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Greek settlements & influence in ancient Sri Lanka


( September 17, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Mahavamsa refers to two visits by ‘Yona’ to ancient Sri Lanka. Mahavamsa says that Pandukabhaya (pre- 3rd century BC) set apart grounds near the west gate of Anuradhapura for the ‘Yona’. That is the first visit. Several centuries later, in the time of Dutugemunu (167-131 BC) Yona bhikkus arrived to celebrate the completion of the Mahathupa. That is the second. Researchers have queried whether these Yonas were Greeks. Merlin Peris, Emeritus professor of Western Classics, University of Peradeniya, who researched into the two visits, is very definite that ‘Yona’ refers to Greeks and not any other group. The word ‘Yona’ is derived from ‘Ionian’, the Persian word for Greeks. ‘It was known before Pandukabhaya’s time. Dipawamsa refers to a famine of Yonaka in an earlier world cycle. India’s Sanskrit grammarian Panini (4th century BC) spoke of the Yavana script.

The Mahavamsa Greeks (Yona) came from northwestern India. They may have got there in the time of the Persian king Cyrus, (559- 529 BC) Darius (522–486 BC) or Xerxes (486–465 BC). But the preferred idea is that they went there with Alexander of Macedon who invaded the Indus delta between 327-303 BC. Alexander went home, the Greeks stayed on. Seleucus Nicator, a general in Alexander’s army took over the lands conquered by Alexander. Merlin Peris observed that Pandukabhaya’s period of rule in Sri Lanka fitted in with the Alexander- Seleucid period in India. He suggests that Pandukabhaya’s city planning did not end after the first ten years, as Mahavamsa said. It continued and the Greek settlers came in the last two decades of his rule. The journey would have been easy. The sea route was well known and well used by then.

These Greek settlers were not second or third generation ‘Indo-Greeks’. They were first generation native Greeks, who had left Greece (also Macedonia and Ionia) only two decades before. They were therefore the first Europeans to visit Sri Lanka. Geiger suggests that they came for trade. Excavations in Anuradhapura have failed to turn up any evidence of a Greek settlement, not even coins, though Greek coins have been found in quantities in India. Therefore, we do not know whether they assimilated into the community or whether they returned to India.

Merlin Peris observes that a foreign quarter in Anuradhapura so early on in Sri Lanka’s history shows that the Sinhala king was quick to respond to the Greek element in neighboring India. The Greeks were equally prompt in getting to Sri Lanka. The references to Sri Lanka in the writings of Onescritus, Megasthenes and Eratosthenes are dated to this time. Megasthenes who was in India as Greek ambassador to the Maurya court, would have had contact with the Greek settlers in Anuradhapura

These Greeks would have brought a first hand knowledge of Greek culture into Sri Lanka. The only trace of this today is in the Greek myths that appear in the Mahavamsa. Merlin Peris says the Ummadacitta story is from the Greek myth of Danae, daughter of the king of Argos. The story of Vijaya is from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. It also contains Argonautic myths. The Argonauts were a band of heroes in Greek mythology. Kelanitissa- Viharamaha Devi episode is taken from Danae and from the Andromeda story found in the legend of Perseus. The Mahavamsa story has been taken straight from the Greek one, not from any intermediate source. The flooding of Kelaniya and the marriage of Kelanitissa and Viharamaha Devi however are true. Subha saha Yasa story is found in Plato’s "Republic" and in the writings of Herodotus. It is also given in a papyrus dated to 2 AD, found In Egypt, which means the story may pre-date Herodotus. Merlin thinks the Mahavamsa writer may have known of the two Greek epics "Odyssey" and "Iliad". He further observes that the only history the Sinhala historians could have obtained during this period was that of Herodotus. India had no model history. They also seem to have heard of the Greek historian Xenophon( 430 – 354 BC). William Knighton in his "History of Ceylon" (1845) observed that the manner in which king Kavantissa collected his army closely resembled the account given by Xenophon in his "Cyropaedia" of the way in which King Cyrus of Persia gathered up his army.

The second recorded visit of the Greeks took place when Yona bhikkus arrived from Alasanda to celebrate the completion of the Mahathupa by Dutugemunu (167-131 BC). Merlin Peris says Alasanda was probably in Kabul valley. Kabul was under Greek rule at the time and, according to Mahavamsa, was devoutly Buddhist. It had ‘shone with yellow robes.’ Merlin Peris asserts that it is from the Kabul valley, not southeast India, that that the Greeks came to Anuradhapura. The Mahavamsa and the Mahavamsa tika do not explain who these Yona were. Both works assume that the reader already knows who the Yona were. This means that the Sinhalese would have been familiar with the Greeks even before they arrived for the chaitya ceremony. Perhaps there was a pocket of Greeks remaining in Anuradhapura.

Merlin Peris says that the considerable ‘Greek presence’ in India at the time of Dutugemunu ‘makes plausible their coming to Sri Lanka.’ King Dharmasoka had a large Greek population in his Empire. Two Asokan edicts in Greek were found in Kandahar. One was a Greek version of the XII and XIII rock edicts. It spoke of Asoka’s missions to various Greek ruled kingdoms, and mentions the Yonas and the people of Aparanta. These are the only Asokan edicts in a non-Indian language. They show that Buddhism had been preached in the Greek language, in India and abroad and that the Greek population in Kandahar outnumbered the Indians.

The Third Buddhist Council took place in India during Dharmasoka’s reign. When it ended, Venerable Moggaliputta sent out two missions directed at Greeks. One mission went to Yonarattha, ‘the country of the Yona’. The other mission, sent to Aparantaka, was led by ‘Dhamarakkita the Yona’. These Moggaliputta and Asoka missions would have been headed by Greeks or Greek speaking monks and they would have preached in Greek. Merlin Peris suggests that the Greeks may have been the first Europeans to convert to Buddhism in India and that Greek may have been the first foreign language in which Buddhism was preached.

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