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In Ancient Times, Sri Lanka Was Everything It Wants To Be Now – OpEd

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Indo-Lankan trade flourished and Lanka was a hub in East-West trade

In the 21st Century Sri Lanka is aiming at becoming a hub in East-West international trade with Colombo and Hambantota ports playing a critical role. Sri Lanka is also aiming to increase trade with the Indian subcontinent though Free Trade Agreements with India and Pakistan. But both seem to be Herculean tasks given the imbalances in the economies created by changes in the economies, technologies and trading regimes. 

However, in the Early Historical Period  (which spanned from 6th Century BC to 4th century BC) Indo-Lankan trade was booming and Sri Lanka was a hub in East-West trade. At that time Sri Lanka had what it took be these. The trade and political regimes in Sri Lanka and elsewhere were open. The Commons too were open for free navigation, a condition which appears to the US and its allies to be under threat from rising China.    

Indo-Sri Lankan trade and cultural relations in the Early Historic Period  has been well documented by Prof.K.Rajan of Pondicherry University in his book: “Churning the Indian Ocean: Maritime Trade of Early Historic Peninsular India” published in 2019. 

Rajan says that if the similarities between South India and Sri Lanka were, and still are, striking, it is partly because they were part of a single land mass in the Pleistocene Epoch. In that Epoch, India and Sri Lanka were connected by a natural land bridge across the Palk Strait. The Pleistocene Epoch is defined as the time period till about 11,700 years ago. Stone artifacts found in Lanka which are identical to Indian artifacts have been dated between 45,000 to 80,000 BP (BP is “Before Present” with the year 1950 being considered the ‘present’).

Microlithic tools found in Teri in Tamil Nadu are similar to those found in Lanka. A microlithic tool is a small stone tool, usually made of flint. They were made between 35,000 and 3,000 years ago. Microliths were used as spear points and arrowheads.   The microlithic tools found in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka could be dated between 45,000 and 5500 BP, Rajan says.  

The physical separation of Sri Lanka from India took place about 11,700 years ago However, contact between the two did not cease. South India and Lanka continued to be a single cultural entity with frequent interactions on many planes, Rajan asserts. In the Iron Age, iron technology and ploughshare agriculture were shared. And technology moved both ways, he points out. 

Megalithic culture, which lasted from the Neolithic Stone Age to the Early Historic Period (which spanned from 6th century BC to 4th century BC) is an important landmark in the evolution of society and culture. It is marked by the use of stones. The structural similarity between the megalithic monuments in South India and Sri Lanka, the nature of the rituals performed during monument building, are indicators of culture diffusion, Rajan says. 

At the socio-cultural-religious level also, the ties were close. They seem to be indelible too. The marriage of the progenitor of the Sinhala race, Prince Vijaya from Bengal with a Pandyan Princess from Tamil Nadu in 5 th.Century BC, and the arrival of Mahinda Thera with Buddhism from Bihar in North India in 3 rd.Century BC, testify to close links and the lasting impact of these links. The use of the Brahmi script to write Tamil and Prakrit (the common man’s language) in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu is another indicator of the Indo-Lankan link. 

As in peninsular India, in Sri Lanka too, human settlements are at the ports and the mouth of rivers and on river banks. These indicate the importance of communication and trade in the lives of the people. Examples of port cities cum trading hubs are: Mantai (Mahathitha or Mathotam) is Sri Lanka; Korkai and Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu. Major settlements in Sri Lanka linked to rivers are: Salavathotta (Chilaw) on the Deduru Oya; Wattala on Kelani Ganga; Kalathitta (Kalutara on the Kalu Ganga; Bhematitta  (Bentota) on Gin Ganga; Mahawalukagama (Weligama) at Polwatta Ganga; Milwalathitta (Matara)  on Nilwala Ganga.These were ports had maritime links with the outside world.  

