Maldives Culture -
Maldives Culture - maldives island
Latest Updates arrow Maps - Indian Ocean Trade Routes arrow Changing Patterns of Navigation in the Indian Ocean - R.A.L.H. Gunawardana 1987
Latest Updates
Advanced Search
Free Dhivehi-English Dictionary
Presidency of Mohamed Nasheed
Gayyoom's Dictatorship 1978-2008
Buddhism and Islam
Ibn Battuta 1343-45
Pyrard 1602-07
Rosset 1885
Maldives 1900-1922
Maldives 1924-1953
Majlis rule 1954-57
Suvadive Republic 1959-1963
President Nasir 1969-1978
Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik
Maldives History
Maldives Art
Scripts of Maldives
Maps of Maldives
Traditional Stories
Magic - Fanditha
Photographs - Modern
Photographs - Historic
Ships of the Indian Ocean
Social Customs
Modern Stories
PDF Print E-mail
Changing Patterns of Navigation in the Indian Ocean and their Impact on Pre-colonial Sri Lanka
R.A.L.H. Gunawardana,
from Chandra, Satish (ed), 'The Indian Ocean - Explorations in History, Commerce and Politics',
New Delhi, Sage Publications 1987
Diagrams and graphics added by Maldives Culture from Internet sources.

Syrian and Phoenician ships in the Persian Gulf assisting the attack on Babylon by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 694 BC.
Syrian and Phoenician ships in the Persian Gulf assisting an attack on Babylonia by Assyrian king Sennacherib in 694 BC.

'Among the Indians it goes by the name of Sielediba, but the Pagans call it Taprobane... As its position is central, the island is a great resort of ships from all parts of India, and from Persia and Ethiopia, and in like manner it despatches many of its own to foreign ports.' (Kosmas)

'The Sinhalese people never looked towards the sea, and the navigators whom history records were always foreigners. The outriggers are themselves of foreign origin, and it is not in Ceylon that we shall really comprehend the ocean's story.' (Toussaint)

It would have indeed been a very curious phenomenon, calling for close investigation, if the people living in an island located in the middle of the Indian Ocean and known for centuries for its importance as a centre of commerce, evinced no interest in navigation, as Toussaint has claimed. From a very early period in the history of man, the Indian Ocean was traversed by many different types of vessels carrying traders, migrants and missionaries.

These crafts varied from the small outrigger canoes to ships described as capable of carrying a thousand men and representing the highest levels of nautical technology of their times. It was impossible for the Sri Lankans not to be involved and influenced by these developments in the utilisation of the sea around them.

  Buddhist cosmology diagram The History of cartography, Volume 2, Book 1  By John Brian Harley, David Woodward London, University of Chicago press 1994 p.337
Buddhist cosmology diagram
from: The History of Cartography, Volume 2, Book 1 by John Brian Harley and David Woodward, London, University of Chicago Press 1994 p.337

Buddhist geographical concepts
According to the Buddhist cosmology presented in the commentary, Paramatthajotika, the Jambudvipa, together with three other land masses which supported human habitation, was located in the Great Ocean. While this conception persisted in cosmological thought, the period of early navigation in the Indian Ocean witnessed the prevalence of the view that there were several different seas in the vicinity of the Jambudvipa, each with its special characteristics.

The Supparaka Jataka, for instance, speaks of a ship which left the western coast of India and was carried by storm across six different seas: the Khuramalin, Dadhimalin, Aggimalin, Kusamalin, Nalamalin and the Valabhamukha. Instead of readily recognising the actual names of seas in this tale, it may be useful to remember that early South Asian sailors, and even some monks, held views different to those taught by cosmological texts, and also that they did not share our conception of the Indian Ocean as a single unit.

Similarly, the Greek writers distinguished between the western part of the Indian Ocean which they called the Erythrean (Red) Sea and the southern part which was termed Mare Prasodum or the Green Sea. The distinction made here on the basis of colours, red and green, is reminiscent of the description in the Supparaka Jataka where distinctions were also drawn between different seas on the basis of colours of their waters.

Sri Lankan texts like the Mahavamsa and the Sahassavatthupakarana refer to the sea around the island as Gothasamudda and speak of voyages made across this sea by mariners, merchants and monks to reach ports, especially in the southern and western parts of India.

Early navigation between India and Sri Lanka
The history of navigation in the Indian Ocean begins relatively early in the western coast of the Indian subcontinent. The Palk Straits represent another important area where sea-going craft came into wide use in protohistoric times, enabling movements of people and the expansion of such elements of culture as the construction of minor-scale irrigation works and megalithic monuments, as well as the use of the Brahmi script.

There are numerous references to voyages across the Palk Straits in historical times, the most frequently mentioned Indian ports being Kavirapattana and Kanta-kasola-patana. The importance attached to the port of Jambukola in the Jaffna peninsula very early in history probably reflects the magnitude of the sea-going trade across the Palk Straits while Mahatittha on the western coast of the island owed its position to the trade with both the western and the eastern coasts of peninsular India.

A record from Duvegala in the Polonnaruva District bears an inscribed figure of what appears to be a vessel with high prows and a single mast. This figure found on a record inscribed in the earliest form of the Brahmi script is the oldest representation of a sailing craft found in Sri Lanka.

The Supparaka Jataka speaks of individuals who specialised in the art of piloting sailing ships (niyyamajetthaka). That there were similar specialists in the art of navigation in ancient Sri Lankan society is evident from two records, one found at Paramakanda in the Peravili Hatpattu of the Puttalam District and the other available at Maligatanna in the Kurunngala District. Both these records are indited in the earliest form of the Brahmi script.

In the Paramakanda record, a certain Tisa, son of Abaya, is described as an 'envoy-mariner' (dutanavika). Both Tisa and Abaya bore the prestigious title, parumaka, shared by individuals from the upper rungs of ancient Sri Lankan society.

The record from Maligatanna speaks of a mariner who had the rather pretentious name of Maha Asoka and described himself as a mariner who went to Bhojakataka. Here, too, the mariner, as well as his father, bore the title parumaka.

All the three records cited above are from a period prior to the middle of the first century BC. As would be expected, some of the mariners were from South India. A record found at what was called the mansion of the Dameda gahapatis was set up by a mariner known as Karava.

Variteties of ships
The information from the Maligatanna inscription is of special interest since it reveals that Sri Lankan mariners were engaged in voyages to the western parts of India. It is reminiscent of a statement made by the Greek writer, Onesikritos, who came to India with Alexander. Entrusted by the Macedonian ruler with the task of making investigations about the feasibility of a sea-route to the west, he sailed down to the mouth of the Indus. It would appear that he noticed certain sailing vessels used on the route from Sind to Sri Lanka. His description was quoted by Strabo. According to this version, the craft he had seen sailed badly, 'owing to the wretched quality of their sails and the peculiarity of their structure. The island was twenty days' voyage from the subcontinent.'

The more detailed account of Pliny enables us to understand these cryptic observations. Clearly, Pliny shared Onesikritos' opinion about the performance of these crafts. However, he did have a different explanation for the peculiarity in structure Onesikritos had noticed. It was Pliny's opinion that these vessels were suited to the particular characteristics of the sea that they had to navigate. They had prows at each end to enable them to turn more easily in treacherously narrow straits. It is particularly noteworthy that Pliny speaks specifically of 'the mariners of Taprobane and their habit of taking birds on board their vessels to help them to guide their craft towards land.

In addition to such frail boats, it would appear that rafts were also used in traffic between Sri Lanka and India. Rafts were some of the most ancient modes of sea travel, and evidence of complex types of such craft is to be found in many parts of the world. Sea-going rafts find mention in works from the time of Confucius.

Describing the exodus of Buddhist monks to South India during troubled times in the reign of Vattagamani (105-77 BC), the Sammohavinodini refers to an unusual type of raft that the monks supposedly used. The raft which was constructed at the port of Jambukola is said to have had 'three decks' (tibhumakam). One deck was below the water-level. The travellers occupied the second while their belongings were kept in the third. The voyage was considered to be so perilous that some monks preferred to remain behind arguing that there was little difference between dying on the sea and dying on land!

