PORTRAIT OF A KING (Parts 1 & 2) – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

Introduction to the article by Des Kelly…….

He is just a little tardy, on this subject, but peruse, as I might, I could not find a song dedicated to King Dhatusena, the “Warrior King” of ancient Lanka. Instead, I have chosen a song by Keerthi Pasquel, about the “Portugeesi-karaya”, who invaded Sri Lanka long after Dhatusena had achieved Nirvana (hopefully). Keerthi Pasquel would have to be one of the finest Sinhalese Vocalists in Sri Lanka right now.

He sounds superb, no matter what he sings, writes his own songs, also plays bass, lead & rhythm, probably has some Royal blood in his veins, and as far as I am concerned, might even be a direct “Descendant of Dhatusena” 

Who knows ?, but read Bernard’s article folks. As usual, it is superbly written. Bernard’s ancestors, the Dutch, took over from the Portuguese, but that matters very little. He is truly an asset to eLanka, we are very proud of him, but don’t forget, folks, our “top website” cannot run on “love and fresh air”, so please “donate” whenever & whatever possible. 


PORTRAIT OF A KING (Part 1) – By Bernard VanCuylenburg

The year was 432 AD   – an ominous year for the  resplendent island of Ceylon…….  Storm clouds were gathering on the horizon and the people of this paradise isle were in for a long dark night. It was the year in which a massive invasion from South India led by a chief named Pandu took place. The King on the throne Mittasena , who had ruled only for one year was slain in battle and Pandu seized the throne. For the next twenty eight years until 460 AD, four Tamil Kings from South India ruled the land. When this invasion took place, there was a young “Samenera” or novice in robes residing in a  “Pirivena” in the Mahavihara monastery in Anuradhapura. In fact he was a pupil of a Buddhist monk who was also his uncle. Mark his name well . It is a name which should be gilded in letters of gold and as fate decreed in a future time, he would rank as one of the finest rulers who ever sat on the throne of ancient Lanka. This was the young Dhatusena, a memberof the royal Moriya clan.  Gifted with intelligence well above average, Dhatusena was no ordinary pupil . Whilst a novice at the monastery he had undergone the ceremony of world renunciation, but the change of political fortunes in the island stirred his young blood and his destiny deemed otherwise. The Moriyas were a powerful clan, and before long King Pandu became very suspicious of the young Dhatusena. His uncle felt however that he was too soft, and that living in a monastery, he would not know much about the world at large and could not develop into a natural leader. So he took Dhatusena  to a vihara far from Anuradhapura   – a vihara where there would be no enclosing walls and from where Dhatusena would develop his qualities for leadership.


It was a timely move. Scarcely had they left when soldiers of Pandu surrounded the monastery. Uncle and nephew ultimately ended up in distant Ruhuna, well beyond the reach of King Pandu and his soldiers. On this journey, something very prophetic happened when they attempted to cross the Kala -Oya river. The river was in flood, and the monk told Dhatusena  – his words are recorded in the Culavamsa  – ” Even as this river holds us back, so do thou in the future hold back its course by collecting its waters in a tank……”.  Call this a sign, an omen, or whatever supernatural term one cares to use. I delight at the thought that this prophecy was fulfilled when Dhatusena on ascending the throne years later constructed the mighty Kalaweva tank. Meanwhile, King Pandu died in the fifth year of his rule . He was succeeded by his son Parinda who ruled only for three years and after his death his younger brother Khuddaparinda became King.  By this time Dhatusena was raring to go, and came out with his followers in open rebellion.  After Khuddaparindas death his successors, three Tamil prince’s Tiritara, Dathiya, and Pithiya ruled the throne, but all three were slain in battle by Dhatusena. The chronicler in the Culavamsa sums it up in no uncertain terms . He wrote “Thus the race of the Damilas were annihilated in battle with Dhatusena…”


