Noble Invader Shrouded in Mystery

In search of Elara’s identity and tomb

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

Among the many kings and usurpers in the long history of Sri Lanka, the names of Dutugamunu (161 BCE to 137 BCE) and Elara (205 BCE to 161 BCE) will always remain to be immortal among the islanders. The battle between these two rulers is glorified in ancient texts. King Dutugamunu is considered to be the greatest among the great Sinhalese warrior kings and is always remembered as the greatest patronage of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Elara, who is referred to as a Damila in the 5th century Mahavamsa, ruled Anuradhapura for 44 years. For defeating him and for bringing back to power the Sinhalese monarchy, and maintaining the island’s sovereignty, Dutugamunu has become a national hero.

However, Elara has never been loathed by the chronicle writers. On the contrary, he is respected and always admired for being a righteous ruler. His men and ministers are blamed for destroying the temples and for the chaos. 

It is recorded that Dutugamunu held a proper royal funeral for the defeated king and he built a tomb enshrining the ashes of Elara. He is the only enemy king in Sri Lanka that was honoured in such a way.

But why was a tomb built for him, by the victorious king? Who was he? Why was he honoured and where is this tomb? Why do the chronicles hail him to be a good ruler? 

The purpose of this article is to clarify a few misunderstandings about Elara and to make an attempt to find Elara’s tomb. 

The story of Elara and Dutugamunu has been greatly misused and misinterpreted in recent times, especially from a dangerous racist point of view. The writer has observed that the historical figure Elara is being wrongly portrayed as a person who belongs to the modern Tamil race and this story is being used to evoke hatred and racism among the Sinhalese and Tamils. Also, Dutugamunu is being portrayed as a murderous king who battled against the Tamils of the island. 

Based on historical and archaeological evidence and theories it can be confidently said that this battle by no means cannot be interpreted as a battle between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, but only as a war that was fought by the rightful ruler of the Sinhalese monarchy to establish the sovereignty and territorial integrity of this little island kingdom.

Kujjatissa Stupa; Tomb of Elara?

A little brick stupa, somewhat isolated as it is not a major pilgrimage site, stands alone in the lush green landscape in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. The bricks are covered with moss and wild plants. The brick dome is built on a granite stage . 

This stupa, known as the Kujjatissa stupa, is considered by some to be the tomb of Elara. 

According to some this stupa was named after an arhat named Kujjatissa.

The stupa is located near the southern gate of the citadel. Mahavamsa records that the last battle between Elara and Dutugemunu happened near the southern gate of the citadel and Elara was killed there. 

The chronicles also say that King Dutugemunu held a royal funeral for the defeated king and that he built a monument (a tomb) on where Elara had fallen during the last battle, and where he was cremated within a catafalque. The monument was ordained to be worshipped. He further ordered that all music and dancing must be paused when passing the tomb. 

Professor T.G. Kulatunga in his book Hero-Stone at Anuradhapura and Other Essays says that according to the Mahavamsa and the Vansatthappakasini, it shows that the monument (Elara’s tomb) was by the side of the road. He further explains that the Bujjatissa stupa is now found near the road leading to Lohapasada from the south gate of the old inner city of the Anuradhapura and it is the only stupa existing today in the proximity of the south gate. 

Therefore, the professor claims that, if this stupa existed during the time of king Saddhathissa its antiquity and location make it most likely that it was the tomb of Elara. 

Why is Elara not loathed by the chroniclers?

One may say that to highlight the greatness of Dutugamunu, the chronicler had intentionally praised the good nature of Elara and portrayed him as a righteous ruler. This argument can be seen as invalid as the chroniclers seem to be giving a fair account of each and every usurper of the island. 

In contrast, one may see a clear difference in how Kalinga Magha is portrayed in the chronicles. He is loathed, hated, and feared by the chroniclers. 

Hence we believe that Elara’s true nature is authentically portrayed in local chronicles. 

Stories about Elara

According to the Mahavamsa Elara had a bell hung up with a long rope at the head of his bed, so that those who desired a judgement at law might ring it. 

Once when his son was going in a chariot to the Tissa-tank, he killed (by accident) a young calf lying on the road by driving the wheel over its neck. The mother cow went to the palace and rang the bell, and the king severed the son’s head with that same chariot wheel.

Another story says that when a snake devoured a bird and the mother bird had rung the bell, Elara caught the snake, cut open its body, took out the bird, and hung the snake upon the tree.

Once again, Elara visited the Bhikkus of the Cetiya-Giri to invite him to alms, his chariot’s yoke damaged a Stupa. When his ministers told him that the Stupa had been damaged, Elara lay down on the road and told the ministers to sever his head with the wheel. At this point, the ministers enlightened the king that Buddha does not accept or allow injury caused to a living being and therefore, talk to the Bhikkhus and solve the matter by renovating the stupa. It is said that he spent more than the actual amount to renovate the damaged stupa. 