This type of craft was probably in use in the coastal trade of South India and Sri Lanka. For, the author of the Periplus noted a type of craft called sangara, 'made of single logs bound together' and used for sailing in the sea. Early Europeans found South Americans using 'two-storied' rafts for sea-travel in the Pacific. The upper storey was used as living quarters while the lower storey and the roof of the upper storey were generally used for cargo. A somewhat similar raft appears to have been in use among the people of Tonga. A picture now in the Kivell collection of the National Library of Australia depicts a double-hulled craft having two platforms built of planks. Both these platforms were occupied by the travellers numbering about eleven. The craft had oarsmen on board but was also equipped with a mast and sails.

It is possible that some of the traditional types of sea-going vessels which have lasted up to recent times may provide clues about shipping in ancient times. Of these, one of the simplest is the cattamaran (kattumaram, literally 'tied logs'), a type of craft common to both South India and Sri Lanka. Hornell observed that the Sri Lankan type is closest to that found in the southern part of the Coromandel coast.

The outrigger
The craft which deserves attention is perhaps the single-outrigger canoe which Sri Lanka shares with the Coromandel coast, isolated parts of the western coast of India and, in particular, with islands between the eastern part of the Indian Ocean and the southern part of the Pacific, inhabited mostly by Polynesian peoples. The craft which is still in use is probably part of the impact of Polynesian culture, though we cannot be sure whether it had been transmitted by immigrants in the distant past or by visitors to the Southeast Asian region in historical times.

As Hornell noted, unlike in South India, the outrigger is the dominant type of design in Sri Lanka, the cattamaran being restricted mostly to the northern parts of the island. He also observed that the Sri Lankan outriggers 'differ considerably' from those found in South India, and thought that such differences may point to separate waves of influence from Southeast Asia.

The single-outrigger fishing canoes, built in Sri Lanka and 'ready for work,' used to be imported to the Ramnad area. Hornell has observed that, of the types of outrigger craft in South Asia, it is the Sri Lankan type which has a permanently fixed outrigger. And, if the craft has a fixed outrigger, it cannot have a stern or a fixed position for the rudder, this being determined primarily by the direction of the wind. Hornell was probably right in identifying the ships that Pliny described with a type of vessel closely similar to the outrigger vessels found in Sri Lanka.

1883 reconstruction of Eratosthenes's map of the known world, c.194 BC.
Reconstruction of Eratosthenes's map of the known world, c.194 BC.
from: Bunbury, E.H., 'A History of Ancient Geography among the Greeks and Romans from the Earliest Ages till the Fall of the Roman Empire', London: John Murray, 1883.
More on Eratosthenes

Pliny attempts to make a distinction between the sailing conditions of former days and those of his own time: he makes specific reference to the fact that the ships of Taprobane now carried 3,000 amphorae or 75 tons. Presenting information about the island abstracted from the works of Onesikritos, Megasthenes and Eratosthenes, Pliny states that 'in former days,' the voyage between the island and the mainland used to take twenty days, but this has been brought down to seven days. Thus, ships used by the Sri Lankans appear to have improved in both capacity and speed.

Inscriptions datable to a period before the first century BC mention the use of horses, and since the transport of horses would have been most hazardous in smaller craft, it is possible to suggest that the larger type of vessel referred to by Pliny had come into use in the Palk Straits about two centuries before his time. Pliny believed that Roman ships were superior to the ships in the Indian Ocean that he was describing. This is understandable since, by this time, vessels capable of carrying about 10,000 amphorae were being used by the Romans.

It was in Pliny's time (23-79 A.D.) that the first trade mission from Sri Lanka reached the Roman court. The envoys of the Sri Lankan ruler informed Pliny that trade relations prevailed also with the Chinese (Seres). Pliny was told that the father of the Sri Lankan envoy who came to Rome had been to China several times. This was the beginning of a period of extensive commercial activity which linked the island with Rome in the west and Nanking in the east. The discovery of the behaviour of the monsoon winds and its applicability in navigation was perhaps the first major breakthrough achieved by mariners of the Indian Ocean. It was to bring about a radical change in the patterns of shipping in the Indian Ocean. The concept of seasonal and non-seasonal winds is implicit in the Supparaka Jataka cited above. By the time of Pliny, mariners utilising the monsoon winds were breaking with patterns of navigation which had lasted from the time of the Harappan civilisation, and were sailing directly from the Red Sea to the western coast of India and Sri Lanka. It seems most likely that before long, these new techniques were applied in the navigation of the eastern part of the Indian Ocean.

These changes in navigational technology were of particular significance to Sri Lanka. As Sylvain Levi noted, the list of ports in the Mahaniddesa seems to point to the importance of Sri Lanka as a halting place in one of the sea routes between India and Southeast Asia. The location of the island gave it a particular significance in the trade between the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean. It may not be merely coincidental that Tambapanni occurs between Suvannabhumi and Supparaka in the Mahaniddesa, while Kolapattana occurs between Alasanda and Suvannabhumi in the Milindapanha. Rhys Davids, who translated the text, thought that Kolapattana was probably located in the Coromandel coast, and following this lead, Nilakantha Sastri has identified Kolapattana with Kavirapattana. However, since no port by the name of Kolapattana is known in South India, it appears much more plausible to identify Kolapattana with Jambu-kola-pattana, the northern Sri Lankan port, located in the Jaffna peninsula, which finds frequent mention in the ancient Sri Lankan texts.

Modern version of Peryplus map 1st century AD, by Thomas Lessman -
Section of modern version of Peryplus map 1st century AD, by Thomas Lessman.
See many more excellent free historical maps from Lessman's superb collection at

Levi has suggested that the Mahaniddesa may belong to a period roughly contemporary with Ptolemy's Geographia, since there was a notable similarity in the information in these two works. Significant changes had taken place between the time of the author of the Periplus and the time of Ptolemy and the Mahaniddesa when Sri Lanka had come to occupy a prominent position in navigation in the Indian Ocean. Levi also made the astute observation that the names of places in the eastern parts of India are not mentioned in the Mahaniddesa list. For him it was an indication of the area where the Mahaniddesa was written down.

Apart from this, the passage throws valuable light on a change in the patterns of navigation that had taken place in the Indian Ocean: it seems likely that by this time mariners proceeding to Java, Sumatra and Malaya had begun to use the monsoon winds to sail directly across the Bay of Bengal. This change in the methods of navigation was of special significance for trade and travel in the Indian Ocean area, and for Sri Lanka in particular. Levi tended to believe that the Satavahanas despatched their trading ships to Suvannabhumi through Sri Lanka. Even if this was not so, the island had, owing to the strategic position it occupied in this sea route, come to enjoy a lucrative share in the trade of the Indian Ocean.

The Jatakamala which contains Sanskrit translations of some tales from the Pali collection sheds light on developments in navigation that were taking place in the early centuries of the Christian era. The Suparaga Jataka, the translation of the Supparaka Jataka cited above, contains several accretive elements not found in the Pali original. It is particularly significant that the Sanskrit version speaks of oceanic currents (salilajava). In this context currents are conceived as a disruptive element which could force a ship off its course rather than one which could be profitably utilised in navigation. Evidently, the knowledge of the seasonally of currents in the Indian Ocean was not yet available.

Another area of development was the art of seamanship. The Sanskrit story lists several qualifications expected of the navigator which are not found in the Pali version. In addition to expertise in docking a ship (aharana) and taking it out to sea (apaharana), a good navigator was expected to know the opportune seasons, be well-informed about the movements and locations of celestial bodies and be capable of identifying his location at sea 'by observing the fishes, the colour of the water, the species of the ground, birds and rocks'.

A third area of development was in ship-building. The basic design of the outrigger canoe was used in the construction of ships of considerable size. The ship with an outrigger, which is depicted in the Borobodur sculptures, appears to have been quite spacious. It is probably representative of some of the sailing crafts used in the trade between South and Southeast Asia. It is even possible that this trading network covered a wider area. Hornell observed that this type of ship continued to be in use in Sri Lanka, as well as Madagascar up to the beginning of the twentieth century. 'The Sinhalese type,' he remarks, 'is the more noteworthy, as being the larger and better equipped of the two; generally one of these carried about 50 tons of cargo. Like the Javanese craft they were two-masted, but in common with the sailing outriggers of Sinhalese fishermen the outrigger device was single... The large and weatherly design of this Sinhalese hull is probably a legacy from the days when trade between Sumatra and Ceylon and South India was active.'

