King Elala (Elara) – Dutugemunu Conflict
A Review of Recent Thinking
by Sachi Sri Kantha
March 3, 2018
In my previous commentary on King Elala, I had provided the thoughts of a few 19th and 20th-century chroniclers of Ceylon. Here I continue to review the recent thinking of Sri Lanka’s five contemporary historians (two Tamils and three Sinhalese, one among them Ven. Dhammavihari Thera well versed in Pali language) on the King Elala (Elara) – Dutugemunu conflict that preoccupied the author of Mahavamsa chronicle. All five historians had held professor ranks in Sri Lankan universities and elsewhere.
Be reminded that the author of Mahavamsa chronicle is a Buddhist priest Mahanama, who probably lived during the reign of King Dhatusena (reigned AD 455 – 473). Whether this name Mahanama belongs to that of one individual or a composite of more than one individuals who lived either in the 5th century or 6th century or even later, is a matter of dispute. To complicate the issue, there was, in fact, a king named Mahanama (reigned AD 406 – 428), who preceded King Dhatusena. In the brief period of 27 years, between Mahanama’s reign and that of Dhatsunena’s reign, there were six ‘Dravidian’ kings called Sad-Dravida – Pandu, Paarinda, Khudda Paarinda, Tiritara, Daathiya, and Pithiya, according to the chronology assigned by historian Kingsley de Silva (1981).
If memory serves, in one of his zany moments as the top dog of Sri Lanka, President J.R. Jayewardene (1906-1996) once challenged the then Tamil Leader of Opposition Appapillai Amirthalingam (1927-1989) for a boxing duel at the Galle Face Green (akin to Elara-Dutugemunu duel of 161 BC) to settle the festering ‘Sinhala-Tamil conflict’ once and for all! Better senses prevailed from Amirthalingam’s corner, and such a challenge was averted then. Considering the 20 years age difference between Jayewardene and Amirthalingam (a reversal of the situation that prevailed between King Elara and prince Dutugemunu in 161 BC), few Tamil wags expressed dismay that Amirthalingam forfeited the best opportunity then to defeat Jayewardene inside the ring!
Views of Sivasubramaniam Padmanathan (1978)
“In the second century BC, Elara, a nobleman from the Cola country, subdued the Sinhalese rule Asela and administered a large part of the island from Anuradhapura for a period of forty-four years. Early historical traditions of the Sinhalese represent him as a great and just ruler. He is said to have ruled righteously and with even justice towards friends and foes alike. Elara was held in high esteem even by his foes on account of the ideals of justice which he cherished. Several anecdotes have been invented to illustrate the supra-normal powers he is said to have gained through his benign rule.
Ironically Dutthagamani’s war against Elara is represented in the Mahavamsa as one of national liberation, a war against the Dravidian marauders under whom Buddhism had suffered. The transition from an attitude of admiration to one of hostility in respect of Elara in the historical tradition was the work of the politically motivated Mahanama, a monk of the Mahavihara who is said to have lived in the sixth century. Mahanama produced almost an epic on Dutthagamani basing his narrative on legends and folklore and as a result the epic of Dutthagamani became a major theme in traditional history. It served as a model for the authors of the later sections of that chronicle and has profoundly influenced historical thinking in Sri Lanka both ancient and modern. Consequently, Sinhalese-Tamil relations came to be passionately viewed as one of perpetual conflict and confrontation. Such a view is based on selected readings from traditional history and it ignores much of historical and archaeological evidence that weighs against it.
Views of Kingsley de Silva (1981)
Kingsley de Silva’s analysis of four vital facts (which I’ve numbered in sequence) deserve notice.
“The long – fifteen-year – campaign waged by Dutthagamani against Elara, which culminated in a duel fought in accordance with ksatriya rules of chivalry and the latter’s death, is dramatized as the central theme of the later chapters of the Mahavamsa as an epoch-making confrontation between the Sinhalese and Tamils and extolled as a holy war fought in the interests of Buddhism. Dutthagamani’s triumph was nothing less than the consummation of the island’s manifest destiny, its historic role 14as the bulwark of Buddhism: the Southern kingdom ruled by the Sinhalese Buddhist had prevailed over the northern kingdom ruled by a Dravidian usurper who, despite all his admirable qualities as a man and ruler, was nevertheless a man of ‘false’ beliefs.
The Mahavamsa’s account of these events glosses over facts and events which were inconvenient to its prime consideration of immortalizing the honour and glory attaching to Dutthagamani. (1) Kavantissa’s shrewd statecraft, which laid the foundations for his son’s success, receives scant attention. [Note by Sachi: Kavantissa was the father of Dutthagamani.] (2) The Mahavamsa depicts Elara as the ruler of the whole of the northern plain and Dutthagamani’s family as kings of the whole of Rohana ever since Mahanaga established himself in Magama; this was not historically accurate, for Elara was not the ruler of the united northern kingdom, nor were Dutthagamani’s forbears’ kings of the whole of Rohana. (3) Besides, the facile equating of Sinhalese with Buddhist for this period is not borne out by the facts, for not all Sinhalese were Buddhists, while on the other hand there were many Tamil Buddhists. There were in fact large reserves of support for Elara among the Sinhalese, and Dutthagamani, as a prelude to his final momentous encounter with Elara, had to face the resistance of other Sinhalese rivals who appear to have been more apprehensive of his political ambitions than they were concerned about Elara’s continued domination of the northern plain. (4) Nor did Dutthagamani’s campaigns end with the capture of Anuradhapura after the defeat of Elara. He was bringing the northern plain under a single political authority for the first time, and Elara was only one if still the most formidable of his adversaries – there are references in the chronicles to Dutthagamani’s battles with as many as thirty-two rulers in the course of his campaigns – in this relentless quest for domination.”
Views of W.I. Siriweera (2004)
Compared to other historians, Professor Siriweera had provided detailed coverage of Mahavamsa’s version of the Elara-Dutugemunu conflict. I provide five relevant paragraphs below.
