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Polonnaruwa: Rise and fall



By Uditha Devapriya
With input from
Pasan Wijesooriya

The chronicles mention Polonnaruwa (Pulaththinagara in Pali) long before its advent as the capital of the country. We come across it in the Culavamsa in connection with the reigns of Aggabodhi IV and Aggabodhi VII, both of whom were residing there at the time of their passing away. A general by the name of Sena, who rebelled against the king of his time, is said to have made it his own capital before facing defeat at the hands of that king, Sena V. By no means infrequent, such encounters bolstered the city’s growing importance. Moreover, at the peak of the Anuradhapura period particularist tendencies had begun to spring up in the south in Rohana. Situated between Rohana and Rajarata, Polonnaruwa offered the ideal outpost from which such tendencies could be put down.

Far more important and pertinent, however, were the shifts of dynastic politics in South India and the concurrent strengthening of the hands of Dravidian mercenaries in Sri Lanka. The infighting between the Pandyans, Colas, and Pallavas on the one hand and the diminution of strength among the Calukyis in the Deccan shifted the locus of South Indian politics from the mainland to the coastline. Indeed, the weakening of the Pallava dynasty in Kanchi and the revival of the Pandya kingdom in Madurai led the Pandyan Srivallabha to invade Sri Lanka, where, supported by local fifth columns, his army, “like the hosts of Mara”, ransacked Anuradhapura “as if it had been plundered by yakkhas.”

Somewhere in the ninth century AD, around 850 AD to be specific, Vijayalala, a general serving the Pallavas who claimed descent from the Colas, moved into and occupied Tanjore; his son, Aditya I, fought and prevailed over the Pandyans 30 years later. More expansionist than its predecessors, the new Cola dynasty sought to conquer Sri Lanka with much more vigour and ruthlessness.

Mahinda IV, perhaps one of the more pragmatist kings the country had, immediately entered into an alliance with the Kalingas of Orissa (or Malaysia, according to Senerat Paranavitana, though this line of reasoning has since been discounted). The decision to enter into such an alliance was based on two considerations: the weakening of the Calukyas, who could otherwise have been counted on as enemy-of-enemy-friend against the Colas, and the historical link between Sri Lanka and Kalinga, going as far back as the Vijayan dynasty. Yet such marriages of convenience – literally, since these new alliances were based on matrimony – could not survive the expansionist aims of the Colas, and thus conditions that had been peaceable, if not negotiable, under Mahinda IV deteriorated under Sena V and Mahinda V. As is usually the case, the blame has to go to the latter two kings for their inefficient and immature statecraft; the Culavamsa describes Mahinda V in particular as being “of very weak character.”

As Anuradhapura disintegrated under these fatal contradictions, the Colas gained in strength; under Rajaraja I and his son Rajendra I, Cola foreign policy became more expansionist than ever before. To the West they held firmly against the Calukyas, but to maintain a balance between the mainland and the coastline, it was felt necessary to encircle the Bay of Bengal.

Sri Lanka hence figured in the Cola scheme of things more significantly than it had done until then, and so, in the first five years of the 11th century, Rajaraja invaded and occupied the northern part of the country. In 1017, Rajendra I expanded into Rohana and captured Mahinda V. The latter became the first Sinhala king to be captured by a foreign force; he would be followed four centuries later by Vira Alakeshwara, this time by a Chinese general. To the reader of Sri Lankan history who sees these incidents as differing only slightly from our tug-of-war vis-à-vis India and China today, it can only be said that such analogies, while unhistorical, are not entirely unjustified.

From their outpost in the north of the country, the Cola administrators turned Polonnaruwa, which they renamed Jananathapura, into a treasury for their shrines and devales. From Polonnaruwa they attempted to control Ruhuna, but ironically, the particularist tendencies that the Anuradhapura kings had tried to quash rose up against the Colas; the latter tried, for instance, to capture Mahinda VI’s son Kassapa (or Vikramabahu), but neither could they defeat him nor could he them. Kassapa’s death was followed by a crisis: no fewer than five chiefs ruled at Rohana, and yet none of them could overcome infighting between themselves to pose a formidable enough threat to the north.

