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Monks, Caves and Kings: A Reassessment of the Nature of Early Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Author(s): Robin A. E. Coningham

Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 27, No. 2, Buddhist Archaeology (Oct., 1995), pp. 222-242
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/125083 .
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Robin A. E. Coningham

Thispaperbeginsbydescribingthe earlyhistoryof Buddhismin SriLankaas recordedin the two Pali
chronicles,the Dipavamsaand the Mahavamsa.Theirgeneralapproachtreatsthe introductionof
Buddhisminto the island as a royal packagesent by the EmperorAsoka to his Sri Lankanally
DevanampiyaTissa, throughthe former'sson anddaughter,Mahindaand Sanghamitta.Buddhism
was immediatelyacceptedas the state religion,thuslinkingit withthe destinyof the Sinhalapeople.
This patternis not, however, supportedby the only extantcategoryof Buddhistarchaeological
remainsfrom this period - over 1,000 Buddhistcave-dwellings.It is clear from their dedicatory
inscriptionsthat they were constructedby patrons bearing high royal titles about whom the
chroniclesare remarkablysilent.
By drawingfromstudiesof modernforest-dwellingmonks,it is possibleto identifymorefullythe
processesat workand to identifythe discrepancybetweenthe two records.It is arguedthatthe first
monksattractedpoliticalpatronageby virtueof theirasceticdisciplineand soon becameone of the
vehicles for competitionbetween localizedpoliticalorganizations.As this competitionended, a
single high king rulinga loose politicalfederationemerged, with the formerlyascetic monastery
communitiesas wealthyfeudallandlords;both were increasinglyinterdependent.This relationship
led to the creationof a foundationmythforevercementingthe interestsof the legitimaterulerswith
the survivaland patronageof Buddhism.


The island of Sri Lanka (former Ceylon) covers some 65,525 km2 and is located off the
extreme southeastern coast of the Indian Peninsula (see Chakrabarti Fig. 1, this volume).
Although it is separated from India by a narrow physical distance, the Palk straits,
culturally that distance is far wider. Whilst the southern Indian polities have been typified
as consisting of Hindu Dravidian speakers, the Sri Lankan polity has been typified as
World Archaeology

Vol. 27(2): 222-42 BuddhistArchaeology

?CRoutledge 1995 0043-8243

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka


consisting of Buddhist Indo-European speakers. Although Buddhism was brought to the

island only in the third century BC, well after its development in north India, Sri Lanka's
estimated 11,178,000 Buddhists currently represent South Asia's largest concentration of
this religion (Somasekaram 1988: 2). Buddhism's introduction to the island proved to be a
remarkable catalyst which aided the transformation of a number of largely undifferentiated societies into a single powerful kingly polity.
According to Buddhist tradition, as contained in the two Sri Lankan chronicles, the
Dipavamsa (Oldenberg 1982) and the Mahavamsa (Geiger 1934), Buddhism was
introduced to Sri Lanka as part of a royal gift sent by the Indian Emperor, Asoka, to his Sri
Lankan ally, Devanampiya Tissa in about 250 BC. This king immediately adopted it as the
state religion and became its first major Sri Lankan patron. This pattern, however, is not
supported by the only extant category of Buddhist archaeological remains from this period
- over a thousand caves on the island. It is clear from their donors' inscriptions that they
were constructed by many patrons, not just by Devanampiya Tissa. Some were even
constructed by kings who are not mentioned in the chronicles.
This study will attempt to use analogies with modern forest-dwelling monks in order to
recreate the practices and attractions of early Buddhism. It will be argued that the first
monks attracted political patronage and became one of the vehicles for competition
between localized political organizations. As this competition ended, a single high king
ruling a loose political federation emerged, with the formerly ascetic sangha (the monkish
community) as wealthy feudal landlords. This relationship led to the creation of an
orthodox tradition cementing the interests of the legitimate rulers with the survival and
patronage of urbanized Buddhism.
Before commencing, certain conventions adopted in the text should be explained. De
Silva's list of Sri Lankan rulers (De Silva 1981: 565-70) has been accepted as an initial
framework for the island's chronology. It should also be noted that inscriptions and
chronicles have been studied in translation and that all diacritics have been dispensed with
following the convention used by the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of India, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives (Robinson 1989). References in
the text to the three Sri Lankan chronicles, the Dipavamsa (Dvs), the Mahavamsa (Mvs)
and the Culavamsa (Cvs), have been reduced to Endnotes.

Early Buddhism and the Sri Lankan chronicles

The early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka is constructed from its two chronicles, the
Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa (Bechert 1978: 3). The former was composed at the end of
the fourth century AD, and the latter's earliest section, which covers the introduction of
Buddhism to the island, was recorded in the fifth century AD (Geiger 1934: x; 1960: 71).
Although both are later than the introduction of Buddhism to the island in the third
century BC, there is evidence that they were composed by Buddhist bhikkhus (monks)
from a variety of earlier chronicles, records of royal donations to the sangha, king lists and
political geohistories.
The general reliability of the chronological aspects of the chronicles can be illustrated by
the correlation between the royal genealogies contained within them and a series of royal


Robin A. E. Coningham






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Map of Sri Lanka showing sites mentioned in the text.