“It seems that when the Mahavamsa was written, the element of conflict in the relations between the Sinhalese and Tamils had crystallized. The political threat posed by the Tamil feudal chiefs Pandu, Parinda etc. would have been fresh in the minds of the Sinhalese, and this background had some influence on bhikkhu Mahanama, the Sinhala-Buddhist author of the Mahavamsa. He was alive and sensitive to the occasional threats posed by Tamil chiefs on Sinhala sovereignty, and by heretical believers to the Mahavira tradition. For him, not merely non-Buddhists but even those who supported heterodox Buddhist establishments opposed to the orthodox Mahavira were heretics. A dominant purification theme that suggests Sri Lanka should be free from all heretics is found throughout in the Mahavamsa. It is no wonder then, that the author selected Dutthagamani, who unified the whole island under one banner for the first time in history and patronized the Mahavihara establishment tremendously, as the ideal king.
It is important to examine whether the Mahavamsa provides a clear picture of the historical situation. According to Mahavamsa, the Tamils were represented by Elara of noble descent (as opposed to Kshatriya descent in the Dipavamsa) who arrived here from the Cola country. There is no evidence as to the composition of his garrisons and the strength of his army. However, unless Elara had some support in Sri Lanka, it may not have been easy for him to occupy the throne at Anuradhapura for such a long period. As subsequent history shows, most of the foreigners who succeeded in wresting the throne and ruling the country for any considerable length of time have had some indigenous support or had been backed by a foreign power. Unfortunately, the chroniclers do not reveal much about this aspect of Elara’s rule. Here is yet another instance of what Wilhelm Geiger observed when he stated that ‘not what is said but what is left unsaid is the besetting difficulty of Sinhalese history’.
However, reading between the lines in the Mahavamsa account, one gets the impression that both Elara and Dutthagamani were participants in a feudal power game and not in a racial war fought between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The Mahavamsa states that when Elara was on his way to the Cetiya Mountain in a chariot to invite the bhikkhus, the nub of the yoke of his chariot struck a dagoba, thereby causing damage to the monument. On this occasion, it is said that Elara’s ministers told him ‘Oh king! Our thupa has been damaged by you’. This clearly indicates that the ministers of Elara considered the thupa to be theirs, which means that at least the ministers who accompanied Elara in this mission were Buddhists, perhaps also Sinhalese. One of the generals of Elara was Mitta who was a Sinhalese. His sister’s son was Nandimitta, one of Duttagamani’s ten commanders, to whom superhuman exploits have been ascribed in the Mahavamsa.
Elara’s invitation to bhikkus of the Cetiya mountain, may have been for an almsgiving, for some form of religious function or to seek advice and to solicit support. The Mahavamsa itself states that Elara was pious and just and indicates that, though himself a non-Buddhist, had patronized Buddhism. Elara’s love of justice, even in the eyes of the chronicler, was stronger than the affection for his own son for he executed him for killing a calf.
Dutthagamani’s march northwards in his campaign against Elara was along the right bank of the Mahaveli River. In the process, Dutthagamani had defeated Elara’s generals known as Chatta, Titthamba, Mahakottha, Gavara, Issariya, Nalika, Dighabhaya, Kapisisa, Kota, Halavabhanaka, Vahittha, Gamani, Kumbha, Nandika, Khanu, Tamba, Unna and Jambu. The Mahavamsa states that all these were Tamils but evidence for verification is limited. In the above list at least two names, Gamani and Dighabhaya, seem to be essentially Sinhala-Buddhist names. Dighabhaya was the stepbrother of Dutthagamani who had been sent to Kaccakatittha along the river Mahaveli by Kakavanna Tissa to guard the frontier buffer zone between Rajarata and southern Sri Lanka. It seems he subsequently went over to Elara’s camp. For this reason, even he is called a damila, surely in a derogatory sense, by the chroniclers. In this connection, it is relevant and significant to mention that at one stage in the battle the Sinhalese are said to have killed their compatriots because they had not been able to identify their foe. Such a situation could have occurred only if there had been a substantial number of Sinhalese in Elara’s army.”
Views of Karthigesu Indrapala (2005)
“The account of the Duttagamani-Elara conflict in the Mahavamsa has formed the basis of twentieth century perceptions of the relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in ancient Sri Lanka. Interested persons have been reading into it the ideas of their time. Even reputed scholars seem to have been carried away by the nationalistic feelings of their time when they used the Mahavamsa account of the above conflict in writing the history of ancient Sri Lanka. Perhaps the best example for this is Paranavitana’s chapter entitled ‘The Triumph of Dutthagamani’ in the University of Ceylon – History of Ceylon. This detailed account of Dutthagamani’s battles follows closely the account of the Mahavamsa. The vivid narrative in the Mahavamsa reads like an eyewitness account. It is not possible to assume that such eyewitness descriptions of the battles had been preserved from the time of Dutthagamani and that the author of the Mahavamsa, writing nearly six centuries later, made use of eyewitness accounts for his narration. Following the epic style of the Sanskrit kavya, the author of the Mahavamsa was only recreating the battles with his knowledge of contemporary warfare or epic wars. It would be hard to accept that Mahavamsa description of the campaigns of Duttagamani as historically reliable.
Further, Paranavitana describes the battles waged by Duttagamani as ‘a campaign of liberation’ aimed at ‘delivering the Sinhalese from foreign domination’. These are ideas that belong to a period closer to our time than to the early historic period in which Elara and Dutthagamani, like many other rulers in the island at that time, were waging battles for territorial power. The Mahavamsa author, far from portraying the reign of Elara as a period of foreign domination from which the Sinhalese were waiting to be liberated, expresses in unequivocal terms that it was a time of just rule and that the king, though not a Buddhist himself, followed the tradition (caaritam anupaalayam) of patronizing the Buddhist Sangha and considered himself as deserving the death penalty when he had accidentally damaged a Buddhist monument. Mahanama is not to be blamed for the interpretations given by Paranavitana and others. Dutthagamani’s time was a period when chieftains in the whole region, in Sri Lanka and south India, were engaged in bloody battles against one another in a bid for territorial expansion and extension of power. The conquest and rule of Anuradhapura by a chieftain from some part of south India was no more foreign than that of a chieftain from Rohana.
