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  • Buddhist Kingship, British Archaeology and Historical Narratives in Sri Lanka c.1750-1850
  • Sujit Sivasundaram


The ancient city of Anurādhapura continues to be a potent icon of Sinhala Buddhist identity in war-torn Sri Lanka.1 With its famous Bo tree (Ficus religiosa), said to be a sapling from the tree under which Buddha attained his enlightenment, and dome-shaped stūpa made of brick and earth with Buddhist relics at their core, Anurādhapura is now thronged with lines of pilgrims and curious tourists.2 This essay presents a new account of how this city came to have such powerful symbolic significance. Historians have already identified Brahmachāri Harischandra's The Sacred City of Anuradhapura (1908) as crucial to this story. In the preface to this work, the early nationalist described the ancient capital thus: 'there is no other city upon the universe that has maintained its position as a Sacred City replete with sacred objects of diverse kind, for a period of 2,200 years, except this city'.3 He added that Anurādhapura belonged to the Buddhists and that it had been built and maintained by the 'Sinhalese nation'. Harischandra was insistent on the need to protect the ruins from the 'vandalism' of the colonial Archaeological Department.4 Near the front of his book, there is a photograph of him at his writing desk, dressed in white with pen in hand. In self-presentation as well as in politics, he followed closely in the steps of Anagārika Dharmapāla, arguably the most important early nationalist in Sri Lanka.

According to the Buddhist chronicle The Mahāvaṃsa, Anurādhapura was founded by King Paṇḍukābhaya in the fourth century BC, in keeping with the advice of a soothsayer. Paṇḍukābhaya laid out four suburbs, a tank, a common cemetery and a place of execution. He instructed 500 people to clean the streets and built [End Page 111] huts for huntsmen, a hermitage for ascetics, a district for heretics and a hall for those recovering from sickness.5 Thus established, Anurādhapura continued, despite brief interludes, to be the capital of the Rājarata kingdom, which flourished until successful invasion from the south of India by the Cōḷa kingdom in 1017.6 In its heyday, Anurādhapura was an agrarian polity, dependent on agricultural surplus and on an intricate system of tanks and channels which allowed its arid soil to be cultivated. To be a good king was to contribute to the agricultural grid: Mahāsena (ruled AD 274-301) is particularly noteworthy for building sixteen tanks and canals; Dhātusena (ruled AD 455-73) built the tank named Kalāväva, which we shall encounter again. Part of the agricultural surplus was also used to build Buddhist stūpa. When first built, the dome-shaped stūpa dominated the skyline of Anurādhapura; they provided evidence of the state's dedication to Buddhism, and of the king's role as protector of religion. After Anurādhapura was invaded in 1017, its tanks and stūpa fell to ruin; the Cōḷa conquerors shifted the capital first to Polonnaruva, and with time it drifted even further south, until it was established far from the gaze of foreigners in the hills at Kandy.

Pradeep Jeganathan and Elizabeth Nissan, in their articles on how Anurādhapura became a sacred symbol, agree that Britons rediscovered the city in the nineteenth century, after they conquered the kingdom of Kandy.7 For Nissan, local chronicles, such as the Mahāvaṃsa, do not indicate any pre-colonial historical tradition that fed into British historiography; instead, she points to the accidental congruence between these chronicles and European historicism.8 Jeganathan is more explicit about how Britons [End Page 112]

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[End Page 113]

set in motion a new history of the city: he writes, for instance, of a 'radical rupture in the nineteenth century'.9 He does not subscribe to Nissan's thesis of accidental congruence because it limits the constructive power of colonial makings of history and archaeology. Despite their differences, both Jeganathan's and Nissan's accounts are similar in...


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pp. 111-142
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2007
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