The Second Century rouletted pottery found in Arikamedu in Tamil Nadu and Tissamaharama in Lanka are similar. Rajan says that these rouletted pottery are not necessarily from Rome as archeologist a British archeologist thought, but were local. According to Heidrun Schenk polished grey ware found in South India and Sri Lanka were from the Gangetic plain in North India. According to Schenk again, fine grey ware from North India arrived in Sri Lanka from the 5 th.Century BC to 2 nd.Century BC but that ceased around 100 BC.  

The Brahmi scripted potsherds found in Arikamedu, Alangulam and Kaveripatinam in Tamil Nadu are of Sri Lankan origin. Mantai in Mannar was trading with Alankulam and Korkai in Tamil Nadu. Tissamaarama traded in rouletted ware, beads of semi-precious stones, glass and potsherds inscribed in Prakrit .Glass ingots were found in shipwrecks off Godavaya. Kautilya’s work on economics the ‘Arthashastra’ mentions pearls from the Gulf of Mannar. The Chinese came to Lanka and India to buy glass and pearls in exchange for silk and gold. Sri Lanka was also known for its gems across the world.

Role of Traders

Besides Buddhism and Jainism, traders had a huge role in connecting India and Sri Lanka. Traders introduced the Brahmi script which Emperor Asoka of North India (268 to 232 BC) had popularized to spread Buddhism. But recent evidence shows that the Brahmi script in Sri Lanka predated Asoka’s Mauryan Empire and was being used by traders. Siran Deraniyagala discovered that the script was used in Anuradhapura in 4 th and 5 th.Century BC. Brahmi script of Sri Lankan origin was found by epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan in Arikmedu, Alankulam and Kodumanal in Tamil Nadu.

Pearl fishing had also contributed Indo-Lankan links. Pearl oysters moved from one coast to another in the Gulf of Mannar. This made the Baratha community move from the Indian to the Sri Lankan coast and  vice versa. According to Pushparatnam, there are 21 inscriptions in Sri Lanka bearing the name Baratha. Some had the term Tissa added to the name, indicating high status. Baratha Tissas were Royal emissaries, captains of ships, and big traders. In 2nd .Century BC, Tamil traders carrying the title Tissa had made offerings to the Buddhist Sangha. Tamil traders Magha and Perumaga find a place in inscriptions in Anuradhapura and Mihintale, both Buddhist centers. 

In an inscription in Anuradhapura, dated 2 nd.Century BC, Navika Karavas or sea traders are mentioned. The father of Kannagi, the heroine of the Tamil classic “Silapathikaram” was a Maha Navikan, or a prosperous member of the Tamil community owning ships. In Thirupparankundram in Tamil Nadu, there is a Tamil Brahmi inscription with the name Ila-kutumpikan (A man belonging to a family from Eelam or Lanka). The Tamil work “Pattinapalai’ speaks of an Ila-kutumpikan contributing to Jain monks in Tirupparankundram.

According to the Mahavamsa, two Tamil horse traders, Sena and Guttika, were the first Tamil rulers in Sri Lanka (177 to 155 BC), and they came from Tamil Nadu. Another Tamil king, Elara, ruled from 145 to 101 BC.

However trade those days was not linked to politics. Trading was done independently of Kings. Trade associations existed to help promote trade. Inscription carry terms denoting trade organizations like Nikama, Nigama, Sreni and Sattan (Tamil).

Coins have been found in South Sri Lanka, not so much in Anuadhapura.  This is because Anuradhapura was a political and not a trading center. Trade was largely conducted in South Lanka. Traders used coins and not others. Coins did not carry any reference to a Raja (ruler) indicating that they were issued by traders.

Roman traders did not directly trade with Sri Lanka but through South India, Rajan says. Lankan goods like ivory, glass ingots, pearls and semi-precious  stones were taken to Indian ports from where ships took them to ports in the Arab world and Rome. West Asian ceramics like ivory and Turquoise shell found in Tissamaharama may have come via India, Rajan says.  

The Buddhists of Sri Lanka and the Krishna Valley in Andhra Pradesh were in close contact. The bas reliefs or rock cut images depicting the life of the Buddha were imported from the Amaravati-Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh by traders and monks. 

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P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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