The people and cultures of prehistoric Sri Lanka - Part Three

Previous Parts: Part One | Part Two

by Dr. Siva Thiagarajah

PERIOD II: Early Historic Period 1: 300-200 BCE.

(August 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Early Historic period is marked by the appearance of an epigraph with decipherable script indicating the presence of a ruler or chieftain. Pottery continues to be of the Black and Red Ware as well as the Early Red ware types. Brahmi alphabets are making their appearance in potsherds, the most commonly found symbol being the Tamil Brahmi letter ‘ma’.

There were also various kinds of beads made of glass, ivory, chank, carnelian and marble. These were blue, dark blue, green, light yellow and white in colour. Beads were found in all the layers, being most abundant in the superficial layer. In1919 Sir Paul Pieris collected more than 26,000 beads and a variety of copper Kohl sticks from this site.

Baked bricks were making their appearance at this level, as well as post holes for the erection of pillars or posts for the building of houses. There were also grinding stones, as well as rolling pestles made of stone and smoothened on the surfaces. An interesting find was a carnelian stone showing the picture of a chariot and driver (Sitrampalam,S.K. 1993: 11) believed to be of Roman origin.


There were early Pandyan coins, as well as Indian punch marked coins which Paul Pieris dated to 500 BCE (time of Buddha), suggesting maritime trade relations with India were under way during this period. It was on the strength of this finding Sir Paul Pieris wrote: 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 to catch their fish would have been occupied as soon as the continent was peopled by men who understood how to sail. I suggest that the North of Ceylon was a flourishing settlement centuries before Vijaya was born (Paul E.Pieris 1917, 1919: 65).


During the excavations conducted for the University of Jaffna by S.Krishnarajah and his team in 1995 at Ucchapanai in Kanterodai several BRW potsherds with Brahmi writing were brought to light. Three of these potsherds had complete legends written in Tamil Brahmi datable to 300-200 BCE (Krishnarjah, S. 2004).

The three legends are as follows:

1. Chadarasan: This resembles the legend Chadanakarasan found in a coin discovered at Akurugoda by Osmund Bopearachchi and colleagues, which related to a Naga king.

2. Apisithan: The term ‘Api/Abi’ is usually taken as the female form of ‘Ay’. Here, as the word ends in –an, it is taken for a male. In Indian literature Abiram and Abimanyu were names given to heroes.

3. Palur: In Tamil literary sources ‘Palur’ is the name given for Dandapura in Kalinga. Ptolemy too mentions Balur as a port in Kalinga. This may indicate the trade relations Kantarodai had with Kalinga.


A stealite seal inscription was among the artefacts excavated at Anaikoddai by the University of Jaffna team in December 1980. The legend on the seal has two lines. The first line consists of three non-Brahmi symbols. The second line has three Brahmi letters and read as Koveta. The name Koveta is not Prakrit. It is comparable to the names KoAtan and KoPutivira occurring in the contemporary Tamil Brahmi inscriptions of South India. The script is taken as Early Tamil similar to the South Indian inscriptions of 300 BCE.

Ko in Tamil and Malayalam means ‘king’ and no doubt refers to a chieftain here. (Indrapala,K. 2006: 337). The first line of non-Brahmi letters may represent royalty or a form of early writing known to these people.

The Anaikoddai seal and Kanterodai potsherd scripts helps to establish two significant facts: (1): By 300 BCE there was a king or chieftain Ko Veta, was ruling this region. The name Chadarasan too may refer to a king. (2). Tamil language and Tamil Brahmi writing was known to the people of this region during this period.


PERIOD III: Early Historic Period 2: 200 – 10 BCE (Rouletted ware Period)

The succeeding period dated between c.200-10 BCE, yielded in addition to the BRW and fine grey wares, rouletted ware, Arikamedu type pottery, Eastern Hellenistic wares, semi-precious bead stones and Laksmi plaques. This period appears to be contemporary with the adjacent Buddhist complex of Kantarodai.

A rouletted ware potsherd with Brahmi inscription was discovered in this layer. This find was given the number KTD A14. Dr.Indrapala opined that the potsherd presumably formed part of the begging bowl of a mendicant monk. The reading is Dataha pata. The language is the same as the pre-Christian Prakrit Inscriptions of Sri Lanka. Dataha pata means the bowl of Datta. The Prakrit script is dated to the second centuty BCE (Indrapala,K. 1973: 18-19).


There is nothing in the above script to suggest that Datta was the name of a monk. It is incorrect to assume that all pottery found with names were begging bowls of monks. In the past the traders, the owners, the makers and every ordinary person had the habit of incising their name on the pottery. As the name suggests, Datta was probably a person of the merchant class from Bengal. In several stanzas Manimekalai mentions a merchant-trader from Vanga called Chandra Datta who frequently visited Naka Nadu (Manimekalai Ch.XVI); Datta seems to be a common name among the Bengal merchants.

Details of coins recovered in the 1970 excavations have not been fully published, but they include silver and copper punchmarked coins, Buddhist chakrams, coins with elephant and swastika emblems, Roman coins, maneless lion and Laksmi plaques (Orton, N. 1993). The large amount of Roman coins from this period obtained by Paul Pieris in 1917-18, and by the Pennsylvania team in 1970; as well as the presence of rouletted ware and Roman artefacts indicate that there was an established Roman trade by this time. South Indian Pandyan coins and the Buddhist chakrams suggest an active trade with South India from 300 BCE. The carnelian stone depicting a chariot and driver mentioned under Period II, is presumed to be of Roman origin.

PERIOD IV: Historic Period 1: 10 BCE – 500 CE

This is the period of an established Naga kingdom, when Naka Nadu became a rich nation with a ruling dynasty, its control extending up to Mantai in the North-East, Gokarnam in the North-west and Mahavillachi in the middle. The socio-economic structure of this nation was built around its oceanic trade and agriculture, the trade with Rome being the mainstay of its economy.

There is a reference to Naka Nakar in the early Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka (Epigaphia Zeylanica VII, No. 82) belonging to 200 BCE, which is believed to be denoting Kanterodai. An early copper coin discovered at Uduththurai carries the name Nakabumi in Tamil, referring to the Naka Dynasty of the North (Pushparatnam, P. 2002: 11, 30). Ptolemy in his first century map of Taprobane also mentions Nagadiboi.

The urbanization of Kantarodai paralleled that of Anuradhapura and Mahagama. But while Anuradhapura and Mahagama were essentially Hydraulic Civilizations relying on agriculture to produce surplus wealth, Kantarodai relied heavily on its trade. Two reasons could be attributed to the decline of this civilization. (1). By the fifth century Anuradhapura became a powerful kingdom and took over the port of Mantai which was generating tremendous wealth. The expanding Chinese and Arabian trade was by-passing Jaffna and concentrating on Mantai, (2).The Roman empire was disintegrating and the decline of the Roman trade in the fifth century rang the death-knoll of this civilization. However Kanterodai continued to be a capital in Jaffna until it was replaced by Singai Nakar during the ninth century, thereafter remaining as a modest village.

The mature historic phase of this civilization is outside the scope of this work; hence only a brief outline is given here. Its origins and evolution as a powerful force in this region, which determined its future history is briefly discussed below.

To be continued...