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka


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226 RobinA. E. Coningham

inscriptionsdatingto between77 BC andAD 9. The Dipavamsaand the Mahavamsarecord
that king Mahaculika(r. 77-63 BC)1 was a memberof the royalfamilywhichcarriedthe
nameDevanampiya(friendof the gods). His son, KutakannaTissa(r. 5148 & 44-22 BC),2
became king - as did his grandsonsBhatik Abhaya (r. 22 BC - AD 7)3 and Mahadathika
Maha Naga (r. AD 7-9 ).4 The latter'sson, Amanda GamaniNaga (r. AD 19-29),5 also
succeeded to the throne. This royal succession list conforms with the following
inscriptions,althoughthey are fromvariedlocalitieswithinthe island.Two were froman
isolated rock in a swamp in Polonnaruvadistrict, one from a cliff within a monastic
complex in Anuradhapuradistrict,and one from a rock within a monasticcomplex in
Monaragaladistrict(Fig. 1):
KutakanaAbhaya,son of Mahaculiof the Devanampiyafamily
(Paranavitana1970, II.I: no. 1)
Batiya, son of KutakannaGamaniAbhaya
(ibid.: no. 9)
the greatkingNaga, the grandsonof the greatkingTissa,the friendof the gods, andthe
son of KutakannaGamaniAbhaya
(ibid.: no. 23)
the great king Gamani Abhaya, friend of the gods, son of the great king Naga, and
grandsonof the greatkingPutakanaAbhaya,the friendof the gods.
(ibid.: no. 36)
It is clear that the genealogies contained by the two sources correlate closely,
notwithstandingerrorsinvolvingthe royal titles Gamani,Tissa, Abhaya and Devanampiya.

Having establishedthe reliabilityof the chronicles'genealogies, the next section will

presentthe arrivaland establishmentof Buddhismin SriLankaas recordedby them. It is
recordedthat duringthe firstyearof DevanampiyaTissa'scoronation(ca. 250 BC) as king
of Tambapanni(SriLanka),manymiraculousrichesappearedin the island.6The new king
decidedto send them to Asoka, the Indianemperor,as they 'wereboth intimatefriends,
unitedby faithfulaffection'.7He sent themwitha deputationconsistingof his chaplain,his
commander-in-chief,astrologerandministerwiththe words,'Presentthese mostprecious
treasuresto Asoka, my ally.'8Asoka returnedthe deputationwiththe gift of royalinsignia
for a second and imperiallysanctionedcoronation.He also sent a messageconcerninghis
own conversionto Buddhism:
I have taken refugein the Buddha,the dharma[the-doctrine],and the sangha[monkish
community];I have avowedmyselfa lay pupilof the Doctrineof the Sayaputta.Imbue
your mind also with the faithin this triad,in the highestreligionof the Jina, take your
refugein the Teacher.'9
At the same time, the theta (Buddhist elder) Mahinda, a son of Asoka,10and five
companionswere requestedby other elders to leave India and to 'convertthe island of
Lanka."'Mahindawas then againrequestedto convertthe island,thistime by Sakka(the

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka





I Anuradha


Ve {river)






0 0





Kuiem (reservoir)






Nuwara Wewa (reservoir)

O lsurumuni









Figure 2 Mapof Anuradhapura

showingsites mentionedin the text.

king of the gods).12 The six agreed and allegedly flew to Sri Lanka and landed near
Anuradhapura, the capital of king Devanampiya Tissa, on the Missaka mountain (now
known as Mihintale) 'as swans (alight) on the summit of a hill'."3It is also recorded that
Mahinda possessed great magical powers and the six supernatural faculties,14 whilst his five
companions were equipped with the six supernatural faculties.'5
Devanampiya Tissa was hunting on Mihintale and was led to the group by the yakkha
(spirit) of the mountain in the disguise of a stag.'6 Mahinda addressed the king by name'
and successfully converted him and his accompanying hunters.'8 The king requested the
six to proceed to his capital, but, declining the use of a chariot, they allegedly flew to
Anuradhapura."9A pavilion was erected for their use in the grounds of the palace so that


Robin A. E. Coningham

they might preach to and convert the ladies of the court.20The six then preached to the
city's citizens in the Elephant Stables21and in the Mahanandana pleasure garden to the
south of the city,22converting great numbers of them.
When night came the king asked them to stay in the garden, but Mahinda replied that
'The town . . . is too close by; in the night there will be a great noise; nay let us go to that
mountain which is like the palace of Sakka and well fitting for a retired existence'.23 The
king then offered another royal pleasure garden, the Mahameghavana, which 'is well fitted
for a retired existence and suits ascetic people'.24 The six agreed to spend the night there in
the royal pavilion.25The next day the garden was given to the sangha for the construction
of the Maha Vihara or great monastery (Fig. 2).26 Together Mahinda and the king
identified the locations of the important buildings to be built there,27and the king marked
the limits of the monastery with a plough.28 Each day the six went into the city to preach
and receive alms from the king; but when the rainy season approached, they returned to
Mihintale.29 Devanampiya Tissa followed them there and offered them cave-dwellings
saying 'venerable thera, take possession of these rock-cut cells'30and Mahinda marked the
new monastery's boundaries.3' Following this, the king's nephew and fifty-five chiefs were
ordained and joined the sangha.32
At the end of the rainy season, relics of the Buddha, consisting of his alms-bowl and
collar-bone, were collected from Asoka33 and the king of the gods;34and Devanampiya
Tissa began the construction of the Thuparama stupa (a stone and brick mound or
tumulus) for them.35The king's wife requested ordination from Mahinda but was told that
it could only be conferred by bhikkhunis (Buddhist nuns).36Therefore Mahinda's sister,
Sanghamitta, was sent for. She brought a branch of the bodhi-tree, under which the
Buddha obtained enlightenment, to Anuradhapura37and planted it in the Maha Vihara.
Royal patronage continued with the founding of further religious establishments,
including the Isurumuni monastery,38 Vessagiri monastery,39 Colakatissa Vihara,40 and
two convents.4' Devanampiya Tissa was succeeded by his younger brother, Uttiya, during
whose reign Mahinda died at Mihintale42and was cremated near the east gate of the Maha
Vihara where the site was marked with a stupa.43
These documents imply that the establishment of Buddhism in Sri Lanka was a royal
prerogative. Mahinda was sent during the reign of Asoka as part of the latter's efforts to
convert neighbouring states to Buddhism. The two principal missionaries, Mahinda and
Sanghamitta, were even his children. It is also clear that, once the Sri Lankan king had
been converted, Buddhism immediately become the state religion of the Anuradhapura
kingdom with royal sponsorship, and all the early Buddhist establishments and their
monuments were the result of the king's patronage. Although we know the locations of
nearly all of these early Buddhist establishments, they have been so developed and
expanded by later kings that no trace of the original structures have been identified.

