SRI LANKA AND THE ANCIENT MARITIME SILK ROAD
Sri Lanka has been known since ancient times. The Greeks and Roman referred to Sri Lanka as Taprobane, and regarded it as the eastern edge of the world. The ancient Chinese called it the Island of gems. King Solomon reportedly sent emissaries to the City of Gems for precious stones to entice the Queen of Sheba. The six century Greek trader wrote "a great island...resort ships."
Early traders called Sri Lanka a "Second Eden! Pearls form Sri Lanka found their way ancient Rome. Sri Lanka is believed to have had a hand in supplying the Roman nobility with spices, perfumes, silks, ivory and pearls. Consumption of luxury goods had been criticised in Rome at as a drain on Roman wealth. Roman coins of the A.D. fifth century ave been found in Mantai, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and around Godavaya port in the southern Sri Lanka known as Ruhunu Rata.
Ancient chronicles mention that there was a direct trade-route between West India and Sri Lanka long before Vijaya’s arrival in the 6th century B.C. Sea lanes connected the Mediterranean Sea — via the Red Sea, Persia and India — to China and the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Sri Lanka was located at the crossroads of these sea routes. Pieces of porcelain, coloured beads and remains of old ships had been found in some of Sri Lanka’s ports.
Arab mariners called Sri Lanka ‘Serendipity” The “Arabian Nights” described the six voyages of Sinbad the sailor to the wonderful island of Serendipity. A Persian fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendepity” tells of wonderful discoveries made by princes. The 18th century English author Horace Walpole coined the word 'serendipity" to describe its "unexpected delights." Today serendipity means the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident!
Pearls, Gems and Elephants from Sri Lanka
Oysters found in plenty in the shallow seas off the northwest had further attracted overseas traders. Ancient navigators — the Phoenicians who sailed from the Red Sea had known of the existence of the priceless pearls in the shallow waters off Serendipity. [Source: R. W., The Island]
The Mahavamsa mentions Vijaya sending his father-in-law, the King of Madhurapura "a shell pearl worth twice a hundred thousand pieces of money." Devanampiyatissa sent priceless treasures to Emperor Dharmasoka that included eight kinds of pearls. The Greek writer of the fourth century B.C. Megasthenes, who was the first ambassador in India from Greece in the Maurayan court of Chandragupta notes that "Taprobane was more productive of gold and large pearls than those in India." To Arab traders, Sri Lanka was the fabled land of gems known as Serendib.
Megasthenes also reports of the export of elephants to India from Mahathiththa: "There were herds of elephants belonging to varied castes and they were stronger, bigger and more intelligent than those in India. Traders made boats with wood to transport elephants to the king of Kalinga." Tuskers may have however been in demand within the country. History mentions a rich trader, known by the name of his village, Dantakaara (meaning toothcraft) in Anuradhapura who got the villagers to turn out crafts exclusively with ivory, probably for export.
While we have had a surplus of elephants to be exported, horses, not being indigenous had to be imported. The horse was a mode of transport of the elite and were used for carriages and in warfare. The Mahavamsa mentions Sena and Guththika arriving from India for horse-trading while Rasavahini mentions Dutugemunu’s army general Velusumana having a "Saindhavi" horse, a breed of the Indus (Sindhu) Valley. Horses were also imported from Persia. The demand for horses was such that kings in very early history, exempted horse imports from taxes.
Jambukola and Mahatittha: Ports of Ancient Sri Lanka
Rohan Jayatilleke wrote: “The ports of ancient Sri Lanka played an important role both in the foreign trade of the island as well as in the inter-oceanic commerce between East and West. The situation of the Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean and to the extreme southern tip of the India Peninsula, resulted in Sri Lanka being in a strategic position of the sea routes linking countries on either side of the Indian Ocean. Of necessity, the fleets of Chinese vessels transporting silks and ceramicware for sale to the countries on the East African coast. Arabian vessels carrying the spices of the East to European markets had to touch at Sri Lanka ports, half-way in their sea routes for fresh water and re-victualling.