Unfortunately, this type of vessel went out of vogue several decades ago, and it is not possible to improve upon the description given by Hornell. In Hornell's time, this craft was known as the yatra oruva. Some scholars like Van Erp have preferred to identify the Borobodur ships as representative of Indonesian ships fitted with double-outriggers. More recently, Manguin, who made a fresh review of the problem, correctly pointed out that 'it is well known that double outriggers can only be used in protected seas like those of the Indonesian archipelago; on the open ocean they can be a considerable hindrance to navigation'. Manguin's argument that double-outriggers of the Indonesian type were not suited for transoceanic navigation is certainly apt. In large and medium types of ocean-going vessels double-outriggers would be cumbersome and more a hindrance than an aid to navigation.

stone carving of ship on Borobodur temple, late 7th - early 8th centuries AD, java, indonesia
Stone carving of outrigger vessel from Borobodur temple;
late 7th - early 8th centuries AD, Java, Indonesia.
Photo: Michael J Lowe

However, the assumption made by him and those scholars who preceded him that Borobodur ships were of the double outrigger type does not seem to bear close scrutiny. They could more easily be identified as being of the single-outrigger variety, which is rare in Java, but is the dominant type in the Nicobar Islands and South Asia, especially Sri Lanka and the Maldives. On closer examination it becomes clear that the outriggers in the Borobodur ships are always represented as being attached on the side facing the wind. This is evident from the manner the sails are depicted by the sculptor and, in one instance, we can recognise a sailor indulging in the usual manoeuvre of climbing down to the outrigger to counteract the effects of the wind. The outriggers appear to have been titled on to holes left for the purpose in the hull. It is likely that, in these ships, the outriggers were not permanently fixed. After the change of monsoon, they would have been removed and fitted on the other side of the vessel for the return journey. Like the vessels of a later time, described by Hornell, these ships had square rigging on two masts, in addition to the jib.

If indeed the outrigger ships depicted in the Borobodur sculptures were of the single and not the double-outrigger type, it would carry implications of particular significance, i.e. that the medium-sized ship with the single-outrigger was actively used in the trade between South and Southeast Asia at least as far back as the time of the Sailendras, and that the origin of this forerunner of the yatra oruva of Sri Lanka probably lay in those regions where crafts with the single-outrigger have been traditionally in use.

When Fa-Hian visited South Asia in the fifth century, large ships were plying the Indian Ocean. He states that he left Tamralipti 'on board a great merchant vessel' which took advantage of 'the first fair wind of the winter season'. On his return journey, Fa-Hian took another large vessel which he says could carry two hundred men. A spare boat, tied to the ship, was on tow. At Ye-po-ti, Fa-Hian took another merchant vessel which was of a capacity similar to the previous ship.

Sri Lanka building some of biggest ships in Indian Ocean by 7th century A.D.
By the middle of the seventh century, exceptionally large vessels were being made in Southeast Asia. The Chinese commentary, I Chieh Ching Yin I, describes them as being so large that they could not be set in motion by oarsmen without the aid of sails. These vessels which regularly visited Chinese ports were called Khun Lun ships, and it was noted that 'the crews and technicians of these ships are Ku-Lun people'. Obviously, these ships attracted a great deal of attention from the Chinese, and there is a description in the commentary of the manner of their construction:
'With fibrous bark of the coconut (yeh tzu) they make cords which bind the parts of the ship together. And they caulk them with a paste made of ko-lan, stopping up the openings and preventing the water from coming in. Nails and clamps are not used .... These ships are constructed by assembling several thickness of side-planks, for the boards are thin and they fear that they would break.'

Though it is not possible to trace specific referetices to Khun Lun ships in South Asian texts, it is very likely that they were known in ports of this region as well. It may be pointed out here that the methods of construction outlined in the passage quoted above were shared in common by South Asian peoples, particularly in those regions like Kerala, Sri Lanka, the Laccadives and the Maldives - where coconut fibre was easily available. It is preserved even today in the construction of the type of craft used in seine (madal) fishing.

By the end of the eighth century, the largest ships in Asian waters were being built in South Asia. Li Chao, the mandarin who wrote T'ang Kuo Shih Pu, reported that many foreign ships arrived at An-nan and Kuang-chou each year, and amongst them 'the ships , from the Lion Kingdom [Sri Lanka] were the largest, with stairways for loading and unloading which are several tens of feet in height'. It would thus appear that by this time the lead in the techniques of nautical construction had passed to centres in South Asia.

Ship painting c. 600 A.D. in Ajanta caves Maharastra, India

The Ajunta ship
Apart from developments in the carrying capacity of ships, there were other technological innovations which helped to improve navigation in the Indian Ocean. The ship depicted in the Ajanta paintings dated to a period between AD 525 and 650 has attracted a good deal of attention from students of nautical history. It was clearly a vessel of very large proportions, and, apart from size, its steering mechanism and the rigging are of great interest. It is also likely that the painter himself did think so, for clearly these elements are depicted in detail. Two steering paddles are mounted onto the sides of the vessel, one on portside and the other on the starboard, and their upper ends are connected with a device erected on deck. The rigging consists of a jibsail and three tall and narrow sails fixed onto masts which were apparently capable of being adjusted. This arrangement is reminiscent of 'the oblique rigging' noted by the author of the Chinese text, Nan Chou I Wu Chih, as a device used by certain foreign sailors to obtain greater speed without adding to the stress on the masts. Needham has assigned the text to about the third century.

It was probably such refinements which had contributed towards reducing the time taken to reach Sri Lanka from ports on the western coast of India. Kosmas states that the voyage now took only five days. The identity of the Ajanta ship has been a matter of controversy. Mookerji believed that it was an Indian ship matching the description of the agramandira type found in the Yuktikalpataru. Hasan was of the opinion that it was a Persian ship, and Needham has suggested that the artist was perhaps presenting an amalgam of features found in several different types of vessels. Though the 'national' identity of the ship may be a matter of dispute, one can be fairly certain that the technical innovations depicted in the painting are representative of nautical technology in the Indian Ocean in about the sixth or the seventh century.

Sri Lankan navigational development 1st-7th centuries A.D.
During the first seven centuries of the Christian era, the navigational developments in the Indian Ocean appear to have had a beneficial effect on the commercial importance of Sri Lanka. The change in techniques of navigation meant that ships from the Mediterranean region could directly reach its shores each year. It is also important to note that dependence on the monsoon resulted in considerable difficulty in the scheduling of voyages. Hence, even by the middle of the first millennium, voyages from the Red Sea to places like Java in the eastern extremity of the Indian Ocean was unusual. This is indicative of the fact that patterns of shipping and trade in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean were distinct and autonomous to a certain degree - a situation which emphasised the commercial importance of Sri Lanka due to its strategic situation in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The comments that Procopius made on problems of eastern trade suggest that Persians and Ethiopians went only as far as Sri Lanka, where they awaited the arrival of cargoes of silk and other merchandise from further east. Ships from the western and eastern sectors of the Indian Ocean were now meeting in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan products, like precious stones, pearls, clianks, turtle shell and cloth, were in demand from a very early time. Later on, the island gained a reputation for its cinnamon and steel products. Apart from luxury goods meant for the rich clients of the roving trader, it appears that Sri Lanka provided certain essential facilities for mariners. A wide variety of timber used for making frames, planking, masts, spars and oars of boats and ships was available in Sri Lanka, particularly in the south-western parts of the island. In fact, certain types of Sri Lankan timber used for masts were valued by later shipwrights as being superior to those found in the western coastal areas of India which were the usual sources of such supplies. The timber from the del tree (Artocarpus nobilis), with a lime content in its fibre which made it resistant to ship worms, was particularly valued in shipbuilding. The fact that fresh timber from this tree could be used for shipbuilding without seasoning was an added advantage. Domba (Calophyllum inophyllum), valued for its flexibility, and the sturdy kos (Artocarpus heterophyllus) were also among varieties of wood available in Sri Lanka which the shipwrights coveted.

