The Vavuniya District of the Northern Province is bordering the Anuradhapura, Trincomalee, and Puttalam districts. Vavuniya District has an abundance of archaeological heritage that belongs to the Anuradhapura Period, Polonnaruwa Period, and temples that were restored by kings of the post-medieval period kingdoms.

The large number of ancient tanks and irrigation work in Vavuniya also reminds us of the ancient agrarian prosperity of the area. These tanks are surrounded by vast areas of paddy fields. The temples situated close to these tanks and amidst paddy fields remind us of the local concept, Gamai Pansalai, Wevai Dagebai. The villages of the locals are located adjoining the paddy fields.

Centuries later this concept according to which human settlements were built in ancient Sri Lanka is not in practice now. The ancient human settlement patterns and built environment in Vavunia have changed. The area was under the influence and control of the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, and during this time of administration, the area underwent major changes. When the British divided the country socially, and politically, they also divided the people of the country as Low Country Sinhalese, Kandyan Sinhalese (Upcountry Sinhalese), and the Tamils as Sri Lankan Tamil and Indian Tamils, burning bridges of peace and harmony of the islanders, which we are still unable to extinguish.

The Vanniya, Vanni people, Vavunia, and the Vanni District

The area was referred to as the Vanni District during the British and still, the name is in use during elections. The district and surrounding area were referred to as Vanni after the collapse of the Rajarata civilisation of the 13th century. It is because the area was covered with forests as most of the parts were abandoned during the 13th century, while Kalinga Maga was in power. According to historical texts he ruled for 21 years.

During this time, the Sinhala monarchy was under threat. Sinhalese princes, generals, warriors, and chieftains established small kingdoms, built fortresses and ruled certain areas of the island protecting the people and patronising Buddhism. During the 13th century, these chieftains were known as ‘Vanni kings’ as they were scattered over the area known as Vanniya.

Some of these Vanni kings were brave and ferocious and would defeat Maga’s army and stop them from entering beyond the Rajarata area, further south of the island. King VijayabahauIII was one of the most powerful Vanni kings that gained more and more power and was able to establish a new capital city in Dambadeniya. He is also known as the founder of the Dambadeniya kingdom and the founder king of a royal dynasty that ruled the island till the 15th century.

Vanni chieftains were like provincial rulers of areas that were mostly forest areas. These villages or small ruling areas were isolated from each other by patches of forests. From time to time they would rebel against the king and sometimes they would support the king during wars. It is reported that king Parakaramabau VI of Kotte (1412 – 1467 CE) defeated 18 Vanni chieftains before he waged war againt Aryachakrawarti.

The Sinhalese people use the term Vannilaththo to refer to the Vedda people of Sri Lanka, as they are people (aththo) of the forest (vanni). Vanni is a Sinhala word that means Vanaya or Kelaya (forest). Some modern scholars attempt to divide the Vanni community into Sinhala Vannis and Tamil Vannis. However, there are no notable Tamil Vanni rulers. The heroic Pandara Vannia is Bandara Vanni or Vanni Bandara who was also related to the famous Nuwara Wewa noble family of Anuradhapura. Vannis rose to power during the 13th century, to protect the Sinhala monarchy from Magha and King Vijayabahu III established a powerful dynasty of his own. Vannis were never independent rulers and they are people from the Sinhala community and mostly those who were descendants of the Rajarata royal family, commanders, and army generals of the former kingdom.

It is because they lived and rose to power in the forest-covered areas that they were referred to as Vannis or people of the forest in the Northern plain.

It is similar to the distortion of the identity of Aryachakravartins of the North. We must remember that whoever gained power in the Northern region as provincial rulers, sea pirates, rebels against the king, or even invaded are not always necessarily of Tamil ethnic origin or of South Indian ethnic origin. We must carefully study etymology and historical sources without being biased by racism and carefully sort out the identity of these historical figures.

Also, there is no evidence of Vanni people in Sri Lanka beyond the 13th century CE, although distorted tales are being fabricated nowadays.

It is also clear that the abandoned forest area in Rajarata after the 13th century was referred to as Vanni or Forest, and the chieftains of this area who gained notable power as village headmen were known as Vannis.

Ruins in Vavuniya

The Vanni area was taken into the authority of the British in 1795 and was under their rule until 1948.

Renowed scholar S.P.S. Weerasinghe writes in Ape Vavuniyawa that Vavuniyawa means, Vavu, Ani, or the area of many Vavu (tanks).

The large number of archaeological remains of the district is silent witnesses to the story of a declining population and their vanishing trails.

Studying and exploring the Vanniya or the Vanni district is not a task that can be done in a day. It has a unique culture and history. Vavuniya District is the centre of the ancient Vanniya. The Manual of Vanni, (1895) by John P. Lewis who was the Assistant Government Agent of Mullaitivu and Vavuniya districts from 1889 to 1890 is a precious piece of literature to study the past of the area.

The Manual of Vanni (1895) records details of a large number of archaeological places which are Buddhist monasteries and abandoned tanks and other irrigation work. Lewis also reports in detail how many of these temples were destroyed how kovils were built on top of them and how pieces of Buddha statues and stone carvings are used as Siva lingas or Pulleyar statues at some places.

