Publication Review
Guy Halpé BA (Hons), October 2018
History of the Kingdom of Rohana

Sirimal Ranawella

BA (Hons) Peradeniya, University of Ceylon, PhD (London), Hon D Litt (University of Kalaniya), Professor Emeritus, University of Ruhuna

Available from: The Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka

Year of publication: 2018

ISBN 978-955-7457-17-8


Professor Sirimal Ranawella’s recent publication, titled History of the Kingdom of Rohana, is an insightful and well presented academic examination that will greatly interest aficionados of Sri Lankan history. It is even more of an achievement that this tour-de-force of original research has been written and published in his 97th year in 2018. It is most likely his swansong, and stands as a landmark in a remarkable career that spans multiple academic disciplines (archaeology and history) and pioneering research that has brought him adulation and acclaim from many other historians around the world.

I am privileged and honoured to be his son-in-law, and that perhaps gives me a unique perspective into the planning and crafting of this work from its germination in the original Sinhala to its latest incarnation. Now that this pioneering history is being told to the world at large in English, much of its content will surely be a revelation - not least as a result of its being a story that has hitherto been untold or dismissed as irrelevant (as compared with histories of the more popularly known historical regions of Sri Lanka) but also because it is a story full of vigour, colour and a positively heroic triumph against fearful odds and seemingly insurmountable political and military obstacles.

My approach to this work is as a reader unfamiliar with the ancient history of this significant region of Sri Lanka, and purely as a reader interested in the story itself. Even from this limited perspective it soon becomes apparent as Professor Ranawella’s work progresses through its expository chapters that this is a story that has been surprisingly neglected up to now by scholars of Sri Lankan history - perhaps even tragically so, reinforcing the view on the part of southern Sri Lankan scholars that Sri Lankan academe tended to favour the more popular views of Sri Lanka’s history, concentrating on the histories of Rajarata, or the political axis centred around the ancient capital cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva, to the detriment and neglect of the rich history of Rohana. As a primary school student in Sri Lanka myself, I personally remember an educational curriculum that overwhelmingly favoured the kings and kingdoms of Rajarata and almost completely ignored Rohana. It is no wonder, therefore (and Professor Ranawella alludes to this in his Introduction) that Sri Lankans from the south and north have regarded each other with tacit and barely suppressed suspicion.

I am sure that this exhaustively researched, detailed and comprehensive view of the history of Rohana will go a long way towards addressing this enormous gap in modern Sri Lankan education. The Foreword from Professor Vini Vitharana, fellow Professor Emeritus at the University of Ruhuna, speaks of the dedication and academic rigour that has gone into drawing open the veils of academic interpretation and re-interpretation of this singularly significant part of Sri Lankan history, even anecdotally mentioning that Professor Ranawella would on occasion research as many as twenty different sources for a single detail.

For all its academic rigour, however, this book is not a dry exercise in historical esoterica. Professor Ranawella’s writing style is both academic enough to satisfy scholars and evocative enough to keep the reader riveted to these tales from the ancient south that should have been told many times before. I believe its strength is in its dual sources; not merely from the scholarly works of previous historians and archaeologists, but also drawing from Professor Ranawella’s own pioneering work in epigraphy.

Professor Ranawella begins his work with an introduction to his sources; first the myriad literary sources, encompassing his predecessors and peers in the fields of Sri Lankan archaeology and history such as the distinguished scholars Senarat Paranavitana and Wilhelm Geiger, and also literary sources from antiquity such as the Mahavamsa, Culavamsa and the Dhatuvamsa. The depth of his experience in the field shows in his ability to balance the weight of modern academic interpretation against the often polemical nature of the ancient texts, written as they were to glorify the achievements of a particular leader within an equally specific political, social or military context. With every reference to an ancient text he is careful to be objective and circumspect in his analysis of the writing, often pointing out inconsistencies with other non-literary sources where the comparison is merited.