“The Pali chronicles and the Sinhala literature as well as inscriptions found scattered in the island provide a wealth of information to garner the antiquity of navigational importance of Sri Lanka ports. Jambukola and Mahatittha are two ports frequently alluded to in the Mahavamsa unfolding the earliest historical eras of the Island. Presumably the origin of these ports are not datable, however, it could be assumed without any predilection, that they were in existence long before the colonization of the Island by Aryans in the sixth century B.C., by Prince Vijaya and his ministers and the retinues. The pre-Buddhistic Jataka stories refer to many voyages by North Indian merchants to Sri Lanka, but none of them refer by name to their ports of call in the Island. The Valah Assa jataka story No. 196 refer to merchants calling at Sri Lankan ports for trade and also inhabitants amassing treasures by salvaging ship wrecks. In the Mahaniddesa Sri Lanka referred to as Thambapannidesha is one of the countries with which India traders had trade relations with.
“Jambukola, identified as the present day Kankesanturai, served as the port to North India, more especially to the port of Tamralpiti in Bengal, which was also a port from where Sri Lanka could be reached. It was from Jambukola that the envoys of King Devanampiyatissa set sail the Court of Emperor Ashoka of India. (Mahavamsa ch. 19. v23). Jambukola and Anuradhapura were connected by a highway and King Devanampiyatissa had the road prepared ( I bid ch 19 v 25) After the reign of King Devanampiyatissa, Jambukola diminished in importance and Mannar (Mahatitthe) which was only distance-wise to Anuradhapura, was half of it came into prominence. However, references are made in Mahavamsa to Jambukola as the port for religious intercourse from time to time. The Sacred sapling of Sri Maha Bodhia of Gaya (India) arrived in the charge of Theri Sanghamitta through Jambukola, and King Devanampiyatissa marked this event by building the Jambukola Vihara on the banks of this port (Ed.W.Stede; Sumangalavilasini. Part 1., PTS. Edition p.695).
The hive of activity however, did not confine to the coastal areas. As Anuradhapura was easily accessible from Mahathiththa along the Malvatu river bank, evidence suggests that trade had expanded into the city of Anuradhapura. Coins of 400 B.C. of the Ganges valley had been found in Anuradhapura. And due to the expanding commercial network as well as the necessity to sustain those involved in trade, the Mahathiththa-Arippu-Anuradhapura triangle had turned into a highly commercialised and a densely populated area attracting navigators, migrants, craftsmen, industrialists, suppliers of goods, tax-collectors, security-personnel and administrators as well. This area had also served as a zone where trade-routes as well as information pertaining to trade secrets, weather and sailing patterns were exchanged when navigators and traders hung around while ships were being serviced in the ports or trade-deals were finalised.
Former Commissioner, Archaeology, Dr. Sirhan Deraniyagala says that in the Anuradhapura city, an area was demarcated for traders and Mahavamsa speaks of a trading-community living in an area allocated by King Elara outside the city. A "Damila" was the leader of this trading-community. Mention is also made of 4 main gates in the Anuradhapura city connected to the main roads - Mahatheertha on the Northwest direction, Jambukola on the north, Gonagamapatana (Trincomalee) on the east and the other towards Mahakandara port.
Rohan Jayatilleke wrote: “Mahatittha port, in present day Mannar area, is first mentioned in connection with the landing of Vijaya's second wife and undoubtedly this port was known to mariners and merchants of India even in the pre-Aryan era. The existence of the Hindu shrine Tiruketisvaram, is a clear indication that Indian Hindus did carry on trade connections with Sri Lanka through this port and the existence of pearl fisheries too contributed it to become a port of great commercial activity both for the natives and the foreigners.