It must not be forgotten that Mahanama presents both the victor and the vanquished as noble humans. Dutthagamani is portrayed as one who displayed great nobility in victory, not only through a deep feeling of remorse at the killing of many humans in battle but also through an act, unparalleled in Sri Lankan history, of honouring his enemy in death by building a cetiya (shrine) at the spot where he was cremated and ordaining worship. What is of even greater significance for the defence of Mahanama is the fact that this pious author deviates for a moment from the narration of historical events to tell the reader something that was happening even in his own time (more than six centuries later) in regard to Dutthagamani’s injunction to his people to worship the Elara monument. ‘And even to this day the princes of Lanka, when they draw near to this place, are wont to silence their music because of this worship’ are the words with which Mahanama ends his account of the conflict between Dutthagamani and Elara. 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.”
Views of Venerable Dhammavihari Thera (1989)
One of the most sensible and elegant commentaries which I had read on the treatment of prince Dutugemunu by the author of Mahavamsa chronicle was that of Ven. Dhammavihari Thera (1921-2010). He had delivered a lecture in 1987, at the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, which I happened to read from an anti-Eelam website sponsored by a group of Sinhalese who had settled in Australia. In his commentary, Ven. Dhammavihari faults the twisted interpretations offered by his senior Buddhist monk Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera (1907-1997) and even that of his university teacher Prof. Gunapala Malalasekara (1899-1973). What is also significant is that Ven. Dhammavihari Thera had asserted that “While speaking of Gamani’s war the Mahavamsa never uses the word Sinhala at any point.” Gamani here refers to prince Dutugemunu. Rather than paraphrasing, I provide excerpts of Ven. Dhammavihari Thera’s text below.
“Let us ask ourselves as to what this great war of Duttagamani is that we are now talking about. There are several basic questions for which we have to find answers.
- Is the Duttagamani-Elara war an isolated event in Sri Lankan history?
- Are there historical circumstances and provocations leading up to it?
- Do those who speak of it from different angles have a correct and adequate record of evidence?
- How far do we test the correctness and authenticity of translations and their consequent interpretations?
To most of those who write and speak on this subject, the Mahavamsa is the primary source of information. But most of them cannot read and understand it in the original. The translations and interpretations of it in English which our researchers use are too full of pitfalls. At the same time, the Mahavamsa is very much maligned by these self-same people…..
Now let us take a look at what historians and commentators on history say about Dutthagamani’s war. ‘History of Buddhism in Ceylon’ by Dr Walpola Rahula Thera published in 1956 has been one of the major sourcebooks (a secondary source) to students writing on Sri Lankan history….He deserves an audition first because he has been quoted on this issue in recent times, more than any other, especially by those who have their guns aimed at Duttagamani. I crave your indulgence to listen to a reasonable portion of his learned assessment of a historical situation which antedates him at least by two thousand years.
‘Dutta Gamani…organized a great campaign to liberate Buddhism from foreign rule. His war cry was ‘Not for the kingdom, but for Buddhism.’ The entire Sinhalese race was untied under the banner of the young Gamani. This was the beginning of nationalism among the Sinhalese. It was a new race with healthy young blood, organized under the new order of Buddhism. A kind of religio-nationalism, which almost amounted to fanaticism roused the whole Sinhalese people’ (p. 79)
You would recollect that we have already examined the circumstances leading to Dutthagamani’s war on which Rahula is here waxing eloquent. He is deliberately turning his back on the facts of history. Our first remark here would be that there is more speculation and wishful thinking than careful handling of authentic and reliable data. On p.63 of his learned thesis, he has already told that,
‘Even the Dravidians who ruled the island occasionally had to become Buddhists at least for the purpose of the office, whether they in their heart of hearts liked it or not. For example, Elara, the Chola prince who ruled in Anuradhapura in the 2nd century BC (i.e. the ruler whom Dutthagamani had to fight till he fell in battle) is reported to have gone to Cetiya pabbata (Mihintale) to pay homage to and invite the Sangha for alms…following custom (carittam anupalayam).’
….Our historical commentator Rahula, trafficking in dubious clichés like religio-nationalism, fanaticism, war cry etc. is obviously overreaching in many places in his learned thesis. He speaks of the Sri Lankans of Dutthagamani’s time as the Sinhalese: ‘a new race with healthy young blood.’ One is not sure whether Rahula ever consulted a medical laboratory for his blood tests, referred his case to a psychiatrist or consulted an oracle. He further says: ‘The entire Sinhalese race was united under the banner of the young Gamani.” [bold font, used by Sachi, for emphasis.]
One should applaud Ven. Dhammavihari Thera’s strongest criticism of Ven. Walpola Rahula thera, while the latter was alive. Ven. Dhammavihari Thera continues further.
“But let it pointed out that while speaking of Gamani’s war, the Mahavamsa never uses the word Sinhala at any point. It was clear to the author that it was Sri Lanka’s integrity that was at stake and it was Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage that was being threatened. Rahula is indeed trying to use a high-powered magnifying glass to look for a bone to pick in our national historical records: a fanatic ruler, dishonest arahants and whoever else he could round up. Perhaps a real need, for more reasons that one, at the time he started on his research. Look how he gets his slogans and puts up his posters.
‘His war cry was not for the kingdom, but for Buddhism’ This is a dangerously spiced translation. The plain statement of the Mahavamsa is ‘Not to bolster his position as a ruler for his glory and comfort, but to safeguard the religion (i.e. Buddhism) in the land: sasanassa thapanaya.’ (Mahavamsa, ch. xxv. Verse 17)
Ven. Dhmmavihari Thera’s pungent inference deserves notice. To quote, “You have now to see that it is the ill-use, or rather evil-use of basic source material by pioneering persons with ill-begotten certificates of clearance which made the Duttagamani episode in history unduly pathological. This consequently led to much maligning of a historical personality. Many Sri Lankan scholars, even before the time of Rahula, are to be held responsible for the creation of a situation like this. That a similar situation had been or is being created anew is beyond doubt. Whether this is the outcome of misguided enthusiasm, group interest, careless handling of research data, or blissful ignorance of the contents of documents written in an ancient language is a thing to be clearly sorted out. In the re-examination of the Dutugemunu episode, examples for each of these can be indicated. These are sins both of omission and commission.”