Cordage, made out of fibres extracted from coconuts, as well as creepers and barks of trees, were materials produced in Sri Lanka that attracted mariners plying the routes in the Indian Ocean to its shores. The 'sewn' ships which sailed in the Indian Ocean needed enormous quantities of rope. One can form an idea of the quantities required regularly in those days when one considers the amazing fact that Severin, who built a medium-sized ship for his 'Sindbad voyage', used up about 400 miles of rope. Coconut oil was perhaps another product which was in demand at the ports. The ropes used to tie up the planking had to be oiled regularly, once in about four to six months.

It is evident from a twelfth century Chinese text, the Kao-Li Thu Ching, that though cloth sails were in general use when favourable winds were available, mat-sails were preferred by mariners when the wind blew from the sides. In certain situations mat-sails were used in combination with cloth sails. Needham has commented that the aerodynamic properties of the mat-sail particularly suited the purpose for which it was employed. The Chinese mostly used bamboo for their mat-sails. But Hourani points out that sails woven from the leaves of the coconut trees were in use in Arab ships.

Coconut plantations 1st century A.D.
The information cited above probably provides one of the main reasons for the increasing incidence of references to coconut plantations in historical records from the early centuries of the Christian era. One of the earliest instances of a coconut plantation being mentioned in an inscription is from a record set up by Usavadata at Nasik in western India. In Sri Lanka, the first reference to a coconut plantation (nadira arabe) is in an inscription from the reign of Mahadathika Mahanaga (AD 9-21) found at Mihintale. There are references in the fifth and sixth centuries to extensive coconut plantations, some of which were owned by monasteries. Though products based on the coconut tree were certainly used for internal consumption, the growth of the practice of cultivating coconut in large plantations, with a view to exchanging the produce, has to be explained largely as a result of the growth of trade and shipping. The Laccadives were perhaps the most well-known among Arabs as a source of cordage, but by the end of the ninth century at the latest, Sri Lanka was also known as another important source for this product. 'The people of Sarandib pay attention to the cultivation of coconut,' Al Idrisi noted. He further recorded'that Arab ships from Oman and Yemen used to come to this island and to other islands in its vicinity to obtain rope, trunks of coconut trees for masts, and timber for planking as also to place orders for ships which were constructed there.

For the rulers, foreign trade was not only a source of revenue but also an equally important means of acquiring prestige goods. The active encouragement given by them was certainly a major factor behind the rise in the commercial importance of the island. Their endeavour is evident in a succession of missions sent to the courts of Rome, Byzantium and China during the period from the first to the seventh century of the Christian era.

Sea security
Attempts were being made from about the fifth century to ensure the security of the sea. Moggallana I (495-512) instituted 'a watch of the sea'. The practice was probably continued by his successors, for there is a reference in the chronicle to another king, Silakala (522-35), appointing one of his sons to protect the sea. Protection and similar services provided by kings to foreign traders sometimes had a double edge as was probably the case at Barygaza at the time the Periplus was written. As we shall see later on, this was a time when new ports, some of them beyond the bounds of the authority of the rulers of Anuradhapura, were gaining prominence as centres of foreign trade. Hence, it is quite possible that, in providing protection, these kings were also trying to direct traders to their own ports. However, the fact that attempts were made to patrol the sea might have also helped to ensure the security of mariners from piracy which, at a later time, was to drive away many a potential visitor from the shores of the island.

The consequent growth of a network of trade routes which linked Sri Lanka with many different ports in the Indian Ocean, and beyond, is evident from a variety of literary sources, primarily the writings of the Chinese. The development of shipping routes connecting Sri Lankan ports with the more northern parts of the eastern coast of India probably took place well after the development of routes connecting Sri Lanka with places in the western coast of India. Though the Mahavamsa would have us believe that the eastern route dates back to about the third century BC, the earlier chronicle Dipavamsa clearly suggests that travellers bound for places in the Gangetic Valley took a land route after crossing the Palk Straits. It is only with reference to a period around the middle of the first millennium that it is possible to speak with confidence about a sea-route linking Sri Lanka with the mouth of the Ganges being in operation. According to the description in the Dathavamsa, the Tooth relic was brought to the island in the fourth century in a trading vessel which sailed directly from Tamralipti, but this work was written several centuries after the event.

More reliable evidence is available from the fifth century. It is implicit in the Samanta-pasadika that it was quite usual for people to take ships to Tamralipti for Mahatittha. Similarly, there is a story in the Visuddhimagga about a person from eastern India who took a ship to Sri Lanka and became a monk at the Mahavihara. It is evident from the account of Fa-Hian that the existence of regular traffic on this route is beyond any doubt. These conditions prevailed at least during the two subsequent centuries. While the references in our sources pertain mostly to monks on pilgrimage, the Culavamsa contains an account of a Sri Lankan merchant who had gone to the city of Kasi. He is said to have brought back with him a copy of a Mahayana text. The chronicle dates this event in the twelfth year of Silakala, i.e. 533 A.D.

Sri Lanka a major Indian Ocean trading centre in 6th century A.D.
Even by the fifth century, there were evidently regular trade routes which connected ports of Sri Lanka with those of Southeast Asia and China. Early in the fifth century, the Kashmiri monk, Gunavarman, who came to Sri Lanka and stayed there for sometime, took a ship to Cho-p'o, probably Java. Using evidence from his study of the patterns of monsoon winds and details given by Fa-Hian about his travels, Grimes has convincingly argued that the route followed by the Chinese pilgrim lay through the Malacca Straits. In 426 A.D. a group of Sri Lankan nuns arrived at the port of Kuang-chou and proceeded to Nanking. They had been brought by a mariner called Nan-ti (Nandi). Since it was felt that more Sri Lankan nuns should be invited to China, Nandi was entrusted with this task. He returned with a second delegation of Sri Lankan nuns in 429 A.D.. In this context, it is particularly interesting to note that a compendium of Sri Lankan tales, belonging to a period about two to three centuries after these events, does contain the story of a certain Nandi, a Sri Lankan merchant from the port of Mahatittha. He is said to have gone on a long trading voyage which took him more than three years. It is very tempting to identify Nandi of the latter tale with Nan-ti of the Chinese annals. And, even if convincing proof is lacking for such an identification, the account in the annals clearly points to the rising importance of navigation between China and Sri Lanka.

The sixth century probably represents the highest point of the development of Sri Lanka as a centre of navigational and commercial activity. For Kosmas, Sielediba was 'the great emporium' which was connected by seaways with trading marts 'over the world'. More specifically he states that goods from Sindu, Male, Kalliana and other ports of India, as well as from China, Persia, Adule and Ethiopia were being brought there and then redistributed. While ships from these different places were regularly visiting Sri Lanka for its own products, and for what it imported specifically for re-export, the islanders sent many of their own ships to foreign ports. The conditions in the sixth century which Kosmas records reflect the growing importance of the island as a pivot in a vast network of trade routes in the Indian Ocean - a development that he attributed to its 'central location' in the Indian Ocean.

The biographical details and itineraries that I-tsing presents in his memoir of Chinese pilgrims who proceeded to the western lands are of particular value for a study of sea-routes in the Indian Ocean. In his examination of this account, Wheatley has recognised three main routes linking South and Southeast Asia, but it is possible to suggest that there were more. We have already noted the sea-route taken by Fa-Hian which linked Sri Lanka with the Malacca Straits. A second route linked Kie-tcha in the Malay peninsula with Tamralipti. The most detailed description of this route is to be found in I-tsing's account of his own voyage. After leaving the Canton region, he visited Fo-che and Mo-lo-yu. He had so far been travelling in a south-westerly direction to reach the last-mentioned kingdom in Sumatra. At this point he states that he 'changed the direction' of his travels. His subsequent travels were in a north-westerly direction, for he was heading for Kie-tcha. From this point he boarded a ship again to proceed 'little by little' towards eastern islands, where the inhabitants are said to have come 'in hundreds', approaching the ship in their boats, and seeking to exchange coconuts, bananas and objects made of bamboo and rattan, for iron and other foreign products. Proceeding in a north-westerly direction from those lands, I-tsing reached Tamralipti in about half a month.

