recovered from the premises of an ancient monastery called Godavaya viharaya in Ambalamtota of the Hambantota District. This inscription, which could be ascribed to the second century CE, has further described as the custom duties that incurred at the port of Godvaya has be donated to the Gotapabbata viharaya by order of the King Gajabahu I (I 14-136 CE). In order to denote the idea of ‘custom duty’, the word used in the Godavaya inscription was suka suriyi. This word is a derivation of two words in Sanskrit namely shalka and samharya (what is to be taken away together). The word suriyi in this inscription could be taken as a prototype (suriyi> turiyi>tiruyi> tiru) of the modern word tiru in the composite word of tiru badu (custom duties) (see, Paranavitana 1983: 101, note 6), These two inscriptions are not the comprehensive records of the subject but they bring forth a set of clear evidence of how maritime law and the economic policy of the country were organized in Sri Lanka at that time.
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