Vijayabahu III of Dambadeniya; a breath of fresh air to a dying civilization.

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

The history of this little island, which we call our motherland, is filled with stories of great warriors, and great battles. Throughout our long history, there are countless tales of warriors who fought fearless battles against invaders who disturbed the peace and sovereignty of the Sinhala kingdom. Some of these warriors are celebrated as great national heroes. There are monuments built up to commemorate them, books, poems, and films made as a tribute to them. Their names, their sacrifices, and their valour are immortal in our consciousness.

 However, among this long list of our warriors, there are some whose names are not being praised enough; whose sacrifices, valour, and wisdom are no less than great national heroes, yet they are veiled in history. Their personalities are being overshadowed by their predecessors and successors. Today, we shall embark on a journey to meet one such great warrior king who of course, is one of the strongest pillars of the civilization we witness today stands upon. If not for him, the story of this land would have been certainly different.

He is Vijayabahu III or the first king of Dambadeniya. He ascended to power during an awfully doomed time of our history; when the classical Sinhala civilization of the Rajarata was breathing its last breaths. He gave life to a dying civilization. He was the forefather of a long-lasting dynasty that ruled Sri Lanka up to the Kotte kingdom.

This is the story of Vijayabahu III, founder of the Dambadeniya Kingdom, and the saviour of a declining civilization.

Polonnaruwa, year 1215

A Pandyan usurper was ruling from Polonnaruwa and it was his third year on the island. The Sinhala monarchy was going through political instability. The Rajarata civilization that lasted for more than 15 centuries was on the verge of declining. It was during this time, that Magha from Kalinga invaded the island. As we had no strong king, things were easier for Magha. According to the continuation of the Great chronicle, known as the Culavamsa too, Magha’s army consisted of great soldiers of Kerala. This powerful and ruthless army started destroying the country after they landed on the island. Villages were raided and burnt. Temples were raided, and stupas were demolished. Monks, devotees, and even little children were killed brutally. Thousands of ola leaf books were destroyed.

After Magha captured the Pandya usurper, the chronicle says that he gouged his eyes out.

Such was the level of the ruthlessness of Magha’s iron rule. The Great chronicle says that he ruled for 21 years. However, there is a slight disagreement between historians about his exact time of rule and the years.

Magha’s invasion is known as the greatest blow to the Rajarata civilization and the classical Sinhala culture. It is believed that after his destruction, and the continuation of his cruel rule for decades, the classical culture of the island never returned to its past glory. The Sinhalese fled away from the Pihiti rata or the Rajarata area. Tanks were abandoned. Temples were ruined. Buddha sasana lost the support of the ruling body. Agriculture lands were abandoned. The economy collapsed and the island was no longer under one kingship.

A spark of hope

Gradually, Sinhala princes and leaders built fortresses and ruled certain areas in the Maya and Ruhuna. They built cities and towns and secured them with fortresses and ruled as regional rulers.

The chronicles give the names of the below rulers as powerful regional rulers of this time;

Shupa senpati – Shuba parvatha (Yapahuwa)

Bhuanekabahu adipada – Govinda pabbatha

Sankha senpati – Minimewla nuwara

Historians say that there were many regional rulers during this time in Ruhuna and Maya and some of these rulers were called in the local language as ‘Vanni-Rajas’ or ‘Vanni Nirindu’.

Rise of Vijayabahu III

It was during this time, a Kshatriya descendant of the Sri Sanghabodhi wansa, ruled all the Vanni kingdoms and became the king of Vanni. He rose into power and it is said that he secured the Maya rata from all enemies. He built his fortress on the summit of a pabbatha named Dambadeniya. He was crowned as the king of Sri Lanka (although scholars doubt whether he was king of Maya and Ruhuna both or only Maya) at Dambadeniya. This is how the kingdom of Dambadeniya was established. The year of Vijayabahu III’s coronation is much debated, but what is generally accepted is the year 1232.

Setting the foundation for a brighter future…

Saving the monarch

Although Vijayabahu III was not able to defeat Magha completely, he was successful in uniting the Maya and Ruhuna (still in debate). This is one reason some historians even call him Vanni Vijayabahu as he was Vanni-Raja for a long time and then united the Vanni kingdoms. His son, Parakramabahu II, considered one of the greatest rulers, was able to put an end to Magha’s cruel rule.