Subsequently, Ven. Dhammavihari Thera picks up an example of one particular Pali word ‘kunta’ and its translation into English by various commentators beginning from George Turnour and Wilhelm Geiger to the Sinhala natives Gunapala Malalasekara and N.A. Jayawickrama, and how the English translation of this Pali word slided from ‘spear’ (which was a Royal standard, always carried before the Prince, and a sceptre) into an aggressive war weapon ‘lance’.
I acknowledge that I don’t have a copy of Walpola Rahula Thera’s 1956 book, ‘History of Buddhism in Ceylon’ with me, to check the specific citations made by Ven. Dhammavihari Thera. It had been annotated by H.A.I. Goonetileke, as “An authoritative, well documented and objective study of the establishment of Buddhism in Ceylon, its adoption as the State religion and its development, the structure and administration of monasteries, and the activities of the monastic life. The social and economic background is considered all the time.” in his Bibliography of Ceylon (1970).
I’ll let Ven. Dhammavihari Thera to have the last word. To quote, “The most disastrous thing in history is when history relating to anything passes through a period of fermentation, when facts of history, particularly early history, get into what we could call brewer’s hands. It is as though early writers of history seem to have been perfectly trained in the art of brewing. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, two types of brewers seem to be clearly visible on the scene. There are those, both ancient and modern, who in the process of brewing add pride into their vats while the other group competitively adds prejudice to bring out an even more potent brew. It is not adequately realized that the pride of one group invariably turns out to be a cause of prejudice for the other.”
Though in his commentary, Ven. Dhammavihari Thera strongly critiqued the misrepresentations of Mahavamsa chronicle by his senior Walpola Rahula Thera in 1956, he had failed to offer proper context to the appearance of that work, on that particular year. It was the election year dominated by the elevation of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to the prime minister rank on his ‘Sinhala Only’ plank. What Walpola Rahula Thera used as dubious clichés such as ‘religio-nationalism, fanaticism and war-cry’ in his text found significant resonance in the then political context with his Sinhala Buddhist audience.
K.M. de Silva: A History of Sri Lanka, C. Hurst & Co, London, 1981, pp. 15-16.
Jothiya Dhirasekera (aka Ven. Dhammavihari Thera). Dutugemunu episode re-examined. Journal of Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, New Series, 1989; 32, 25-44. [Text of a lecture, delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society, in 1987. Material accessed on July 28, 2005, from the website http://www.spur.asn.au/dutu.htm ]
H.A.I. Goonetileke: A Bibliography of Ceylon, vol. II, 2nd ed., Inter Documentation Company, Zug, Switzerland, 1973. (originally published, 1970).
Indrapala: The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity – The Tamils in Sri Lanka c. 300 BCE to c. 1200 CE, MV Publications, Sydney, 2005, pp. 17-19.
Padmanathan: The Kingdom of Jaffna, Part 1 (circa AD 1250-1450), publisher Arul M. Rajendran, Colombo, 1978.
Walpola Rahula Thera. History of Buddhism in Ceylon: The Anuradhapura period, 3rd century BC – 10th century AD, M.D. Gunasena & Co, Colombo, 1956, 351 pp.
W.I. Siriweera: History of Sri Lanka – From earliest Times up to the Sixteenth Century, Dayawansa Jayakody & Co, Colombo, 2nd printing, 2004, pp. 31-34.
Ancient Tamil King Elala (aka Elara)
by Sachi Sri Kantha
February 14, 2018
The impetus for this commentary was provided by a ‘Note’ in a 2003 paper written by Buddhist monk Mahinda Deegalle, on violence and Theravada Buddhism. The ‘Note’ appended to this paper was,
“When I delivered an early version of this paper at the St. Petersburg consultation, Wesley Ariarajah pointed out that Tamil narration of this myth highlights that it was King Elara who proposed a dual battle, as opposed to King Dutthagamani, who is credited with that suggestion as recorded in the Mahavamsa. These diverse nationalistic readings of this pervasive myth by Sinhalese and Tamils need detailed future investigation.” [Note by Sachi: The spelling of ‘dual’, appears as in the original, and it should be a duel. In addition, I’ll also clarify below that the usage of the word ‘myth’ by monk Deegalle related to this duel is improper too.]
It is a pity that ancient Tamil king Elala (aka Elara) has been poorly served by Indian and Tamil historians of the past and present. Not only historians, even Tamil movie scriptwriters who specialized in ancient Tamil history (such as M. Karunanidhi, his nephew Murasoli Maran and lyricist Kannadasan) as well as movie stars who could have done justice to Elalan’s role, like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and SSR had somewhat ignored king Elalan in the 1950s!
When he was young, MGR acted in a minor role in Ashokumar (1941); a Tamil biopic on Emperor Asoka and his son Kunala (played by V. Nagiah and M.K.Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar), scripted by Ilankovan. Sivaji Ganesan did play brief drama scenes of Socrates (script written by Karunanidhi), Emperor Asoka (script written by Maran), and essayed biopics on Katta Pomman (script written by Sakthi Krishnasamy) in 1950s, and later Raja Raja Cholan (Aru Ramanathan). Furthermore, think for a while, how the world remembers Julius Caesar now? Only by the writings of Plutarch, Suetonius and Shakespeare. As Nehru aptly described in 1946, “Unlike the Greeks, and unlike the Chinese and the Arabs, Indians in the past were not historians. This was very unfortunate and it has made it difficult for us now to fix dates or make up an accurate chronology. Events run into each other, overlap and produce an enormous confusion.”
This source collection is meant to offer what has been written about King Elala, since 1859. I also present the political events that occurred in Europe, North Africa, Middle East, India and China, during Elala’s reign in ancient Ceylon. This has not been attempted by other authors.