Early Buddhism and the Sri Lankan inscriptions

In comparison with the above documentary record, the presence of early Buddhism in the
archaeological record is not so clear. Of the original establishments, there is a single extant
category of early Buddhist monuments - over a thousand cave-dwellings (Fig. 3). Their

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka



Plate I General view of early cave-dwellings at Vessagiri monastery in Anuradhapura (freestanding ornamental ashlar are later additions).

survival is due to their indestructibility; whilst other monuments have been remodelled or
robbed out, they have remained in a pristine state. Unlike the contemporary Indian
rock-cut caves of Barabar which were completely rock-cut, most Sri Lankan examples are
in a more natural state (Plate 1). Rahula describes a fifth-century AD technique for making
natural caves habitable. The cave was filled with firewood and set alight in order to remove
unpleasant smells and dislodge loose splinters of rock. The cave was then cleared of debris,
a wall built across the mouth and a drip ledge cut above the mouth to prevent rainwater
flowing into the cave (Rahula 1956: 114).
The dating of these caves is facilitated by the presence of inscriptions on the drip ledges
above the caves (Plate 2), without which it would be impossible to date or suggest a
function. The majority of these were recorded and deciphered during the late nineteenth
and early twentieth century; however, this work had begun as early as 1855 AD
(Paranavitana 1970, I: i). Although Paranavitana's monograph, The Early Brahmi
Inscriptions of Ceylon, contained 1,234 donations of caves, he noted that 'it cannot by any
means be claimed that all such records in the Island have been included' (ibid.: v). Each
inscription records the donation of at least one cave to the sangha between the third
century BC and the first century AD.
The inscriptions often contain information about the royal and religious affiliation and
occupation of the patron (Table 1). Of the 1,234 donations, seventy-nine were from royal
patrons or members of the royal family (ibid.: xlvi). To this number we may add


Robin A. E. Coningham



Plate 2 Detail of a drip ledge and early Buddhist donation inscription at Vessagiri monastery in

Paranavitana's category of local rulers and princes, resulting in a total of 6.4 per cent royal
donations. Twenty-one donations were from brahmans (members of high caste Hindu
priestly families) and their families, with occupations listed as treasurers, chiefs, royal
physicians and teachers. They represent 1.7 per cent of the sample, and one even records
royal connections (ibid.: no. 814). The majority of the titled donors, 372, are recorded
from individuals bearing the title parumaka (chief) and their families (ibid: lxxiv),
representing 30.2 per cent of the inscriptions. Donations by gamikas (village squires) and
Table I Details of the rank of donors of early Buddhist cave-dwellings in
Sri Lanka

