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The Ancient Sea-port at Kirinda in Ruhuna


The Ancient Sea-port at Kirinda in Ruhuna

  1. Introduction

The area designated as Ruhuna represents several geographically distinct zones. In part, it consists of a flat valley terrain extending to the Indian Ocean in the southern and the southeastern directions. This area has dry or arid weather conditions during most of the year. The northern part is mountainous and wet. It is the source of the natural watercourses, which flow along the flat-valley. The historical sources provide a rather complex picture of the geographical extent of the area. The distribution of the ancient settlements from the first quarter of the first millennium BCE can be taken as a firm indicator of the territorial demarcation of the area then known as Ruhuna.

The written history of Ruhuna is full of events pertaining to the socio-political and the religious development of the region. However the correlation of the C14 dates with the material and spatial data suggest seven major cultural phases in Ruhuna from the early agro-pastoral village to the latter quarter of the mature urban phase viz;

(a). Early agro-pastoral village phase (900-500 BCE)

(b). Early agro-pastoral/early urban transitive phase (500-350 BCE)

(c). Early urban phase (350-250 BCE)

(d). Mature urban phase, early quarter (250 BCE -350 CE)

(e). Mature urban phase, middle quarter (350-600 CE)

(f). Mature urban phase, latter quarter (600-1000 CE) (g). Urban decline (1000-1400 CE)

The Indian Ocean trade activities were influential in stimulating the long-distance voyages between the mainland of India and Sri Lanka since the latter part of the first millennium BCE. Two main corridors in the Indian Ocean waters were developed thus laying paths towards the north and the south along the eastern and the western coasts of the mainland India. The western path started from the ancient port historically known as Bharukachcha-present day Broach- situated in Gujarat and from there it extended southward along the minor ports and anchorages of the western coast of India down to the Gulf of Mannar, terminating that route at the main port of Mahatittha in the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka.The navigation line on the eastern side began from the from the ancient port at Tamralipti now known as Tamluk situated near Culcutta and extended along the eastern coast of the mainland touching the extremely busy ports like that at Arikamedu down to the ancient port situated at Trincomalee known as Gokannatittha in the ancient times. The resent research unveiled adequate data to understand that the people who followed the eastern path had sailed further south from Gokannatittha towards the ancient minor-ports situated in the south and southeastern Sri Lanka including Kirinda and Godavaya at the deep end. The nature of such earliest coastal sailing in the Indian Ocean has been critically reviewed by Ray (1994:21-34) and Gupta (2002) elsewhere.

2. Kirinda port: a historical review

Seaboard in Kirinda is considered as a place that has a historical significance. Historical chronicles in Sri Lanka have mentioned that there was a sea-port in this shore. The Mahavamsa narrates in relation to this place an event that happened in the period around 150 BCE. In that story the author has made an attempt to show that a king named Kakavannatissa who reigned c. 150 BCE met his consort at a location situated in the southern coast (Mv xxii). Vamsattappakasini, the commentary of the Mahavamsa states that the place described in Mahavamsa in relation to King Kakavannatissa and his consort’s story was situated near a Buddhist monastery called Tolaka Vihara.

However the Saddhammalamkara, a 14h century chronicle narrates that there was a port called Totalutota at the place, which was associated with the event described in Mahavamsa in relation to King Kakavannatissa. The etymology of the word Totalutota is interesting to note. This word can be divided into two as ‘totalu’ and again ‘tota’. The word ‘tota’ in Sinhala language signifies the meaning of a ferry in general. It is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘tirtha’ which gives the same meaning as in Sinhala language. It can be assumed that the word ‘tota’ at the end of the word Totalutota can convey the same meaning. However the first two words may have been derived from the word Tolaka, which the Vamsattapakasini states as the name of the ancient Buddhist Vihara situated at the site.

Despite the literary references, the only manifestation of the antiquity of the present monastery is three inscriptions, which have been indited on a naturally formed two rock boulders situated at the monastery premises. Among those two inscriptions can be dated to the first century (Nicholas 1959:72). The other inscription is partly effaced and the letters of it can be ascribed to the forth century CE.