While Rajadhiraja I attempted and failed to bring Rohana under his control, events closer to home threatened to reduce his power and jurisdiction. The Calukyas, who had been beaten off the track by Rajaraja, were back in the game, scaling up the odds against the Colas. Having fallen in battle against the resurgent Calukyas, Rajadhiraja was succeeded by his brother Rajendra II, who held the line, but only barely. Against the backdrop of diminishing military fortunes and depleting treasuries, the Colas quickly switched from encircling the coastline to defending the mainland. Yet their attempts at getting Ruhuna to accept their suzerainty did not let go, with Rajendra II despatching a successful expedition in 1053 or 1054, which in all fairness confirmed the strength of Cola vassals to the north more than it did the diminution of influence among the rulers of Ruhuna.

In any case, whatever hopes the Colas had of a victory in the Deccan and Ruhuna faded away upon the death of their king and his successor, Virarajendra. The latter’s accession to the Cola throne was followed by a dynastic dispute that favoured the new Calukya king, Vikramaditya VI. More ambitious than his predecessors, Vikramaditya VI consolidated power long enough to ward off the possibility of Cola recovery or resurgence; that fed into the rebelliousness of the Pandyans and the Ruhuna rulers. It was against this setting that Vijayabahu, having mounted one campaign after another, claimed victory and was consecrated king in 1073: the first to unify a Sinhala polity in disarray.

Under the trio of kings generally associated with the rise and growth of Polonnaruwa – Vijayabahu, Parakramabahu I, and Nissanka Malla – the state expanded and regained some of the stamina it had lost to the onslaughts of Cola invasion. Yet it would be incorrect, as popular myth holds it, to say that these kings did away completely with Dravidian influence. Vijayabahu, for instance, found it difficult to rule without cooperating with the Velakkaras, a group of mercenaries who had earlier pledged their loyalty to the Colas but now retreated from them; so much of an influence did they gain in the Sinhala court that, during the reign of one of Parakramabahu’s successors, Vikramabahu II, they were able to gain control of the Tooth Relic. Indeed, the allowance made by these Sinhala kings to the Velakkaras indicates that to hold on to power, rulers had to concede some of it to mercenaries.

By itself, this does not, and cannot, explain the disintegration of the Polonnaruwa polity following the death of Nissanka Malla. For an explanation of why the kingdom crumbled down as it did, we should couple it with another crucial factor: the persistence with which Parakramabahu and to a lesser extent Nissanka Malla sought to eliminate particularist tendencies, especially in the south. Parakramabahu, of course, had come to power after waging a series of campaigns against regional polities: he would mount such campaigns even after assuming the crown. This had the effect of quashing any tendency towards regionalism that the state could have mobilised against Kalinga Magha’s intervention in the 13th century. Deprived of a convenient ally, the entire polity instead fell apart.

To these two factors – the presence of Dravidian troops and the repression of particularism – we must add two more: the rate at which the state, in particular under Parakramabahu I, was allowed to expand, plus the carte blanche given to the diversion of state resources to massive works of irrigation and – in the case of Nissanka Malla as well – ambitious, yet costly foreign expeditions.

Regarding the second point, James Handawela, a veteran irrigation officer, has in a book which has unfortunately not got the attention it deserves come up with a novel contention: that far from fostering self-sufficiency in agriculture, Parakramabahu, by investing heavily on massive irrigation works while dragooning labour from farmers engaged in watershed farming, pre-empted the setting up of a viable self-sufficient network. This thesis is controversial, and it has not, to the best of my knowledge, been assessed by any other scholar; it deserves debate and, in the least, re-examination.

