The Constitution of the Anuradhapura Kingdom
Posted on November 12th, 2017

Dharshan Weerasekera, Attorney-at-Law

‘Statutes are designed to meet the fugitive exigencies of the hour.  A Constitution states or ought to state not rules for the passing hour, but principles for an expanding future.’ – Benjamin Cardozo, The Nature of the Judicial Process

Author’s note:  The present paper is part of a proposed 2-Volume work titled, ‘The Principles that Must Guide a Future Constitution of Sri Lanka.’ Volume-1 deals with Western constitutional principles – i.e. Westminster Parliamentary principles, American separation of powers doctrine, and so on – which form an integral part of the constitutional history of this country.  It is impossible to entirely disengage oneself from that tradition if and when a new Constitution is drafted.

However, there is now widespread recognition among many Sri Lankans that, whatever may be the value of western constitutional principles, as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, they have not produced the expected results, such as ensuring the rule of law, good governance and so on.  Therefore, it is necessary to turn to the older constitutional traditions of this country in order to see whether they can supply what the western principles have thus far failed to deliver.

The purpose of Volume – 2 is to explore some of those ancient constitutional principles.  I focus on the Anuradhapura Kingdom – for purposes of this work defined as the period spanning roughly 65 AD – 460 AD (Vasabha to Datusena).  It is a period that is generally considered the most prosperous and peaceful in the long history of this country, and so the best period from which to extract principles that might be useful for today.  In the present paper, I endeavor to recreate the Constitution of the Anuradhapura Kingdom as it might have looked had it been written out in a single document.

In a future paper, I propose to comment on the different aspects of the Anuradhapura Constitution recreated here – for instance, the nature of the State, relations between the Centre and the Provinces, and so on – with respect to whether the principles that underpinned those particular aspects Constitution are still valid today, and if so, how we can incorporate those ancient principles into a modern Sri Lanka Constitution designed to meet the political, economic and social needs of the present.

I urge readers not to nitpick too much over the historical details set out here.  I am no historian.  I am mainly interested in getting at the principles behind the various institutions of State to the extent such principles can be extracted from the relevant historical facts.  However, if I have got either the facts or the principles wrong, I request readers, especially those with technical knowledge in fields such as ancient Sri Lankan history, archeology, epigraphy and philology, to tell me where I’m wrong, and point me towards the relevant source material.

The Constitution of the Anuradhapura Kingdom


  1. The State
  2. Territory of the State
  3. Central and Provincial Governments
  4. The Law
  5. Social relations
  6. Buddhism

Article 1:  The State[1]

  • The King

All executive, legislative and judicial power reposes with the King

  • The Conduct of the King

The conduct of the King is controlled by:

  1. Personal moral/ethical code – Dasarajadhamma[2]
  2. Advice and guidance of the Mahasangha[3]
  • Duties of the King

The primary duties of the King are to:

  1. Maintain law and order[4]
  2. Provide for the national defence[5]
  3. Maintain and improve the irrigation system and other vital infrastructure of the State[6]
  4. Ensure the health of the people[7]
  5. Preside over important religious/cultural festivals and rituals – in order to prevent natural disasters, ensure good harvest, etc.[8]
  • Administrative Structure of the State

In performing his duties, the King shall function through the following 3 institutions:

  1. ‘Ekthan-Samyan’[9]
  • This is a Council of Ministers including a Prime Minister, and chaired by the King in person.[10]
  • This institution helps formulate the overall policies of the State, and proposes the necessary legislation to further such policies.[11]
  1. ‘Sabhava’ (Assembly)[12]
  • This institution is headed by an official called the ‘Pirinthi Rath’ and has jurisdiction over land matters including the power to pass laws and regulations with respect to maintaining the irrigation system[13]
  • This institution also hears appeals on both criminal and civil matters[14]
  1. ‘Lekam Geya’[15]
  • This institution functions under the Assembly, and is headed by an officer called the ‘Samdaruwan.’[16]
  • The institution is responsible for executing the decrees of the Assembly
  • The institution has a secondary set of officials called ‘Kundasalas’ who convey the order of the institution to the outstations.[17]
  • In addition to the above three institutions, the King is assisted in his duties by the following officials:
  1. The following three officials attend the King in person at all times, and are also ex officio members of the Ekthan-Samyan’:
  2. ‘Senapathi’[18] (Army Commander)
  3. ‘Bandagarika’[19] (Treasurer)
  4. ‘Purohita’[20] (Spiritual and legal Counsel)
  5. A number of officials of ‘Samdaruwan’ rank who are commissioned directly by the King with respect to particular subjects.[21] For example:
  6. Doctors
  7. Irrigation engineers
  8. Judges

These officials go on circuit throughout the country and report directly to the King.

