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DateLine Sunday, 17 August 2008





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Unsurpassed heroism

Women in Mahavamsa:

A close examination of Mahavamsa, the great chronicle which contains the details of Sri Lanka’s authentic history, makes us understand that Sri Lankan women had always been leading relatively independent lives compared to contemporary Indian women. From the very early days of the history ,they had actively engaged in matters of the government. Four queens of whom Mahavamsa talks of alone would vouch for the fact.

In India, even during the period of the Buddha in the 6th Century B.C, the position of women in society was extremely low. Male dominance and male chauvinism were acute in society and the birth of a girl was treated with scorn. One major reason for this was the need of manpower to be used in wars.

However tragic the story of Kuveni may be, though there are lots of contradictory interpretations of her role in Sri Lanka’s history, it is impossible to ignore her character when talking of ancient women in Sri Lanka as she is the first woman we come across in Mahavamsa. She was a tribal queen who lived in the country at the time Prince Vijaya arrived in Thambapann , on the day the Buddha attained Parinirvana in Kusinara, India.


She could act bravely and independently when confronted with a set of men who were complete strangers Amidst the objections raised by her relatives, she was courageous enough to be the wife of prince Vijaya. Her decision making power (though it later dug her own grave) was such that she could even go against her relatives to the extent of giving Prince Viaya the authority to rule the land.

 The place where Princess Devi landed is known as Kirinda today

Later as King Viaya betrayed her after establishing power over the land, she was courageous enough to go back to her relatives though she had sensed by then what her plight would be. Anyway sensing the impending danger, she was also careful not to take her children along with her.

Baddha Kachchayana was a Sakyan princess of whom Mahavamsa talks with much pride and emphasis. She was a dazzling beauty who had to come on a journey of destiny to Sri Lanka, at her father’s behest. She became the queen of King Panduvasdevu.

Princess Chithra, Baddha Kachchayana’s only daughter too is significant in the country’s history. It was not merely her great beauty (that made everyone spellbound at the sight of her) that made princess Chithra a much talked of character in history.

Her role is pivotal as the mother of King Pandukabhaya, the founder of Anuradhapura kingdom, the glory of which remains to this day as the kingdom which lasted for over thousand years.

Princess Chithra was imprisoned in an “ek Tam geya” by her brothers following a prophecy made by a prophet soon after her birth. The forecast was that if princess Chithra bears a son one day, he would become the king by killing all his uncles. So she was not allowed to mingle with others freely and had to lead a solitary life.

Anyway despite all the obstacles princess Chithra was clever enough to carry on a secret affair with her cousin. The movement which she put into operation silently is symbolic of women’s ability to fight for their rights. Chithra’s mother, Queen Baddha Kachchayana was constantly by her side.

When Princess Chithra bore a son, it was her Queen mother who took necessary steps to send the baby to Doramadalawa. Though it could be even interpreted as an act of betrayal (from the point of view of her sons), in fact it was not only for the rights of her daughter that she stood for, but also for women in general.

It was Baddha Kachchayana who coined a new name for the baby by joining the names of her husband and elder son who was always sympathetic of Princess Chithra. The baby was thus named a Pandukhabaya.

Though her son lived several miles away from her princess Chithra managed to send him to a proper teacher at the right time. All these are sufficient to prove that even at an early age, despite the society being highly patriarchal, women could act on their own, without abiding by rigid rules imposed by men.

Another woman we come across in Mahavamsa is Pali, the daughter of Girikandhashiwa who later became the queen of King Pandukhabaya. Her encounter with Pandukhabaya was accidental.

As she was on her way to the harvesting festival which her father and his helpers had been attending, she met him. When Pali took a leaf to serve Pandukhabaya and the group, it turned to gold. The sight reminded the Prince of a prophecy made by his teacher some time ago about his future wife and decided to marry her.

After the incident she came to be known as Swarnapali. The role she played in history as the chief queen of the founder king of Anuradhapura kingdom was outstanding. King Devanampiyatissa, during whose reign Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka, was a grand son of Swarnapali, Mahavamsa reveals.

Anula was the queen of King Devanampiyatissa’s younger brother Maha Naga who was a ‘Yuwaraja. Just like Queen Prajapathi of India who played a major role in establishing the Bhikkhuni Sasana in India, here in Sri Lanka it was Queen Anula’s constant pleas that expedited the arrival of Sanghamitta Therani in Sri Lanka.