To me it raises an important question: to what extent were we self-sufficient? Popular historiography has it that under Parakramabahu I, Polonnaruwa flourished as some sort of a granary of the East. Yet that does not mean the state cut itself off from trade and engagement with the rest of the region: as the anthropologist Eric Wolf has argued, civilisations rooted in a tributary mode of production – which is what Sinhala civilisation was – operated weakly or strongly in relation to other polities. Peaceable as civilisations spread around the Indian Ocean may doubtless have been, then, maritime commerce did to a certain extent shore up antagonisms between these polities. Hence when Parakramabahu I forged closer ties with the Khmer kingdom in Cambodia, Alaungsithu of Burma, which had maintained close politico-religious relations with Sri Lanka, obstructed the latter’s elephant trade with South-East Asia, compelling the king of Polonnaruwa to embark on an expedition to Lower Burma.

As symbolic of the growing importance attached to trade during this period was the emergence of a mercantile community in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the best epigraphic evidence we have for how trade went ahead in Parakramabahu’s reign is the Nainativu Tamil Inscription; one of the oldest such inscriptions in that language unearthed in Jaffna, it offers us glimpses of not just the customs regulations enforced back then, but also the protection meted out to foreigners plus some of the more interesting items we were importing at the time, like (of all merchandise) elephants.

Eric Wolf has shown us how tributary rulers maintained a contradictory attitude to merchants: they allowed the latter to mingle with their societies, but not to the extent of overturning established belief systems and political hierarchies. So it was with Polonnaruwa. Not until several centuries later, after the downfall of the last Sinhala kingdom, would the economy be integrated into, and disfigured by, a system run on plantation and mercantile wealth: capitalist to some, pre-capitalist to me.

Yet as the history of Polonnaruwa vividly shows, we were never completely cut off from the vagaries of trade; it’s just that we remained somewhat unfamiliar with newer systems of exchange developing further to the West. Vinod Moonesinghe puts it better than most in his explanation of the difference between these systems and ours: as much during Polonnaruwa as during Anuradhapura, he contends, “trade was conducted for the benefit of all.” Whether under Parakramabahu or under the kings of the southwest, trade thus remained, if not the cornerstone, then at the centre, of engagement with the rest of the world: hardly the isolationist granary of the East romanticised by many today.


The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag

When a wonderful human being crosses the great divide



Sarasaviya took this picture of Punya and Milroy at their home after the “Abhimani” Legendary Award was conferred on Punya, during their last visit to Sri Lanka to attend the Sarasaviya Festival in 2016.

“There are friends,
There is family,
And then there are friends
That become family”

Such a friend was Milroy, whose passing away a few days ago, we learnt with heavy hearts and deep sorrow.

To those who didn’t know him, he was the husband of Punya Heendeniya, the actress who captivated the hearts and minds of a nation by her portrayal of Nanda in the film classic “Gamperaliya”; Nanda was the quintessential Sinhala upper class village maiden who valued tradition over love.

To MBS (Siri) he was a lifelong friend “who stayed forever, beyond word, beyond distance, beyond time”.

To me (Kumar Gunawardane) who came to know him through Siri and also through his brothers, he was a pleasant companion, and good friend.


“He loved music, sing songs and kalawaa (art) in all its forms. That is why he married me. He went out of his way to help the needy in whatever way he could. He did everything for me and the children.

“In the last year or two he took to understanding what real Buddha Dharma was.

“May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!”


“We met on the very first day in the “Block”; alphabetically we were next to each other, Milroy de Silva and MBS de Silva. That day, wearing our white jackets and ties back to front, we had to march to the Anatomy laboratory, jeered by serried ranks of haughty seniors. The naked bodies lying on marble slabs was nauseating. I was directed to the appropriate cadaver by a tutor and paired with a brilliant student JBC De Silva, to dissect the upper limb. Confused and bewildered I could only gaze at the colleague carving the other arm. He looked equally nonplussed wielding a scalpel nonchalantly, while another student recited the instructions from Cunningham’s manual of Anatomy. Our eyes met and that was the start of a beautiful friendship; a coming together of the high-spirited and full of joie de vivre. We immediately downed tools and scampered to the canteen to revive ourselves with a cup of tea, laced with condensed milk, and the cheapest available cigarette ‘Peacock’. Our interests were similar; studies took a back seat, larking around taking precedence. The friendship was sealed further when we joined Bloemfontein the formidable male medical student hostel alternatively feared and lauded.