Elalan is the Tamil form and had been used by Emerson Tennent (1859) and Sir Pon Arunachalam (1906). Elara is used by the Sinhalese. Arunachalam had used Elalan in the text, but in his table of kings who had received the attention of the author of Mahavamsa chronicle (presented nearby), the Sinhala form Elara is seen. One is not sure whether this is a printer’s error in typesetting, which went unnoticed by the author. In 1926, Mudaliyar Rasanayagam had used both versions ‘Elara or Elala’. The Tamil form, Elalan makes sense, since it is a combination of two Tamil words (Ellai = border; Aalan = ruler), the one who rules the borderland. Currently, Elara prevails in many texts, because Sinhalese historians had opted for this.
First, one should distinguish the differences among three words namely event, story and myth. These three words have been used carelessly and interchangeably by many contemporary writers (especially journalists and half-baked scholars). The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) dictionary definitions of these three words are as follows:
Event: a thing that happens, esp. one of importance.
Story: an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment
Myth: a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
In King Elalan’s case, Elala-Dutugemunu duel that happened in 161 BC was a historical event, akin to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in 218 BC. The Mahavamsa chronicle which was compiled more than 600 years later, after the historical event, was a story told for entertainment from a Buddhist priest’s angle. Legendary Sinhalese pioneer Vijaya’s landing in Lanka island or Lord Buddha visiting the island three times were myths, embellished by the Mahavamsa author. Kindly note that in the dictionary definition for myth, the last six words following the word ‘and’ is a critical component.
For the contemporary researchers, the name ‘Elara’ had simply become a backdrop moniker to be passingly mentioned in a sentence or two as the defeated Tamil (or Chola) king, in the duel with Sinhalese prince Dutugemunu. Here are two random examples:
Kristian Stokke (1998) writes, “The legendary conflict between Dutthagamani and Elara is one widely cited example of such ancient conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamil kings.” Rohini Hensman (2015) opines, “One of the stories central to the construction of a Sinhalese Buddhist identity is that of Dutugemnunu, who defeated the Northern Tamil king Elara.”
These analysts hardly have the interest or energy to study the historical background to delve into King Elalan’s period, then population of the island, linguistic and religious composition of the island dwellers, and cite one very recent reference that appeared 1980s!! These analysts also ignore the bias factor of Buddhist priests (bhikkus). The major sourcebook on King Elala, is Mahavamsa chronicle, written in Pali language around 5th or 6th century AD. Pali was not spoken or written by the populace in Ceylon. Only the Buddhist bhikkhus had to learn and use it for religious sermons. It is not known, what percentage of the then island’s population were bhikkhus. Even among this bhikkhu population, one cannot assert that all had literacy in Pali language – may be the upper limit could be 20-25%. This remains the same, even in contemporary Sri Lanka.
The thoughts of Garrett Champness Mendis (1966) on the implicit bias of bhikkus deserves notice here. “When the Mahavamsa was written, the writing of history in Ceylon was in the hands of bhikkhus, and they could not have written a work beyond the levels of their knowledge. They were men engaged in the study and teaching of Buddhism, and whatever they wrote had to depend on the knowledge they possessed and what was useful to them and their work in the spread of Buddhism.”
Elalan’s reign has now been ascertained to be from 205 BC to 161 BC – a cumulative period of 44 years. Assuming that he had to be at least 20 years to capture Anuradhapura kingdom, one can fix his birth year to around 225 BC. Thus, Elalan’s life span can be tentatively fixed for 61 years. He died in a duel (fought while riding an elephant) against a young prince Dutugemunu in 161 BC. This was, 61 years before the birth of Roman emperor Julius Caesar (100 BC – 44 BC).
It is also plausible that King Elalan might have been born around the time Emperor Asoka died. Jawaharlal Nehru had assigned Asoka’s reign from 273 BC to 232 BC, “after ruling strenuously for forty-one years.” If this is the case, Elalan’s birth year can be liberally advanced by another 7 years, from 225 BC to 232 BC. Then, at the time of his death, king Elalan might have been 68 years – not extremely senescent in comparison to the claims made for other kings listed in the Mahavamsa epic, by its compiler! It should also be noted that Buddhist missionary Mahendra (aka Mahinda), son of Emperor Asoka, died in Ceylon, in his 60th year [193 BC] during King Elala’s reign.
Contemporaries of King Elala
Who were King Elala’s contemporaries, other than his young rival prince Dutugemunu, in the then world? To the best of my knowledge, none had bothered to view this angle. Two of Elalan’s illustrious contemporaries in the Western world were,
Archimedes (287 BC – 212 BC) – Greek mathematic14ian and military engineer
Hannibal (246 BC – 182 BC) – Carthaginian General, who invaded Italy with 37 elephants.
Other renowned Elalan contemporaries include,
Eratosthenes (276 BC – 196 BC) – Greek astronomer
Apollonius (262 BC – 190 BC) – Greek mathematician
Shih Huang Ti (? – 210 BC) – China’s ‘First Emperor’ of Ch’in Dynasty
Terence (195 BC – 159 BC) – Roman dramatist
Hipparchus ( ~ 190 BC – 120 BC) – Greek astronomer
Seleucus (~ 190 BC – ?) – Greek astronomer
Recorded Political Events during King Elalan’s Life Span
246 BC – 210 BC – The reign of Shih Huang Ti (‘First Emperor’) of Ch’in dynasty in
China. He brought China into a unified state. To defend his borders on the side from which they were most frequently attacked, Huang Ti constructed the Great Wall. This had probably already existed in part, but he completed and strengthened it.
221 BC – Cleomenes, King of Sparta, fled to Egypt and died in 220 BC.
220 BC – Euthydemos of Magnesia overthrew Diodotos of Baktria and usurped his
Kingdom. Euthydemos considerably extended the Greek power in India.
219 BC – 201 BC – Second Punic War.
218 BC – Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps (Little St.Bernard Pass),
Invaded Italy from the North, took Turin, and defeated Publius Cornelius Scipio at Ticinus River.
217 BC – Hannibal defeated Romans at Lake Trasimene.
216 BC – Philip V of Macedon made alliance with Hannibal.
212 BC – Romans under Marcus Claudius Marcellus conquered and sacked Syracuse;
Archimedes killed during fighting.
