Hambantota,where did the place-name come from?
Posted on February 10th, 2011

Chandre Dharmawardana

Hambanthotha, even a few decade ago was simply a sleepy town with a beautiful beach located conveniently near a “Rest House” that overlooked the sea. It was known for its salt industry. It offered a convenient stop for those driving from Colombo to Katharagama, that shrine originally built to deify Alexander (Iskander in Persian, or Skhanda in Sanskrit) who conquered parts of India in the 4th century BC.

Today Hambanthota has become a name which is attracting much international attention. The mega developments in the area, with its strategically located brand new port, as well as airports and highways which are most certain to come, will position it as the industrial and commercial hub of the South. Meanwhile Galle will become that beautiful old town for the antiquarians, the literati and the  glitterati.

Where does the name “Hambanthota” come from? Various dubious toponymic explanations for the place name is given in  popular discussions. We wish to add our views so that interested readers can bring out their knowledge on this subject. The most likely origin of the name for the coastal town is from the word “Sanka”, Sanskrit for Conch shell. Even the English words “Chank”, and Shank probably come from the Sanskrit “Sanka”. The Sinhala words “Hak” (e.g., Hakgedi), and “Sak” are directly from the
Sanskrit. Thus Hak-baan-thota  would mean the place where “Hakgedi” etc., were downloaded, (Here we may note that “Badu-baanava” in Sinhala stands for “unloading goods”). Thus the name Hak-baan thota which has transformed to  Hambanthota most probably indicates that this was an unloading location for Chank fishery. The phonetic transformation “Hak-baan”  to “Hamban” is quite reasonable.  We note that in many Sinhala words like “Duk-path” in changing to  “Duppath”, the “k” sound gets muted and replaced by the leading sound. In the same way, “Hak-baan” – Habbaan – Hamban” are a set of valid transformations. Such transformations have been discussed in, for example, Pandith A. M. Gunasekera, A comprehensive Grammar of the Sinhalese Language (1891).

The area  has indeed been known for Chank (Gastropoda: Turbinella pyrum) fishery since antiquity.  Chank shells, or Konches (Hakgedi) are considered sacred in Hindu lore, and associated with MahaLakshmi. The sinistral Turbinella pyrum (with the spiral turning left when the apex is held up), called Dakshinavarti in Sanskrit., (i.e., right-turning spiral, with the apex held down). These are very rare, but they  have been found in Hambantota. Another area known for Conch-shell fishery is Kirinda. Cowries, cones, murex and other shells are also important. In 1998, 260,000kg of sea cucumbers, 796,000kg of seashells and sacred shanks,  and 11,400kg of mollusks were exported from Sri Lanka. Hence, in our view, “Hambanthota” is a name resulting from the conch-shell fishery associated with this location since very ancient times.

 For a recent scientific report on Chank fishery,  see Fairoz, M.F.M. and Cumaranatunga, P.R.T.; Preliminary investigation of the Chank (Gastropoda: Turbinella pyrum) fishery at Hambantota and Kirinda, Southern Sri Lanka. Proceedings of the 59th Annual Session of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science, December 2002, Colombo.

We also mention some of the other “explanations” that have been offered for the origin of the place name. ‘Hamban’ is sometimes said to be a reference to Muslim- or Chinese- sailors who used “sampan’ boats and used  this  Harbour. “Sampan” are either Chinese or Moor(Arab) boats, and Muslim people are allegedly called “Hambaya” based on their use of these boats.  “Sampan” is defined in dictionaries as a loose term used in East and South East Asia to designate various small harbour crafts and local coastal craft. But early travelers applied the word and its variant forms more widely.

We may note that there is a “Hambanthota” in Bogawantalawa, casting doubt on simple “sampan-boat” explanations of the place name. The up-country”Hambanthota” it is a corruption of “Ambanthota”  It is near Ambagamuva. On the other hand, the coastal town Hambanthota is not in a specifically mango-growing area, and  it has no special association  with “amba” (mango).

Was Hambanthota an ancient harbour? Ananda Guruge has given a discussion (Mahavamsa, 2nd revised edition, p 220) of contacts with Sri Lanka from as far back as 3rd century BCE. More recent archaeological work by Helmuth Roth, W. H. Wijayapala et al., suggest that the “Godapavata Pattana” (Gota Pabbata Pattana, Godavaya), at the mouth of the Walawe river was indeed a harbour. But the mouth of the Walawe, although not far, was never a part of the Hambanthota region. In our view today’s Hambanthota itself was probably not a habour, but a site for shank fishery. See also  Bopearachchi’s writings on the implantation of Ports at River Mouths in Ancient Sri Lanka.

The early visitors to the GODAVAYA habour may have been Nabataens from Southern Italy, and Arab traders at a later time. A Brahmi script dating to the time of King Gajabahu-I has been found here, on a rock next to an ancient shrine. Godapavata Pattana was located on the peninsula between the Walawe River’s inland anchoring area and the sea harbor in the bay of Godavaya. A landing quay made of stone pillars up to 3.50 meters high was part of the ancient harbor.  The excavation team found in this location one of the four ancient stone anchors (“kamba bandina gal”), discovered so far in Sri Lanka (the other three were discovered in Galle), possibly dating to the 5th century CE.

The twenty-first century has given Hambanthota a modern harbour, positioned on the old marine silk route, equally important today, linking the West with China, Japan and Korea.