“I remember our first Block dance at the King George’s hall. He was smartly dressed in black tuxedo pants and a cream jacket; only missing element was a lady companion. I, who wore a black shirt and a white tie, had a beautiful girl on my arm. I asked Milroy where he came by his tuxedo and he disdainfully replied I have two brothers who are doctors and one tuxedo for the whole family and now it is my turn to have it!!

“Our bonds strengthened during our intern year. Milroy returned to his roots in Galle and I joined him a few months later at Mahamodara, the hospital by the sea. It was a year of back breaking work, but also a year of fun and frolic.

“Milroy was then posted as chief (District Medical Officer) of the Moneragala hospital. But “I was left high and dry, Milroy, thoughtful as ever arranged for me to work with his brother Dr A.S.H De Silva, who had a thriving general practice just down the road from the hospital. Three months later, I got a posting to Buttala, which was then a mostly elephant and serpent infested jungle. It was classed as a ‘punishment’ station by the Health Department. The attractions however were the proximity to Milroy, and also the predecessors who included medical giants such as Professor Rajasooriya and the distinguished surgeons Dr Bartholomeuz, and R. L. Spittel the Surgeon of the Wilderness. In this pastoral outpost Milroy was bowled over by the image of Punya. He was at a loss to reach her. I advised him to write and he did so with panache. She invited him to visit them at Mirigama, her hometown to meet her folk. They teamed up in Punya’s own words for 52 years seven months and 22 days; a match made in heaven.

“As a dutiful father, he wanted to give his son and daughter the best education available and so it was that he and Punya migrated to Zambia. It was here that they demonstrated hidden strengths of character which helped them overcome adversities and even threats to their lives and move over to England. Milroy re-invented himself and rose to top of the ladder to become a consultant psychiatrist. His two children also became consultants in the NHS, the son a gastroenterologist and daughter an endocrinologist. He acknowledged freely Punya’s role not only in all his triumphs, but also in the hazards and misfortunes in their paths.

“Yet, more than all this was his humanity and humility, generosity to those less well endowed especially relatives and also to those medical graduates at the threshold of their careers. They were gracious hosts; Punya was an accomplished cook and less well known, a euphonious singer. I and my good friend Karu had the good fortune to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions in London.

“Milroy my friend, “To live in the hearts of those we love is never to die”

“May your journey in Samsara be short and my you attain the Supreme bliss of Nibbana!”



I first got to know Milroy at Bloemfontein, the medical student’s hostel adjoining Carey College. He was a dapper figure, stylishly dressed with an unceasing gentle smile on his face. His chums, Siri, Gerry, Wicky and others were always friendly with us juniors and never intimidating. Their banter and capers in the dining room and the spacious portico were invariably hilarious.

My friendship with Siri was cemented in the hurly-burly of the Galle hospital, where I too did my internship. When I was unemployed after its completion it was Siri who arranged for me to work with Dr ASH, Milroy’s brother. ASH and Kingsley, another brother became my friends and mentors.

“Punya was a heartthrob of many young bucks of our era. But only one, Milroy, could win her hand and her heart. What a splendid partnership it was.

The Buddha Dhamma teaches that death is natural and inevitable. Yet it is sorrowful and we pray for you and your family’s peace and comfort. Their sadness is soothed by the beauty of your life, a life well lived. As the Buddha said death has no fear to those who fashioned life as a garland of beautiful deeds.

May you attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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Sat Mag

A New Arrival at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre



A newly hatched blue and gold macaw bred at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre being attended to by a staff member Sisira Kumara.

The Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre has a comprehensive collection of rare macaws, cockatoos, lorikeets, and parrots from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The collection also includes a range of Arowana fish. This unique collection was originally presented to the Centre by Nimal Jayawardena, a leading business person, lawyer, and wildlife expert.

