According to the great chronicles of Sri Lanka’s glorious history the Mahavamsa and the Culavamsa, 184 kings and one queen ruled the island beginning with Prince Vijaya in 483 BC. and ending with the reign of King Sri Vickrama Rajasinghe in 1815 AD. which heralded the start of British colonial rule in the country. Within this time frame spanning a period over 2000 years, a few names stride history’s stage    – rulers whose names are forever enshrined in letters of gold in the hearts minds and psyche of Sri Lanka……King Devanampiyatissa, King Pandhukabhaya, King Dutthagamini, the great tank builders King Dhatusena and King Mahasena, the genius who gave us Sigiriya King Kasyappa, and the great King Parakramabahu  the first , to name just a few……..

In this article I wish to pay tribute to a man who was not only a great king and philanthropist, but also a famous surgeon who whilst attending to affairs of state, found  time to travel the island healing the sick and giving those who needed healing, the benefit of his medical expertise.  This man was KING BUDDHADASA who ascended the throne in 337 AD and ruled till 365 AD , a glorious reign of 28 years.

A generous human being and devout Buddhist, he merits the highest praise of the chronicler writing in the Culavamsa who states ” He had pity for all beings as a father has pity and love for his children….” I venture to state that King Buddhadasa was the ‘Mother Teresa’ of his day !  In the chapter dealing with his reign, the chronicler gives us numerous examples  where he treated the sick . There is the classic instance of the young man treated by the king for a head ailment although we have no details regarding the precise nature of the injury. It is obvious that surgery was performed on the young man because the Culavamsa states “The king split the skull, performed the operation and put the parts of the skull together again…..” He also cured a Buddhist monk suffering from epilepsy  and saved the life of a woman seven months pregnant whose foetus was in the wrong  position. It should be noted that his kindness and medical skill was not limited to human beings, but also to animals. He appointed physicians to attend to elephants and horses all over the island. There is the interesting story of a snake (probably a cobra) suffering from a tumour in its belly that was healed by the king. Having cured the reptile, the people remarked “Even the reptiles benefit from the king’s medical expertise…….”  The health of the people was his greatest concern and he initiated a medical scheme which would have been one of the best in the world at the time.

He built hospitals for the sick in every village and appointed a chief physician whose responsibility was to administer three hospitals in each district . He also set up hostels for the crippled and the blind with instructions that they be fed and their needs attended to.  Whenever he could get away from  matters of state, he travelled the land attending to the sick, performing surgery whenever necessary. According to the Culavamsa, he had a pocket made inside his mantle to carry his surgeons knife  and the chronicler further adds “….whenever he met them he freed the afflicted from their pain…..” The actual word used in the Culavamsa is “Satthavatim Sattha”. (Surgical knife). In the limited space of this article it is not possible to detail the many cases where  he healed the sick. I can only add that any reader interested in the life of this great king should peruse the Culavamsa  in the chapter dealing with his reign.

This good and great king led the life of a Boddhisatva and the chronicler describes him as “….a mine of virtue….” When he died in 365 AD the island was plunged into grief. With his passing a golden era of twenty eight years ended, and the country lost a great king, a brilliant surgeon, a philosopher and philanthropist.








Bernard VanCuylenburg

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