210 BC – ‘First Emperor’ Shih Huang Ti died.
207 BC – After the defeat of his brother Hasdrubal on the Metaurus, Hannibal retired to southern Italy. Feeble ‘Second Emperor’ of Ch’in dynasty in China was murdered, and Ch’in dynasty collapsed.
206 BC – Antiochus III of Syria, after making war on Euthydemos of Baktria,concluded peace and acknowledged his independence. He then crossed the Paropamisos into India and made a treaty with Sophagasenos (aka, Subhagasena), and returned in 205 BC through Arachosia
202 BC – Scipio Africanus decisively defeated Hannibal at Zama. Han dynasty established in China by Liu Pang. Practice of recruiting officials by means of examinations was initiated.
200 BC – 197 BC – Second Macedonian War.
198 BC – Antiochus III of Syria took Palestine from Egypt.
195 BC – Hannibal fled to Antiochus III of Syria. Demetrios of Baktria invaded and reduced Panjab during the reign of his father Euthydemos.
193 BC – Mahendra (aka Mahinda), Buddhist missionary and son of Emperor Asoka,
died in Ceylon, in his 60th year.
192 BC – Antiochus III, aided by Hannibal, landed in Greece. War between Sparta and Rome.
191 BC – Antiochus defeated by the Romans at Thermopylae, and at Magnesia (in 190 BC).
190 BC – Demetrios of Baktria succeeded his father.
189 BC – Hannibal defeated by Rhodian fleet at Eurymedon River.
183 BC – Pisa and Parma in northern Italy became Roman colonies.
182 BC – Hannibal committed suicide in exile, to avoid extradition by Rome.
180 BC – Rise of Andhrabhritya or Satavahana dynasty.
178 BC – Pushyamitra, overthrew Brihadratha, the last of the Maurya dynasty, and founded the Sunga dynasty in Magadha, 137 years after the establishment of Maurya dynasty by Chandragupta’s coronation. Pushyamitra is also mentioned in the Asoka Avadana, as a persecutor of the Buddhists.
172 BC – Roman army defeated by Perseus.
168 BC – Perceus defeated by Romans at Pydna.
Compared to the reign and glory of his predecessors like Emperor Asoka (41 years) and his contemporaries like Shih Huang Ti (36 years) and Hannibal (around 16 years), that King Elara had a 44-year reign in Anuradhapura tells something about health vigour, tenacity and popularity among his citizens. Even his successor Dutugemunu could reign only for 24 years!
Description by James Emerson Tennent (1859)
“a Malabar of the illustrious Uju tribe, who invaded the island from the Chola country, killed the reigning king Asela, and ruled the kingdom for forty years, administering justice impartially to friends and foes.
Such is the encomium which the Mahawanso passes on an infidel usurper because Elala offered his protection to the priesthood; but the orthodox annalist closes his notice of his reign by the moral reflection that ‘even he who was a heretic, and doomed by his creed to perdition, obtained an exalted extent of supernatural power from having eschewed impiety and injustice.’
But it was not the priests alone who were captivated by the generosity of Elala. In the final struggle for the throne, in which the Malabars were worsted by the gallantry of Dutugaimunu, a prince of the excluded family, the deeds of bravery displayed by him were the admiration of his enemies. The contest between the rival chiefs is the solitary tale of Ceylon chivalry, in which Elala is the Saladin and Dutugaimunu the Coeur-de-lion. So genuine was the admiration of Elala’s bravery that his rival erected a monument in his honour, on the spot where he fell; its ruins remain to the present day, and the Singhalese still regard it with respect and veneration.”
Description by Sir Pon Arunachalam (1906)
“The Tamils reestablished themselves ten years later under Elala, a prince of the Chola dynasty. The dethroned dynasty took refuge in Magampattu, on the southern coast, where the great tank and dagoba at Tissamaharama still stand as monuments of their rule. Elala at Anuradhapura, according to the Buddhist chronicles, though a heretic, ‘ruled the kingdom for forty-four years, administering justice impartially to friend or foe.’ At the gate of his palace hung, according to the custom of the Chola kings, the Arachchi Mani or ‘Bell of Inquiry’, communicating with the head of his bed and the ringing of which secured immediate inquiry and redress of grievances. Fables, which the Mahawansa gravely records, grew up that the very birds and beasts sought and obtained redress. His unswerving justice inflicted capital punishment on his son. For unintentional damage caused to a Buddhist dagoba by his chariot he offered his own life as atonement, but the aggrieved persons were pleased to accept other restitution.
The tomb, erected where he fell by his generous foe Dutugemunu, a scion of the old line, is still regarded with veneration by the Sinhalese. ‘On reaching the quarter of the city on which it stands,’ says the chronicle, ‘it has been the custom for the monarchs of Lanka to silence their music, whatever procession they may be heading.’ Well may the Sinhalese be proud of chivalry so rare and unprecedented? So uniformly was this homage continued, says Tennent, that so lately as 1818, on the suppression of an attempted rebellion against the British Government, when the defeated aspirant to the throne was making his escape by Anuradhapura, he alighted from his litter on approaching the quarter in which the monument was known to exist, and although weary and almost incapable of exertion, not knowing the precise spot, he continued on foot till assured that he had passed far beyond the ancient memorial.” The ‘defeated aspirant’ mentioned by Emerson Tennent (as described by Major Forbes, in his 1840 book) was the Sinhalese Adigari Pilima Talawa. James Rutnam had presented this episode in his paper on Elara’s tomb. (see below)
Description by Nandadeva Wijesekera (1990)
Among the items I had read until now, a distinctly negative portrayal of King Elalan appears in Pundit Dr Nandadeva Wijesekera’s book, The Sinhalese (1990). The author had promoted himself as ‘the first anthropologist from Ceylon’. He had received a PhD in Archeology and Fine Arts from Calcutta University. Wijesekera’s version deserves attention for the presented mix of facts and fiction; as such, I quote relevant material in full below, with my annotations within parentheses.
“….No trace of Elara’s invasion is found in Tamil literature except the legends of a price and a calf found in the reign of Manu.