11 Responses to “Hambantota,where did the place-name come from?”

  1. M.S.MUdali Says:

    //Hambanthotha, even a few decade ago was simply a sleepy town with a beautiful beach located conveniently near a “Rest House” that overlooked the sea. It was known for its salt industry. It offered a convenient stop for those driving from Colombo to Katharagama, that shrine originally built to deify Alexander (Iskander in Persian, or Skhanda in Sanskrit) who conquered parts of India in the 4th century BC//

    Ado modaya! skantha is for HILL and you sinhala fool dont know why KANTHA means Hill. Are you fooling here that Sinhala word KANTHA and Tamil KANTHASAMY comes from an Iranian asshole? How did Kanthaswamys of Tamil Nadu come from Iran or Greece?

    Hamabaan or Sambaan is a word for boats with wide flat bottom to carry elephants.

    This fool tell nothing about the word CHANKU in Tamil for conch. Most of those Chanku were exported to India.

    Sri Lanka’s main and big business partner was always South India than any other country in the past.

    What the hell the Greek was doing in the jungles of UVA in those days?

  2. Samson Says:

    Mudali the disgusting rowdy IPKF son,

    Your indecency says it all. Just because your stupid theories are wrong that doesn’t mean others have to pander into them.

    The Sinhala word Skanda (Kanda Surindu) comes from the same North Indian name for the same god. It has nothing to do with kanda (mountain). God Saman who is a real mountain god but was never called “kanda”. He had more reason to be called “kanda” if associating with mountains was the criterion for this name.

    [Most of those Chanku were exported to India.

    Sri Lanka’s main and big business partner was always South India than any other country in the past.]

    What rubbish! There was no India at that time. In place of it there were different nations. There is no evidence to say Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner was South India. Both Sri Lanka and South India produced same export goods and this made trade between them minimal.

    Rowdy unintelligent Mudali has not heard of the Silk Road which brought traders from many countries to the island. Why oh why did the IPKF orphaned and left you causing trouble for the others.

  3. Nanda Says:

    Lanka was a financial hub those days. People for all over the world came here. It seems Lanka was over populated.
    There was no trading with India because Indian never ventured outside – not open minded – Mudali the IPKF illegimate son is a good example.

  4. M.S.MUdali Says:

    President Rajapaksha shifted the Independent Day festivals to Historic Kataragama where Gemunu Maharaja worshipped Skanda Kumara before the war with Elara.

    This act hurts many Christian Sinhalese who have origins in Kerala or Goa or Tamil Nadu. So, the Sinhala Christian monkeys try to destroy the historical importance of Kataragama and an important icon of Lankan and Tamil cultural life.

    I dont care about the comments from the Catholic/Christian monkeys while President acknowledge the importance of India as RELATIVE.

  5. Samson Says:

    Mudali

    Now that is something we can agree.

    Except the racist bit. No one should be judged based on his race, ethnicity or religion. It is a yardstick of the foolish.

  6. Kit Athul Says:

    Hambantota was built by Humbayas (Hambaya means Muslims) they built Humberside in England at the same time they were building Hambantota. These muslims were called SARASENS. They were good harbor builders and traders. They did trade with Tamil Nadu but at that time Tamils were living in the jungles as nomads.

  7. M.S.MUdali Says:

    kit:
    Tamils reached Australia before any muslim come to India or Sri Lanka. Better check it with Australian historians!

    So, you tell the normads brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka! Good! Luckily you did not tell Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by Muslims!

  8. Fran Diaz Says:

    Popularly, “Hambaya’ means Muslim. So it is likely that Hambanthota was a port/ place of Muslim traders.
    In Hindu traditions, “Katir” means formless Light, i.e. the Divine Light in each Human Heart or Life Force/God/Truth/Atman. The word “Kataragama” doubtless came from the word “Katir”. Likewise, the “Deepavali Festival” also refers to the Divine Light, as it is the Festival of Light.

    Here is an extract about Kataragama on its more ancient origins :

    “Pre-Hindu and Buddhist origins :
    The deity at Kataragama is indigenous and long-celebrated in Sri Lankan lore and legend, and originally resides on the top of mountain called Wædahiti Kanda (or hill of the indigenous Vedda people) just outside of the Kataragama town. Since ancient times an inseparable connection between the Kataragama God and his domain has existed. At one time the local deity was identified with God Saman, a guardian deity of Buddhism and Sri Lanka.
    As was the Sinhalese tradition, local ancestors, rulers and kings, who did a great service to the country or community were ordained as deities. According to the legendary hisrtory, God Saman was also an ancient ruler of Deva people in the Sabaragamuwa area of Sri Lanka. Therefore some believe that King Mahasena, who built Kiri Vehera in Kataragama later came to be worshiped as God Kataragama.
    Till today the indigenous Vedda people come to venerate at the temple complex from their forest abodes. As a link to the Vedda past the temple holds its annual festival, that celebrates the God’s courtship and marriage to a Vedda princess, in July to August”.

  9. M.S.MUdali Says:

    Hamabaya and Hamba(n) are same? I dont think so!

  10. Kit Athul Says:

    MSMUdali, don’t get me wrong. DNA for Tamils and Sinhala are the same. What I attempted to show is the historical facts can be ridiculed by disinfomation. jayraj does show it well on his web site. The word Tamil is not there in Indian historical documents they were referred as Chola and various other names. When I referred to Tamils who were roaming around and distroying peaceful villages, I referred to some one like Elara in Sri Lanka. So, MS forget what you think you know and help Sinhala and Tamils to live gather pecefully. Now check it out about Hambayas in Humberside in England and in Sri Lanka. I bet I am right.

  11. Raj Says:

    M S Mudali should not be allowed to post in this forum. He is not disciplined enough to use decent and acceptable language here. The editor please keep this forum away from this sort of people. Look at his language ‘Ado modaya! skantha is for HILL and you sinhala fool dont know why KANTHA means Hill. Are you fooling here that Sinhala word KANTHA and Tamil KANTHASAMY comes from an Iranian asshole?’
    Pathetic guy.

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