The Mahavamsa, literally the “Great Chronicle”, the most important of Sri Lanka’s early chronicles, records the story of the arrival of the first Sinhalese under their leader Vijaya, who afterwards became the first king of the island. The arrivals were probably from north-western India, from an area north of today’s Mumbai (Bombay), so they were from the northern coast of Maharashtra or the southern coast of Gujarat. However, others say they must have come from the Golf of Bengal, from what is now Odisha (Orissa).
So the migration story goes:
Vijaya was the son of Sinhabahu, who was the ruler of Sinhapura in Latadesa in North India. Sinhabahu means “Lionhand”. Sinhabahu was named after his hands and feet looking like lion paws, since his was a lion and his mother a princess of Kalinga. When Sinhabahu was sixteen, he escaped and arrived in the capital of Vanga. After killing his lion father for a reward, Sinhabahu was offered the throne of Vanga. His descendents are called “Lionpeople”, that is “Sinhalese”.
Sinhabahu had thirty-two children, of whom Vijaya was the eldest. But Vijaya was an ill-behaved young man and troubled the inhabitants of his father’s capital. They demanded him to be executed. This was refused by the king, but the conduct of Vijaya and of his companions so incensed Sinhabahu, too, that he decided to have their heads shaved as a sign of disgrace to ban his own son, sending him and his 700 companions to exile.
The exiled, because of their bad manners, also met hostile reception at a port on the coast of India. Finally, they landed in Sri Lanka at a place called Mahatitha at the north-west coast of the island, between today’s Puttalam and Mannar. This coastline now belongs to the Wilpattu National Park. Mahatitha is identified with a small cape called Horse Point or Kudirimalai. The first Sinhalese settlers named their landing place Tambapanni, which later on became the name of the whole island. Tambapanni, which is the Pali-eqivalent of the Sankrit word Tamraparni; means “copper-coloured hand”, because their palms turned red when they touched the ground. The ancient Greeks and Romans later on called the island “Taprobane”.
Vijaya is a name meaning “victory”. So it comes to no surprise, that the leader of the first Sinhalese group entering the country managed to conquer land and become the first king. Indeed, the chronicles state, that they were the first human settler at all, since the island’s only natives until then had been demons called “Yakkhas and Nagas”. They were men eaters, but Vishnu, protector of the Sinhalese race, prevented Kuveni from devouring Vijaya. Nevertheless, she managed to capture all his companions in a chasm. Vijaya finally forced her, holding her hair tightly, to give him back his followers. The name “Kuveni” means “bad hairknot”. Finally, Vijaya married Kuveni, a local Yakkha princess, and his companions marries off local Yakkha women, too. Later on, Vijaya managed to subdue all the Yakkhas in the country with the help of his consort Kuveni.
So this is the story of the legendary first king of Sri Lanka, Vijaya. But there is another important aspect stressed in the Buddhist history of the island:
The Mahavamsa was composed by a Buddhist monk called Mahanama in the 6th century C.E. His chronicle synchronises the day of the advent of Vijaya with the day of the Parinibbana (passing away) of the Buddha. Buddha is said to have spoken to the god Sakka who stood near him: “Vijaya, son of King Sinhabahu, has come to Lanka from the country of Lala together with 700 followers. In Lanka, O Lord of gods, will my religion be established, therefore, carefully protect him with his followers and Lanka.”
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