During the reign of King Asela 185 BC, a Damila (Tamil) named Elara from the Chola country landed at Mavatutota with a large army of nearly 100,000 men at the mouth of the river Mahaveli on the east coast of Lanka. From there the army marched to Anuradhapura. King Asela was killed and the Kingdom was seized. Elara destroyed many temples built by King Devanampiya Tissa. Even at that time, Mavatutota (probably Trincomalee) was a big harbour which could accommodate a large number of ships. Having overcome opposition Elara established 32 military camps and appointed 20 great giants. An account of these camps is found in the Nikaya Sangrahaya.
It is said that Elara was a Damila of noble descent from the Chola country. Here the Cholas are called Damilas (Tamils). Chola is the name of the country and the people who inhabited it were called Damilas (Tamils). These people were different in race, religion, language and culture from the Aryans of the North. They belonged to the Dravidian stock whilst the Sinhalese belonged to an Aryan stock. These two communities were psychologically opposed to each other.
Mahavamsa refers to the righteous behavior of Elara during his reign of 44 years in Sri Lanka. Three legends are recorded in support of that impression. The Mahavamsa for some unknown reason tries to impress the reader with the sense of justice dispensed by Elara as King to friend and foe alike. Another story stresses the fact that he was a respector of tradition. By this was meant Buddhist virtues. The practice of satyakriya by fasting established the virtue of justice.
…In the case of Elara, too, a section of the Sinhalese of the kingdom of Anuradhapura may have supported the invaders. According to the chronicle, Elara was presented as a virtuous and just ruler who respected traditions and honoured the Bhikkhus. Could he have been a local ruler who overthrew the King with the help of a Damila army from Chola country? [Note by Sachi: This proposition had been raised previously by Mudaliyar Rasanayagam in 1926 and Perera in 1970. See below, the subheading ‘Previous Publications. Wijesekera repeats the same proposition. The logic is, it is rather difficult to reconcile with the fact recorded in Mahavamsa chronicle, that King Elara ruled Anuradhapura for 44 years! Without popular support, he couldn’t have achieved this record, whereas many of Elala’s successors had relatively short reign not exceeding 25 years.]
In the case of all other invasions from South India especially by the Damilas of the Chola country, the Mahavamsa refers to the utter destruction caused to temples and dagobas. Books were burnt. [Note by Sachi: This is an anachronism! Books available in Ceylon, before Johannes Gutenberg’s movable print invention of 1438! Wijesekera probably meant leaf (ola) manuscripts. One can comprehend, why he had to insert this. The description on King Elala appears in the chapter entitled ‘Enemy Invasions – Tamil Terrorism’. Thus, in 1990, he was justifying the 1981 book burning or biblicist conducted by the Sinhalese army elements in Jaffna.] Tanks were damaged. The Cholas acted like demons without any regard to life and property. That was not all. They removed the King’s treasures and sacred objects of Buddhist veneration. In a few instances, even Sinhala Kings and Queens were taken away as hostages. The Sinhala literary works agree with the record in the Mahavamsa.
The description of the State of Lanka regarding Elara’s rule given in the Sinhala literary works differs considerably from that in the Mahavamsa. These paint a horrible picture of the Anuradhapura kingdom during Elara’s rule. The Tamils were desecrating the precincts of the Sri Lanka Mahabodhi and Ruvanveli Seya. Nandamitra killed about 50 Tamils every day. (See Rajavaliya, Thupavamsa, Nikayasangrahara, Saddharmalankaraya and Pujavaliya.) [Note by Sachi: What Wijesekera had hidden is the fact that all the cited works appeared only after the 12th century AD, after the Chola empire’s domination of the island. Thupavamsa’s Pali version was written ~ 1250 AD. It’s Sinhalese version appeared before 1260 AD. Pujavali was authored by Bikku Mayurapada around 1266 AD. Nikayasangrahara was written by Mahathera Jayabahu, surnamed Devarakkita around 1369 AD. Rajavali was compiled as late as the beginning of the 18th century. The pejorative descriptions about King Elala’s rule between 205 – 161 BC, without any positive archaeological, epigraphical, and radiological data by these later authors have to be dismissed as belonging to the category of fiction.]
In skimming the five volume bibliography on Ceylon, compiled by H.A.I. Goonetileke, I could locate only one reference to King Elala, in the title of a paper published in an obscure Sri Lankan journal. It was authored by a Perera in 1970, with the caption ‘The lineage of Elara, king of Anuradhapura and his possible relationship with the Aryan predecessors of the ruling house of Ceylon’. Of course, many papers on Elala’s adversary Dutugemunu were listed in Goonetileke’s bibliographical collection. These had to make reference to Elala as well. As I couldn’t check the complete contents of Perera paper, I provide what bibliographer Goonetileke had annotated about this paper. The particular annotation reads, “[It] seeks to sustain a theory that King Elara (205 – 161 BC) was not as commonly believed a South Indian Cola in origin, but more likely belonged to a family of one of the early Aryan rulers of Ceylon. Poses the continuing supposition of this lineage assay to future scholars.”
In fact, Rasanayagam (1870-1940) had raised this suggestion passingly in 1926. According to Rasanayagam’s thoughts, “It is said that Elara belonged to the noble dynasty of the Cholas, and some of the mythical legends of justice and liberality connected with the ancient Chola kings are also attributed to him. His royal connection is, however, doubtful as tradition connects him with voyages on the sea. The traditional belief among the Tamil sea-men that the mention of his name in times of distress would bring relief, and songs containing his name sung while rowing or tacking confirm the tradition. [Foot note: The chorus of the songs sung by Tamil sea-men ends with the words elelo, elelo, elavali, elelo.]”