Finally, after a long dark night of twenty eight years, the fear, gloom and despair that had gripped the island disappeared when happiness and hope blossomed once more, and Dhatusena was crowned King in Anuradhapura in 460 AD.  The chronicler in the Culavamsa wrote thus “Now the lord of men Dhatusena became King in Lanka…” Dhatusena was one King who single handedly organiszed an army to expel the invader.  Six “invaders” to be precise. Once again, let the chronicler of the Culavamsa take over from me and expand on how Dhatusena began his noble rule. ” Having cleared the country of the invader and making her inhabitants happy, he restored to its former place ‘The Order’ (That is, the Buddhist clergy) which had been destroyed by the foe. But those who had attached themselves to the Damilas, he deprived of their villages. To the people who supported him he showed fitting honour and esteem, and to his ministers the companions of his misfortune, he brought contentment. After he had provided the Mahavihara with bands of ornaments, he had a house worthy to behold erected for the Bodhi Tree….”


Sometimes it is interesting to draw a timeline when events like this occur. When the young prince Dhatusena ascended the throne, in far away Europe the Romans had already withdrawn from Britain. They partially re-occupied the country from 417 – 427 AD, and again in 450 AD. In imperial Rome in the twilight years of that once mighty coloniser, Emperor Valentian 3rd ruled the empire.  In the East the powerful Jin dynasty took control of China. Pope Leo1st sat on the throne of St.Peter in the Vatican. King Yazdagird  2nd of the Sassanid dynasty ruled the powerful Persian empire. I mention this in the light of ancient Ceylon’s trade with the West.  Dhatusena however focused his foreign policy on the East and increased trade with that part of the world.


His name will forever be associated with tragedy, the great king Dhatusena who met a barbaric death at the hands of his son, Prince Kasyappa. But on the stage of Sri Lanka’s ancient history, he stands out like the proverbial colossus – a giant of a man, and in setting my thoughts on paper, I wonder if I am writing about a king, a superman, or a record breaker !

King Dhatusena ascended the throne in 460 AD and his reign ushered in a golden era in the island’s history. Securing the country’s defense was one of his priorities and the first thing he did was to construct twenty-one fortresses in various parts of the island. These fortresses were manned by crack battle hardened troops  commanded by brilliant generals, to ensure the islands protection against further invasion from South India. It should be remembered that the four kings who ruled the island before king Dhatusena were South Indian Tamils, and Dhatusena reclaimed the throne after a long period of resistance and a titanic struggle. Even after he became king, there were pockets of resistance but with the aid of his brother Seelatissa Bodhi and elite army commandos he carried out a series of mopping up operations, thus liberating the entire island. Credit must be given where it is due, and it was Seelatissa Bodhi who helped him to establish law and order in the country. Unfortunately nothing much is known about Seelatissa Bodhi. His name is mentioned only once in the Culavamsa, and thereafter he fades from history.

King Dhatusena next established an efficient coast guard system, but it is in the field of agriculture that his name should be written in letters of gold. He embarked on a massive construction project of eighteen irrigation schemes. One of these was the giant Yodawewa tank in the Mannar district. The others were the Balalawewa, the Suruluwewa  the Baduluwewa,  and the Sangamuwewa. But the jewel in the crown was the mighty Kalaweva tank which tapped the Kala Oya, and supplemented the water supply to Anuradhapura and the environs of the city. The Kalaweva tank is a prodigious feat of engineering and is living testimony to the skill of the engineers of ancient Ceylon. At a height of 40 ft. it has an embankment 3.25 miles in length with blocks of dressed granite morticed together . This tank irrigated an area of about 200 square miles. This was done by a canal known as the Jayaganga which was, and is even by todays standards an amazing technological feat, because the gradient in the first 17 miles of its length was only 6 inches to a mile.  It must be mentioned that some of these schemes were completed after his untimely death, but the Kalaweva was completed during his rule. He then built new dagabas whilst rebuilding those that were damaged. In summary, this was King Dhatusena’s Water World……

