SOME OBSERVATIONS ON ELARA AND ELARA’S TOMB
Posted on April 4th, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

According to the Mahavamsa, Anuradhapura was ruled by a foreign king, Elara in the period immediately before Dutugemunu. Elara’s origins are not known.

Dipawamsa said Elara was Uju jatiko’, meaning hailing from the ‘Uju’ tribe or from the land by that name.  Mahavamsa said Elara, was a ruler of foreign origin, ‘a prince’ (Khattiyo)   a ‘Damilo’ who came from the Cola country. This has been mistakenly interpreted as Chola prince. Elara could not have been a Chola prince, because the Chola dynasty did not exist at the time.

A. Denis N. Fernando, a surveyor by profession, suggested that Elara was in fact, a Parthian trader. Historian D.G.B. de Silva considers this quite possible. D.G.B. de Silva says the time to which Dutthagamani and Elara belonged [2nd C.B.C.] was contemporaneous with the rule of mighty Persian emperors of the Parthian dynasty who succeeded to the fortunes of the Achaemeneid [Hakamanish] emperors.

The Parthians [Aracids] like their predecessors controlled the inland caravan routes to India and China and had penetrated into the Indian Ocean trade which went through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Their vessels were already traversing deep into Eastern lands and their coins were in circulation in India. One coin of Mitradates Eupator [113-6 B.C.] has also been discovered in Sri Lanka.

The Tamil Separatist Movement had drawn attention to the greatness of this ‘Tamil’ king, implying that it was wrong of Dutugemunu to unseat him.  However, researchers have pointed out that the good deeds attributed to Elara, such as the story of the Bell of Justice are not unique to Elara. They are standard stories that appear elsewhere.

They are found in the Persian legend of the mythical hero Anosharvan. King Kosraw I, traditionally known as Anosharavan, was king of the Sassanian kingdom (Iran) from 531 to 579 AD. According to legend, he is said to have had a Bell of Justice …hung to his bed chamber with a rope attached to it and the end in the street which man, beast or bird could pull seeking justice”.

Elara used this Bell of Justice, in a rather unorthodox manner. His son’s chariot had run over a calf, unintentionally.  The mother cow had rung the Bell of Justice. Elara listened to what the cow had to say and had the prince’s head struck off by the same chariot wheel. This interpretation of ‘justice’ is questioned even today.

D.G.B. de Silva saw another connection between the Mahavamsa description and Persian tradition. The funeral rites for Persian monarchs resembled the elaborate account given in Mahavamsa about the funeral rites accorded to King Elara. There were many similarities between the rites performed on Persian royalty and those described for Elara, said de Silva. He also pointed out that the way King Poros was treated after Alexander defeated him in a hard-fought battle was almost exactly how King Dutugemunu treated Elara, after killing him in battle. 

The Tamil Separatist Movement keeps reminding us that when Dutugemunu defeated Elara in Anuradhapura, he created a monument to Elara, and ordered the public to honor the tomb when they went past the tomb.

The Mahavamsa said. “In the city he [Dutugemunu] caused the drums to be beaten, and when he had summoned the people from a yojana around he celebrated the funeral rites for king Elara.” The terminology used pujam Elara rajino” means that King Elara was honored (pujam)] said D.G.B. de Silva.

 Mahavamsa said On the spot where his body had fallen he burned it with the catafalque, and there did he build a monument and ordered worship. And even to this day the princes of Lanka, when they draw near to this place, are wont to silence their music because of this worship.” The Mahavamsa tika adds that the king had ordained that princes in the future should honour the edifice by perambulating it and offering flowers and incense.

There is something suspicious about this description since Dutugemunu does not seem to have shown the same respect to his own father and mother.  Also, no other king has followed this policy. Mahavamsa is full of dead kings. But there is no mention of any other tomb. Except for this reference to Elara, the chronicles are silent about the way the mortal remains of other rulers were disposed of, said DGB de Silva. This description has probably been taken from some foreign documents and added to the Mahavamsa .

In addition to Persian influence, there was also Greek influence in the early historic period of Sri Lanka. Mahavamsa says king Pandukabaya laid out also four suburbs as well as the Abhaya-tank, the common cemetery, the place of execution, and the chapel of the queens of the west, the banyan-tree of Vessayana, and the palmyra-palm of the demon of maladies, the ground set apart for the Yonas and the house of the Great Sacrifice; all these he laid out near the West gate.”  In the original Pali, this ground is called ‘Yona-sabha-guwattu’

Mahavamsa thereafter says that in the time of Dutugemunu, several thousand ‘Yona’ Buddhist bhikkhus from ‘Alasanda’ came for the consecration of the Mahaseya. Mahavamsa mentions the ‘Yona’ five times.

Merlin Pieris, former Professor of Classics in the University of Peradeniya, said that the ‘YONA’ referred to here were the ‘IONIANS’- those from the Ionian Islands. This was the common term used by the Persians to refer to Greeks at the time.

This writer, Kamalika Pieris, found, using desk research, that there were Greek settlements in the Arabian Peninsula, during the Early Historic Period. There was also a much-used sea route from the Arabian  Sea to  India and Sri Lanka at that time. I think that this is how the Greeks came to Sri Lanka for the Mahathupa consecration. It was easier to come from ‘Arabia’, than from Bactria. All they had to do was to get on a ship.

These Greeks would have brought firsthand knowledge of Greek culture into Sri Lanka. The only trace of this today is in the Greek myths that appear in the Mahavamsa, said Merlin Pieris.

Merlin Pieris says the Ummadacitta story is from the Greek myth of Danae, daughter of the king of Argos.  The story of Vijaya is from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. It also contains Argonautic myths.  The Argonauts were a band of heroes in Greek mythology.

The Kelanitissa- Viharamaha Devi episode is taken from Danae and from the   Andromeda story found in the legend of Perseus.   The Mahavamsa account has been taken straight from the Greek one, not from any intermediate source. The flooding of Kelaniya and the marriage of Kelanitissa and Viharamaha Devi, however, are true, said Merlin.

Subha saha Yasa story is found in Plato’s Republic”  and in the writings of Herodotus.  It is also given in a papyrus dated to 2 AD, found In Egypt, which means the story may pre-date Herodotus.

Merlin thinks the Mahavamsa writer may have known of the two Greek epics Odyssey” and Iliad”. He further observes that the only history the Sinhala historians could have obtained during this period was that of Herodotus. India had no model history.

They also seem to have heard of the Greek historian Xenophon (430 – 354 BC). William Knighton in his History of Ceylon” (1845) observed that the manner in which king Kavantissa collected his army closely resembled the account given by Xenophon in his Cyropaedia”   of the manner in which King Cyrus of Persia gathered up his army.

All this does not reduce the value of the Mahavamsa as a research tool for historians. It helps explain certain sections of the work. Mahavamsa, as it stands today, appears to be a collection of texts rather than a single, consecutive piece of writing.

 The references to this essay are:  

D. G. B.de Silva  ELARA: Wonderful saga of travellers tales http://www.island.lk/2002/10/16/midwee06.html /Chevan Daniel https://www.facebook.com/notes/chevaan-devavarathan-daniel/the-greeks-persians-of-hela-diva/10154181186700269. /Merlin Peris. Mahavamsa studies III ./ Merlin Peris. Mahavamsa studies: Greek myths in the ancient tradition./P G. Punchihewa  ‘King Dutugamunu’  p 27 for Knighton.

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