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Sat Mag

Imagining Malinda Seneviratne



By Uditha Devapriya

I’d like to begin this tribute with a memory. I wasn’t always an avid reader of newspapers. My father, on the other hand, was. Somewhere in middle school, in Grade Eight I believe, I began picking them up once he had done with them, poring over the columns.

My eyes rested on certain topics more than others. They’d invariably centre on the war. How were we fighting the enemy? How was that enemy fighting back? What new conspiracies had been unearthed? Who had unearthed them? Who was next on the enemy’s kill list? The peace process, dead as a dodo long before it died, had floundered. Officially, we were back at war. As intriguing as that would have been, it was also disconcerting.

Even more disconcerting was the ambivalent stand of the English language press on the war. Not that the editorials called for a cessation of hostilities, much less a return to the peace process. But beneath the fine print, one could discern an almost confused pacifism, an almost abstruse neutralism.

This conformed to the same pattern: an acknowledgement of the heroism of the armed forces followed by a critique of government policy. Ultimately it all boiled down to, not whether the government was conducting the war properly, but whether the war had to be conducted at all. Even there the editors remained indecisive: they concluded that the LTTE had to be defeated, yet refused to endorse the war being waged to achieve that end.

None of that felt frustrating, of course. Cut off from the fears of a war next door, one could only revel in the delicatessen of wartime journalism. Yet it was clear the scales tilted to a side: very few writing in English advocated a military solution to the world’s longest running ongoing ethnic conflict. What explained their hesitation?

I didn’t bother finding out, but given the preponderance of those who wrote against the war, I was transfixed by those who wrote in support of it. Of them, one in particular caught my attention. Seven years later I met him: a coincidence I ponder over even now.

I have known Malinda Seneviratne in his many forms: writer, poet, translator, activist, editor, citizen, father, husband, and teacher. Yet I can’t recall why I wanted to meet him. Was it the eloquent prose, sharp as nails even at its most polemical? The equally eloquent poetry, haiku-like and evocative of both Neruda and Galeano? Or the activism, unabashedly nationalist in a country whose Westernised intelligentsia abhors such “tribalist” sentiments?

Malinda’s political education began with the Left, first with his father Gamini, then with a batch-mate of his father, Nanda Wickramasinghe (attached to the Revolutionary Communist League at the University of Peradeniya), and finally with Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygunasekera (until the latter’s defection to the UNP). The Ratawesi Peramuna, precursor to the Sihala Urumaya, came later.

His activism in (and for) the Ratawesi Peramuna followed his return from Harvard (where he completed his Bachelor’s in Sociology) in 1991. It was while in this group that he deepened his friendship with two of his biggest influences, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Athuraliye Rathana Thera. It was also his activities there that landed him in trouble; the police swooped on a meeting organised in 1992 at Wadduwa, following an exhibition of LTTE, IPKF, and JVP human rights abuses held in Matara, was intercepted by the police, who proceeded to arrest 15 members, including Ranawaka, Rathana Thera, and Malinda.

Held for three weeks, and tortured on the orders of a drunken OIC, they filed a fundamental rights case at the Supreme Court. Upholding their case, the Court, which acknowledged that the RP did not constitute a threat to national security and did not warrant the treatment meted out to its members, ordered the State to pay Rs 5,000 for each applicant. The Human Rights Library of the University of Minnesota later archived the case, “Channa Pieris and Others v. Attorney General and Others.” In the meantime, the Ratawesi Peramuna turned into Janatha Mithuro, a green socialist/nationalist outfit preaching the gospel of alternative development paradigms (what Ranakawa called the “third chapter of development”).

Malinda ended his political associations once he started out on his journalistic (and writing) career in the 2000s. By then he had gone through Janatha Mithuro, Sihala Urumaya, and the National Movement Against Terrorism (2006-7). These are, no doubt, colourful affiliations, befitting a colourful memoir. Yet, despite his activism, it’s hard to put a finger on his convictions: he just can’t be categorised in the same way his opponents, or for that matter his allies, can.