Queen Anula along with 500 other women entered the first stage of the path to Nibbana after listening to the Dhamma preached by Arhat Mahinda on the second day of his arrival in Sri Lanka. Queen Anula was intelligent enough to grasp the contents of such an indepth dhamma discussion instantly. Since the arrival of Arhat Sanghamitta, Queen Anula had been leading a religious life observing ten precepts confining herself to a asapuwa.

The errand Maha Mahendra thera sent to Emperor Dharmashoka read as follows:

“Please make necessary arrangements to send Arhat Sanghamitta to the country in order to ordain Queen Anula, the queen of ‘Yuwaraja’, brother of your colleague, Devanampiyatissa. Also make necessary arrangements to send a sapling of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.”

Mahavamsa Teeka mentions how Queen Anula and five hundred women were ordained after the Therani’s arrival. Queen Anula not only entered the Order, but also attained Arhathood. So undoubtedly in the history of Country’s Buddhism, specially when dealing with Women’s role in it, Queen Anula’s name is unforgettable.

Vihara Maha Devi

The sacrifice princess Vihara Devi made is unparalleled. Gods got enraged as King Kelani Tissa mercilessly killed an Arhath by immersing him in a cauldron of boiling oil and in order to punish the king for the heinous offence that he committed, a tsunami struck the island unexpectedly.

To appease the gods, the king decided to set afloat his daughter, Princess Devi as a sacrifice to the sea gods placing her in a gilded canoe. Princess Devi was destined to make such a sacrifice and her journey created history.

The canoe reached the Southern coast of the island (known as Kirinda today) safely and when this was brought to the notice of King Kavanthissa, ruler of Ruhuna at that time, he took charge of her.

Mahavamsa says that since she had not attained age by the time she reached there, the king’s maids had attended to her every need and as she reached the proper age, king Kavantissa had made her his Chief queen.

Vihara Devi, who came to be known as Vihara Maha Devi later, was significant in our 2559 year old continuous history mainly because of her son King Dutugemunu. She was a deeply religious woman and it was said that she played a major role in inculcating patriotic feelings in young Prince Gemunu’s mind.

She was known as a wonderful mother who always directed her sons in the proper path. She had always supported the attempts King Dutugemunu made to unite the country. Mahavamsa also talks of her visits even to the battlefront to advise her son. Since the son always listened to his mother’s advice, he could easily overcome many a difficulty. Moreover the service she rendered to protect the Buddha Sasana is significant.

Soma Devi’s unselfishness is exemplary. She was a queen of King Walagamba and was brave enough to get down from the chariot in order to allow the king flee from the warfront quickly. The chariot was carrying the King,

Soma Devi, queen Anula and her two sons. Since Queen Anula was pregnant, Soma Devi voluntarily got down from the chariot into the jaws of the enemy. Harum queens were never known for their kindness for eachother and in that backdrop, queen Anula’s sacrifice was exceptional. No sooner She got down from the chariot she was captured by one of the Tamils who were chasing after the king and was taken to India.

Queen Seewali who reigned the country only for four months was the daughter of Amanda Gamini, and the sister of King Chulabhaya (34-35A.D). She succeeded to the throne after her brother Chulabhaya, but was overthrown from power soon by Ilanga who became the king.

King Ilanga’s queen was a tactful woman according to Mahavamsa who knew how to act wisely according to the situation. When enraged Lambakarnas (High caste people who served the king) imprisoned the king in his own palace, the queen set a plan to rescue the king as she knew that Lambakarnas will kill him at the end.

She dressed her little son and asked his nursing mothers to take him to the royal tusker (Magul Atha) along with an errand. Mahavamsa perhaps with a bit exaggeration states how the nursing mothers read the queen’s message to the tusker after placing the baby by its feet. It read thus:

“This prince is the son of the king who is being imprisoned. It is rather better if you crush and kill the baby than letting him get killed by the enemies in the near future. These are the words of the queen.”

The royal tusker who was intelligent enough to understand what it meant dashed the door of the palace where the king was being kept.The elephant then placed the king on its back and took him to Mannar (Mahathota) and let him flee. The king returned to his kingdom after three years with a strong army and re-established his power.

Meththa was the wife of King Subha’s Chief Commander (Senapathi). She was not at all hesitant to go against certain unjust decisions of her husband. Reacting to a prediction by a prophet (that one day a person called Wasabha will become the king of the country) king Subha gave orders to massacre everyone in the country who bore the name Wasabha.

