A destiny fulfilled
Several weeks ago The Nation began a journey to trace sites associated with the legend of King Dutugemunu, some of these places are now identified with archaeological evidence while some others still dwell in the realm of legend. This series has taken us from Kelaniya in the west coast throughout the ancient Ruhunu Kingdom, spanning from, Magama, modern day Tissamaharama, Seruwila near Trincomalee, Dighavapi in the Batticaloa District and many more places in between. We extensively explored the Kotmale valley where Prince Gamini spent over 20 years in self-exile. Our story last week dwelt on the battle of the royal siblings, Gamini and Tissa which eventually ended in victory for the elder prince. This week we embark on the greatest military expedition undertaken in the annals of the country’s history. A journey that would take a warrior prince and his army to the seat of ancient power, Anuradhapura, a journey that would fulfill their destiny and make them immortal legend and more importantly, a journey that would reunify a nation under a single banner, a desire that has always driven the people of this ancient land
According to legend, the Ruhunu Kataragama Maha Devalaya was built by King Dutugemunu around 160 B.C. as a fulfilment of a vow made before undertaking his military campaign against the Chola invader occupying the capital at Anuradhapura. According to popular legend, King Dutugemunu, had a dream which warned him not to undertake his expedition before obtaining the blessings of Kataragama Deviyo. He is said to have made the arduous journey to the banks of the Manik Ganga where he was engaged in prayer and meditation, when an ascetic suddenly appeared before him and inspired such awe that the prince fainted. On gaining consciousness, there stood before him the great deity of war, Skanda who is said to have presented the King with weapons and blessed him for his campaign. On assuring victory against the Cholas the King in return had made a vow to build a palace with a golden roof for the deity if the country was united under his rule. And after he had won the battle, he had come to Vedihiti Kanda to meet the deity Skanda to fulfill his vows. Then the deity had taken an arrow and fitted it to his golden bow. He had fired the arrow from atop the Vedihiti Kanda and told the King to build the shrine at the place the arrow would fall. The King had proceeded do so and endowed an extensive area of land for its maintenance and subsequent monarchs did likewise. The place marked by the golden arrow is believed in folklore to be the modern day Kataragama.
Understandably, these legends do not find a place in the Mahavamsa chronicle written many centuries later by a Buddhist monk nor is there archaeological evidence to connect King Dutugemunu to the shrine at Kataragama. However popular legend and local folklore has no doubt about the power of this warrior deity and his role in ensuring the victory of King Dutugemunu. There are many who even take these legends to a new sphere by suggesting that the tusks of Kandula, the royal tusker of King Dutugemunu were offered to the shrine, upon the death of the great elephant.
The ancient road from Magama (Tissamaharamaya) to Anuradhapura was through Guttahálaka which is now known as Buttala, and Mahiyanganaya where the Mahaweli turns northwards. According to the Mahavamsa, the first encounter of King Dutugemunu’s campaign is said to have happened at Mahiyangana where the King’s army is said to have overpowered a Chola chieftain by the name of Chatta. From here onwards the Southern army had to overcome 17 more fortifications before reaching the formidable fortress of Vijithapura.
The Mahavamsa presents a detailed description of eighteen fortresses, including Mahiyanganaya which the Ruhunu army overpowered in a period of three years before reaching the greatest of these fortresses at Vijithapura. Before reaching this point the army had to cross the Mahaweli River. The point of crossover is still disputed by academics. However a place called Yudaghanapitiya now situated within the Wasgamuwa National Park is believed in popular legend to be this location. The soil at this place which is red is said to have become that colour because of the blood that was shed in the epic encounters between the Ruhunu army and the Cholas. It is said that with the fall of the fortifications along the Mahaweli River the Cholas escaped to Vijithapura, a formidable fort during that time. King Dutugemunu’s army set up camp close to Vijithapura which since then was called Khandhávárapitthi or the “field of camps”. Currently Kaduruwela near Polonnaruwa is considered as the location where Dutugemunu’s army positioned themselves before taking on the mighty Vijithapura fortress.
The location of the ancient fortress of Vijithapura has been a bone of contention for many decades. The Vijithapura Raja Maha Viharaya situated near the Kala Wewa reservoir closer to Kekirawa is considered as one such possibility. Here there is a boulder which some believed was used by King Dutugemunu’s army to sharpen their swords. However, many historians and archaeologists believe that ancient Vijithapura is situated in close proximity to Polonnaruwa. While carrying out aerial mapping for the Mahaweli Development Project, surveyors came across a location which indicated to the existence of three ancient moats and a square fortification located between Kaduruwela and the new town of Polonnaruwa which is now believed to be the location of Vijithapura.
According to the Mahavanmsa King Dutugemunu ordered his army to attack the four gates of Vijithapura after a siege of four months. The chronicle thus describes the epic battle ;
After a bitter battle Dutugamunu’s Army defeated the Cholas at Vijithapura and marched on to Anuradhapura after overpowering other fortifications at Girilaka and Mahelanagara.
Hearing of the advance of King Dutugemunu, Elara marched with his army to meet the challengers. At a place called Kasagalugama, roughly around eighteen miles from Anuradhapura, the Mahavamsa says the Chola army was routed and made to flee the battleground till they were at the gates of Anuradhapura. At the southern gate to the capital the two monarchs, mounted on their royal tuskers were engaged in a duel to the death. This famous battle between Elara and Gamini was in keeping with the ancient Kshathriya rules of war, in which it is stipulated that equals shall fight equals in the final battle. Eventually the King of Ruhuna, overpowered the older Elara to become the sole ruler of Sri Lanka.
The exact location of King Elara’s tomb has been debated for many decades. Many believed it was in fact the Dhakkina Stupa situated near the southern gate of the ancient capital. Later this was disputed by those proposing that the stupa may be the tomb of King Dutugemunu. The pillar that is said to have been erected by King Dutugemunu decreeing that all his subjects respect the fallen Elara has also been lost with time. However it is said that even until the early 19th century this royal decree was adhered to with some popular tales saying that Pilimatalawe Nilame fleeing after the rebellion of 1818 alighted his horse when passing the tomb of Elara even though he was weary with exhaustion.
The defeat of the Chola King Elara marked the end of a remarkable military expedition that saw unification of the whole county under one sovereign. Dutugemunu was now the ruler of the entire island, a feat achieved by many years of toil, against a formidable foe. Yet his victory was not marked with egocentric rejoicing but with calm contemplation, of the destruction to both human life and property. The triumph was also marked with dignity for the vanquished. The funeral rites performed by King Dutugemunu for his fallen foe and the royal decree ordering all to honour Elara are testaments of a cultured nation that we once were with the capacity to respect human life, even when it was the life of the enemy. In triumphant times, when battles are waged in the name of Dutugemunu, drawing on the passions that once made a Prince from the South, ruler of a unified Lanka, may it not be forgotten that the greatness of this man is measured not only by his military exploits but also by his magnanimity in victory.