However, the reference given by the author of the Saddhammalamkara is important because of the reason that in the 14th and 15th centuries, the present site at Kirinda had been familiar among the people as a ferry or otherwise as one of the ports situated on the southern shore.

2. The Site

This is a mound (N 6 12 50, E 81 20 10) situated to the east of ancient Buddhist monastery in Kirinda. The extent of this mound is about 2.25 hectares and it has been identified as a location of an archaeological significance. In year 1999, at time this location was first observed only a very small portion of the original mound was left having been destroyed during the construction of the new fisheries harbor. A dense scattering of ancient potsherds was visible on the surface at this location. Besides, several types of ancient beads and late Roman copper coins were also collected.

3. Excavation

This mound extends westwards from the new pier of the present harbor at Kirinda. Western end of the site has an elevated topography with naturally formed rock boulders. During the construction of the new fisheries harbor, the site has been considerably modified. A small strip of the original mound measuring about 70×10 meters was remained undisturbed. The test coring conducted at this location shows that the site contains a 2.70 meter thick soil deposit with several culturally induced layers. The undisturbed part of the mound was selected for the excavation.

3.1 Stratigraphy

The stratigraphy of the site consists of 6 individual soil layers including the basal gravel. The basal gravel layer bears a number of quartz flakes and cores that has a prehistoric origin. The other five layers consist of cultural material of different time periods. The maximum thickness of the excavated deposit is 2.69 meters and 16 contexts were reported within that depth.

3.2 Artifacts

Distribution of the artifacts in different levels in the stratigraphy varies considerably. Table 1 below describes the quantitative aspect of the distribution of the artifacts recovered from the excavation.

3.3 Chronology

Six radiometric dates have been secured to the excavation.

Sample– TSS/KR/2000/S/2
context 2
260 ± 65 (un-calibrated BP) (Ua-18787)
1410-1700 CE (calibrated 95.5% probability)
context 4
1400 ± 65 (un-calibrated BP) (Ua- 18788)
530-780 CE (calibrated 95.5% probability)
context 9
2100± 65 (un-calibrated BP) (Ua-18789)
260-30 BCE (calibrated 95.5% probability)
context 8
1300± 55 (un-calibrated BP) (Ua-18790)
640-880 CE (calibrated 95.5% probability)
context 12
1215± 55 (un-calibrated BP) (Ua- 18791)
680-970 CE (calibrated 95.5% probability)

Those dates show a considerably long span of human occupation at the site. Six 14C calibrations were incorporated into four phases of occupation of the historical urbanization in the lower Kirindi Oya Basin (Somadeva 2006).

(a). Occupation phase II (260 BCE-30 CE) – Terminal fishing village and mature urban phase I

(b). Occupation phase III (350-600 CE) – Mature urban phase II

(c). Occupation phase IV (500-600 CE) – Urban continuum

(d). Occupation phase V (1400-1500 CE) – Terminal phase

Stone implements recovered from the basal gravel suggest that the site was occupied by the prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Several quartzite implements were unearthed from that level. No dates are available for this phase.


Amaravamsa, A., H. Dassanayake, 1994 (ed.) Vamsattappakasini. Colombo: Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies.

Buddhadatta, P., Rev. (ed.) 1959. Mahavamsa. Colombo: Gunasena. Gupta, S., 2002. The Archaeo-Historical Idea of the Indian Ocean. In Man and Environment. Vol. XXVII (2), 1-23pp.

Nicholas C. W., 1952. Historical Topography of Ancient Ceylon and Medieval Ceylon. In Joournal of the Royal Asiatic Society Ceylon Branch New Series VI. 1-223 (special volume).

Ray, H.P., 1994. The Winds of Change: Buddhism and the Maritime Links of Early South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Saddhammalamkaraya 1997 (ed.) Dehivala: Buddhist Cultural Centre.

Somadeva R., 2006. Urban Origins in Southern Sri Lanka. Uppsala: Department of Archaeology and Ancient History

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