It is particularly interesting to note that I-tsing took more or less the same route on his return journey to China, touching again at Kie-tcha and Fo-che, but skipping the visit to Sumatra. Despite his comments about his slow progress between Kie-tcha and the Nicobar islands, I-tsing evidently took the faster route to Tamralipti. But the monk Tao-lin, also known as Silaprabha (Che-louo-po-p'ouo) who preceded I-tsing to India, travelled along a slightly different route. After taking to the sea, he is said to have visited Lang-kia in the eastern part of the Malay peninsula and then proceeded to the kingdom of Ho-ling in Java. It is said that from here he took a ship to the 'the land of the naked,' and we cannot be sure whether he went through the Straits or along another route to west of Sumatra. He set forth from 'the land of the naked' and arrived at Tamralipti 'after many years'.

Tche-hong was another pilgrim from these times who had to make 'numerous stops on the way' from Che-li-for-che in Sumatra to Tamralipti. Probably both these travellers depended on ships plying a third sea-route from Southeast Asia to eastern India which hugged the coastline from the Malayan peninsula to eastern India. Several of the pilgrims whose voyages were recorded by I-tsing came to Sri Lanka and, as such, this account is a most valuable source for identifying some of the sea-routes which touched at the ports of Sri Lanka up to about the seventh century. Of these pilgrims, Ming-yuen, also called Cintadeva (Tchen-to-t'i-p'ouo), left China in a ship and reached the kingdom of Ho-ling via Kiao-tche. From there he took a ship to Sri Lanka, but it is not clear whether he proceeded, like some of the other pilgrims, northwards along the Malacca Straits before turning west. However, it is not mentioned that he touched at Kie-tcha or the Nicobar islands, but possibly he might have sailed directly westward from Java to Sri Lanka. If it were indeed so, it would point to a fourth sea-route between the southern and south-eastern regions of Asia. After staying in the island for a short time, he went to South India and thence to the monastery at Buddha Gaya.

A disciple of Ming-yuen, Tche-tan-louo-t'i-p'ouo (Citradeva?), is said to have accompanied him to Sri Lanka, but he proceeded to the western parts of India. Three other Chinese monks, I-tang, Tche-ngan and I-hiuen, left China in a merchant vessel and reached Fou-nan and then Lang-kia in the eastern part of the Malay peninsula. After some time, I-hiuen decided to carry out a comprehensive study of the disciplinary rules of different sects in Buddhism, and he left for Sri Lanka. He appears to have settled down on the island.

The next pilgrim to reach Sri Lanka, Hoei-yen, was most probably a contemporary of I-tsing, for he states that he does not know 'whether this monk is dead or alive'. Another pilgrim who reached Sri Lanka was Ta-tcheng-teng or Mahayana-pradipa (Mo-ho-ye-na-po-ti-i-po), who first went to the kingdom of Dvaravati (Tou-ho-louo-po-ti). Here he procured copies of Mahayana sutras and sastras, as well as some images of the Buddha, and then proceeded to Sri Lanka in order to venerate the Tooth relic. From there he took a ship to South India and, eventually, reached the shrine of Buddha Gaya.

The information presented by I-tsing is particularly relevant and useful, since it indicates that Sri Lanka was connected by sea-routes not only with ports in the southern, western and north-eastern regions of the Indian subcontinent, but also with Southeast Asian kingdoms like Ho-ling, Dvaravati and Fu-nan. and, through them, with China. Li Chao, mentioned above, speaks of visits paid by Sri Lankan vessels to Vietnam and China every year. This is supported by Kien-tchen, another Chinese writer from Tang times, who recorded that Sri Lankans were 'in the habit of visiting and stopping over at Canton.'

The efflorescence of Buddhist learning in Sri Lanka and the availability of important texts and leading teachers were certainly the main attractions for some of the Chinese pilgrims cited by I-tsing. However, it is noteworthy that some others amongst these pilgrims were bound for centres of learning and pilgrimage in the western, north-eastern and the southern parts of the subcontinent. It is perhaps correct to try to explain their arrival in Sri Lanka first in terms more of facilities for travel and the nature of the sea-routes than of the relative importance they attached to the island as their main destination. The details of the voyages recorded by I-tsing leaves the impression that facilities for travel from Southeast Asia to Sri Lanka were more readily available.

Currents and patterns of travel
Studies carried out by Duing, Wyrtki and their colleagues on the complex patterns of currents in the Indian Ocean are especially useful in this context in enabling us to formulate some hypotheses to explain phenomenon. However, like most armchair theories on sea-travel, such hypotheses could be misleading unless rigorously tested with detailed information on actual navigation from more recent times. The patterns of monsoon winds and oceanic currents appear to have generally worked in favour of Sri Lankan ports and helped to enhance their importance in the trade between South and Southeast Asia. During the north-east monsoon, the combined effect of winds and surface currents was perhaps more favourable for navigation from the Malacca Straits to Sri Lanka and South India than to ports like Tamralipti. Similarly, the patterns of winds and currents during the south-western monsoon had probably been ideal for eastward travel from Sri Lanka towards the northern end of the Malacca Straits. One may even hypothesise that the combination of winds and currents during the season of the south-western monsoon could have been utilised by experienced mariners to sail westwards from the Javanese coast to Sri Lanka. Such conditions rendered the voyage between Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka relatively fast: it took only about a month.

On the other hand, the circulation of currents in the northern parts of the Bay of Bengal was favourable for voyages from Tamralipti to ports in Southeast Asia, the return journey might have been, for the same reasons, quite demanding. This may have accounted for the longer duration of some of the recorded voyages of the Chinese pilgrims who sailed directly to Tamralipti from Southeast Asia. The advantages discussed about favoured the Sri Lankan, as well as the South Indian ports. The itinerary of Ou-hing, recorded by l-tsing, probably reflects the growth in importance of the sea-route between South India and Southeast Asia with the rise of the power and commercial importance of South Indian states like that of the Pallavas. Ou-hing took a ship from China during the season of 'the eastern wind,' and took one month to reach Che-li-fo-che in Sumatra. Like some of the other pilgrims mentioned earlier, he changed the direction of his travels and boarded a ship belonging to the ruler of that region to go to Mo-Io-yu which he reached in fifteen days. From there he took another fifteen days to get to Kie-tch'a. After travelling in a north-westerly direction on leaving southern Sumatra, he is said to have 'changed the route of navigation' again, to proceed towards Nagapattana (Na-kia-pa-tan-na). This last segment of his travels took thirty days. Then he took a ship again and, after spending ten days on the sea, arrived in Sri Lanka where he worshipped the Tooth relic. He was on the high seas before long, proceeding in a north-easterly direction towards Harikela (Ho-li-ki-louo), the kingdom in east Bengal, which he reached in about one month.

In this case it is clear that Ou-hing came to Sri Lanka because of his earnest wish to pay homage to the shrine of the Tooth relic, and not because Sri Lanka was an essential stop on the route from Southeast Asia to South India. It is very likely that ports in South India gained increasing prominence in the trade with Southeast Asian countries, contributing to the increasing use of a fifth sea-route. Yet, the strategic location of Sri Lanka worked in its favour. The main sea-route linking the eastern and the western parts of the Indian Ocean lay past the island and, consequently, a greater number of ships passed through Sri Lanka. Ports in the island were convenient points to take ships to various places in the Indian subcontinent. It is evident even from the description of Ou-hing's voyages that facilities for travelling from Sri Lanka to ports in the eastern coast of India like Nagapattana and Harikela were readily available. It was clearly a time when several important places in Southeast and South Asia were connected by busy sea-routes.

The growth of sea-borne trade and shipping was certainly an inducement for Sri Lankans to take to trade. We have already cited the statement of Kosmas that Sri Lanka sent out trading ships to foreign ports. Apart from the story of Nandi mentioned before, there are several tales in Sri Lankan literary works about local men taking to foreign trade. In one such story a man from the village of Gola decides to become a trader and takes a ship 'to bring foreign goods'. In another tale a man of peasant origin (kutumbika), who was also an artisan specialising in turning out crafts products out of ivory, decides to take to trading and takes a ship to go to foreign lands.

In these stories, the moral seems to be that those sea-going merchants who were good Buddhists and had generously patronised the sangha would be protected by deities and saints endowed with supernatural powers. As such, it was not possible for malevolent beings to harm them, and they were invariably saved in times of shipwreck. Clearly, the message was aimed at a section of the population who had the means to extend patronage and were keen to undertake hazardous voyages for trade. That there was in fact a very wealthy community of merchants living in attractive mansions inside the citadel of Anuradhapura is clear from the account that Fa-Hian wrote about life at the capital. New developments in trade and, in particular, the growing importance of relations with Southeast Asia wielded a noteworthy influence in bringing about a change in the relative importance of commercial centres in the island.