These non-literary sources, often his own work in epigraphy but also the physical evidence of everyday objects from ancient Sri Lankan society such as utensils, implements, construction artefacts and items of commerce such as coins provide a contrasting and fascinating view of Rohana. Ultimately, they help to draw the reader into a narrative that is rich in history and heritage.

He then explores the geographical context of Rohana, tracing its evolution from an undefined area (desa, padesa and similar terms) to rajaya, kingdom. It is at this point that the reader becomes aware of the fact that Professor Ranawella is indeed drawing on his own experience growing up in Rohana, or Ruhuna as it is now known. He draws on his own knowledge of the south through his childhood in Koggala and Galle. Though the main part of his education was in Colombo and London, he returned to Ruhuna in 1977 to serve on the academic staff of the University of Ruhuna, becoming Acting Vice-Chancellor in 1988. To him, the lay of the land and the topographical features of Rohana that made it a proud and fiercely defensible autonomy are directly linked to tangible personal experience, and this makes his work all the more immediate and relevant. It is in this context that the rivers, forests, lowlands, routes and elevations of Rohana take on a life of their own, becoming so much more than mere geographical features but an essential foundation for Rohana’s independence of self and mind. The peaks of Kataragama, Vihare-gala, Kongala and Nilgala, among others, all take their place in forming an impregnable fastness that countless invaders (those from the north as well as from overseas) could not penetrate.

The third chapter of the book quickens in pace to introduce the reader to a more detailed view of Rohana’s social and cultural life, beginning with descriptions of the capital Mahagama and drawing quite heavily on epigraphical evidence of the patterns of commerce, trade, religion and politics. It is in this chapter that we hear of Viharamahadevi’s desire to drink the water that served to cleanse the sword that decapitated the invader Elara’s first soldier, and of the loyalty of the warrior Velusumana who stole a horse to fulfil her wish. We become acutely aware, from this point onwards, that Rohana’s history and independence was fought for and paid for with the blood of many - not just its heroes, but their families and descendants for generations after.

Chapter IV traces the rise of the Kingdom of Rohana. Beginning with the Mahanaga dynasty, Professor Ranawella traces this period of political upheaval - more often than not, violent and quite brutal - with an objective and sympathetic narration that well suits the subject matter, allowing the reader to consider the facts without an emotional or partisan subtext because of its balanced and even tone. King Kakavanna Tissa and his better known son, King Dutthagamani feature prominently, and we are privileged to be given this rare glimpse into the political conquests and exploits of Sri Lanka’s most famous (some would say, notorious) ruler.

Professor Ranawella is amply even-handed with his treatment of the darker aspects of Rohana’s history. Chapter VI is simply and directly titled The Dark Age of Rohana, and he does not spare the reader from the more insalubrious realities of politics in Rohana in the tenth century AC. The frequent Cola invasions are recounted without embellishment or whitewashing, and the anarchic and fractured events of this period are presented exactly as they are.

In chapter VII, dealing with 11th century Rohana, the reign of Vijayabahu I takes prime place, providing the reader with a most vivid portrait of this southern hero. His exploits from an extremely young age, thirteen, and his evolution into one of the greatest military commanders and rulers of Sri Lanka is covered in detail.

Subsequent chapters in the work cover the later periods of the history of Rohana after the death of King Vijayabahu I, the Reign of King Parakramabahu I and his successors, and then Professor Ranawella breaks the chronologically linear history timeline to return to the beginnings of recorded Sri Lankan history to examine the political and administrative framework of Rohana.

I will leave the reader to discover the work in a more intimate and personal way and open this fascinating window into a world so different from our own. As much as its rich detail lead us to marvel at the wisdom, foresight and strategic planning of our ancestors, it also reminds us how much more difficult it was in those times to ensure that the basics of justice, economic prosperity and military equilibrium were maintained.

I am sure, now that Professor Ranawella has opened that window, that many more will not only pay homage to Rohana (now that Ruhuna has its rightful place in Sri Lankan history) but that they will be inspired to expand and continue his work, writing the histories of Rohana of the past with a view to the Rohana of the future.