No. of donations

% of donations

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka


their families (ibid.: lxxxvii-iii) account for 103 inscriptions, representing 8.3 per cent.
Another significant group is that of the gapatis (householders) and their families with a
total of sixty-six inscriptions, representing some 5.3 per cent. There are only thirteen donations from craftsmen, representing 1.1 per cent of the sample. It is also possible to make
comments on the religious affiliations of donors. As mentioned above, twenty-one caves
were donated by Brahmans or the relatives of Brahmans (ibid.: lxviii); in addition, there
were five donations by individuals with names that belong to a Brahman gotra (family)
(ibid.: lxix). The majority of patrons had names suggesting the very varied religious affinities possessed by the first patrons of Buddhism (ibid: cxxiii). One inscription even suggests
that the donor was himself a Brahman who had become a Buddhist monk (ibid.: lxviii).
Although there are seventy-nine royal donors, very few can be identified with individuals in the chronicles. Paranavitana failed to identify a single donation from the first royal
patron of Buddhism, Devanampiya Tissa (r. 250-210 BC). However, it seems possible that
nos. 2 and 31 are donations from one of his consorts and from the sister of one of his consorts (ibid.: liv). Only three donations, nos. 34, 46 & 47, have been identified from king
Uttiya (r. 210-200 BC), Devanampiya Tissa's brother and successor (ibid.: lii). Other
identified kings include Vankanasika Tissa (r. AD 111-114), the donor of no. 54 (Paranavitana, 1970, II. 1), and Lanjatissa (r. 119-109 BC), the donor of twenty-five caves in no.
428 (Paranavitana 1970, I).
Although it may be argued that many inscriptions do not allow the identification of a
particular king, there are cases of donations from kings who are not mentioned in the
chronicles. We can construct the genealogy of three generations of a previously unknown
royal family from the four inscriptions in the Kandy/Matale region. Pacina Rajha (king)
Naga, his sons Rajha Abaya and Tisa-aya (prince), and his grandson Tisa-aya, are mentioned in nos. 814, 831, 832 and 833. Another royal family were patrons in the Kegalle
area. Four generations of the family of king Duhatara made donations at the same sites
(ibid.: nos. 786, 792 and 795). They record the donations of the king himself; his son,
prince Siva; his grandson, prince Dusatara; and his great-grandson, Gamani-Siva. Three
generations of another unknown royal family are recorded in Badulla District (ibid.: nos.
756 and 757). Two inscriptions allow us to construct the genealogy of king Siva, his son,
prince Siva and his grandson, prince Siva. Another previously unrecorded king is found in
western Anuradhapura District, where no. 111 refers to Rajaputta (son of a king) Kanna,
the son of king Kanna. Yet another unknown king, Diparajha (king of the island), can be
identified in the donation of his daughter at Mihintale (ibid.: no. 37). Paranavitana believed that this referred to the ruler of Nagadipa (the Jaffna Peninsula) (ibid.: lxiii). The
most interesting donation is no. 813 in Kandy District. From this single inscription it is
possible to reconstruct five generations of a royal family which can be identified in the Sri
Lankan chronicles. The genealogy begins with king Mahaculi Mahatissa (r. 77-63 BC), who
was succeeded by his son, king Kutakanna Abhaya (r. 41-19 BC); his grandson, king Mahadathika Mahanaga (r. 9-21 AD); and his great-grandson, king Amanda Gamani Abhaya
(r. 22-31 AD). The cave itself was donated by the latter's son, Gamani Tissa, a son about
whom the chronicles are completely silent. They record only that his father, Amanda
Gamani Abhaya, was usurped and murdered by his uncle, leading Paranavitana to suggest
that 'the silence of the chronicles about him is due to the reason that he did not succeed'
(ibid.: lxi).

232 Robin A. E. Coningham

The epigraphic evidence suggests that the donation of cave dwellings for the sangha
became well developed between the third century BC and the first century AD. It also
appears that numerous noble and royal families were motivated into becoming patrons of
such sites. There are two clear discrepancies between this evidence and the chronicles.
Firstly, it is clear that the earliest kings of Anuradhapura were not the only patrons of
early Buddhism; only two donations from Devanampiya Tissa and three from Uttiya
have been identified at Mihintale. Secondly, it is clear that other kings were acting as
royal patrons in addition to the kings of Anuradhapura. We may suggest that they are
not mentioned in the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa because, when the records of the
earlier periods were being composed in the fifth century AD by the monks of the Maha
Vihara, the Anuradhapura kingdom had successfully absorbed the island's other
kingdoms. The chronicles thus may represent a contrived ecclesiastical tradition
legitimizing the contemporaneous status quo by awarding a central position to the
successful kings of Anuradhapura and ignoring the contributions of the failed kings. Such
an interpretation is further strengthened by the chronicles' silence about the failed
prince, Gamani Tissa.

Ancient and modern forest monks

It is clear from the above that the majority, if not all, of the early Buddhist remains in Sri
Lanka are cave-dwellings. This may be due to continual building and rebuilding within
early monastic sites near urban centres. However, the numbers of caves (well over 1,204)
suggest that they were an important focus for patrons, even though they were located in
remote and dangerous forest areas. It is argued here that the caves do not just represent
rainy season retreats of urban or village monks but that they represent a strain of
evidence which may help to explain why Buddhism became the island's established
religion. As the chronicles tend to describe only royal donations to orthodox monasteries
in the urbanized plains, we shall have to draw from mediaeval and modern examples of
the nature and appeal of cave and forest-dwelling monks in order to illustrate four
possible aspects of early Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
The first and most obvious attraction of modern forest-dwelling monks is their
surroundings. Their retreats are often located on rocky outcrops far from human
settlement, surrounded by a sea of jungle filled with wild animals. The symbiotic
relationship between the monks and wild animals is stressed by visitors, donors and by
the monks themselves. One of Sri Lanka's most successful forest monks of recent times
was Pannananda (AD 1817-87) (Carrithers 1983: 83). His relationship with wild animals
was almost miraculous, as he often shooed leopards away from his meditational walkway
(ibid.: 85). Nanananda, a twentieth-century forest monk, also encountered leopards,
bears and wild elephants (ibid.: 182-97).
A second attraction is that these isolated sites are often associated with the presence of
supernatural forces. For example, Pannananda experienced a number of supernatural
incidents. In one he was visited by a god who delivered a message to him to dwell in the
forest (ibid.: 87); in another he was tempted by the Mara (arch-enemy and tempter of the
Buddha) (ibid.: 84). Three days before he died, 'a certain person with a splendid