Article 2:  Territory of the State[22]

2.1     Extent of the State

The State encompasses the entire island of Sri Lanka, bounded on all sides by the Indian Ocean.

2.2      Main Territorial divisions of the State

The State consists of 6 main units of Government with corresponding territorial divisions, as follows;

  1. Anuradhapura and the North Central Region[23]
  2. Uttara[24]
  3. Pashchina[25]
  4. Prachina[26]
  5. Malaya[27]
  6. Ruhuna[28]

2.3     Secondary Divisions

In addition to the above, there are smaller semi-autonomous areas, as follows:

  1. ‘Rata’[29] (A Rata is a combination of a number of ‘Gamas’ or villages)
  2. ‘Mandalama’[30] (A Mandalama is a combination of Ratas)

Article 3:  Central and Provincial Governments[31]

3.1     The distribution of powers between the Center and the Peripheral Units

The distribution of powers between the Center and Peripheral Units is as follows:

  1. Anuradhapura and the North Central region come under the direct control of the King or Maharaja resident in Anuradhapura.[32]
  2. The five main Provinces (Uttara, Pashchina, Prashchina, Malaya and Ruhuna) are ruled by kings (Uvarajas), Regents, Viceroys, as the case may be, appointed directly by the Maharaja in Anuradhapura, or are members of the hereditary nobility of those particular Provinces, but functioning under the overall sovereignty of the Anuradhapura monarch.[33]
  3. The Ratas or Mandalayas as the case may be are semi-autonomous units. Their relationship with the Maharaja in Anuradhapura is based on a Charter or contract with the Maharaja, with respect to specific subjects or areas over which the Maharaja has exclusive jurisdiction within those areas (for example, tariffs over certain specified types of goods), while other matters are left to the discretion of the locals.[34]
  4. A Rata is headed by a ‘Rataladda,’ below whom is a ‘Pasladda,’ followed by other officials such as tax collectors, judicial officers, etc.
  5. The aforesaid officials (i.e tax collectors, judicial officers, etc) are appointed by the King, and the residents of the Rata have a right of appeal against those officers in the event they find those officers to be abusing their powers including acting ulta vires of their powers.

Article 4:  The Law[35] 

4.1     The law of the land       

The primary law of the land is the accumulated body of customs of each institution of society.[36]  (The main such institutions are:  king, village, clan, caste and family and shall be further explained in Article 5 hereinafter.)

4.2     Secondary bodies of law

The aforesaid body of law is supplemented from time to time by the edicts, decrees and pronouncements of the king, promulgated in order to advance particular policies and objectives of the King.[37]

4.3     The power of the King vis a vis the law of the land

The King does not have the power to act contrary to the customary law or to change or repeal any part of it.[38]

4.4     Who decides what is or is not the customary law of a particular institution of society

In finding out what is the customary law applicable to a particular institution of society, the King must consult the authorities and/or experts recognized by the customary law of those institutions as being persons competent to pronounce on or interpret the law at issue.[39]

4.5     The jurisdiction of the king over particular categories of offences

The King has jurisdiction over the following matters:

  1. All violations, infringements, and/or usurpations of the decrees, edicts and pronouncements of the Central Government, i.e. the King and related institutes of state
  2. All capital crimes

Article 5:  Social Relations[40]

5.1     The institutions of society

There are five main institutions of society:

  1. King
  2. Village
  3. Clan
  4. Caste
  5. Family

5.2     The King

This institution is a legal/religious construction.  The authority of the King derives from a contractual relation between the King on the one hand and the subjects on the other, and is sanctified by religion.

5.3     The Village

This institution is a political unit.  It is the smallest political unit of the State, and consists of a collection of extended families of a particular caste.