The Commander too had a relative called Wasabha working at their place. Being avaricious over the monetary gains, the commander decided to hand over their relative to the king. It was Meththa who saved the boy’s life from the jaws of death by instruting him to leave the area immediately.

The young boy who thus fled became the king of the country later. King Wasabha rendered a great service to the country ruling the country for forty five years.

Ancient Sinhalese women were brave enough to raise objections even to certain acts of the kings if they adversely affected the country. It was a woman who got Sanghamithra thera and Minister Sona killed as they inspired King Mahasen to engage in anti-Buddhist -activities. (destroying Maha vihara, etc) All these show that ancient Sinhalese women were brave enough to arrive at decisions independently and bravely according to the situation.

The story of the Sangha shows the courage ancient women had to work on par with men. She always stood for her rights. She was the daughter of Mahanama’s Chief queen. Prince Soththisena was also a son of the king born to a Tamil woman. After the demise of Mahanama, Soththisena became the king.

Princess Sangha who was of the view that she was the rightful heir to the throne, was brave enough to make her husband, Chaththa Gahaka the king after getting king Soththisena killed. Mahavamsa says that it was not because Soththisena was born to a Tamil woman that Sangha raised objections, but because she was the daughter of King’s chief queen which made her legally accessible to the throne.

Another unforgettable woman whom we come across in Mahavamsa is Sugala, the daughter of King Maha Vijayabahu. She gave leadership to people of Ruhuna in their concerted battles against King Parakkarmabahu who was eager to unify all Sri Lanka under his control.

After the death of Manabarana, she became the leader of Ruhuna. Since she owned the sacred tooth relics, the ownership of which was compulsory in asserting one’s right to accede to the throne, her presence was a huge threat to King Parakramabahu.

Though he was a mighty king, it was only after a gruesome war that he could take the area under him. This shows the tactfulness and the military strength Queen Sugala possessed. Her strength ,courage and bravery are remarkable in Sri Lanka’s history.

Leelawathi, a queen of Maha Prakramabahu who ruled the country from 1197 A.D to 1200 is considered the third queen of the country. Kalyanawathi too was a queen of the country(1201 A.D.-1208 A.D). She was the chief queen of Keerthi Sri Nissanka. According to Mahavamsa she was a devout buddhist who even compiled a book called “Dharmadhikarana”.

However not all women are known for their virtues. King Sulumugalan’s wife tried to keep the power in her hands even after the death of the king.

She wanted to give power to her son. She made her the son, Keerthi Sri Megha the king and ruled the country the way she wanted turning the whole process upside down. Her short sighted behaviour weakened king Keerthi Sri Megha’s reign.

King Devanampiyatissa’s queen was Anula. For her own misfortune she never wanted to participate in any of the religious programmes launched by the king. Fearing that her own son won’t get the opportunity to become the future king because of Yuwa raja, Maha Naga, she schemed to kill him.

She sent poisoned mangoes to the place where Maha Naga was monitoring the construction work of Walas wewa (Tharachchi vapi) But ironically it was her own son (who had been in the same site) that died in the end. Maha Naga who was intelligent enough to understand the plot fled to Ruhuna. In fact it was Anula’s evil deeds that resulted in the emergence of the kingdom of Ruhuna.

Mahavamsa talks of quite a few women who had the name Anula. Even the first Sinhalese queen was Anula. She was the chief queen of Chora Naga and was known as an evil woman who was sadistic enough to kill almost all her partners. First she poisoned King Chora Naga as she wanted her lover Siva, a doorman, to become the king.Anyway it was a prince called Tissa who rose to power in the end. Somehow she managed to Kill him and let Siva become the king and she became his queen.

After a while she started another relationship with a Tamil called Watuka. After the elapse of just a year and two months, King Siva was too poisoned by Queen Anula and Watuka was made the king. Watuka too had to face the same plight as he was killed as Anula wanted to make her next lover, Darakatiya, the king.Darakatiya became the King and assumed the name Tissa. Anula was his chief queen.

To quench her never ending desires she then started an affair with a Brahmin adviser called Neeliya and poisoned Darakati Tissa.

Then she made Neeliya, the king and became his chief queen. In the end as her lust was overpowered by her desire to take power into her own hands , she poisoned Neeliya and ruled the country for four months. Her sadism is well known in history.


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