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka


beautiful body came through the sky in a gold chariot' and requested him to 'please
come' (ibid.: 88).
A third attraction is the ascetic dedication of forest monks. The Tapasa (ascetic)
Movement of the early 1950s attracted much lay support when Tapasa Himi, a former
orthodox monk, and his disciples lived in cemeteries (ibid.: 61). This association with
death is also found in other groups of forest monks; several use a skeleton as the focus
for meditation on the human body (Gombrich 1991: 332). Some more extreme groups
have even been known to use the bodies of the recently deceased for this purpose (Ravi
Jayewardene, pers. comm. 1994). Many forest monks also still collect their food by
begging within surrounding villages, rather than having it brought by lay donors as at
village or city monasteries (Gombrich 1991: 324-5). They are also generally thought to
practise solitary meditation rather than scholarship or preaching. This is not to suggest
a strong dichotomy between forest and urban monks; Tambiah points out that it is
possible to find scholars in forest monasteries and accomplished mediators in urban
monasteries (Tambiah 1984: 53). In many recent groups strict disciplinary practices
have been combined with meditation (ibid.: 58) (it is held that through meditation,
monks can arrive at a higher stage); however, there is insufficient space here to discuss
the various stages, whilst Tambiah has discussed these points in some depth (Tambiah
A fourth attraction is the miraculous or supernatural power, which is often recorded,
of forest-dwelling Sri Lankan monks. It was rumoured of Tapasa Himi that he could fly
and speak ten languages (ibid.: 61). There are many similar cases for both ascetic
behaviour and miraculous powers amongst recent forest monks of Thailand (ibid.:
These four factors attract lay support, given in the form of buildings, alms and
pilgrimage. Many lay-folk feel that the more ascetic the recipient of alms, the more
merit produced for the donor. New buildings are often loaned to monks during the
rainy season - earning merit for the donor, giving the house an auspicious start, and
requiring the monk to preach for the donor family (Gombrich 1991: 326). Merit can be
gained by renovating and cementing monks' dwelling-caves (ibid.: 378). Merit may also
be gained by offering food to monks; one forest monastery, Salgala, is so popular that
donations of food must be booked a year in advance (ibid.: 324). On occasions donors
have almost come to blows in their competition to feed notable ascetic monks
(Carrithers 1983: 206). Many lay-folk will go on pilgrimage to visit such monks. When
Tapasa Himi and his disciples stayed in Kandy in 1953, tens of thousands of pilgrims
visited them, including Hindus and Muslims (ibid.: 125). These reports are so similar
and fantastic that they might be based upon a template of an ideal saint's hagiography,
but this appears to be exactly the format in which the lay-folk wish to accept it.
The descriptions of Mahinda in the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa appear to correlate
closely with the above descriptions of modern forest monks. Mihintale, where the
monks first arrived and which they later chose as their rainy season residence,44 was far
enough from human settlement for Devanampiya Tissa to organize a hunt.45 It has
many outcrops which are still occupied by wild animals. In the 1920s, Still noted that
villagers had to clear bears out of the caves of Issurumuniya (Plate 3), another of the
first cave monasteries built in the reign of Devanampiya Tissaj before they could be

234 Robin A. E. Coningham


Plate 3 Interior view of an early cave-dwelling at Isurumuni Monastery in Anuradhapura showing

nineteenth-century plaster models of the clder Mahinda (centre) and companions receiving the
monastery from king Devanampiya Tissa (standing).

re-occupied by monks (1992: 132). Paranavitana, who collected many of the inscriptions,
recorded that:
Camping out at such sites was fraught with danger to life and limb, for they were, as
many of them still are, in the haunts of wild elephants, buffaloes, bears and
leopards. . . . Arriving at a cave which two thousand years ago gave shelter to a bhikkhu
who suffused the whole universe with thoughts of good will, one might be rudely
confronted by a she bear anxious about her youthful progeny.
(Paranavitana, 1970, 1: iv)
The chronicles also record that the first monks had various encounters with the
supernatural. Sakka, the king of the gods, asked Mahinda to convert the island.47The
yakkha or spirit of Mihintale, in the form of an elk, led Devanampiya Tissa to the monks.48
It is also recorded that devas (demi-gods) listened to Mahinda preaching at Mihintale and
were converted.49 Mahinda sent one of his followers to Asoka's court to collect the
Buddha's alms-bowl and then to the court of the king of the gods to collect the Buddha's
collar-bone.50 Mahinda and his five companions also possessed miraculous powers. They
flew from India to Mihintale,5' and from Mihintale to the city of Anuradhapura.52
Mahinda could communicate with his sister in India and asked her to bring a branch of the
bodhi-tree.53 Other miracles included relics of the Buddha:

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka


Amid the assembly the relic rose up in the air from the elephant's back, and floating in
the air plain to view . . . throwing the people into amazement . . . it wrought that
miracle of the double appearances, that caused the hair (of the beholders) to stand on
The miracle of the double appearance is when phenomena of the opposite character
appear in pairs, for example, the Buddha's miracle of producing streams of fire and water
(Geiger 1934: 120).
Earthquakes and other phenomena were witnessed, associated with the monks. When
Devanampiya Tissa presented the Maha Vihara to the sangha, a great earthquake
occurred;55 and, when Mahinda and the king walked round the new monastery,
earthquakes occurred at sites where important monuments would be built.56Later, when
the bodhi-tree was planted, an earthquake occurred and a great cloud produced rain for a
week.57 No connection is made between the early monks and meditation, the earliest
reference to a meditational trance occurring during the reign of king Subha (r. AD 60-7).58
A further reference is given during the reign of king Dhatusena (r. AD 455-73).59 However,
epigraphical evidence suggests that some of the early monks were taking part in
meditation. A number of cave-dwellings were inscribed with the name 'delighting the
mind', three with the name 'peak of intuition' and one with the name 'bringing the gods
down' (Paranavitana 1970, I: cxx).
It is thus proposed that the form of early Buddhism that came to Sri Lanka was very
similar to that practised by modern forest-dwelling monks. Such an analogy is not
far-fetched, since there is evidence for a long tradition of forest monks within the island.
There are references to forest monks and ascetics in the later Sri Lankan chronicle,60the
Culavamsa (Geiger 1928). Such monks were differentiated in this chronicle from those
monks living in villages (Geiger 1960: 202). Between the seventh and ninth centuries AD
they appear to have been given groves by donors rather than villages in the case of most
monks,6' a practice also found recorded in some of the earliest inscriptions in the island,
dating to between the third century BC and first century AD (Paranavitana 1970, 1: no. 469).
During the seventh century AD, a group called pamsukulins (those clothed in rags from
dustheaps) appear to have attracted substantial royal patronage.62Although they did not
occupy caves, they were located in isolated areas of jungle, strewn with boulders. Their
residences have been identified archaeologically at Ritigala, the Western Monasteries at
Anuradhapura (Bandaranayake 1974: 115), and at Vessagiriya, also in Anuradhapura.
The latter is also one of the earliest cave monasteries allegedly founded by Devanampiya
Tissa.63Generally, these sites do not possess the typical Buddhist cult structures found at
other monastic complexes such as stupas (Silva 1988: 1), but they are associated with
numerous meditational pathways, suggesting a strong link between meditation and forest
dwelling. The Western Monasteries have been identified as the Tapovana (grove of
penitents) of the Culavamsa (Geiger 1960: 203). It also is interesting to note that two of the
great mediaeval monastic forest centres, Dimbulagala and Ritigala, are associated with
yakkhas or spirits in the early chronicles.!' It is thus proposed that we may agree with
Tambiah that modern forest monks have a strong continuity with the past forest monks
(Tambiah 1984: 58).

236 Robin A. E. Coningham

Early Buddhism and the state in Sri Lanka: a summary
The early Sri Lankan chronicles record many occurrences of regicide, foreign invasion and
civil war within the island. There can be little doubt that a state of political instability was
rife prior to the introduction of Buddhism, and it appears to have been prevalent for many
centuries thereafter - as is well illustrated by the Mahavamsa's list of kings. Although the
office of kingship was stressed as a source of security for the country and donations for the
sangha, access to it was often through the force of arms. Thirty-eight per cent of the
Mahavamsa's sixty-two kings had no relation to the previous king, and only twenty-nine
kings ascended peacefully. The chronicles did not refer to successful monarchs with no
relation to the island's first royal family as usurpers; indeed, it is often recorded that they
ruled justly.65Close relatives were sometimes usurpers, but still the sangha did not criticize
them.66Another example of the instability is the widely differing status of the individuals
who became king. Some were relatives of the royal family,67others noble adventurers,68
horse traders,69 brahmans,70 commanders of the army,7' palace gate keepers,72 town
architects,73 woodcarriers,74 relatives of commanders of the army75 and royal counsellors.76 Many of the above were powerful individuals whose support was necessary to
obtain the kingship in return for titles and lands; but they were rivals. It was necessary to
marry into other powerful families for support, but this again produced rivals who could
claim the kingship.77
This instability - or rather lack of differentiation between the king and his rivals appears to be supported archaeologically at Anuradhapura (Coningham 1994). Although
the 100-hectare capital was occupied continuously from c. 600 BC to c. AD 1300, recent
excavations at the site have identified a structural level which is dated to c. 275-200 BC,
contemporary with the time of king Devanampiya Tissa. This contemporaneous nature is
accentuated by the find of a clay seal impression in this level from trench ASW2. The
impression reads 'of the chief Magha, the son of Tissa' (Coningham and Allchin 1992:
165); this individual may be the one who donated a cave at nearby Mihintale with the
following inscription: 'The cave of the chief Magha, the treasurer, son of the chief Tissa,
the treasurer, (is given) to the sangha' (Paranavitana 1970, l: no. 22). It is possible to
compare the structural and artefactual evidence for this level from seventeen localities
within the site, including the location of the royal palace. Although it had been expected
that only the royal complex would have been built of stone and brick (Hocart 1928: 151),
all the occupied localities yielded evidence of structures built of brick and stone
(Coningham 1994: 194-208). Indeed, the largest excavation trench ASW2 showed
evidence for a multi-roomed brick-and-tiled structure, with outbuildings and courtyard
(Coningham and Allchin 1992: 155-67). The above archaeological evidence suggests that
this mode of construction was the case all over the city. We may therefore suggest that the
king may not have been greatly differentiated from other wealthy and powerful citizens in
terms of access to building materials. It had also been expected that the kingly complex
would have had differentiated control over the import, manufacture and distribution of
exotic and elite goods. However, the artefactual evidence from the seventeen localities
suggests that each area had equal access to raw materials, and that their inhabitants were
engaged in the manufacture of 6lite finished products (Coningham 1994: 194-208). It thus
appears that the chronicles' details of unstable kingship in Anuradhapura may be