When the Samantapasadika was being written in the fifth century, the practice of taking ship from Mahatittha to go to Tamralipti or Suvannabhumi was quite well-known. However, it is likely that with the passage of time, ports in the southern and the eastern parts of the island became progressively more important in the trade with Southeast Asia. Though the importance of the port of Gokanna is well-known, historians have not paid adequate attention to the importance of the southern coastal belt during this period. The ports in the south were particularly convenient meeting-places for mariners arriving in the island from both the eastern and the western parts of the Indian Ocean. The combined effect of winds and oceanic currents favoured their use. Even as early as in the second century, the port of Godapavata in the Hambantota District was yielding an income to the kings of Anuradhapura from the custom duties collected there. Finds of Roman coins provide an important corrective to the prevailing views on the relative importance of ports in the south-western, southern and eastern parts of the island in the period between the fourth and the seventh century.

Roman coins in Sri Lanka
Large hoards of Roman coins have been recovered from sites near Colombo, Balapitiya, Matara, Naimana, Kapuhenvala, Debaravava and Valacchenai and some of these hoards were exceptionally large, containing more than a thousand coins at each site. Devundara was yet another port which gained importance during this period. An elegant edifice built of stone, found at this site, has been identified by Paranavitana as a shrine which was originally dedicated to Varuna, the god who ruled the sea. Paranavitana, who dated it in the seventh century, believed that this shrine was built, according to the chronicles, by a princeling who held sway over southern Sri Lanka. It is noteworthy that these sites are located well outside the northern plains dominated by the city of Anuradhapura, and that the greater majority of them are from the south-western and southern parts of the island. The finds are clear testimony to the rise in importance of new centres of trade in the island with the changing patterns of navigation in the Indian Ocean, more than five centuries before the centres of political power were formally shifted to the south-west. A 'tilt' towards the south-west, in an economic sense, had already begun.

The waning of trade between China and 'the South Seas' in the latter part of the reign of the T'ang dynasty and the contraction of the Mediterranean trade evidently had a restrictive influence generally on trade and shipping in the Indian Ocean. The observations that have been made about the relative scarcity of coins in North India during this period are to a large extent applicable to Sri Lanka as well. No coins of Mediterranean origin are to be found in Sri Lanka after the seventh century. Relations with China which had been strong in the fifth and sixth centuries were reduced to a minimum. Most probably the Sri Lankan share of the limited opportunities in the trade of these times was adversely affected by competition offered by the Pallavas, the Cholas and the Pandyas of South India, and the growing role that the Arabs and later the Gujaratis came to play.

The increasing incidence of military conflict in the area around the Palk Straits, which have been characterised by some scholars as 'politics of plunder' and 'a pathological symptom', may to some extent be an expression of the intensity of competition for diminishing opportunities of commerce. Despite the difficulties in commerce in general, this period witnessed certain advances of a major nature in nautical technology. The study of the patterns of currents in the Indian Ocean and the discovery of the applicability of this knowledge to navigation were the major breakthroughs - perhaps second in importance only to the discovery of the patterns of the monsoons.

Though, as we have noted above, the concept of oceanic currents was known at a very early stage, it is possible to detect the awareness of a pattern of the currents in the Indian Ocean only in the writings of the Arabs. The phenomenon of the biannual reversal of currents in the Indian Ocean was known to them:
'The captains of the Sea of India and the Sea of China relate that the ebb and flow of water occurs twice during the year so that during the summer months the flow of water takes place eastwards, and, as against this there is an ebb in the western part of the sea; and, for the following six months, the flow takes place west-wards.'

The development of nautical instruments was another area in which equally important contributions to nautical technology were made. The magnetic compass and the kamal are two examples of such contributions. The Chinese were using the magnetic compass certainly by the end of the twelfth century. Its use by other mariners in the Indian Ocean is, however, less clear. European visitors in the fifteenth century noted the absence of the magnetic compass and found that the astrolabe was in use among mariners in the Indian Ocean. The astrolabe or the kamal made the determination of a ship's position through observation of stars much more precise than it had hitherto been.

Effects of changes in nautical technology after 7th century A.D.
If developments in nautical teclinology worked in favour of certain ports and regions at an early period, their further progress had a paradoxical effect in diminishing the importance of the existing centres and shifting the balance towards the new ones. The process of growth in nautical technology after some time contributed towards limiting the Sri Lankan share of trade in the Indian Ocean. The navigational 'division of labour' in the Indian Ocean that had proved to be convenient for Sri Lanka and contributed to its commercial importance, seemed to have been changing even from about the seventh century.

One of the implications of technological development in shipping up to this time was that longer voyages became feasible. It is interesting to note that I-tsing left China in a Persian ship. When Vajrabodhi arrived in Sri Lanka in the earlier part of the eighth century, he saw thirty-five Persian vessels docked at port. However, these Persian vessels were bound for ports further east than Sri Lanka, and it was in one of these that Vajrabodhi travelled to the kingdom of Fo-chi. While mariners plying the Indian Ocean routes called at Sri Lankan ports to buy the island's valued products like gems and pearls, to obtain food, water and other supplies and for repairs, it appears that the position of these ports as centres of entrepot trade had diminished.

Parakramabahu I (1153-86 A.D.)
The commercial importance of the island revived for brief spells in the period from the ninth to the thirteenth century. Sri Lankan merchants used to frequent Javanese ports in the Surabaya region during he reign of Airlanga in the eleventh century. His contemporary in Sri Lanka, Vijayabahu I, initiated a gift-trade relationship with Ramanna and received camphor, sandalwood and cloth in exchange for the products of the island that he had sent out. The role of Parakramabahu I (1153-86) in the revival of trade was even more significant, for he is said to have 'increased the wealth,' by sending ships to sell gems in foreign lands. This involvement in foreign trade persisted in the reign of Lilavati, who ruled intermittently from 1197 to 1212. In one of her inscriptions she refers to the presence of the South Indian trading guilds in her kingdom. This record is particularly significant, since it directs our attention to the continuing prominence of south Indian merchants in the island long after the termination of the Chola occupation.

Parakramabahu's intense interest in commerce led to hostilities with Ramanna. According to the chronicle Culavamsa, the longstanding and friendly relationship with Ramanna had been characterised by regular exchange of gifts. It appears that elephants from Ramanna, probably those of the tusked variety, were in demand in Sri Lanka. Sirima Kiribamune has suggested that the Sri Lankans were probably acting as middlemen in the elephant trade. Evidently, the king of Ramanna decided to stop selling certain types of elephants as also to radically increase the prices of the elephants he sold. Further, he withdrew the privileges extended to visiting envoys, such as the traditional present of an elephant to every ship which brought presents to the court.

Relations between the two courts deteriorated dramatically when the Sri Lankans made an attempt to bypass Ramanna by establishing trade contacts with the kingdom of Kamboja. This led to the arrest and imprisonment of some of the Sri Lankan envoys and the confiscation of the merchandise and the presents sent by Parakramabahu in exchange for elephants. The trade dispute led to the outbreak of hostilities between the two countries. Describing the retaliatory expedition dispatched by the Sri Lankan ruler, the chronicler states that the coast around the entire island resembled one great workshop. After the construction work was completed in five months, all the ships were assembled at one port and loaded with arms and supplies for one year.

Probably, long years of experience in building merchant ships facilitated the construction of vessels to transport troops in times of war. The account in the Culavamsa clearly gives the impression that trade voyages between Sri Lanka and Ramanna had become quite frequent by this time. It would also appear that the type of merchant vessel in use at the time was quite large, enabling the transport of elephants over great distances. The loads of haulage involved are reflected in the statement that on one occasion the Sri Lankan king expected to import fourteen elephants. This, of course, does not mean that they were being transported in a single ship.

It may be relevant to point out here that the growth in the size of ships used by Sri Lankans, and more particularly by other mariners of the Indian Ocean, meant that certain trade routes in the vicinity of the island which had been used over the centuries were now becoming less attractive. Navigation in the Palk Straits would have certainly been hazardous for the large vessels. The Nayinativu inscription of Parakramabahu I suggest that shipwrecks were frequent in this area. It is also evident from this inscription that the king was entitled to half the goods found in a ship that had been wrecked. Only ships which were bringing in elephants and horses were entitled to special consideration, the king states in a charmingly direct turn of phrase, 'because we like elephants and horses'. However, even in such cases a fourth of the goods was confiscated.