“Today Mahatittha is a buried city. In the pre 1980 period when travel to Mannar or for public servants from the south to work in the government establishments there were a possibility, the site of the port was a vast mound of piled up ruins, spread over nearly 300 acres and coins and beads laid bear after a shower. One of its main roads excavated many decades ago was almost 40 feet wide. (Archaeological Survey of Ceylon Annual Report, 1907, p 28. It is a pit during the colonial era excavations were done and these surveys have not been continued in the post independence period of Sri Lanka and any recommencement of surveys and excavations are now thwarted by the war situation of the area.
The fragments of Roman pottery, coins and other artifacts suggest conclusively that Mahatittha was a great port in the early centuries of the Christian era. In the Sangam Literature of the Tamils there are refereneses to this port as one of the greatest of the sea board of Sri Lanka and India. (C. Rasanayagam, Ancient Jaffna, p.14ff) It was through Mahatittha that all South Indian invaders invaded Sri Lanka, and the large community of Tamil traders in business at Mahatittha helped them in their military pursuits.
Mahatittha was not confined for intercourse with South India alone. There are authentic records of voyages from North India too. The Sacred Tooth Relic that was brought by the Kalinga Prince Danta and princess Hemamali to Sri Lanka in the fourth century A.D., it was landed at this port. The Pali work Dathavamsa fails to call this port as Mahatittha, but refers it to as Lankapattana (Dhatavamsa, Edited by Widurajothi Thero, Kalutara 1939,0.37). Interestingly the 12th century work Daladavamsa describes this port in most disparaging languages, probably of the fact it was a stronghold of the Tamil invaders and the gateway to Sri Lanka for overrunning Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms and also the presence of the Hindu temple therein.
The origin of Tiruketisvaram temple is shrouded in the mists of history, there was still another Hindu temple Rararaja Isarattu Mahadeva named after the Chola conqueror of Sri Lanka of the 11th century A.D. (Annual Report on the Epigraphy, South India, No. 616 of 1912) The predominance of Hindu culture, which could be traced to the reign of King Pandukhabaya. The name of Mahatittha was later changed by the Hindu community living there as Rajs-raja-puram (Annual Report on Epigraphy, South India No. 616 of 1912). This is not an uncommon happening as there is a place outside of Melbourne, Australia, called in Sinhala 'Mayiyokka Handiya' (Maniock Junction, renamed by some of the early Sinhala settlers who went as indentured labour, 500 in number to work in sugar cane fields of then Australia, from the port of Galle in 1882.
A Chola inscription refers to still another temple called Tiruviramisvaram Udaiyar at this port. (Ibid., No.618) Mahatittha was held in veneration both by the Sinhalese and Tamils and slaughter of cattle there was disallowed as a unpardonable crime. (E.Z.Vol III, p.133) the reference in the Saddharmalankaraya of a trader of this port proceeding inland for trading, indicates that there was free and fair access to all communities to this port as well as for other parts of the island on trade and commerce missions. (Ed. Gnanavimala: Saddhammalankaraya, Colombo, 1948. p.675).King Parakramabahu in the 12th century assembled an armada of battle ships at Mahatittha to invade Pandya Kingdom.
Godavaya: Sri Lanka’s 2nd Century Maritime Silk Road Port
Godapavata Pattana, west of Hambantota, was a port that dates at least to the A.D. 2nd century when it served as a stop on the early Maritime Silk Road A.D. More silk and Silk Road goods are believed to have reached the West via sea routes — often collectively referred to as the Maritime Silk Road — than by overland routes.Much of the trade on the Maritime Silk Road was carried out by Arab, Persian and Indian ships. The trip was dangerous. Many ships disappeared and no one has any idea where they went down. Godapavata Pattana has been excavated since the mid 1990s by archaeologists from the University of Bonn, Germany, directed by Prof. Helmut Roth has been working with the Archaeological Department directed by Director General Dr. W.H. Wijeyapala and the German Archaeological Institut (DAI). conducting joint excavations here.