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka


- - - - w--



- - w-- -U






< CD






- - -






sla g



~ ~

Figure 4

Plan of multi-roomed brick-and-tiled structure excavated at ASW2 with evidence of

craft-working activities.

supported by the archaeological evidence of a royal complex with access to little more
wealth and resources than evidenced at those complexes belonging to wealthy citizens.
It is in this light that we must view the political background to the arrival of Buddhism.
Royal donations had existed before Mahinda's arrival. During the foundation of
Anuradhapura in the fifth century BC, some two centuries before Mahinda, king
Pandukabhaya erected numerous religious structures in and around the city. He built
shrines to yakkhas or spirits on the east, west and south of the city and a further one in the
royal precincts.78 He dedicated a chapel to the Queens of the West and tree-shrines to
Vessavana (Kubera, the god of wealth) and to the Demon of Maladies near the western
gate of the city.79He also established a cemetery to the west of the city and to its north,
structures for ascetics, a hermitage for ascetics, houses for niganthas (naked ascetics),
other 'ascetics of various heretical sects', and a monastery for wandering mendicant

238 Robin A. E. Coningham

monks.80It appears that the patronage of ascetic and wandering monks had already begun
some centuries before the arrival of Buddhism. This is not, of course, to suggest that
Buddhism immediately became the established religion; indeed, it is likely that these
groups, as well as others, continued to attract support. However, Buddhism became
identified with the Sinhalese throne, helping later Sri Lankan monarchs to keep their
polity ideologically and physically separate from the powerful Hindu states across the Palk
Straits. This may be reflected in the record that merit was gained by king Vattagamani
Abhaya (r. 103, 89-77 BC) for replacing a nigantha monastery to the north of
Anuradhapura with the Abhayagiri monastery,8' and by king Mahasena (r. AD 274-301)
for replacing Hindu temples with Buddhist monasteries.82
There still remains the question of why Buddhism was adopted. The key to this question
is the legitimization of kingship. We have already demonstrated that the early role of
kingship in Sri Lanka was unstable, perhaps allowing the ruler leadership only when facing
a common enemy to the state. Certainly early Sri Lankan kingship does not appear to have
allowed the development of a hereditary royal family. In order to achieve kingship,
powerful supporters had to be attracted by rewards of land or position. However, it was
also possible to gain support through the patronage of ascetic groups, as a demonstration
of wealth in order to attract prestige. Donations to the early Buddhists came from the elite
of the island, with 8 per cent from individuals with royal connections. This must represent a
form of competition which was undoubtedly also occurring in other media such as warfare,
patronage of the arts and supporting craftsmen.
Bandaranayake identifies concentrations of donatory inscriptions as 'indicators of
patterns of settlement in the PHEH [Protohistoric- Early Historic] period' (1992: 17). He
remarks that the density of inscriptions indicates the size (and therefore the power) of such
accompanying centres, which he terms 'pre-state polities' (ibid.: 18). Although this is an
attractive model, making use of Renfrew's theory of Early State Modules (Renfrew 1984:
94-101), there are a number of flaws. Firstly, no large sites marking pre-state polities have
been found, apart from Anuradhapura itself. Secondly, early inscriptions are only found
on rock outcrops. Does this mean that pre-state polities emerged only near outcrops?
Thirdly, it ignores the important role played by pilgrimages to places of great religious
significance. Although the model of competition makes a useful contribution to the
understanding of this period - it may be suggested that there were spheres of influence
belonging to 'royal families', such as the kingly Pocina family in the Matale/Kandy area competitors would also have been capable of making donations at places of great religious
importance outside their own spheres of influence. For such a model, we may adopt
Blanton's concept of competition at disembedded centres - that is, at important
ceremonial sites located in neutral, marginal territory (Blanton 1978: 36-7). Whilst the
forest complexes were not temporal capitals, they were spiritual and ritual ones; as such
they could have been special function centres, for example, the foci of inter-regional
military alliances between elite groups (Renfrew and Cherry 1986).
The ultimate goal of Buddhism is the removal of all desire. Undoubtedly, many donors
supported such aims, as suggested in inscription no. 338 'Princess Anuradhi . . . caused
this cave to be established . . . for the welfare and happiness of beings in the boundless
universe' (Paranavitana 1970, I). However, Buddhism's adoption in Sri Lanka may have
had more to do with the first missionaries' miraculous appearance and powers rather than
with their doctrine. We have shown that ascetics were already a focus for donations prior

