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DateLine Sunday, 29 July 2007

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Ports in ancient Sri Lanka

If you want to travel abroad, what would you do? If you have money, today you can buy a ticket and travel either by plane or ship to any port of the world.

It led to a revolution when the Wright Brothers invented air travel in 1903. Until then, ships had been the main mode of travelling around the world. So, there were well-developed ports all over the world, rather like airports today.

The legend 'Ramayana', says that Rawana kidnapped Seetha and brought her to Sri Lanka on the 'Dandumonara', a vehicle similar to a plane. The same story describes how Rama and his people built a bridge to cross the Indian Ocean and Hanuma, who could change his body into that of a giant's, walked to Sri Lanka.

There's no proof about a 'dandumonara' recorded in history, therefore, it may have been just a myth, but the most important thing is that our ancestors knew the concept of flying in an object to another country.

Since ships were the main mode of travelling in ancient times, many people came to Sri Lanka for various purposes in ships. Some came as merchants, some as invaders and there were also some famous travellers like Fa-Hsien.

This little pearl of the Indian Ocean had some busy ports those days. The island was a central location for all the ships to get food and other things needed for the crew as well as the fuel for the ship.

Merchants found treasures like gems, pearls, Gajamuthu (ivory), cloth and even elephants in Sri Lanka. Through these sources, Indian and European kings got to know about this little island and they wanted this little pearl to be brought under their control.

The invaders first came to Sri Lanka as merchants, set up their enterprises and decided to take control too. The best example is the Dutch people who ruled our country once. The strategic central location of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, was a main reason for this good maritime trade system, which also resulted in many sea routes running through Sri Lanka.

Our country was connected by sea routes with ports in the southern, western and north-eastern regions of India, with ports in Arabia and also with China. Several local ports played an important role in trade carried through sea routes.

In the period prior to the 13th century, Mahatittha or the great port which is situated opposite Mannar on the north western coast facing the Arabian sea, was the most important trading port in Sri Lanka.

It was the most important port for ships coming from South India. The population around this port had a strong South Indian connection during many periods of history, but after the seventh century AD, the importance of the port of Mahatittha had faded to some extent.

There was also an increasing interest in the north-eastern zone of Sri Lanka where Gokanna (Trincomalee) port was located. This is a natural port and many countries tried to invade it because of its central position amidst sea routes in South Asia. Mahatittha continued as the chief port of Rajarata, at least upto the middle of the 13th century.

In the Jaffna peninsula, there were two important ports - Jambukolapattana and Uraturai (or Urathota. Jambukolapattana, which can be identified as Kankasanturai, is not mentioned as a port of trade, but was widely used as a port of embarkation and landing, in the Anuradhapura era.

The other port in the Jaffna peninsula, Uraturai, now known as Kyts attained importance as a port of maritime business activity especially during the era of the Polonnaruwa kings.

The Nainativu Tamil inscription, dated to the reign of Parakramabahu I, suggests that foreign ships overloaded with merchandise arrived at the port of Uraturai. Several other less important ports of the north, north western and eastern coasts are mentioned in the Chulavamsa as ports of the island in the 12th century.

Although the ports in the south are not mentioned like those in the northern, north-western and eastern parts of the island in the early period of the Anuradhapura kingdom, one exception is the port of Godapavata (Godavaya) in the Hambantota district.

However, the ports of the south and south-western coasts became important in international trade, when the capital of the island moved to those respective areas. Dondra or Devinuwara was another important commercial port in the south in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

The Dondra inscription of Parakramabahu II contains regulations to prevent the evasion of custom duties. The Kalyani inscriptions state that a ship sent by the Burmese King to Sri Lanka arrived at Weligama. Ports like Beruwala, Bentota, Wattala, and Chilaw too turned out to be of significance in the island's trade with foreign countries.

The Dambadeni Asna refers to the landing of foreigners at the port of Beruwala. When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the beginning of the sixteenth century, Colombo was Sri Lanka's major port.

Before we conclude, you would be interested to know the story how Hambantota got its name. In ancient days, there had been a type of boat known as 'Hamban'. So, the port or Thota where hamban were anchored was known as Hambantota.

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