In a sense, Sri Lanka’s recorded history begins with the reign of King Tissa, later on known as Devanampiya Tissa. He was the grandson of Pandukabhaya, who had established Anuradhapura as the capital. King Tissa is credited with constructing the Tissa Wewa, which covers 220 hectares.
Sri Lanka’s earliest records written as short inscriptions at caves mentioning their dedication to the Buddhist Sangha, are from the third century B.C.E. This is the time of the reign of King Devanampiya Tissa in Anuradhapura (307-267) who is credited with the introduction of Buddhism into the island. Indeed, Buddhist monks seem to have lived as hermits on the island even earlier. But with the reign of Devanampiya Tissa, Buddhism came to an official status and began to be the dominant religion on the island and the most significant element of the Sinhalese civilisation.
Anuradhapura’s King Devanampiya Tissa is a contemporary of India’s famous unifier, “Emperor” Ashoka, who fostered Buddhism as a means to strengthen supraregional cohesion within his vast Indian Empire and international ties with other Asian regions.
It is likely that King Tissa of Anuradhapura tried to establish Buddhism in his kingdom for the very same reasons, namely unifying it, strengthening the aministration by introducing scholars able to write, and taking part in a larger Asian civilization.
Not by accident, Tissas second name became “Devanampiya”, meaning “beloved of the Gods”. This is the Pali version of the Sanskrit name “Devanampriya”, which is most commonly unsed in Ashoka’s famous edicts to refer to the emperor himself.
The primary sources for Devanampiya’s reign are the oldest surviving Buddhist island chronicles, Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa, which were written centuries later as Pali translations or interpretations of older Sinhalese texts that afterwards came out of use and are not known any more. Most stories told about the reign of this significant king and about the introduction of Buddhism are taken from these two chronicles.
The Mahavamsa mentions interaction with Ashoka on three different occasions.
1. The two kings are said to have been relatives and friends, though they had never met each other. After Ashoka, called Dhammasoka in the chronicles, had received royal gifts from Sri Lanka’s monarch, he also sent gifts for a new coronation of Tissa. Ashoka mentions his conversion to Buddhism already in this early correspondence.
2. Ashoka, who in his own inscriptions took a keen interest in the propagation of Buddhism, is said to have sent his own son, Mahinda, as a Buddhist missionary to the island. The events surrounding Mahinda's arrival and his first meeting with the king are believed to have taken place on a Poson Poya Full Moon Day in Mihintale.
3. After the conversion of King Tissa, from now on called Devanampiya Tissa, Ashoka sent religious gifts to Sri Lanka, first and foremost a sapling of the tree of enlightenment, the famous Bo-Tree, and relics to be enshrined in Anuradhapura’s first dagaba (stupa) called Thuparama, meaning “Stupa monastery”.
Devanampiya Tissa died after a reign of forty years, the missionary Mahinda survived him until the eighth year of his successor Uttiya.
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