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka


to the arrival of Buddhism; but Buddhism itself offered perhaps what the other groups
could not: harsh ascetic practices; miraculous powers; a desire to be in places of wilderness
normally inhabited by wild animals, demons and gods; a strong organization with links all
over the subcontinent; and an imperial connection in the form of Asoka's son, Mahinda.
The power of kingly connections should not be underestimated. It is clear from more
recent revivals of forest monks in Sri Lanka that leaders with noble connections appear to
have been the most successful in attracting material support (Carrithers 1983: 72). The
importance to rulers of such exceptional attractions has been characterized by Helms as
'the authority of distant knowledge' (1988: 131-71). The ascetic lifestyle of the early
monks may also have been an attraction; donations to individuals with great powers who
underwent hard ascetic practices could have been believed to bestow on the donor more
merit and prestige. Tambiah suggests that it was possible to 'fortify monarchical legitimacy
and creative powers by tapping the purity and charisma of the untarnished forest ascetics'
(Tambiah 1984: 77). However, once this had been done and a single royal succession
established, there was a need for a different form of tradition.
A new relationship between the king and the sangha was formed, leading to an
interdependence. Religious and ceremonial legitimization was given to the king by the
sangha in return for patronage. The rewards of patronage are clear from the words of
Mahinda to the first high king, Devanampiya Tissa:
A son of thy brother the vice-regent Mahanama, one named Yatthalayakatissa, will
hereafter be king, his son will be the king named Gothabhaya; his son will be (the king)
named Kakavannatissa; this king's son, 0 great king, will be the great king named
Abhaya, renowned under the title of Duttagamani.83
The king's response was to 'set up a pillar of stone, whereon he inscribed these sayings'.84
This relationship changed the Maha Vihara, originally a forest establishment, into the
centre of orthodox Buddhism in Sri Lanka, making it the established church of the island.
This is not to suppose that forest monks and their way of life disappeared; on the contrary,
these still played an important role in society. As Tambiah states, 'their better documented
role historically is their acting as a vitalizing force and a countervailing agent to the
religious establishment during times of religious purification and cultural renaissance'
(Tambiah 1984: 77).

I am very grateful to the following individuals for their help and advice whilst I was
researching this paper: Mr Rukshan Jayewardene, Mr Ravi Jayewardene and Dr
Christopher Knusel. As the research was carried out whilst I was conducting fieldwork at
Anuradhapura, I am also grateful to the following sponsors for their financial support: the
Society for South Asian Studies, the British Academy, the McDonald Institute for
Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, and Bradford University.
Department of Archaeological Sciences
University of Bradford
West Yorkshire BD7 I DP

240 Robin A. E. Coningham


Dvs XX: 22; Mvs XXXIII: 36.

Dvs XX: 31; Mvs XXXIV: 29.
Dvs XXI: 1; Mvs XXXIV: 37.
Dvs XXI: 31; Mvs XXXIV: 69.
Dvs XXI: 34; Mvs XXXV: 1.
Mvs XXXV: 15-19; XI: 7.
DvsXI: 25.
ibid.: 28.
ibid. XII:5-7.
Dvs 1: 27; Mvs XIII: 8-10.
Mvs XIII: 9.
ibid.: 29, 15.
Dvs XII: 37.
Dvs XII: 26.
Dvs XII: 26.
Dvs XII: 46-7; Mvs XIV: 3.
Dvs XII: 49; Mvs XIV: 7.
DvsXII: 60.
Dvs XII: 65; Mvs XIV: 43-4.
Dvs XII: 86; Mvs XIV: 46.
Dvs XIII: 4; Mvs XIV: 61.
DvsXIII: 11; MvsXV: 2.
Dvs XIII: 17.
ibid.: 20.
Dvs XIII: 25; Mvs XV: 12.
Dvs XIII: 31; Mvs XV: 25.
Dvs XIII: 36-64; Mvs XV: 27-56
Dvs XIV: 33; Mvs XV: 191.
Dvs XIV: 55; Mvs XVI: 4.
Dvs XIV: 67; Mvs XVI: 14.
Dvs XIV: 75; Mvs XVI: 15.
Dvs XIV: 71; Mvs XVI: 10.
Dvs XV: 10; Mvs XVII: 11.
Dvs XV: 15; Mvs XVII: 19.
Dvs XV: 5; Mvs XVII: 3.
Dvs XV: 76-7; Mvs XV: 20-1.
Dvs XV: 30; Mvs XIX: 49.
Dvs XVII: 91; Mvs XX: 14.
Dvs XVII: 91; Mvs XX: 15.
Dvs XVII: 91.
Mvs XX: 21.
Dvs XVII: 95
Dvs XVII: 106; Mvs XX: 53.

Monks, caves and kings in Sri Lanka


Dvs XII: 37; Mvs XIII: 19.

Dvs XII: 45; Mvs XIV: 1.
Dvs XVII: 91; Mvs XX: 14.
Dvs XII: 26; Mvs XIII: 15.
Dvs XII: 46-7; Mvs XIV: 3.
Mvs XIV: 38-41.
Mvs XVII: 16-21.
Dvs XII: 37; Mvs XIII: 19.
Dvs XII: 65; Mvs XIV: 43-4.
MvsXV: 113.
ibid. XVII: 44-5.
ibid. XV: 25.
ibid.: 15-55.
ibid. XIX: 44.
ibid. XXXV: 104-7.
ibid. XXXVIII: 113-14.
Cvs XLI: 99; LII: 19; LVII: 32; LXXXIV: 18-22; LXXXIX: 57; XCI: 25.
Cvs XLVIII: 4; XLIX: 80; L: 63.
Cvs XLVIII: 3, 73, 80; L: 63; LI: 52; LII: 21, 27; LIII: 48.
Dvs XVII: 91.
Mvs XXI: 10-11;XXI: 13-15.
Mvs XXXVI: 49-51.
Mvs XXI: 1.
ibid.: 13.
ibid.: 10.
Mvs XXXIV: 26.
ibid. XXXIII: 34.
ibid. XXXV: 51.
ibid.: 20.
ibid.: 21.
ibid.: 59
ibid.: 58.
ibid. XXXVI: 21.
ibid. X: 84-6.
ibid.: 89-90.
ibid.: 96-102.
ibid. XXX: 79.
ibid. XXXVII: 41-50.
ibid. XV: 168-72.
ibid.: 173.



Robin A. E. Coningham

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