Susanne Loos-Jayawickreme wrote in the Sunday Times: A has excavated “the temple area of Gotha Pabbatha RajaMahavihara in Godavaya... The temple area had been a religious and administrative centre since the reign of King Gajabahu I. A unique Brahmi inscription on a rock next to the ancient shrine room clearly states that this was indeed a significant sea-trading place...In ancient times, Sri Lanka was heavily involved in the export and import trade and exported dark red garnets that were in great demand in early medieval Europe. Up to the 7th century A.D., these semi-precious stones were found as burial objects in many European graves and new research reveals that most of those garnets were from India and Sri Lanka. Another money-spinner for Sri Lanka had been spices. Sassanian (Persian) and Chinese pottery was also discovered as import cargo and Roman coins as early foreign currency. [Source: Susanne Loos-Jayawickreme, Sunday Times, WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka]
“Ships from the East carrying silk from China exchanged their commodities with merchandise from the West in the transit harbour of Godavaya as trade ships from both directions usually did not go farther than Sri Lanka. Therefore, Ruhuna played an important role as a turntable of trade and commerce in early East-West trade. Up to the 6th century A.D. sea trade was busy. Articles of trade to and from the river shipping route as well as land routes were also switched at Godavaya.
This harbour town is mentioned in the Mahawamsa's chapter on "The 12 Kings". Even in early western books like the Topographia Christiana of the 6th century A.D., Sri Lanka is referred to as an important sea trade centre on the Silk Route...An excavation site on the east side of the ancient monastery” has a “custom office building, which was decorated with ornaments showing an elephant placing his trunk in lotus flowers. Normally, only the King was allowed to collect taxes. In Godavaya, the tax fees were donated to the temple for its maintenance. Clay seals bearing the emblem of a lion were used to seal goods and cargo as proof that the customs duty was paid.
“On top of the rock overlooking the entire area was the monastery, which dates back to the 2nd century A.D. On the west side of the monastery an elevated ancient image house (Buddhu gedera) and a chapter house (Dharma salawa) were excavated. Three different statues were discovered here: A standing Buddha about 3.50 meters tall and two Bodhisattva statues each about 1.80 meters in height. Traces of colour are evidence that the statues date back to a period before the 8th century A.D. The source of the colour is still a mystery, but it has withstood the weather.
“At the bottom of the rock was the settlement of Godapavata Pattana, sandwiched on the peninsula between the Walawe river's inland harbour and the sea harbour in the bay of Godavaya. "Many South Indian harbours carry the ending 'pattana" which means harbour," explains Oliver Kessler. Hence, close links existed between Lankan and South Indian harbours, because the Dravidian community organized the sea trade there.
“A landing jetty constructed of stone pillars Up to 3.50 meters high was part of the ancient harbour. While doing an underwater survey, the excavation team found one of the four ancient stone anchors discovered so far in Sri Lanka, the other three being found in Galle. Several Roman coins, beads, bangles, bricks showing guild marks in the shape of an O, a huge selection of pottery and rich decorations used for roofs and houses give clear evidence of a once prosperous time.”
Marco Polo in Sir Lanka and Southern India
Marco Polo (1254-1324) called Sri Lanka the “finest island of its size in all the world. “and described "rubies...sapphires, topazes, amethysts, garnets" there. He visited the island in the early 1290s. Polo is regarded as one of the world's greatest and most influential travelers. He set off on a journey to the East at the age of seventeen with his uncle and father as part of a diplomatic mission for Pope Gregory X. After a three-and-a-half-year overland journey through present day Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and China he met the great Kublai Khan who took a liking to the young man and used him as an emissary for 20 years. [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]
On his return journey from China back to Venice it took Marco Polo 18 month to go from Sumatra to India in 1293 and 1294. It is believed that he initially missed the monsoon's going his direction. He also may have been slowed by worries about pirates which he said inflict "great loses to the merchant." Sumatra to India. He referred to Sir Lanka as the "Isle of Seilan" and reported that pilgrims there visited the grave of Adam (probably a reference to Adams Peak). [Sources: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, May 2001, June 2001, July 2001 **]
Marco Polo estimated the circumference of Sri Lanka was 2400 miles, adding that it was once much bigger, measuring 3500 “as appears in the mariners’ charts of this sea.” He said, “The north wind blows so strongly in these parts that it has submerged a great part of this island under the sea.” The reference to marine charts is reason to believe that they were used by Indian Ocean sailors; however, none have survived. [Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005]
Back then, as is true today, Sri Lanka was famous for precious stones, particularly rubies. According to Marco Polo, the king owned a ruby the length of a man’s palm and the thickness of his arm, flawless “and glowing red like fire.” This royal ruby is also mentioned in the seventh voyage of Sindbad; Marco Polo says Khubilai Khan sent an embassy to purchase it, but the king would not part with it. Marco Polo also described men who walk on ropes between palm trees to collect sap for palm sap wine.
