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,
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
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,
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.