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The people and cultures of prehistoric Sri Lanka - Part Four


Previous Parts: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

by Dr. Siva Thiagarajah


(August 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In their archaeological surveys of the Northern province of Ceylon, J.P.Lewis in 1916 and Paul E. Pieris in 1917-1919 identified Kantarodai and Vallipuram in Jaffna as two pre-historic sites. In a major archaeological survey of the entire Jaffna peninsula undertaken during the years 1980-1983, Dr.Ragupathy of the University of Jaffna has identified three sites namely Kantarodai, Anaikoddai and Karainagar which showed evidence of a Megalithic Culture; and three more sites Vallipuram, Velanai and Mannithalai an early historic phase of settled civilized life. In 1993 Dr. Pushparatnam, also from the University of Jaffna added Poonakari as the seventh early historic site to the above list. Among these settlements Kanterodai emerged as the centre of political, religious and cultural power, while the others remained as satellite settlements with strong links to the centre.

As evidence of a Mesolithic population occupying the Jaffna peninsula has not come to light, it is assumed that the Megalithic people were the first humans to arrive in this region. They could have either migrated from South India or from the North-west of Sri Lanka which had a Megalithic population from the second millennium BCE. It is of significance to note that all the early settlements were dispersed around the Jaffna lagoon, suggesting the oceanic origins of this culture, and how the sea played a dominant role in sustaining and developing these settlements.

During later times, the medieval city of Jaffna too emerged at this site because of its strategic location along the Jaffna lagoon. It could be approached through the lagoon sea routes from the north, south and west; and boasts no less than three ancient ports Pannaiturai, Kolumputturai and Navanturai.


The satellite settlements were self-sufficient communities with multi faceted subsistence patterns. A combination of farming, pasturing and lagoon fishing provided the basic subsistence of this population. But, it was the Maritime Mercantile Culture that laid the foundations for the advancement of this civilization. Because of its geographic location and the prevailing conditions of that period, Jaffna was able to participate actively in the transoceanic Roman trade and in the trade between India and Sri Lanka. During the early periods trade was the basis of the development of the socio-economic structure of Jaffna.

An active maritime trade between Sri Lanka and India was present during the first millennium BCE, and the trans-oceanic trade between Rome and South Asia emerged just before the Common Era. The early trade routes were mostly coastal passages. These ancient small Arabian and Roman vessels coming from the Arabian Sea towards the Bay of Bengal, went through the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait to reach the east coast of India and East Asia. The strategic location of Jaffna in this trade network was a significant factor in its emergence as a city state in early times.

Four major ports- Jambukolam and Kayaturai (Kanterodai), Navanturai (Anaikoddai) and Pallavaturai (Vallipuram) during early historic times provided the impetus for the establishment of a trans-oceanic trade. Apart from Jambukolam and Kayaturai, Navanturai too acted as a port of the capital. Some believe that Valukkai aru was a sea-canal which ran from Navanturai to Kantarodai and beyond; and this acted as a passage to carry small boats from the harbour to the capital, but realistically this appears to be a major flood outlet.

After the fifth century BCE, the Roman trade gave way to the Arab-Chinese trade shared by the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas and the Sinhalese. With the advent of larger ships and new steamers, the Palk Strait Passage was abandoned and these ships started circumnavigating Sri Lanka in their new passage. Colombo and Galle became major harbours of this new trade route, and as a result the importance of Jaffna in this later trans-oceanic trade diminished.


Except for a few tanks, notably the Kantarodai kulam and Nandavil kulam the Jaffna peninsula has no rivers or reservoirs. The entire peninsula rests on a bed of limestone and the limestone ground water is the main source of fresh water. To obtain this water the limestone bed has to be dug up to a depth of 20-30 feet. But in the limestone terrain there are naturally formed sink water holes, tidal wells and springs that may have been used by the early settlers. Apart from this dune-sand ground water and coral layer groundwater forms the sources of fresh water.

In Jaffna, while a portion of the rainwater percolates to the limestone rocks, the remaining surface run-off flows towards the lagoon of the peninsula. As the coast facing the deep sea is higher in elevation than the lagoon coast, most of the flood outlets flow towards the lagoon. This process almost submerges the coastal alkaline plains for 2-3 months, and would have provided ideal paddy fields for the early subsistence farmers (Ragupathy, P. 1987: 140-141).

Paddy cultivation in the alkaline stretch along the lagoon coast happened only once a year, during the returning monsoon rains. Almost all the early sites located in the peninsula had a stretch of paddy-field hinterland. After the harvest in January, leguminous plants, sesame, ragi, melons and vegetables were cultivated. They would be ready for harvest before their traditional new year in April. The capital Kantarodai had a major tank, and it remains one of the primary centres of rice irrigation in the peninsula to this day.

The beginnings of cattle and sheep breeding could be dated to the times of early settlers as cattle and sheep bones and teeth remnants were found in the stratified layers along with the Megalithic pottery. Primitive type of goat and sheep breeding could be still noticed at Parutitivu, a small island off the coast. The Jaffna lagoon also offered easy access to sea-food. The presence of shark vertebrae, other fish bones, crab shells, turtle shells, oyster shells, conch shells, and snail shells were seen in plenty in the Megalithic burials ( Ragupathy, P. 1987: 144, 164).


Smelting/melting of iron was evident right from the Megalithic times as testified by the presence of a large number of iron slags found at the sites and in the excavation trenches. The local iron-containing laterite found in the Peninsula and in the Vanni region could have been used as the raw material. The early settlers could have evolved a primitive technology to extract iron from this raw materal, which may not be commercially profitable in modern times. A.Mootathamby Pillai (History of Jaffna, 1912: 105) refers to Ilam Iron, the indigenous production of iron in Jaffna (Ragupathy,P. 1987: 165).


The mode of travel was through Sea-routes, Lagoon routes and by Overland routes. Jambukolam (Jambukola), identified with the present Sambuturai, as well as Kayaturai catered to the needs of the capital Kantarodai. Apart from the trade carried out through these ports, they remained important ports of embarkation for passengers and pilgrims to India. It was through the Jambukolam port that Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka, and Kayaturai (later Kankesanturai) was so named because it was a port of embarkation for pilgrims to Buddha Gaya.

The Jaffna lagoon had two northern entrances one between the island of Karainagar and Ponnalai which is now blocked by a causeway, and another between Karainagar and Kayts. Ships were able to enter the Jaffna lagoon to reach Navanturai from the north as well as the south. Small ships and boats would have been plying regularly between the peninsula and the islands.

There were ancient trunk roads and smaller cart-tracts connecting the villages, which were tarred up in recent times. The explorations and excavations conducted by Dr. Ragupathy indicate that an ancient trunk road connected Valikamam with the sand bar settlements of Vallipuram. The remnants of wayside madams situated along the highways served as rest houses for pedestrians, carts and caravans.

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