The people and cultures of prehistoric Sri Lanka - Part One


by Dr. Siva Thiagarajah

“It stands to reason that a country which is only thirty miles from India and which would have been seen by the Indian fishermen every morning as they sailed out to catch their fish would have been occupied by men who understood how to sail. I suggest that the North of Ceylon was a flourishing settlement centuries before Vijaya was born.” - Sir Paul E.Pieris, 1919
Nagadipa and the Buddhist Remains in Jaffna, Part II p।65.


“ Whether it is Podiyil, or whether it is Himalayas
The wise and the learned always stated
That Puhar is the port of illustrious people
Of splendour and grandeur like in heaven
Its riches, wealth and longevity
Rivalled that of Naka Nadu.”- Silappadikaram I:2.

(August 07, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The twin epics of ancient Tamil Nadu Silappadikaram (2nd century CE) and Manimekalai (3rd century CE) speaks of Naka Nadu across the sea, and their civilization which was far superior to that of the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas. Manimekalai speaks of the great Naka king Valai Vanan who ruled the prosperous Naka Nadu with great splendour and a rich Tamil Buddhist tradition (Manimekalai Ch.14, 24).

Kantarodai has long been identified as the most ancient capital of Jaffna, when it was known as Naka Nadu or Nagadipa and ruled by the Naga kings. Several ancient coins unearthed in this region almost every year with Naga names and Naga emblems attests to this fact. During the monsoon rains such coins are simply washed out of the ground, to be picked by children and sold to the coin-collectors for their pocket money.

Some historians have identified the Naga stronghold of Nagadipa during the sixth century BCE Kannavaddhamana mentioned in the Mahavamsa (Mahavamsa Ch I:49) and the city Maninagadipa mentioned in some Sinhalese chronicles with the present Kantarodai (Godakumbura,C: 1968: 71). The Yalpana Vaipava Malai refers to Kathiramalai as an ancient kingdom in this region; and simply because no other ancient kingdom in this region has been identified, Kathiramalai is equated with Kantarodai. Kadurugoda is a direct Sinhala translation of Kathiramalai. These nomenclatures seem to be conjectures rather than evidence-based inferences. Kantarodai appears to be the conflation of an earlier name which is lost to us and yet to be identified. Until this happens, Kantarodai should be the proper name used to refer to this ancient capital.


The stupas seen above were reconstructed by the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka over the original bases found at this site. These stupas built over burials demonstrate the integration of Buddhism with Megalithsm, which has been described as a hallmark of Dravidian Buddhism. Outside Andhra Pradesh in India, Kanterodai is perhaps the only site where such burials are seen.

The Mahavamsa also describes a conflict between two Naga kings Mahodhara and Chulodhara over a gem-set throne, and how Gautama Buddha during the sixth century BCE came over to settle the dispute and convert many of the Nagas to the Buddhist faith (Mahavamsa Ch I: ). Although the coming of the Buddha to Nagadipa could be a myth, the fact that this region was ruled by Naga kings could not be dismissed lightly.

Unfortunately, while the British academics and the Sri Lankan historians who followed them built up an Anuradhapura centred history for Sri Lanka from the Pali texts, the northern region of the country was totally neglected. After the country gained independence, ethnic passions clouded the judgment of even the foremost academics. For example, Senarat Paranavitana, the doyen of Sri Lankan historians who gave a list of Naga kings who ruled from Anuradhapura in his prestigious ‘History of Ceylon’ published by the University of Ceylon (Paranavitana, S. 1959), when it came to writing the history of Jaffna, dismissed the Nagas as non-human beings who could not have ruled a country (Paranavitana,S. 1961).


The village of Kantarodai in Jaffna, about 3.2 in extent is in itself an archaeological mound situated at a higher elevation than the surrounding areas, with a heavy concentration of artefacts. The most ancient city is identified as a 2m high mound in the middle of the village covering some 25 hectares. It is located in the belt of fertile paddy land and is near a major tank, the Kantarodai Kulam, of some 40 acres, and an ancient canal called Valukkai Aru which winds its way up to Kallundai near Navanturai, a port in the west coast of Jaffna.