Indian Ocean - 14th century
By about the fourteenth century, ships of unprecedented and incredibly large proportions were plying the Indian Ocean routes. Some of the Chinese ships that Ibn Battuta found at Calicut had four decks and were supposed to carry a thousand men. Massive oars were used to propel them when winds could not be utilised, and each of these oars was manned by ten to thirty men. It is not surprising that masters of large ships preferred to go round the island rather than navigate the Palk Straits. The policy of levying a duty on wrecked ships appears to have been continued by rulers who followed Parakramabahu I. Understandably, shipowners grumbled about it as evident from the following comment of Wang Ta Yuan:
'Sailors who have had the misfortune to be wrecked, and who have had to stop for a while in this place, are fleeced by the ruler of whatever merchandise their junk may have on board, even the gold and jewels are sent to him.'
It is possible that Wang Ta Yuan was exaggerating, but the impression appears to have been shared by mariners from other regions.

The reawakening of interest in commercial contact with South Asia which became evident in China from Sung times, the intervention of Levantine merchants and, in particular, the active role played by merchants from the western coastal areas of India contributed to a revival in commercial navigation. While the foremost emporia in the trade of the Indian Ocean were now located in the western coast of India and around the Malacca Straits, traders and mariners from these regions, together with the Arabs, dominated this trade.

Sri Lanka which witnessed a process of political disintegration at this time, was relegated to a subordinate position as a purveyor of local products for resale at the flourishing marts of India. Marco Polo records that Chinese ships came to ports in the Malabar coast like Quilon and Eli and that Levantine merchants, too, came there. Ibn Battuta noted the presence of thirteen large junks at Calicut. Valued products from Sri Lanka like cinnamon and pearls were sold at the ports in the western coast of India. Wang Ta Yuan recorded that pearls and other products from the Mannar region of Sri Lanka were available at Jurfattan and were sold to Chinese ships there. This is a fair indication that few ships from China were touching at Sri Lankan ports.

Bhuvanekabahu I (1272-1285) at Yapahuwa
In the context of the disadvantages of the Sri Lankan situation in the thirteenth century, the activities of one particular island king assumes a special significance. Bhuvanekabahu made determined diplomatic efforts to attain the objective of gaining a more important role in the trade of the Indian Ocean. In about 1283, he sent an envoy to the court of the Mamluk rulers of Egypt, indicating his wish to exchange permanent ambassadors. Some of the statements in his letter are particularly revealing:
'I have a prodigious quantity of pearls and precious stones of every kind. I have vessels, elephants, muslins, and other stuffs, wood of baqam [Brazil wood], cinnamon, and all the objects of commerce, which are brought to you by the banian merchants.'

It is quite clear that the Sri Lankan king was concerned about the hold of the Indian merchants as middlemen, and was trying to gain access to the Mediterranean trade which had begun to expand with the increasing activities of the Venetian traders. The letter is of special value for another reason: it points to the persistence of the traditions of ship-building in the island. The Sri Lankan ruler further stated that his kingdom had a good supply of timber and was offering to construct twenty vessels each year for the Mamluk sultans. Since the vessels required by the Mamluks would have been large ocean-going ships, the letter is an indication of the type of ship that Sri Lankan shipwrights were capable of turning out at this time. The king's diplomatic endeavours brought forth some results. As Kiribamune has pointed out, the Egyptian coins of this period, found in Sri Lanka, suggest a certain strengthening of commercial relations between the two countries. A coin issued by Bhuvanekabahu has been found at Mogadishu. But this piece of evidence does not point clearly to a revival of trade in his reign. Apart from his coin, the Mogadishu hoard contains three other coins from Sri Lanka: one of Lilavati and two issues of a king identified as Parakramabahu II (1236-70).

Moslems at Beruvala
However, a careful re-examination of a passage in a well-known work belonging to the category called 'messenger-poems,' and written about a century after these events, reveals an important item of evidence pointing to relations with Egypt. The port of Beruvala is frequently mentioned in Sri Lankan literary works of this period. By the time the Girasandesa was being written in the fifteenth century, a flourishing settlement of merchants was to be found there. In his description of this township, the poet refers to the presence of Arab women (yon liya) at this town. Perhaps more important in the present context is his reference to certain residents whom he calls baburan (var. bamburan). 'Have a look at the baburan,' he tells the 'messenger' passing the town on his way, 'and see how they had consumed strong substances like opium and cannabis, are whirling round and round to their hearts' content, wearing attana and ratmal flowers on their ears, twirling their moustaches and swinging their batons.'

The explanation given by scholars of the term baburan as barbaradesavasin or Berbers seems to be likely. The term barbara occurs as one among many terms denoting foreign peoples in the Dambadeni Asna. In the later Rajavaliya, the land of the baburu is clearly distinguished from the land of the Arabs, and occurs between references to the latter and Portugal. It is relevant to note that the land of the Berbers spread westwards from Egypt, along the northern coast of Africa, and that the composition of the Egyptian population included both Arabs and Berbers. The whirling Berbers of Beruvala, to whom the poet devoted one whole strophe, probably provided one of the most interesting spectacles in town. They are quite reminiscent of the Mawlawiya sect of Sufism who placed great emphasis on devotional ecstasy. Several religious sects in both Asia and Africa traditionally consumed cannabis and opium as a means of inducing a state of ecstasy. The practice has survived to the present day. In the case of the Mawlawiya sect, participation in a whirling dance was considered to be one of the main methods of attaining ecstasy. This sect was formally founded at the end of the thirteenth century, and one of its seven major centres was located at Cairo. The whirling dervishes of the Mawlawiya sect were patronised by the Mamluk sultans. The presence of Arabs, Berbers and the ritual of whirling dances at Beruvala are strongly suggestive of close connections with the Mamluk kingdom. If our interpretation is correct, the initiatives of Bhuvanekabahu appear to have brought forth some permanent results in the establishment of a settlement of merchants from the Mamluk kingdom at Beruvala, and the introduction of the influence of the Mawlawiya sect. It is noteworthy that the Dambadeni Asna, in which the earliest reference to the land of the Berbers occurs, was written in the reign of the third or the fourth king who bore the name Parakramabahu, that is, between 1287 and 1293 or between 1302 and 1326 which would be soon after or close to the reign of Bhuvanekabahu.

Perhaps another important achievement of Bhuvanekabahu I was the establishment of contact with the Chinese court. Marco Polo speaks of the arrival of a Chinese mission in the island in the year 1284. Most probably, this event took place during the reign of Bhuvanekabahu I. Later on, in the fifteenth century, Cheng-ho's expeditions which led to the expansion of Chinese mercantile activity in the Indian Ocean, probably contributed towards the development of closer trade relations with Sri Lanka as well.

Several of the rulers of the petty principalities that existed in the island in the fourteenth century were also interested in trade. Ibn Battuta noted Arya Cakravartti's powerful role in the trade in the area close to the island. At one port in the Malabar coast, there were about a hundred vessels of varying sizes belonging to him. Evidently, the dividing line between trade and piracy was sometimes quite thin, and he seems to have indulged in both. This ruler, who understood Persian, tried to impress Ibn Battuta with the high quality of pearls found in his kingdom.

Similarly, Jalasti of Colombo was described as 'a prince of the sea'. He had under him a contingent of five hundred Abyssinians. Since it was usual at the time to employ Abyssinian mercenaries in ships sailing in the Indian Ocean, as the best means of ensuring security from the pirates, it is likely that Jalasti sent out ships on trading missions. That there was a certain revival of commercial activity in the island is evident from the literary works of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is noteworthy that this revival was limited in its impact to the coastal board of the south-western quadrant of the island. Perera has drawn attention to the fact that the ancient town at Mahatittha did not disappear, and was noted by writers in the fifteenth century. However, it is clear that the prevailing patterns of navigation in the Indian Ocean favoured ports in the southern parts of the island and helped them to emerge as the more important centres of trade.