5.4     The Clan

The Clan is an ethno-racial construction.  It is an identity shared by a group of people and can include different castes.

5.5     Caste

Caste is determined by a person’s occupation or livelihood, and is accompanied by a host of social and cultural rules as to how such person should behave or act in his or her interactions with members of the other castes.

5.6     Family

Family is a unit based on blood-relations and can include an extended family, consisting of a number of smaller nuclear families.

Article 6:  Buddhism[41] 

6.1     Position of Buddhism in the State

Buddhism is the State religion, which is to say, the religion of the King and the majority of the People of the country.[42]

6.2     The role of Buddhism

The role of Buddhism as the State Religion (as opposed to personal religion) is to provide cultural cohesion, intellectual depth and moral guidance to the State.[43]

6.3     The relationship between Buddhism and the State

The relationship between the State and Buddhism is one of mutual dependence or symbiosis – with the State committed to protecting and fostering the institutions of Buddhism (i.e. the Sangha and related institutions) and those institutions in turn committed to providing the three services set out in Article 6.2 above.

6.4     The duties of the State in protecting and fostering Buddhism

The duties of the State in protecting and fostering Buddhism are:

  1. Building and maintaining temples, stupas, Buddha statues, and so on.
  2. Providing food and other material needs for the upkeep of the Sangha
  3. Giving patronage to important religious festivals
  4. Building, maintaining and advancing Buddhist Centers of Learning.

6.5     The reciprocal obligations of the institutions of Buddhism with respect to the State

The reciprocal obligations of the institutions of Buddhism with respect to the State are to:

  1. To make themselves available to preside over all important State festivals and functions.
  2. Maintain Centers of Learning capable of producing scholars the highest caliber capable of expounding on Buddhist doctrine, but also on other subjects, including law, essential for the functioning of the State.[44]
  3. Make themselves available for public discussions, lectures and debates on Buddhist doctrine.
  4. Diligently work towards providing from among themselves (i.e. the member of the Sangha) persons who have attained one or more of the levels of spiritual/mental refinement recognized in Buddhist doctrine, to wit – ‘Sovan,’ ‘Sakrudhagami,’ ‘Anagami’ or ‘Arahat’ – so that they can be living examples of the strength of the doctrine, and be a light not just to the country but to the entire world.[45]

To the best of my knowledge, the aforesaid system of government helped the Sinhalas reach the very pinnacle of peace and prosperity during the Anuradhapura Kingdom, and sustained their civilization in subsequent years until 1815, when the last Sinhala Kingdom, the Kandyan Kingdom, fell or rather was ceded by the Kandyan Chiefs to the British.

The aforesaid system also helped the Sinhalas protect their identity and independence during their darkest days, especially during periods of foreign invasion.  This latter included nearly three centuries between of sustained assault, from 1500 to 1800, by three of the most powerful European powers of the related period, the Portuguese, Dutch and the British respectively.

What remains is to consider which elements of this system are still valid today, and how we can incorporate such elements into a modern Sri Lanka Constitution capable of meeting the political, economic and social needs of the present.

The reader will see even at a cursory glance that, there are certain elements in the Anuradhapura Constitution recreated here, that are not viable today.  For instance, recreating the monarchy is no longer an option.  Similarly, recognizing social divisions such as caste at the level of the Constitution is no longer feasible or moral.  However, there are other elements that hold great promise and relevance for today.

For instance, it is clear that the Anuradhapura Constitution permitted and in fact was predicated on a diffusion of power between the center and the provinces.  It appears there was in ancient Sri Lanka what in modern parlance could be called a ‘federal’ system – at any rate an arrangement that followed the principles of federalism as set out in authoritative modern dictionaries.[46]

This should be instructive to those Sinhalas who are obsessed with the word ‘Unitary’ when it comes to discussions as to the system of government they prefer.  To digress a moment, generally speaking, persons who have been in a position to contribute in material ways to determining if their country will follow a ‘Unitary’ system or a ‘Federal’ system have understood ‘Unitary’ to mean a system where the members of subsidiary legislative bodies, if such exist in the country, are appointed by the central government.