This site was first surveyed and excavated by Sir Paul E. Pieris in 1918-1919. He obtained 35 punch-marked silver coins which he referred to as ‘puranas’ belonging to the time of Lord Buddha, 18 early copper coins either square or oblong in shape from the pre-Christian centuries, several Roman coins, Pandyan coins, copper ‘kohl’ sticks which he said were similar to those used by the Egyptians in 2000 B.C., and several other Buddhist artefacts of significance.(Pieris, Paul, E. 1917, 1919).

The Sri Lankan Department of Archaeology has been engaged in horizontal excavations during the 1960s without any stratification, and brought to light a cluster of Buddhist monuments. However the motives and the measures taken by the Department of Archaeology in excavating Kanterodai were neither scientific nor academic. They were interested only in highlighting the Buddhist monuments, reconstructing them and presenting it to the world as evidence of a Sinhalese settlement of Jaffna. But Kanterodai is far ancient, unique in significance and wider in perspective than conceived by the government department.

The first systematic excavation and scientific examination of the site was undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania Museum team in 1970 headed by Vimala Begley. A ceramic sequence remarkably similar to that of Arikamedu was identified, with a pre-rouletted ware period, subdivided into an earlier (1a). Megalithic, and later (1b).Pre-rouletted ware phase, followed by a (2). Rouletted ware period. In 1973, before the results of the Radio-carbon dates from this excavation were known Dr.Begley assigned a tentative date for the beginnings of the Megalithic Culture at Kantarodai to the fourth century BCE (Begley,V. 1973).

The Radio-carbon dates were released by the Pensylvannia University Museum in 1977, but it took another five years for the Archaeological Commissioner of Sri Lanka to obtain these results from Bennet Bronson who was a member of the excavation team. These results were first published in Sri Lanka in the Sun group newspaper ‘Weekend’ dated 8/2/1982. The dates provided were a revelation, as two out of a total of sixteen artefacts analysed gave outer dates of 1300 BCE, implying the possibility of a Megalithic Culture commencement at this site during the second millennium BCE.

Further surveys, surface explorations and an excavation at the adjacent site at Anaikoddai were conducted by the University of Jaffna team in 1980-81 (Ragupathy,P.,1987; Indrapala,K,, 2006: 337) and in 1994-1995 by Krishnarajah of the University of Jaffna (Krishnarajah,S.,1998, 2004).


During the months of June–August 1970 excavations were conducted at Kantarodai by the University of Pennsylvania Museum team. Academic staff from the Department of History; University of Jaffna were part of this excavation group. Two trenches marked ‘A’ and ‘B’ were dug up to depth of 4m. at the Woodapple site not far from the Buddhist stupa complex. The artefacts collected were analysed and some of them were taken to U.S.A for radiometric analysis. Unfortunately the official report of this excavation was never published. Dr. Indrapala and Dr. Sitrampalam from the University of Jaffna team who were present at these excavations were able to record some of their observations during this excavation in their own publications. (Indrapala,K 1973: 18-19; Sitrampalam,S.K. 1993: 11-13).

During 1980-81 Dr. Ragupathy from the University of Jaffna was able to collect some artefacts and record his observations while a well was dug up at Kantarodai, which appeared in his comprehensive dissertation ‘Early settlements in Jaffna’. During 1994-1995 Krishnarajah and his team from the University of Jaffna, after obtaining permission from the Sri Lanka Archaeological Department conducted surveys and excavations at this site (Krishnarajah, S., 1998, 2004). These findings are also utilised here to complement the picture.

During the excavations, the deepest layer of human occupation was identified as the Megalithic, hence I have classed it as Period I. Although Allchin mentions of finding microliths at a site near Jaffna under four feet of earth (Allchin, B.&R. 1993: 96), presence of microliths were not reported at Kanterodai. Evidence of occupation by a prehistoric Mesolithic people in the Jaffna peninsula has not come to light in these excavations to-date. Perhaps future excavations may change this picture, in which case this classification has to be revised.

To be continued...