Seeing large groups of ships sailing in the sea appears to have been a usual experience for travellers arriving at Panadura, Udugalpitiya and Tangalla. Even as early as in the twelfth century, the port of Salavata (Salavattots) or Chilaw was gaining importance. Paranavitana has pointed out that, according to a commentary from this period, a Chola invasion landed there. Devinuvara, which we noted above, had grown into 'large city' inhabited by merchants by the time Ibn Battuta visited the island. He observed that this port, which provided access to the gem mines in the Ratnapura area, enjoyed autonomy from the kingdom in the hinterland. It was under the control of the local temple which was a large institution with a thousand Brahmanas and five hundred female dancers. The impression that this traveller formed of the port being under the control of the temple gains support from an edict set up by Parakramabahu II. According to the edict, decisions pertaining to the administration of the port made by a certain mahapandita, probably the chief Brahmana priest, were considered to be binding. The king's officials were stationed there to collect his dues but, evidently, evasion of payment had become rife.

Indian Ocean - 15th century
In the fifteenth century, Devinuvara was one of the flourishing cities in the island. Other noteworthy ports were Beruvala, Bentota, Galle and Valigama. Beruvala, noted earlier, was perhaps the most prosperous. It was a busy settlement of Muslim merchants with many beautiful mansions and large, 'permanent' shops. Galle was a town with wide streets where shops stocked with valuables were located. Similarly, large shops dealing in precious goods were to be found at Valigama where a 'cultured merchant community' lived in beautiful mansions, and courtesans frequented the city streets. Foreign merchants were welcome at some of these cities which are best described in the terminology popularised by Polanyi as 'ports of trade'. Devinuvara, with its virtual autonomy, was one such example, and it is likely that Valigama also falls within the same category.

However, not all foreign visitors could be sure of being welcomed with a guarantee of security. Some of the petty lords of ports were not always kind to visitors, at least partly because they were protective of the position they enjoyed as purveyors of local products to South Indian ports. Arrival in Serendib was not always the serendipitous event it used to be. Ibn Battuta found that sailors in his ship were not very happy about going to the principality ruled by Arya Cakravartti because they considered him to be a pirate. Some ships tended not only to avoid the Palk Straits but also to skip Sri Lanka altogether. When Ibn Battuta proceeded to Bengal from the Maldives, he did not touch at any Sri Lankan port. In fact, his appears to have been a direct voyage involving forty-six days at sea.' Evidently it had become customary even for ships from such distant ports as Diu to avoid stopping over in Sri Lanka during their voyages to ports in Bengal. One writer, Sidi Ali Capudan, advised mariners from Diu to keep off the coast of Sri Lanka and to hold course till they had passed the island before turning to go round it and laying course to proceed to Chittagong.

Even if the concern for security was not always the main reason, the advances made in nautical technology had rendered frequent stoppages no longer necessary. While the evidence examined above points clearly to a revival of commercial activity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, its impact on the economy of the island as a whole is not very easy to ascertain. In this context, it is particularly important to note that neither Bhuvunekabahu, who achieved some success in his diplomatic initiatives, nor any one of the rulers who came to power after him, could win back for Sri Lanka the entrepot status it had so profitably enjoyed in the distant past.

european, chinese and arab ships from the Fra Mauro map 1460
European, Chinese, Indian and Arab ship drawings from the Fra Mauro map 1460.

By the time of Ma Huan (early fifteenth century), China was receiving pearls and precious stones from the island. Ma Huan also lists Chinese products which were in demand in Sri Lanka. This information was probably intended to help Chinese mariners who visited the isle. However, it is also clear from his work that the ports in the Malabar coast continued to be the main focus of Chinese trade interest in South Asia. Thus Sri Lankan participation was largely limited to the role of providing the marts in the Malabar and Coromandel coasts with the island's products for resale to merchants from both the West and the Far East.

Kulasuriya has pointed out how wealth acquired in trade helped certain lineages, like that Alagakkonara, to gain access to political power. Alagakkonara belonged to a family of South Indian origin, though, like many other immigrants of this period, he was domiciled in the island and was assimilated into Sri Lankan society. Some merchants, like Jayapala of Salavata, who patronised the author of the Sinhala poem, the Guttilakavyaya, may have been men of local origin. Jayapala held high office in the court of a Sri Lankan king called Parakramabahu, probably the sixth (1412-67) known by that name. This king took a personal interest in commerce. The Gira Sandesaya (vv. 148-49) describes how the king invaded the port of Adivirama because a ship he sent there had been plundered by the ruler of the region. Somaratne has identiiied the port with Adhiramapattanam in the Tanjore District.

However, it appears that not many local traders could benefit even from the limited opportunities available in the trade of this period. The difficulties faced by Parakramabahu probably highlight some of the problems faced by Sri Lankan merchants. It is very likely that the carrying trade to and from Sri Lanka was dominated by foreign merchants and their agents residing in the island, and that their privileged position was jealously guarded. It would have been extremely difficult for merchants who did not have favourably disposed contacts in the Indian and Southeast Asian emporia to break into this trade. Apart from Arabs and Berbers, it is likely that there were Gujarati merchants in Sri Lanka, since silk was being imported from their land. Tamil was spoken at Valigama and songs in this language were popular there. One of the two inscriptions of Parakramabahu VI at Devinuvara is in Tamil.

The format of the inscription set up by Cheng Ho when he visited Sri Lanka is particularly useful in helping us to understand this situation. Cheng Ho's record has three different versions: the Chinese version records a donation to a Buddhist shrine while the Persian version talks of a donation to a Hindu temple. It is significant that the Chinese envoy who reveals his adroitness and subtlety in diplomacy by the way he prepared the different versions of his inscription did not deem it necessary to provide a version in Sinhala. The tight grip that foreign merchants had on the island's commerce during this period meant that the impact of the increase in commercial activity on the island's economy as a whole was minimal.

In an age which produced shipping magnates like Misqal of Calicut, who sent his vessels to Yemen and Persia in the west and to China in the east, the prospects of the Sri Lankan trader, both Sinhala and Tamil, were indeed limited. Parakramabahu VI was perhaps the last Sri Lankan ruler to play a noteworthy role in the sea trade. The virtual exclusion of the islanders from controlling positions in their trade, which was reinforced during the period of colonial rule, led to the rise of a situation which nineteenth-century writers like Tennent identified as apathy and lack of interest on the part of the islanders in commercial activity. Thus a particular set of historical circumstances was incorrectly interpreted by these historians as an abiding and characteristic cultural trait of an entire group of people. It is this influential body of views which finds resonance in the writings of Toussaint quoted at the beginning of this paper.

In an earlier era, the demand created by opportunities in commerce had helped to spur on developments in the art of ship-building. Since the type of ship that Bhuvanekabahu offered to supply to the Mamluks should have been trading vessels for use in the Indian Ocean, the traditions of building large ships were probably alive at the end of the thirteenth century. The author of the Pujavali, who lived in the middle of that century, was conversant with the art of navigation. He alludes in this work to mariners sailing in the ocean, with raised sails fastened and adjusted by cords, carrying oars and spars on board, and guided by the stars. It seems reasonable to suggest that these traditions of building large ships and of navigation were continued well into the time of Arya Cakravartti and even up to the time of Parakramabahu VI.

Though the technology of nautical construction was available, avenues in which it could be profitably utilised were becoming increasingly hard to find. In a context of diminishing opportunities for commerce, the technology itself was bound to decline. Hornell recorded the dimensions of a padagu built at Valvedditurai during his time, and it was 100 ft. in length, 21 ft. 2 in. wide and 14 ft. in depth. It had two masts and a capacity of 144 tons. In most respects this type of vessel was similar to the yatra oruva of southern Sri Lanka. There was, however, one major difference in that the northern craft did not have the outrigger. Hornell was inclined to believe that the Valvedditurai padagu represented a development on the yatra oruva, the vessel of similar proportions from southern Sri Lanka which had gone out of use not long before his time. Thus the traditions of ship-building of an era long past did survive right into modern times, but in a vitiated and diminished form. It is abundantly clear that an involution had set in, pushing back the level of nautical technology in Sri Lanka to what it had been long before the eighth century when the largest ships arriving at Chinese ports were from Sri Lanka.

top of page

Maldives Culture, Powered by Joomla!; free resources by SG web hosting