Who was Elara; was he from the Tamil country?

Elara is first described in the Mahavamsa as a Damila and his men are referred to as Damilas. This has led many modern historians, especially Tamil scholars to interpret him as a Tamil king. Now, this statement is actually problematic. 

The 2nd century BCE has not seen the rise of any superior power of a Tamil kingdom in the Tamil country that had the power to invade neighbouring countries.  

Damila; was it a common term for all invaders?

The many political invasions that occurred during the historic times are referred to in local chronicles as Damila invaders from South India; which means, generally whoever invaded Sri Lanka during historic times, regardless of their ethnicity and the language they spoke, chroniclers have referred to them as Damilas. 

The first known Damila invasion in Sri Lanka was the invasion of Sena and Guttika during the time of Suratissa (247 BC – 237 BC). According to local chronicles, Sena and Guttika were horse merchants. To date, there is no evidence of the existence of Sena – Guttika and or any invasion to Sri Lanka from South India of this time, being recorded in the history of South India. 

The invasion during the time of Walagamba (103 BCE/ 89 – 77 BCE) is also referred to as the Seven Damilas in the chronicles. Some scholars suggest they were of Pallava origin. The Pallavas and Cholas were enemies in South India and the Pallavas were finally defeated by the Cholas in the 9th century CE. 

The Damila invasion during the time of Mittasena (435-436 CE) known as the Six Damilas is from the Pandya kingdom. Even Though they are from the Pandya kingdom, the chronicle refers to them as Damilas. 

When narrating about many other Pallava and Pandya political invasions and alliances during the Anuradhapura time, the chronicles use the term Damila. 

The four Nayak kings who ruled Sri Lanka despite the fact that they spoke Telugu and they are not of the Tamil race, our historical texts and we still refer to them as the Damila/Demala or Tamil kings.

This leads to the suggestion that Elara, although referred to as a Damila, does not necessarily mean the Tamil race. He could have been someone from any South Indian kingdom or even from some other foreign land, most probably where Buddhism was unknown. No evidence has been found in the Tamil country to say that Elara during the 2nd century BCE invaded Sri Lanka.

What was Elara’s ethnicity?

Closely studying the many stories about Elara that are given in the chronicles, one can see a close resemblance to his acts with the Hammurabi law of ancient Babylonia. 

Also, it must be noted that during these times (Sena Guttika and Elara), Buddhism flourished in South India, and cities such as Kanchipuram were Buddhist centres where great Buddhist scholars resided within monasteries. Therefore, if Elara was from South India, it is irrational to believe that he was unaware of Buddha’s basic teachings.

The acts of Elara (seeking revenge and violent punishments) do not reflect Buddhist philosophy and the minister’s reply to him during the stupa incident shows that Elara was completely unaware of Buddhist philosophy. 

It is not to be seen in India that an Eye-to-eye law for seeking revenge or as a punishment was practised such as killing your own son to do justice to another. However, such practises were common in the region of ancient Babylonia and the ancient cultures of the Persian gulf. 

In this region, there had been an ancient land known as Elam (modern region of Khūzestān), populated by people known as the Elamites who spoke a language, known as Elamite or as Hatamtite, that could be related to the Dravidian language, as proposed by a minority of scholars. This is explained by Martin Bernal in Black Athena; The linguistic evidence. Further, scholars like David McAlpine believe that Elamite may be related to the living Dravidian languages. However, this is not yet widely accepted and is subjected to criticism. 

It also must be noted that the Brahui language which is again a Dravidian language is spoken in the area of Balochistan. 

Although isolated today, these scattered Dravidian language-speaking people hints that centuries ago, there had been a wider population of Dravidian language speakers in the region of the Persian Gulf and in central Asia. 

This region was politically powerful and culturally influential and their authority was spread through political, economic (trade), cultural and religious strings to faraway lands such as India and Sri Lanka. 

In conclusion, we must say that the identity of Elara is not yet figured out. His existence in South India is not proven, nor elsewhere yet, apart from Sri Lanka. Hence, attributing his ethnicity to the Tamil race is baseless. There is no doubt that he was a foreigner who most probably spoke a Dravidian language (there are about 80 Dravidian languages), who practised the eye-to-eye law, who was of noble descent, and who was not familiar with Buddhism. 

He was of course a royal and that is why Dutugamunu honoured him in a way that reminds us of how Porus asked Alexander to “treat me as a king would treat another king”


Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, Elara, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, Tamils in Sri Lanka