The list of protected archaeological monuments of the Vavuniya District is as follows;

– Alagalla ruins

– Aluthwatta ruins

– Ambalangodella ruins

– Avaranthulawa ruins

– Erupothana ruins

– Galnaddumkulama Vihara

– Iratperiyakulama ruins

– Karadikkulama ruins

– Lunuwewa (Uppukulama ruins)

– Madukanda Vihara

– Navagama kiri vehera

– Omanthe ruins

– Padiveddikulama ruins

– Pampaimadu ruins

– Peneynindran ruins

– Rankethgama

– Sohonkulama

– Thammenna Kanda ruins

– Kudakachchak Odiya ruins

– Thonigala Inscriptions

– Ulukkulam Stone Bridge and ruins

These archaeological protected monuments in the Vavuniya District are remains of stupas, Buddhist monasteries, ruins of Buddha, and bodhisattva statues. We urge the Department of Archaeology (DoA) to take immediate measures to gazette the remaining sites as protected monuments and also list a National Heritage List to protect these vulnerable sites.

The list of ancient sites of the Vavuniya District is massive.

Brahmi inscriptions in Vavuniya

Thonigala, Erupothana, Mahakachchakodiya, and Thandikulama are places where Brahmi inscriptions are found. These are among the earliest inscriptions found in Sri Lanka. Erupothana, Niraviya, Padivettukulama, and Kalnattankulama are more places where early Brahmi inscriptions are found along with drip-ledged caves. These are remains of ancient Buddhist monasteries. The language of these inscriptions is early Sinhala.

Remains of Buddha statues, ruined stupas, and Buddha’s footprint stones

A notable number of Buddha’s footprint stones are found at places such as Mahakachchakodiya, Madukanda, Kalukunnammaduwa, Irathperiyakulama, Kiriveheragama, and Omantha. The Buddha’s footprint was venerated before the Buddha statue was created in the 1st century CE. This indicates that these places are older than the 1st century CE.

Places where the sacred Tooth Relic was kept

Most of the ancient places in Vavuniya are associated with the sacred Tooth Relic. According to local belief, the Kalinga princess Hemamala landed at Lankapatuna Port along with the sacred Tooth Relic. This ancient Lankapatuna Port is a port that is believed to be located at Kokilai, in the Mullaitivu District. Lankapatuna harbour was not a major harbour in ancient Sri Lanka such as Mathota, Dambakola Patuna, or Gokanna. The Kalinga princess left her homeland in secrecy and also disguised as a paribrajaka priest. They entered the island secretly, thus they chose a port that was not a major one to keep their arrival low-key.

The Sinhala king of this time was King Kisthsirimewan (303 – 331 CE), son of Mahasen. The king with great honour and love welcomed the sacred Tooth Relic and placed it in a newly-built Temple next to the royal palace.

Most of the temples in Vavuniya are linked to the sacred Tooth Relic. They are known as resting places of the sacred Tooth Relic and the Kalinga royalty until they arrived at Anuradhapura.

The Madukanda Ancient Temple is known as one of the main places where the sacred Tooth Relic was kept for some days. Ruins of an image house, parts of Buddha statues, stone pillars, a pond, drip-ledge caves with inscriptions, carved stones such as korawakgal, moonstones, steps, and so on can be found at the temple premises. The carvings at this place are exquisite and are done with great skill and attention to detail. The beautiful guard stones, carved steps, and moonstones are some of the finest specimens of the Anuradhapura-Period art and architecture.

Samalankulama being destroyed

This is a very significant ancient site in Vavuniya. The ancient tank is a work of a king of Anuradhapura. In 1979, excavation work was done at this place and it was proved to be an ancient Buddhist monastery. A stupa, an image house, Buddha statues,Bodhisattva statues, and coins were found at the place.

Recently, a kovil was built on the place and attempts have been made to vandalise the original identity of the place. The kovil is an illegal construction and it is surprising to see why and how the Director General of Archaeology is not taking any action against this illegal construction. However, it was reported that this year March the Subject Minister Vidura Wickramanayaka visited the illegal kovil and agreed to renovate the recently-constructed kovil, ignoring the fact that this is a Buddhist archaeological site.

Many Buddhist organisations and societies and monks have expressed their disagreement and disappointment in this regard. We strongly request the minister to reconsider his decision and take measures to preserve the Anuradhapura-Period ancient site. We also would like to remind the Director General that such construction is illegal according to the Archaeology Act of Sri Lanka and it is his duty and responsibility to protect the country’s heritage.

Before we end, we would like to highlight the fact that we, or the majority of Buddhists in this country, have no animosity against kovils or Hindu shrines. We developed a tradition of building shrines for gods within the temple premises and even placing idols of gods inside Buddha image houses. The Siva devalas, Visnu, and Kali devalas at Polonnaruwa are treasured heritage places for us. We only object the act of forcefully encroaching Buddhist heritage sites in the North and elsewhere on the island, and building kovils by vandalising monuments and erasing the Buddhist identity of a place.

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

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