In 1981, James Rutnam (1905-1988) presented his extensive study on Elara’s tomb, and the excavation attempts of it: (a) first made by the British archeological surveyors S.M. Burrows and H.C.P. Bell from 1884 to 1900; and (b) that of Sinhalese archeologist Senarath Paranavitana (1896-1972) in late 1940s. Paranavitana had attempted to dubiously claim that the Elara’s tomb, was that of his rival Dutugemmunu. Rutnam had rebutted this posturing, by citing the subsequent research by R.H. de Silva. The text of this paper had been posted by N. Satyendra in the now defunct Tamil Nation website. By contemporary standards, based on the subsequent findings of Sinhalese and non-Sinhalese historians, archeologists and epigraphists listed in the foot note 32 (Saddhamangala Karunaratne, Roland Silva, K. Indrapala, B.A.L.H. Gunawardena, A. Liyanagamage, W.H. McLeod, Srima Kiribamune and Kingsley M. de Silva) of Rutnam’s paper, Paranavitana’s archaeological research have to be tagged simply as research fraud.
Even 50 years ago, quite a few Tamil researchers had serious doubts on the ‘discoveries and findings’ of Paranavitana’s ‘trend-setting research’ in projecting the ‘Sinhala first’ policy. But, due to political correctness and for fear of being accused as ‘Tamil racists’ by their employers, they couldn’t openly defy the state-sponsored Paranavita brand of research. Now, the other shoe had fallen! On Paravitana’s defective state of mind in the 1960s, I located an interesting reference as a footnote, in a 2014 paper related to one Mahanaman, the projected author of Mahavamsa chronicle, published by Vincent Tournier (a French researcher), in the Indo-Iranian journal. Tournier had made it official, “More specifically, at some point during the 1960s and until his death in 1972, Paranavitana seems to have suffered from some kind of mental disorder, which led him to forge a number of epigraphic documents in Sanskrit, the so-called ‘interlinear inscriptions’, which he used to justify his earlier theories. This sad alteration of the scholar’s state of mind, leading to damaging consequences on Sinhalese historiography, has been analysed in detail in Guruge and Weerakkody…Paranavitana’s fallacies have no place in a scholarly work…”
What Rev. W.J. Brodribb wrote about Hannibal (Elalan’s senior contemporary) in 1880, “Considering his fame, we should have expected to find a number of anecdotes about him. There are, however, only a few.” applies equally to King Elalan, too. This could be partly attributed to what Nehru decried as reticence of ancient Hindus in recording history. I plan to follow up with a commentary on the author of the Mahavamsa chronicle [Mahanaman(s)] and the anachronism of the early kings of Ceylon, who preceded King Elala.
- Arunachalam: Sketches of Ceylon History, Colombo Apothecaries Co., Colombo, 2nd ed. 1906.
Rev. W.J. Brodribb: Hannibal. In: Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th ed., vol. 11, Adam & Charles Black, Edinburgh, 1880, pp. 441-445.
Mahinda Deegalle: Is violence justified in Theravada Buddhism? Ecumenical Review, 2003; 55(2): 122-131.
Mabel Duff, C: The Chronology of Indian History: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century, Cosmo Publications, Delhi, 1972.
Bernard Grun: The Time Tables of History, newly updated edition, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982.
Rohini Hensman: Post-war Sri Lanka: exploring the path not taken. Dialectical Anthropology, 2015; 39: 273-293.
Kenneth Scott Latourette and C. Martin Wilbur: China, In: Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 5, Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicago, 1958, pp. 508-538.
G.C. Mendis: Problems of Ceylon History, Colombo Apothecaries Co., Colombo, 1966, p. 76.
Jawaharlal Nehru: The Discovery of India, Ninth impression, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1989 (originally published in 1946).
Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam: Ancient Jaffna, being a Research into the history of Jaffna from very early times to the Portuguese period, Asian Education Services reprint, New Delhi, 2003 (originally published in 1926).
James T. Rutnam: The tomb of Elara at Anuradhapura. 1981. Complete text in Tamilnation.org [http://tamilnation.co/heritage/tomb_of_elara.htm]. accessed, Feb. 12, 2018.
Kristian Stokke: Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism as post-colonial political projects from ‘above’, 1948-1983. Political Geography, 1998; 17(1): 83-113.
James Emerson Tennent: Ceylon – An account of the Island Physical, Historical, and Topographical. Vol.1, Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, London, 1859, pp. 353-355.
Vincent Tournier: Mahakasyapa, His Lineage, and the wish for Buddhahood: Reading Anew the Bodhgaya Inscriptions of Mahanaman. Indo-Iranian Journal, 2014; 57: 1-60.
Nandadeva Wijesekera: The Sinhalese, M.D. Gunasena & Co, Colombo, 1990, pp. 515-519.
Posted February 15th, 2018.
Filed under Sri Kantha.
No Responses to “Ancient Tamil King Elala (aka Elara)”
- March 7th, 2018
- A very interesting analysis of our ancient Tamil Saivite king Elala by Mr Sri Kantha. Regarding the name Elalan, Elala, and Elara, it would have been a little more informative if the author also mentioned the Tamil King’s name as per the ancient stone inscriptions. Even though the Tamil name should be Elalan, the ancient written Tamil names (as per inscriptions) were ending with an ‘a’ very similar to Prakrit/Pali (presently Sinhala) names. It was only during 2nd century CE to 4th century CE (Tamil Brahmi III – the third stage) that the Tamils developed what is called as the ‘pulli (dot) system’ after which the Tamils were able to write the names ending with ‘an’ and ‘am’.The Mahavamsa was an elaboration of the earlier Dipavamsa. However, it should be noted that nothing is said in the Dipavamsa of a war between Elara and Duttugemunu nor about Duttugemunu killing Elara (appears to have been added by the Mahavamsa author for a specific reason – to make Duttugemunu the saviour of Buddhism). Just around ten lines/verses in the Dipavamsa about the Elara – Duttugemunu was blown up into 11 chapters in the Mahavamsa written 2 centuries later. Could Elala be a local Chieftain who overthrew the Anuradapura King with the help of a Tamil army from Chola country? Even though some Sinhalese writers consider not only Elala but also Sena and Kuttaka as invaders, some others consider them as local Saivaite Chieftains who rebelled against the imposition of Buddhism and were able to conquer the throne at Anuradapura. Also, there are no historical records in Tamil Nadu for any reference to Chola invasion during Elala’s period. Hope Mr Sri Kantha can elaborate further on the above.
- Sachi Sri KanthaMarch 8th, 2018I do appreciate the thoughts and additional comments provided by correspondent Anandan.
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