KAVANTISSA Master of strategy

By Theja De Silva
In our previous journeys, we travelled from Kelaniya on the West Coast of the country from where popular folklore says the mother of Prince Gamini, Vihara Maha Devi hailed to the east coast where the young princess Devi is said to have set foot onto the Ruhunu Kingdom. Last week we explored the Magul Maha Viharaya, situated in the deep jungles of Lahugala, where legend says the royal wedding between the King of Ruhuna, Kavantissa and his queen took place. The deep south and south east of Sri Lanka is scattered with historical sites associated with King Kavantissa, King of Ruhuna, whose visionary thinking and master strategizing allowed his son to fulfill his destiny and unite the nation many years after the father had passed on.

King Kavantissa, the Chronicle has it, was relatively small in stature and very dark skinned. In fact, his name is an abbreviation of the longer more descriptive – Kaka-Warna-Tissa literally translated as ‘crow-hued-Tissa’. He ascended the throne of Ruhuna following the death of his father, Gotabhaya who is famed for having killed 10 sub-kings during his reign and then built 10 temples on either side of the Mahaweli River for absolution. King Kavantissa might not have attained the same status as his heroic son in the annals of the Great Chronicle, but students of history revere this monarch above all others for his strokes of master diplomacy, and his use of tact, religion and marriage in place of military might to subjugate and unify the south of the island.

Yatala Vehera and Gotapabbata Rajamaha Viharaya

King Mahanaga is accepted as the founder of the Ruhuna Kingdom and is the great grandfather of King Kavantissa. The Mahawamsa says that prince Mahanaga who was a brother of King Devanampiyatissa, left the capital Anuradhapura after an assassination attempt by the Queen. In ancient Sri Lankan tradition, the first in line to the throne was the King’s brother even before his own sons. The queen who wished to see her son succeed Devanampiyatissa, came up with a dubious scheme to poison Prince Mahanaga. Tragically her own son was poisoned in the attempt and died. Mahanaga fearing for his life, is said to have left Anuradhapura and made his way to Ruhuna. During this journey his consort gave birth to a son at a place near the capital Magama. The Prince was named Tissa and later became known as Yatala Tissa. King Yatala Tissa is said to have built a monastery marking the location where he was born which came to be known as the Yatala Vehera. Some believe it was in fact King Mahanaga who after becoming the ruler of Ruhuna built the Yatala Vehera to mark the birth of his son.

The Yatala stupa is similar in design to the larger stupa at Tissamaharamaya and is “Bubulakara” or bubble-shaped. Archaeological evidence suggests that the stupa was a part of a larger monastic complex, remains of which can still be seen. A large number of Buddha images, pillars and other sculptures discovered from the excavations of the Yatala Vehera are today placed at the museum in the premises. Four relic caskets discovered from the site are on display at the Colombo Museum.
Godavaya is now believed to have been the main port of the Ruhuna Kingdom. Near this ancient port, closer to the modern day Ambalanthota, is situated a temple which is associated with King Kavantissa’s father, Gotabhaya. The Gotapabbata Raja Maha Viharaya which is situated on a rocky outcrop near the mouth of the Walawe River is believed to have been built by King Gotabhaya. An inscription found in the vicinity of the temple records that a later king decreed that the taxes from the Port of Godavaya be dedicated to the temple.


It is believed that the capital of Ruhuna which was known as Magama is the modern day Tissamaharamaya. The current name is derived from the gigantic temple which bears its name. This stupa and the surrounding monastery is said to have been built by King Kavantissa and from that point on the city was called the “great temple of Tissa” or Tissamaharamaya as we know it. Until the 1960’s there was a belief that the “Lalata dathuwa” or the forehead bone relic of the Buddha was enshrined at Tissamaharamaya. However a stone inscription found in 1960 at Kirinda records that it was in fact a tooth relic of the left jaw of the Buddha that was enshrined at this stupa. The temple features prominently in the story of King Dutugemunu. It is said that it was to the priest from this temple that King Kavantissa gave alms and in whose presence made his sons famously vow never to fight each other. It is also written that it was the chief priest of Tissamaharamaya who resolved the dispute between Prince Gamini and his brother Saddhatissa when the two princes did battle, and also blessed King Dutugemunu’s army before its march to Anuradhapura.


The Somawathiya stupa is situated 40 kilometres from Polonnaruwa on the west bank of the Mahaweli River. During the time of King Kavantissa, this area marked the strategically important boundary between Ruhuna and Rajarata which was ruled by the Chola King Elara. The construction of stupas at Somawathiya and Seruwila, further north near modern day Trincomalee not only speaks volumes of the piousness of the ancient Sri Lankan monarchs, but also tells the story of family disputes, diplomacy and more importantly geopolitical maneuvering of the day.

According to historians, the Ruhuna Kingdom extended all the way up to the Koddiar Bay in Trincomalee or Gokanna as it was then known. The boundary of the Kingdom was the Mahaweli River, north and west of it being Rajarata and south and east of it being Ruhuna. Here, on the fringes of the Ruhuna Kingdom, were several semi-autonomous regions which were governed by local chieftains who were not entirely subservient to the Sinhala monarch at Magama. Shiva is said to have been such a sub-king who ruled the “Seru” fiefdom with Serunuwara as its capital. Shiva’s brother Giri Abha was married to a princess called Somadevi, the sister of King Kavantissa, in another superb stroke of political manoeuvering. It is said that young prince Gamini got into a dispute with his aunt and uncle which forced them to leave Magama and find refuge in Serunuwara. Shiva who was very fond of Giri Abha is said to have gifted a 40,000 acres piece of land to rule as his own. According to historians, it is here that Somapura was established and due to the request of his consort, Somadevi, sister of the Ruhuna King Kavantissa that Prince Giri Abha built the Somawathiya Stupa.