For instance, the above is the way that Nehru understood the word ‘Unitary.’  Extracts from the draft minutes of a crucial meeting of the Union Constitution Committee which he headed, contains inter alia the following:

‘Pandit Nehru stated that the point [i.e. whether India should be a unitary State with provinces functioning as agents or delegates of the central authority, or a federation of autonomous units leaving certain specified powers to the centre] was discussed… and its conclusions were as follows:  1)  that the Constitution should be a Federal structure with a strong centre…etc., etc.’[47]

The point is this.  If one understands by the word ‘Unitary’ a system where the legislatures of the peripheral units are agents or delegates of the central legislature, Sri Lanka does not have such a system now, and perhaps never did at any time in its long history.

It appears that, the system of government that this country had during the Anuradhapura period, whether one chooses to label such system ‘Unitary’ or ‘Federal,’ involved a federation of Provinces, with a very strong central authority capable of exerting its will without question on the peripheral units, but where those peripheral units also enjoyed a limited degree of autonomy.

This notion, in my view, ought to be very useful to contemporary discussions over the form of government – i.e. ‘Unitary, Federal or even Confederal – that Sri Lanka should ultimately adopt.  In the commentary that follows, I propose to pursue these and other related matters in some detail.

[1] The primary reference materials I have relied on for this section are:  the chapter on ‘Government’ in Anuradhapura Ugaya, Amaradasa Liyanagamge and Ranaweera Gunawardena, Vidyalankara University Press, Colombo, 1961; Univesity of Peradeniya, History of Ceylon, Volume One, Part One, ed. Sir Nicholas Attygala, Colombo, 1959; and, Early History of Ceylon, G. C. Mendis

[2] Anuradhapura Ugaya, p. 222

[3] Ibid, p. 222

[4] Ibid, p. 223

[5] Ibid, p. 223

[6] Ibid, p. 223

[7] Ibid, p. 223

[8] Ibid, p. 223

[9] Ibid, p. 234

[10] Ibid, p. 234

[11] Ibid, p. 234

[12] Ibid, p. 234

[13] Ibid, p. 234

[14] Ibid, p. 234

[15] Ibid, p. 234

[16] Ibid, p. 234

[17] Ibid, p. 234

[18] Ibid, p. 224

[19] Ibid, p. 224

[20] Ibid, p. 224

[21] Ibid, p. 235

[22] The primary reference materials I have relied on for this section are:  The chapter on ‘Government’ in Anuradhapura Yugaya, Amaradeva Liyangamge and Ranaweera Gunawardena, Vidyalankara University Press, Colombo, 1961, and; ‘The Territorial Divisions of Ceylon from Early Times to the 12th Century,’ C. W. Nicholas, UCR IX

[23] Anuradhapura Ugaya, p. 236

[24] Ibid, p. 236

[25] Ibid, p. 236

[26] Ibid, p. 236

[27] Ibid, p. 236

[28] Ibid, p. 236

[29] Ibid, p. 236

[30][30] Ibid, p. 236

[31] The primary reference materials I have relied on for this section are:  The chapter on ‘Government’ in Anuradhapura Ugaya, Amaradasa Liyangamge and Ranaweera Gunawardwena; ‘The Territorial Divisions of Ceylon from the Earliest Times to the 12th Century,’ C. W. Nicholas; ‘Proprietary and Tenurial Rights in Ancient Ceylon,’ Lakshman S. Perera, CJSHS, Vol. 2, No. 1.

[32] Anuradhapura Ugaya, p. 236

[33] Ibid, p. 236

[34] Ibid, ps. 236 and 237.  Also see Vevalketiya Inscription  which explains how the administration of justice is to be carried out in the related Rata, and also, Badulla Inscription  which sets out regulations with respect to the sale of certain goods, measures, tarrifs etc. in the related Rata (p. 237 Anuradhapura Ugaya)

[35] The primary research materials I have relied on for this section are:  A. R. B. Amarasinghe, The Legal Heritage of Sri Lanka, Royal Asiatic Society, Colombo, 1999; Walter Pereira, Institutes of the Laws of Ceylon; Niti-Niganduva, C. J. R. Le Mesurier and T. B. Panabokke, 1880; F. A. Hayley, A Treatise on the laws and Customs of the Sinhalese including the portions still surviving under the name Kandyan Law, H. W. Cure and Co, Colombo, 1923

[36] Legal Heritage of Sri Lanka, p. 7 – 8, also page 2019 citing Hayley:  At the time of the Kandyan Convention, Sinhala law was the Common Law in the strictest sense.  It was contained in the books; it was almost untouched by legislation; it acknowledged no judicial decisions; it was essentially the customs of the realm, known to the people, administered by the judges, free from all interference by the courts of the King, and marred by no sophistries of interpretation.”  See also page 222 of Legal Heritage.

