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The daughter of the King, Princess Vihara Maha Devi set adrift as an offering to the Sea Gods

A storm tossed Princess

The story of Prince Gamini, later King Dutugemunu, the hero of the Mahawamsa chronicle is swathed in myth and legend. It is a story for all eternity, passed on for countless generations by the people of our country. The stories of this warrior prince are mostly backed by archaeological evidence, yet still some are confined to the realm of folklore.
Twenty three centuries since Prince Gamini walked this land his name still arouses ardour and emotion among his countrymen. For most, he is nothing short of a deity, the unparalleled hero of all time, but for the student of history, Prince Gamini proves a very human subject of study. His story transcends race religion and civilisations. He would epitomise the thirst of any nation to break the shackles of foreign occupation and live under self rule. This universal appeal of the story of a Prince, born to parents of Royal descent in exile from their ancestral capital, his life long challenges and eventual triumph over a foreign occupier, makes it the best story ever told in Sri Lanka.
Over two millennia may have passed since Prince Gamini unified the nation, but he lives on in the collective memory of our people and in the many places scattered around the island that were associated with his life. In a new series commencing this week, we trace the footsteps of this legendary Prince: From his ancestral hometown in the deep south to his place of exile in the hill country and onwards to his march to the capital of Anuradhapura where he became a king; and a legend

By Theja De Silva
Whenever the story of Prince Gamini is told invariably it begins in Kelaniya. According to legend it is here that his maternal grandfather, Kelanitissa ruled the Maya Rata. Little remains of the Kelaniya Kingdom which dates back to the time of Kelanitissa except for its name. The lack of archaeological evidence has compelled some scholars to question whether the Kelaniya that is mentioned in the Mahawamsa is in fact the modern day town in the suburbs of Colombo. There is an academic debate as to whether the Kelaniya of the Great Chronicle could have in fact been on the East Coast. Yet in folklore and popular legend, there is no doubt that modern day Kelaniya is the same as what is mentioned in the history books.

The history of Kelaniya predates the time of King Kelanitissa. The Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, record in detail the story of the Buddha’s visit to Kelaniya on the eighth year after his Enlightenment, on a Vesak full moon day. It is said that he visited the island on the invitation of a local King called Maniakkhika. According to Buddhist literature, the temple at Kelaniya which stands today after numerous renovations was first built by King Maniakkhika at the very place Lord Budda expounded his teachings to the devotees. Legend has it that a gem studded throne which was gifted by the King was enshrined in the Stupa. Historical records prove that Kelaniya and its temple was an important seat of learning for foreign monks during the time of the Kotte period. The Portuguese plundered and destroyed the temple which was later reconstructed with the patronage of the King of Kandy, Kirthi Sri Rajasingha in the 18th Century. Today the temple is famous for its 20th Century paintings by Solias Mendis. Among his many paintings are those depicting the various historical events associated with the Kelaniya Kingdom.

Mother of Prince Gamini, Princess Devi later to be immortalised as Vihara Maha Devi hailed from Kelaniya. Being the daughter of the ruler of the kingdom, the princess is said to have been set adrift on a barge by King Kelanitissa to quell the wrath of the deities. As the story goes the deities had been angered by the murder of an Arahath, a noble priest by the King in a case of mistaken identity. The enraged deities are said to have made the seas rise and lay waste to the Kingdom. Soothsayers in their wisdom informed King Kelanitissa that the only way to appease the deities was to make a human sacrifice. Thus the only daughter of the King, a mere girl at that time was sacrificed to the seas. The barge which was decorated with the Royal Standard of Kelanitissa was provisioned for a month. Once the princess was sacrificed to the sea, the weather gods are said to have been pleased and the kingdom of Kelaniya was safe once more.

Kirinda

The barge carrying the young princess is said to have drifted along the southern coast of the island. Where she came ashore is disputed till this day. Popular belief is that the little Princess Devi came ashore at Kirinda where a Vihara or a temple was situated, thus adding to her name the prefix Vihara Devi, to mean the princess who came ashore near the temple. The other prefix to her name, Maha, meaning ‘great’ would later be added for her role in the liberation of the country as Queen Mother.
Kirinda is situated 10 kilometres from the Tissamaharama town. It is a quaint fishing village with a small harbour. On a rocky out crop is a small shrine with a recently built statue of Queen Vihara Maha Devi along side it. The shrine is believed to have been built on top of ruins of more ancient origin which marked the spot where Princess Devi came ashore. On a clear day, the Great Basses lighthouse can be seen from this rocky outcrop and the view from above is simply breathtaking.

According to the Mahawamsa, the peasants alerted the ruler of the Ruhuna Kingdom, King Kavantissa of a mysterious vessel, flying the Royal Standard of Kelaniya, that had come ashore. The King, upon hearing this, is said to have hurried to the place himself to welcome the princess.

The Kirinda legend of the entrance of Princess Devi into the Dutugemunu story is based on the theory that Magama, the capital of the Ruhunu Kingdom ruled by the dark-skinned master strategist, King Kavantissa was in fact situated in the deep south of the country. However, there is another school of thought, fast gaining credence, that Magama was in truth, closer to Ampara. This would explain why there are in fact two places in the island which lay claim to the legend of the princess washing ashore.

‘Ko Kumari?’

Alongside the Arugambay in Pottuvil is an inconspicuous but ancient temple called Muhudu Maha Viharaya. Many archaeologists believe that this spot, also known as the Samudra Maha Vihara, in fact marks the place at which Princess Devi set foot in the Ruhuna Kingdom. According to a stone inscription that was found in the vicinity of the shrine, this place had also been called Ruhunu Maha Viharaya in the past. The temple site which has of late been encroached upon by villagers has been reduced to a small shrine with three granite statues. The central statue is of the Buddha with two more sculptures believed to be those of royalty facing it. Believed to have been built in the 5th century A.D during the reign of King Dhathusena, many believe the royal figures depicted in worshiping position are in fact those of King Kavantissa and his Queen Vihara Maha Devi.

Fifteen kilometres north of Pottuvil is situated the village of Komari. The name of the village is said to have originated when the King of Ruhuna, Kavantissa was desperately searching for the little princess who had reportedly drifted to the shores of his kingdom. As he went hither and thither seeking this strange visitor to the shores of his kingdom, Kavantissa is reported to have asked all who passed him – “ko kumari?” or “where is the princess?” The tiny village of Komari is believed to have come by its name thus. This tale, although largely believed to be folk tale, lends credence to theory that the heart of the Ruhunu kingdom may have been situated south east of the island.

Whether at Kirinda or Pottuvil, the princess from Kelaniya landed in the Ruhuna Kingdom, ruled by her cousin Kavantissa. Many years later, since she was but a child when she was cast into the sea, they would get married and Queen Devi would bear two sons. One would become the hero of this story.

But many stories still precede Gemunu’s own tale of war and unification. We are yet to explore Maghul Maha Vihara, situated deep in the Lahugala jungles where it is said that the royal wedding of Kavantissa and Vihara Maha Devi took place and several other locations and incidents associated with Prince Gemunu’s journey. The tale is truly one of epic proportions, spiced with all the right ingredients - love, honour and great kingship- to render it immortal.

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