The chronicler in the Culavamsa poses the question “Who can ever describe in detail the good deeds he has done…..?” Whilst renovating the three main dagabas in Anuradhapura, the Jetavanarama, the Abhayagiri , and the Ruwanvelisaya, he constructed 18 new viharas  ( – a record of sorts considering he ruled for only 17 years  ) These viharas were built all over the island. For example, the Mangara Vihara, the Thupavithi Vihara, and the Dhatusena vihara were built in the northern province, and the Antaramega, the Devagama, and the Salavana viharas were built in Ruhuna. But king Dhatusena is best remembered for the  Kalavapi Vihara, better known as the Aukana Vihara . This masterpiece is treasured and famous the world over for the classic sculpture of the Aukana Buddha.  

Being a devout Buddhist, he safeguarded the Sangha and often distributed robes and other gifts to the Bhikkus. How many of those pilgrims visiting Mihintale are unaware that the Ambathala Vihara just below the summit of Mihintale was founded by him . The Culavamsa further states that lightning conductors were installed on the pinnacles of the main dagabas. Astute politician and great visionary, King Dhatusena focused his foreign policy on expanding trade with the East, and despatched emissaries and religious missions to China. Buddhist missions and pilgrims were encouraged to travel abroad to centres of Buddhist worship. Because the  island was an important port of call on the trade routes between the west and the far east , much prosperity by way of revenue was derived from international trade. He instructed his minister of trade and the treasury that foreign ships docking at the islands harbours were to be provided with every facility for the speedy unloading and loading of cargo. Perhaps one simple sentence written by the chronicler  in the Culavamsa sums up king Dhatusena’s rule “…..He did everything he could to make the people happy…..”

In a cruel twist of fate King Dhatusena  or “The lord of men” as he is referred to in the Culavamsa suffered a horrible death at the hands of his own son. The site of this ghastly murder is close to the bund of the Kalaweva tank, his irrigation masterpiece for which he is best remembered after 1500 years. I reflect sadly on the bitter irony of his destiny in life. The facts are recorded and known to history. Peruse the chapter on this great king in the Culavamsa, specially the section dealing with his resistance to the ursurpers of the throne, and the reader will see why king Dhatusena and his deeds should be enshrined in letters of gold .


Bernard Van Cuyenburg

Bernard VanCuylenburg.


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THE UNSUNG HEROES by Bernard VanCuylenburg


To the point, beautifully written, Bernard brings to us all the poignant story of these very people, “The Unsung Heroes”, part one & two, and Bernard, I have recorded these two songs myself, BUT, nothing but the BEST, to provide the musical background for your BEST, regarding the BEST of the “Unsung Heroes” of ancient Sri Lanka. Here he is, Ladies & Gentlemen, the BEST “Country” Singers, singing two beautiful songs, relevant to the superb article by Bernard VanCuylenberg. Please listen to the lyrics & the way he sings every song he has ever recorded. They might be love-songs, but, to me, he is singing of everyone we have chosen to forget. Pardon me, but this is for all our “Unsung Heroes”

  Desmond Kelly.

  Star of eLanka.


When Wilhem Geiger translated The Mahavamsa and The Culavamsa , he made a statement which adequately expresses my personal sentiments regarding the complexities of the ancient recorded history of Sri Lanka. Geiger remarked “Not what is said, but what is left unsaid is the besetting difficulty of Sinhalese history….” I can well understand his frustration, and within the limited space of this article will try to deal with many unanswered questions in Sri Lanka’s long and glorious civilisation. Sadly, these questions will forever remain answered. The ‘Unsung Heroes’ I refer to are not the great kings which ruled ancient Ceylon the resplendent island, but the engineers, architects, master craftsmen, artists, builders, and the rest of the intelligentsia, whose masterpieces evoke the worlds admiration today. It was they who gave ancient Ceylon – or Taprobane  – first world status.

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