It is also notable that during this difficult time, a saviour emerged from Maya, not from Ruhuna as it was before. Professor Paranavithana says that this could be due to the ruthless massacre of royals by Parakramabahu the Great in Ruhuna.

Vijayabahu III’s son Parakaramabahu II was able to end Magha’s rule and secure the sovereignty of the island. It is said that he and his brother Buvanekabahu were trained by their father king Vijayabahu III to be great warriors and rulers. It was the foundations laid by Vijayabahu that resulted in defeating Magha and securing the Sinhala monarchy.

After great struggles and hard work, Vihayabahu was crowned as the king of Maya which was his second great achievement after being a Vanni raja. Before establishing his capital in Dambadeniya, Codrington believes that Vijayabahu’s stronghold was in Palabathgala, Rathnapura. It is also important to understand that Vijayabahu had to face two main challenges; one is the great power of Magha in Rajarata and the regional rulers of Maha and Ruhuna, including the headstrong and partially independent Vanni rulers. 

Arts and culture

After Magha invaded and seized Polonnaruwa, the final death blow to the classical Sinhala culture was set. Economy, agriculture and other traditional industries, religion and culture, and the social formation were greatly disturbed. Most of these damages were far beyond repair. However, Dambadeniya and Vijayabahu were a ray of golden hope for this dying civilization. Arts and literature breathed into life once again, slowly but steadily under the kings of Dambadeniya. Parakramabahu II is known as one of the most celebrated poets, and prolific writers in Sri Lanka. His Kavisulumina is considered a masterpiece in Sinhala literature. Visuddi Marga Sannasa is an incomparable highly acclaimed literary work.

Saviour of Buddha sasana

The tooth relic and the Buddha’s begging bowl relic, which were considered symbols of power and royalty, were kept hidden in Kothmale during Magha;s time. Vijayabahu was successful in winning the trust and loyalty of the Buddhist bhikkhus. Therefore, the monks allowed the king to bring the two most sacred relics to a newly built temple of tooth. Having these two most sacred relics completed the power and authority of Vijayabahu as the king of Sri Lanka.

Winning the trust and loyalty of bhikkhus, made the people accept Vijayabahu as a savior of the Buddha sasana, which he actually did. He restored many ancient monasteries and stupas, united the bhikkhus, and held a bhikkhu convention. He built a temple of the tooth relics in Beligala and more temples in Maya rata. His son Parakramabahu II restored the ruins at Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.

Who was he?

As the royalty or connection of Vijayabahu to a royal clan or family is not clear according to chronicles and inscriptions, there are disagreements between historians about his family. Some say that he is hailing from a royal clan of Anuradhapura. There are so many arguments about Vijayabahu’s ancestry. The royal dynasty established by him, later known as the Dambadeni raja wansha, ruled Sri Lanka for a long time. Therefore writers who composed historical texts connected his family to ancient royalty. Professor Paranvaithana doubts these stories.

Becoming a Vanni-Raja is the most crucial achievement of Vijayabahu’s political journey. It is for the first time in Pali chronicles the term Vanni is being used. Although the history and origin of these Vanni rulers and kingdoms are still veiled, it is clear that during the doomed period of the 13th century, as the Rajarata civilization was declining, many regional rulers rose into power and they were called the Vanni kings. Vijayabahu was one of them, and through his valor and wisdom, rose into so much power, ending up establishing his dynasty as the next ruling dynasty of the Sinhala monarchy, and founding the third known Sinhala capital city (according to recorded history). His son, who was trained by him, defeated Magha and united the country.

Spending his youth in countless battles, Vijayabahu reached his old age when he was crowned as the king of Dambadeniya. He died after four years, in the year 1236. His son fulfilled his dream of a country free of enemies.

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, Dambadeniya, Kalingha Magha, Parakramabahu 2, Sri Lankan archaeology, SRI LANKAN HISTORY, Vanni Vijayabahu, Vannis, Vijayabahu 3