In a way, Mahasena (274-301) is the exact opposite of his elder brother Jetthatissa. While Jetthatissa was a cruel monarch but restored the Theravada orthodoxy in the Buddhist order, Mahasena is regarded as a heretic by the Theravadin chroniclers but nevertheless a meritorious king, due to his huge-scale irrigation projects. Mahasena is credited with the construction of sixteen tanks and canals, four of which are in the Anuradhapura area, and one in the Puttalam district in the west. But his major achievements where to the east of the island’s principal watershed. Mahasena is the king who constructed both the Minneriya and the Kaudulla reservoirs, which now are centrepieces of the respective national parks, because they attract animals and particularly elephants during the local dry season. Minneriya was by far the largest tank up to that time. It was fed by the old Elahara canal, which was enlarged now. This artificial river, diverting water from the Amban River, became the main source of water supply for the eastern half of the area that is called “Cultural Triangle” today.
Mahasena was the pupil of his father’s religious counsellor, Sanghamitta, who was a Mahayanist monk of Indian origin. Mahayanism was then called Vaitulya in Sri Lanka. Jetthatissa had exiled Sanghamitta, but the monk returned to Sri Lanka, after Mahasena had ascended the thron. This now turned the tables on the orthodox Theravada school represented mainly in the Mahavihara monastery. Indeed, some of the magnificent edifices of the Mahavihara complex were pulled down in order to use the material for the extension of the Abhayagiri. Even worse, part of the consecrated monastic ground of the Mahavihara was separated in order to establish a new monastery on it. This violating of a sanctuary is regarded as a sacrilige of the worst kind in Buddhism.
But the orthodoxy was not so easily dislodged. During King Mahasena’s anti-Mahavihara campaign, the monastery’s monks protested by refusing alms of the king and leaving Anuradhapura and his countrymen turned against him. This opposition even led to rebellions against him. Finally the army commander, Meghavarnabaya, revolted against the king. When Mahasena with his army camped opposite the rebel camp in the night before the battle, Meghavannabaya entered Mahasena’s camp and managed to convince him to stop the persecution of Theravada Buddhists in order to reunite the country. Afterward, the king to partly reestablish the Mahavihara and to kill the Mahayanist monk Sanghamitta and several other court officials. Nevertheless, Mahasena started persecuting the Theravada orthodoxy of the Mahavihara a second time.
Despite his bad reputation among orthodox Thearavada Buddhist, Mahasena was held in high esteem by the locals who benefitted from his irrigation works. At the Minneriya reservoir, Mahasena was soon venerated as a patron deitiy called “Minneri Deviyo” (“Minneriya Lord”) There is still a Kovil on the Minneriya dam, where King Mahasena is worshipped till the present day.
Remarkably, Sri Lanka’s ancient chronicles, both the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa (or at least the first part of it) end with the reign of this extraordinary king.
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