Though the stupa was built on the left bank of the Mahaweli, due to the mighty river changing course in later years, the current monument is situated on the west bank of the river. Popular belief is that another tooth relic of the Bhudha was enshrined at the Somawathiya stupa. Later, Giri Abha reconciled with his brethren in Ruhuna and his sub-kingdom was once again brought under the writ of the southern kingdom.


As mentioned in the story of Somawathiya, a dispute between prince Gamini and his paternal aunt forced Prince Giri Abha and his consort Somadevi to seek refuge in the sub-Kingdom of Seru. After establishing his own sub Kingdom of Somapura, Giri Abha, Shiva of Seru and another chieftain who ruled the region of Lona formed an alliance that was not favourable towards Ruhuna. Though related by blood, the chieftains were maligned towards the southern kingdom of Ruhuna. Under different circumstances such insubordination would have resulted in a military campaign to subjugate the regional kingdoms.
But this was the rule of Kavantissa, who did not always believe that all battles had to be won by brute force. The wise monarch realised that to threaten the sub-kingdoms with conquest and subjugation would only force the smaller territories to seek the support of the Chola King across the river, putting a disastrous spoke in Kavantissa’s schemes to unify the south before taking on the invaders in Raja Rata.

And so Kavantissa came up with a proposition which the chieftains dared not refuse. It was proclaimed by a prominent Buddhist monk who, it was later revealed, was related to Queen Vihara Maha Devi, that the Buddha himself had professed that a King called Kavantissa of Ruhuna would enshrine the “Lalata Dathuwa” or the forehead bone of the Master at a place called Seru. Kavantissa requested that all the chieftains of Seru, Soma and Lona to join him to fulfill this prophesy.

The King was to march to Seru with the Lalata Dathuwa in what was technically a religious procession, yet on his journey of devotion to the sub-kingdom, he would be accompanied by his army. The chieftains realised they would face the wrath of their subjects if they were to refuse Kavantissa’s offer, since the purpose of the visit was a peaceful one and popular with their subjects. On the other hand, from a protocol perspective, accepting the King of Ruhuna along with his army would also mean that the sub-kingdoms had accepted the rule of Ruhuna in their territories. In the end the chieftains accepted the offer of King Kavantissa, thereby bowing to the law of Ruhuna. According to the Dhathuwamsa, Kavantissa proceeded to establish a massive monastic complex at Seruwila, where he enshrined the venerated relic.

Seruwila was lost to history for many centuries until it was re-discovered in the 1920s. Perhaps it was the loss of Seruwila from collective memory which propelled the belief that the Tissamaharama stupa enshrined the Lalata Dathuwa. After its re-discovery by a monk from Dodangoda in the south, the Seruwila stupa was reconstructed in the 1940s.

Today the Seruwila Stupa lies as a lasting testimony to the brilliance of King Kavantissa in uniting the southern kingdoms in his quest to fight the foreign invaders. A closer analysis of this great man reveals how he, by threat of force, marriage and tact unified the whole of the south before venturing to tackle the Chola invaders. If one were to analyse the romantic tale of Vihara Maha Devi closely, it also goes to prove that by marrying the Royal daughter of Maya Rata, King Kavantissa made his claim to that large chunk of territory as well. Interestingly the Mahavamsa does not mention another King of Kelaniya after the death of Kelanitissa, father of Vihara Maha Devi, suggesting that this Kingdom too eventually came under the writ of Ruhuna.

Similarly, through his diplomatic maneuvering, Kavantissa brought the unrest in the peripheral kingdoms of Seru, Soma and Lona under control. It was Kavantissa who organised the southern army and trained a group of peasants into a fighting force. The Mahavamsa gives details of how the 10 generals known as the Dasa Maha Yodhayo were tasked to find 10 more commanders and those 10 to find 10 more until an army of eleven thousand one hundred and ten, including the generals were formed. Knowing that every army marches on its stomach, King Kavantissa dispatched his younger son, Saddhatissa to Digamadulla to ensure that the rice fields there were cultivated and the country’s economy made prosperous before undertaking a military campaign against the mighty Cholas to the north. Kavantissa not only had the vision to organise this massive army and prepare the economy, he even predicted that his two sons would fight some day for supremacy. In the hope of preventing this conflict, legend says the King made the two princes promise never to confront each other, a vow they broke after their father’s death. Having possessed the foresight to fear even this prospect of a battle after his death, King Kavantissa solicited pledges from his 10 giant generals to the effect that they would never take a side in the event a battle between the princes occurred. It was perhaps the lack of involvement by the 10 legendary generals made the battle between Gamini and Tissa shorter and less bloody than it might well have been, in the end.

The Great Chronicle is renowned for being not only the greatest literary historical source in Sri Lanka, but by its inclusion of events occurring beyond our shores, perhaps even the region. But the fact is that the Mahawamsa, glorious and great though it might be, remains also a work of literature and its author, therefore, capable of subjectivity and prejudice of his own. It was perhaps to give greater prominence to the son that Mahanama Thero in some instances ridiculed Kavantissa, the father of Gamini, as a weak monarch, afraid to take on the Cholas. And yet, in its own way, the Mahawamsa is itself the best source to exonerate Kavantissa, even as it blames him for lacking the bravery of his great son.

Today, we have the luxury of reading between the lines. And what emerges is the story, hidden in the poetic verses written to a princely son, of a father, without whose vision, wisdom and tact, the unification of Sri Lanka would never have been attainable for Mahanama’s epic hero.