‘Pollonnaruva’ - what does the name mean?

Parakramabahu Statue in Polonnaruva

l by Chandre Dharmawardana 

(October 30, Ottawa, Sri Lanka Guardian) The article in the Midweek Review (The Island of Oct. 18) by Prof. Siri Gunasinghe raises many interesting issues. His main concern is the so-called Parakramabahu statue in Pollonnaruva, and the various speculations regarding the statue. Since historical analysis is often nothing but narration connecting a few (indeed too few) dots, Prof. Gunasinghe’s article is a welcome bit of fresh air. He also raises the question of the place-name "Pollonnaruva".

In this note I will confine myself mainly to place names for brevity, and being our concern in our place-names website (http://dh-web.org/place.names/#Pollonnaruva). Our views - arrived mostly from etymological considerations - have good concurrence with those of Prof. Gunasinghe. Furthermore, Prof. Gunasinghe has stated that "it is important to find out, if at all possible, why Pulatthinagara was so named", and says that "The word Pulatthi,.. (are)... curious Pali adaptations of Sinhala place names by the chroniclers; in this case Polonnaruva was turned into Pulatthi by Dhammakitti, ... Such phonetically unorthodox transformations of Sinhala place names are quite common in the chronicle, e.g. Sankhanayakatthali (Hatnagoda), Badalatthali (Batalagoda), Guttahala (Buttala), Bhimatittha (Bentota), Jambukola (Dambulla), Donivagga (Denavaka), Gangasiripura (Gampala), to name only a few. If Pulatthinagara is merely the distorted Pali form of Polonnaruva, as I suggest, and has no connection to the Indian sage Pulastya".
(end quote)

In our view, the authors of the Chronicles were excellent linguists, and their seemingly ‘unorthodox’ adaptations did make sense. The name ‘Pollon-nakara’, found in the 12th century slab inscription, and elsewhere that anti-dates the Chulavamsa is cardinal to the issue. ‘Pollon-nakara’ probably came from ‘Poron-nagara’, where ‘porana’, or ‘Paerani’ means old, or precedent, i.e., ‘Pala(mu)’. Thus the Mahavamsa writer used ‘Pollasthinagara’ to mean ‘Poorva-shthaavara nagara’, rewritten by some with a ‘u’ as ‘Pullatthinagara’. This construction is consistent with ‘Poron-nagara’ and the slab-inscriptions. Hence it may well be a correct rendering into Pali. So the English rendering should be ‘Polatthinagara’, rather than ‘Pulasthinagar’. This avoids the pitfalls of writers who linked the city and perhaps the statue with Pulasthya or Agasthya. In our view, the place-name has nothing to do with ‘Pulasthya’, the Indian Muni of the Rig Veda, and here we concur with Prof. Gunasinghe. Any details of the ‘old town (poran nakar)’ which gave rise to the name Pollonnaruva are unknown. This would require deeper excavations in the area.

Of course, we need to see if the word ‘pollon’, as well as close phonetic variates where ‘p’ becomes ‘b, v’, and the ‘l’ becomes ‘r’ etc., lead to any contextually meaningful Dravidian (Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu etc.) words. This is in fact not the case, as far as we could ascertain.

Note that the ‘w’ was used in the south for rendering the ව (va) sound in place names and in people’s names, while in the north the ‘v' and not ‘w’ is used for வ in English transliteration of Tamil place names. The dutch ‘v’ is pronounced as an ‘f’, and led to this distinction in the south where names were europeanized prior to the North. Thus it is customary to transliterate the name as PollonnaruWa with a ‘w’ since the 19th century. More recently, the transliteration ‘PollonnaruVa" has also come into being. However, since English is not a phonetic language, we do not wish to weigh on the use of ‘V’ in preference to ‘W’.

The Mahavamsa uses the name ‘Bhimatitta’ for what is known today as ‘Bentota’. However, the learned monks at the Yattramulle temple who taught Pali to Geiger and others used to refer to their town, located on the ‘Bemthara ganga’ as ‘Bemthota’. The Ven. Mangala Thera, who occupied the Udakotuva temple which is much closer to the mouth of the river (i.e., closer than the Yattramulla temple) was a Praacheena Pandit of the 1940-60s. He insisted on writing the temple name boards as "Bemthota Udakotuve Rajakeeya maha-viharaya". It may well be that the pedantically correct name for the town is ‘Bemthota’, in agreement with the Mahavamsa author’s ‘Bheematittha’.

It would take much space to discuss the interesting place names of the Mahavamsa. Some such place names in the North and East Sri Lanka have been dealt with in our place-names website. However, I feel that our modern scholars do not pay enough attention to the root languages that are essential to unraveling history and the the etymology of such place names.The ancients like Dhammakitti were masters of their trade, and it is good to assume that the ancients usually had good reasons for scripting what seems to us like distortions. But then, Prof. Gunasinghe can add that the Pali chroniclers were not only historians, but also poets and epic writers in the grand tradition of Valmiki and Hormer.