When we think about the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka often appears only as a footnote. Its conversion to Buddhism is often credited to the Gangetic emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, and it then vanishes from our historical consciousness until its conquest by the Chola dynasty of Tamil Nadu in the 11th century CE, almost 1,400 years later. We next hear of it because of the LTTE in the 20th century, 900 years later. In the last few years, the island nation has been discussed in India primarily due to worries over Chinese influence. In 2022, Sri Lanka is now being observed with great concern for the unprecedented politico-economic crisis that it faces.
This approach is short-sighted. Sri Lanka is nearly half the size of Java, an island that dominated much of Southeast Asia for centuries in the medieval period. It has been deeply integrated into South Asian networks of trade, religion, and politics for centuries. Though modern ideas of ethnic and linguistic exclusivity have torn the island away from our understanding of India, looking back into its medieval history reveals just how deeply it is intertwined with our own past.
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Religion and power—Sri Lanka and the ‘mainland’
Perhaps one of the best ways to understand pre-modern India and its wider world is to think of it as a collection of networked regions, each with its own unique internal dynamics. These dynamics lead to the emergence of political and social pressures that guide the region’s engagement with the wider area.
This phenomenon can be seen quite clearly by the 3rd century BCE and the career of Ashoka Maurya. In a recent archaeological study of the Maurya state, Dr Namita Sugandhi concluded that many Ashokan edicts, especially those found far to the south, were produced by local elites attempting to build their own state structures. By adopting various elements of Mauryan political culture — including, of course, Buddhism — elites across the subcontinent could gain access to new and lucrative networks of trade and diplomacy. The process can be observed in the Deccan, on the Andhra coast, and of course, in Sri Lanka. It seems to have connected elites across the subcontinent at an unprecedented scale.
In his magisterial Sri Lanka and the Cholas, WMK Wijetunga shows that in the centuries after, there was a near-constant movement of peoples from the adjoining Tamil-speaking regions. Many of these were adventurers from the mainland seeking to set up polities in Lanka, very often by patronising Buddhist establishments. The converse was also true, with Lankan kings visiting the Indian subcontinent to recruit troops for their own political struggles. Both the mainland and the island were multicultural and multireligious: Wijetunga suggests that it was not the case that Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka were always Hindus; as many of them had lived on the island for generations and were Buddhists. We know that at the same time, Buddhism wielded considerable influence in the Tamil region. Similarly, there is evidence that Sinhala-speaking royals had Hindu priests attached to their palaces, and Sri Lankan historian K. Indrapala has shown that saints such as Campantar (Sambandhar) sang of temples to Shiva on the island, which must have had local Sinhala worshippers and patrons.
Alongside the Tamil bhakti movement, in the 6th-7th centuries CE, a markedly new politico-religious formation spread across the subcontinent: Puranic Hinduism, involving the patronage of Brahmins and temples as sources of state power. Many elites on the mainland gradually turned their attention to Shaivism, sending Buddhism into decline everywhere except in two significant regions: the eastern Gangetic valley, and Sri Lanka. In both these regions, Buddhism survived because of its deep-rooted political power and its ability to provide services and legitimacy to rulers. However, medieval rulers preferred to play it safe as far as religion was concerned; while the Palas of Bengal patronised a new, tantric form of Buddhism, the rulers of Lanka, unable to interfere with the affairs of the Buddhist Sangha, granted land to Shaivite Brahmins — exactly as their neighbours on the mainland were doing.
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War, conquest, and ethnicity
While these religious trends were in motion, polities in Sri Lanka, like those of the mainland, had been growing in scale and complexity, undertaking transregional diplomacy and intermarriage. By the 8th century CE, we begin to see military and political movements of increasing scale across the subcontinent. Deccan empires raided north, central and south India driven by dynastic entanglements and political ambition. At the same time, we see Tamil kings from the mainland invading Lanka, and the converse; in one particularly notable incident, the Lankan king Sena II undertook an expedition that crossed the Palk Strait and sacked the city of Madurai in the 9th century CE.
Interactions between the island and the mainland became increasingly violent in subsequent centuries. In the 11th century, the Chola kings Rajaraja I and Rajendra I managed to decisively conquer much of the island, sacking Buddhist monasteries and building two Shiva temples in the city of Polonnaruwa. Interestingly, scholar R Mahalakshmi shows in Beyond the Politics of Conquest: Brahmanical Icononography in Polonnaruva that many more Shiva temples were subsequently built by local traders, with features suggesting cultural interaction between conquerors and conquered. However, when the Cholas were driven out of the island by the late 11th century, the Sinhala-speaking elite — and its Buddhist monastic supporters — began to take a more xenophobic tone towards the mainland, and especially towards Tamils.
Exchanges would, however, continue, with Pandya dynasts and even adventurers from as far away as Kalinga ruling parts of the island in the 13th century. Close marital ties between mainland and island dynasties endured until the Portuguese conquest in the 16th century, and trade and artistic exchange continued even after. Indeed, Portuguese Goa and Sri Lanka both produced Christian ivory statues for export to Europe.
What all this shows us is that Sri Lanka’s history is integral to that of the subcontinent; in some ways, it is a laboratory where we can observe trends from the wider area more clearly — from medieval state formation to modern religious and ethnic nationalism. Rather than seeing what happens in Sri Lanka as an aberration, then, it’s perhaps worth looking at connections between the island and the mainland, and what it warns us about our politics and economics.
Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.
This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.