After Sri Lanka, Marco Polo landed on the southeastern, or Coromandel, coast of India. In India, Marco Polo stopped in Thanjavur (formally Tanjore) and Kollam in Kerala. It is believed that Marco Polo spent some time wandering around and checking out India by land. Of India, Marco Polo wrote the people have "all things different from ours, and they are more beautiful and better." He said their peacocks were "much more beautiful and larger" and rice and "all things which are needed by the body of man for life they have in great abundance." **
Marco Polo also described pearls, holymen, exotic spices, the abundance of indigo, bride burning, refusal to eat meat and the custom of smearing homes with cow dung. He also wrote how "Most worship the ox" and described "physicians who now well how to keep men's bodies in health" and used spices as cures. **
Ibn Battuta in Sri Lanka
Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) is regarded as the greatest traveler of all time. He was an Islamic scholar, jurist, judge, explorer, geographer from Tangier in present-day Morocco who traveled 120,000 kilometers (75,000 miles) through more than 40 present-day countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia during a 27 year period 700 years before trains and automobiles. He described his adventures in “Travels in Asia and Africa." Ibn Battuta was a contemporary of Marco Polo (1254-1324). His journeys preceded those of Columbus by about 150 years. Although he is little known in the West he is as well known as Marco Polo and Columbus in the Arab world. [Source: Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic, December 1991]
After the Maldives Ibn Battuta traveled to Sri Lanka. "Since reaching this island, I have had but one desire, to visit the blessed foot of Adam." Adams footprint was described by Ibn Battuta as "the blessed footprint...of our father Adam...sank into the rock far enough to leave its impression hollowed out." To reach the top of Adam's peak, a local Hindu provided Ibn Battuta with "a palanquin which carried by slaves, and sent with me four Yigis, three Brahmans...and fifteen men to carry provisions." Hindus believe the footprint belongs to Siva, the Buddhist to Buddha. Muslims believe it is where Adam took his first step after being expelled from Eden. The valley below is often shrouded in clouds. Ibn Battuta wrote: "When we climbed it, we saw clouds below us, shutting out the view of its base." [Source: Thomas Abercrombie, National Geographic, December 1991]
According to Nick Bartel and ORIAS: “Ibn Battuta visited Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on his way to China so that he could go on a pilgrimage to a holy site there: Adam's Peak. The mountain was sacred to Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists alike, for near the summit was a depression in a rock that looked like a huge footprint. For Buddhists it was the footprint of the Buddha, for Hindus, the print of Shiva. For Muslims it was the footprint of Adam, the first man and first prophet who had been thrown there by God from the seventh heaven. There he stayed for a thousand years before meeting Eve, the first woman. On the sacred foot-print on Sri Pada, Ibn Batuta wrote: "The Chinese came here at some former time and cut out a piece from the imprinted stone and reposited it in a temple in the city of Zeitung in China.” [Source: Travels of Ibn Battuta, Nick Bartel and ORIAS, U. C. Berkeley, ibnbattuta.berkeley.edu |::|]
“When Ibn Battuta arrived on Ceylon, he met with the king. The king was interested in his travel stories, and he entertained Ibn Battuta's party for three days. The king gave them permission to climb Adam's Peak - and he gave Ibn Battuta a small purse with pearls and rubies, two slave girls, and supplies as a parting gift. The small party of pilgrims climbed to the summit up the nearly vertical cliffs by means of little handholds held in the stone by iron pegs. Making it to the top, they camped there for three days which they spent in prayer and admiration of the spectacular view.