[37] Legal Heritage of Sri Lanka, p. 143

[38] Ibid, pages 138 – 139 citing Davy:  Should a King act directly contrary to the rules [prescribed for Kings], contrary to the example of good princes, and in opposition to the customs of the country, he would be reckoned a tyrant, and the people would consider themselves justified in opposing him, and in rising in mass and dethroning him; nor are there wanting instances in extreme cases of oppression, of their acting on this principle and successfully redressing their wrongs.”  Also see page 222.

[39] Ibid, p. 224

[40] The primary research materials relied on for this section are:  H. Ellawela, History of Early Ceylon; S. B. Hettiarachi, Social and Cultural History of Early Ceylon; Bryce Ryan, Caste in Modern Ceylon

[41] The primary research materials relied on for this section are:  Walpola Rahula, History of Buddhism in Sri Lanka; University of Peradeniya, History of Ceylon, Volume One, Part One, ed. Sir Nicholas Attygala, Colombo, 1959

[42] See pages 62 – 63, History of Buddhism in Ceylon; also page 75:  The offering of the kingdom to the Sasana, which was not uncommon in ancient Ceylon, was also symbolic of the principle that the State is run for the good of Buddhism.  Devanampiyatissa offered his kingship to the Mahabodhi; Duttagamani –Abbaya is reported to have bestowed the kingdom of Ceylon on the Sasana five times – each time for seven days.  It would be very interesting of we could get some information about the way the government was administered during these short periods.’

[43] See page 75 of History of Buddhism in Ceylon:  ‘The monasteries formed the centers of national culture, and bhikkus were the teachers of the whole nation – from prince to peasant.’

[44] See page 163 of History of Buddhism in Ceylon:  ‘The accomplishments of monks in the sphere of learning including a knowledge of the law seems to have been so complete that a thera named Abhidammika Godatha of the Mahavihara was raised by King Bhatiya (38 – 66 AC) to a position virtually equivalent to the office of the Chief Justice of Ceylon.’

[45] See for instance page 208 of History of Buddhism in Ceylon:  ‘Monks, therefore, made strenuous efforts to gain some definite attainments during the rainy season, for during that period they had a quiet and comparatively comfortable life.  The story of some 50 monks who undertook a vas retreat at Galambatittha-vihara shows how strenuous this effort sometimes was:  These monks made an agreement among themselves on the first day of the rainy season that they would not talk to one another till they had attained arahanthood.  When they went to the village on pindapatha they had some water in their mouths so that they could not talk.  If anyone inquired about the date or some other matter, then they swallowed the water and just answered the question to the point….In the same manner another thera, called Mahanaga of Kalavallimandapa, spent 23 years in meditation without talking to any one, except to answer an unavoidable question.  He is said to have spent the first seven years only walking and standing.  He never sat or lay himself down those seven years. (The fame of this thera as a holy man had spread as far as India)’

[46] The Supreme Court in the landmark case, H. K. D. Chandrasoma v. Mervai Senathiraja (SC/SPL/03/2014) has now defined the word ‘federal’ for the purposes of Sri Lankan Constitutional jurisprudence.  The court has relied on the definition of ‘federalism’ given in Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th Edition.  The essence of that definition, which is the same as the definition found in other reputable dictionaries, is that federalism is a union of semi-autonomous provinces or units with the distinctive characteristic that the power of the central government reaches to the individual residents of each province, as opposed to just the Governments of those provinces.  Federalism is always juxtaposed to confederalism or confederation, the distinctive characteristic of which is that in such unions the power of the central government reaches only to the Governments of the individual provinces.

[47] Collected papers of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol.3 (Second Series) page 53

One Response to “The Constitution of the Anuradhapura Kingdom”

  1. Senerath Says:

    Watch this. What is happening ?

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