On the ‘national Question’, on the 13th Amendment, on our relations with India, indeed on global politics, he projects a provocative perspective. Thus, for instance, while he supported the Sihala Urumaya’s and Hela Urumaya’s parliamentary aspirations, he critiqued the latter’s decision to field Buddhist monks at elections. Even so, however, he does not oppose the entry of monks on a matter of unyielding principle: for him, they constitute a group having as much a right to parliamentary representation as any other.

In any case, whatever those convictions, the more I read him in my middle school years, the curiouser I got: then as now, what defines Malinda is the contrast, one could say paradox, between his ideological predilections and his poetic instincts. The two do get together, more often than you’d think, in his anthologies (just sample his poems on Geneva). And yet there’s a disjuncture between them. Perhaps this was what made me want to visit him.

Our first meeting went by innocuously enough. Lasting a little more than an hour, it ended on the promise of a second meeting, which transpired a month later – to be followed by another, and then another. The rapport between us grew quickly; by the time of the third meeting, he was asking me to come in and write to the paper he supervised as editor.

I hesitated at first. With characteristic flippancy, though, he shrugged my concerns aside: “When you work for me,” he promised, “you will write on everything.” I thus gave in: as with all 21-year-olds new to the trade, I wanted to write and be read in print. A few months later, in fulfilment of a promise he made before the January 2015 election, I was in.

Malinda taught several lessons as a writer, journalist, and senior. First and foremost among them was the line between writing news and writing features. For no matter what people may say, a good writer does not necessarily make for a good reporter. Pen and paper in hand, you need to record whatever it is that you’re covering is putting out to the public. Cutting through a morass of irrelevant anecdotes, you need to distil what you heard. And of course, you need to separate facts from comment: you can’t editorialise.

This proved to be a difficult exercise for me, far more difficult than the light pieces I ended up submitting to the features section. Suffice it to say, then, that insofar as Malinda taught me anything about journalism, it was that I could never aspire to be a journalist.

The second lesson was simpler: no matter how good (or bad) you may be as a journalist, if your editor doesn’t encourage you, your ink will dry. This applies to other professions also: where would Thomas Wolfe be, for instance, without Max Perkins?

Malinda, of course, was not my first editor. Yet he and I shared interests which immediately bridged the gap between him and me. In the end, I wound up writing on topics I had always wanted to talk about. That could not have been possible without him.

The third lesson, the most important one, was that writing to newspapers is never going to be a stable profession, especially not here. I learnt this lesson the hard way: five months after I got in, his paper closed down. Petrified for days, wondering whether I would ever be able to write again, I eventually came to realise that, as shocking an experience as it may have been to me, for Malinda it did not mean much: he’d been pole-vaulting from one paper to another from the day he left active politics for journalism.

His experience there became my guide: one evening, after the storm clouds of his termination had died down, he told me bluntly, “In this trade, if you’re good enough, you’ll never be out of tenure.” I disputed him. Six years later, having contributed to every paper he wrote to and is writing to, I realise I was wrong to do so.

Having read him and met him, I thus ended up learning under Malinda: a trajectory I am yet to go through a second time with anyone else in his line of work. I can’t really assess him, or do him justice, except maybe to note that, for the little or the lot he taught, he never demanded a payback.

Perhaps that’s just as well. For without taking away anything from what he did, I was hardly the only person he supported this way. Many others, most of them as young as I, all of them endowed with a superior penmanship, also found their way to the pages of the papers he oversaw. I know for a fact that he always insisted on compensating them – in full.

The West Indian international relations scholar Herb Addo once wrote that Andre Gunder Frank, from whom he learnt about the political economy of underdevelopment, “taught me nothing.” For his contemporaries, Addo argued, Frank “taught from a distance”, yet let his students develop as individual, independent intellectuals, in their own right.

By no means do I suggest that Malinda taught me nothing, or that he did so from a distance. But reflecting on how he taught all that one needed to know, and how he dismisses it today as though was just letting me evolve on my own, I wonder: was he, as Frank had been to Addo, a teacher in the Gibran vein, leading me to the threshold of my mind?

The writer can be reached at

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