Zheng He in Sri Lanka
Zheng He (1371 to 1435, also known as Chêng Ho, Cheng Ho, Zheng Ho) was a Chinese navigator and eunuch whose achievements as an explorer rank with those of Columbus and Magellan but who has been largely forgotten because his travels had little impact on history. Zheng Ho (pronounced “jung huh”) embarked from China with a huge fleet of ships and journeyed as far west as Africa, through what the Chinese called the Western seas, in 1433, sixty years before Columbus sailed to America and Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa to get to Asia. Zheng also explored India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Arabia with about 75 times as many ships and men as Columbus took with him on his trans-Atlantic journey. [Source: Frank Viviano, National Geographic, July 2005]
According to Columbia University's Asia for Educators: “From 1405 until 1433, the Chinese imperial eunuch Zheng He led seven ocean expeditions for the Ming emperor that are unmatched in world history. These missions were astonishing as much for their distance as for their size: during the first ones, Zheng He traveled all the way from China to Southeast Asia and then on to India, all the way to major trading sites on India's southwest coast. In his fourth voyage, he traveled to the Persian Gulf. But for the three last voyages, Zheng went even further, all the way to the east coast of Africa.
Zheng He stopped in Galle in Sri Lanka and traded for gemstones, which Sri Lanka was famous for in ancient and medieval times. Friendly relations between China and Sri Lanka turned sour for some period when Zheng He was told by the Chinese Emperor to obtain the Tooth and Bowl relics of the Buddha from Sri Lanka. Zheng He may have taken the sacred tooth of Buddha back to China.and is on record for seizing the Sri Lankan king — who refused to recognize the Chinese emperor — and his family and took them as captives to China. The Chinese emperor released the royal captives and allowed them to return to Sri Lanka.
Before he left for China, Zheng He left a record in a tri-lingual stone inscription. This stone slab was discovered by a British road engineer, H.F. Tomlin in 1911 embedded in a culvert in the Galle town. Located at Dodra Head, the southernmost point in Sri Lanka, the Zheng He stelae paid respect to Buddha, Siva and Allah in Chinese, Tamil and Persian. Measuring four feet nine inches in length, two feet six inches in breadth and five inches in thickness, the stelae is now in the Colombo National Museum. It's unique in that all the three faiths are revered in a single inscription. Where it was originally set up remains a mystery.
Zheng He’s third expedition (1409-1411) was involved in a land battle in Sri Lanka and presented generous gifts to Buddhist temples. The fleet's only major land battle took place where Hindu Tamils of northern Sri Lanka and two rival Buddhist kingdoms in the south were fighting one another. Zheng was drawn into the fray in Sri Lanka when his shore party was attacked by the forces of a rebel Buddhist leader. Acting quickly, Zheng lured the rebel troops into a hopeless attack on the fleet, leaving their capital open to an easy assault. The rebel Buddhist leader was easily defeated in 1411. Freed from the conflict with his Buddhist rival, the Sinhalese king Parakramabahu was able to defeat the Hindus in the north and solidify his rule over all of Sri Lanka.
Intermittent tribute was sent from Sri Lanka to China from 1346 to 1445. Descendants of Chinese tradesmen who settled in the island set up business in several coastal towns, particularly in Galle where a China district (Cheena Koratuwa) was established. Up until World War II Chinese peddlers selling silks, other textiles and fancy goods were a common sight in towns and suburbs in Sri Lanka.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022