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Mahagama - the first Aryan settlement?

by Rohan Lalith Jayetilleke - Daily News, Wed April 3, 2002

The Hambantota Commercial Harbour now being planned to be constructed under the initiative of the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would resuscitate the past glory of Mahagama (Rohana) of the southern littoral of the island.

In the third century BC the capital of Sri Lanka was Anuradhapura. It was king Pandukhabhaya (377 - 307BC) who developed the original Anuradhagama of king Vijaya's times in to a 'nagara' or city proper. All centres of population during these early times were called 'gama' village and automatically a member of the founding clan became the ruler and called 'gamani' (leader of the village).

In the Pali language the use of the two terms 'gama' meaning village and 'nagara' city or town is quiet clear. Mahavamsa (vii 41) says ministers of Vijaya built 'gamas' villages in the various parts of the city such as, Vijita nagara, Kalaha Nagara (though Kalaha is still to be identified, there is a prosperous village by the name of Kalahe and also a village on the banks of Gin ganga (both in Galle) named Kalegane or Kalahagana).

Great commentator

Mahagama in Rohana (southern area of Sri Lanka) was always called Mahagama (Maha + Gama) the Great Village. Ptolemy in his map of the first century AC calls Anuradhapura as Anourogrammon. The great commentator of Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa Maha Thera too uses the term 'gamassa' meaning group, collection or settlement.

The word 'Nagara' too has been used as a suffix in such place names as Gannoruwa (Peradeniya) Gonnoruwa (Hambantota) Wennoruwa ( Kurunegala) and Polonnaruwa. Herein Gannoruwa is a corruption of Ganga Nuwara and the suffix 'Noruwa' is a corruption of 'nagara'. However, the suffix 'gama' indicated a large area including nagaras or cities.

By the third century BC, practically the whole of Sri Lanka with the exception of the central hilly region and the eastern coastal areas appears to have been populated, with the population explosion as such and depending solely on sustainable agriculture.

The Mahagama area was watered by the rivers Valveganga, Kirindioya, Menikganga and Kumbukkanoya and water being available in plenty was most suited for agriculture in the earliest times around the sixth century BC or before rather than Anuradhapura area, which was not watered by any rivers and only shallow Malwatuoya being the main source of water. On this strength Henry Parker argues in favour of Mahagama and its environs as the first Aryan settlements, with Kirinda as the landing place.

He further asserts that all the early settlements were termed 'gamas' villages and the capital came to be designated as Maha Gama or Mahagama, the 'Great Village' of the country, with 'Gamani' the local ruler resident at Mahagama.


In the third century BC, in Mahagama at Kajaragama (modern Kataragama and Chandanagama (not identified as yet but, possibly Hadungamuwa in Laggala Pallegama area extending up to Handungamuwa in Mahaveli 'C' Zone in Giradurukotte area, the writer being responsible to effect the change of name of Handungamuwa in Mahaveli 'C' Zone to Sadunpura, in order to set up a Sub Post Office there, as Hadungamuwa area in Laggala Pallegama had a Sub-Post Office named Handungamuwa. Chandana in Pali is sandlewood; Sinhala Sadun and normally S is always changed to H in Sinhala).

There were Kshtriya rulers and they were the honoured invited guests of king Devanampiyatissa at the great celebration held in the third century BC, in planting the sapling of the Sri Maha Bodhi of Buddha Gaya at Anuradhapura, brought by Theri Sangamitta.

One of the saplings brought by Theri Sangamitta was also planted at Kataragama and another too would have been planted at Chandanagama. (It is worthwhile if the ruins of monasteries found inside the Wasgomuwa Forest Reserve (Laggala Pallegama) are examined this Sakyan kingdom could be easily located) (Mahavamsa xix 54, and 62).

Throughout the history of Sri Lanka Rohana or Mahagama was the last refuge for kings, bhikkhus and people when Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms were besieged by the South Indian invaders. Further in times of famine like the devastating one 'Baminitiyasaya' Mahagama was their refuge (Vibhangatthakatha, pp 314 - 318 and Anuguttaranikayattakatha p 52).

King Devanampiyatissa's brother Mahanaga, the vice regent, in order to save his life from the queen fled to Mahagama. This suggests that Kshastriya rulers at Kataragama and Chandanagama were relations and had constant contact with them.

Mahanaga's journey from Anuradhapura to Mahagama ran through Cetiyagiri (now Mihintale), Kacchakatittha (Magantota) or Vaddhamanakatittha also known as Sahasstittha or Dahastota and Assamandalatittha (this is in Dimbulagala area on the banks of Mahaveli little farther from Manampitiya bridge), Mahiyangane (modern Alutnuwara) Dighavapi (Ampar) and Guttahalaka (Buttala). This was always a military route and this very route was taken by king Duttha Gamani Abhaya (Dutugemunu) 101 - 77 BC) to capture Anuradhapura.

Henry Parker in his work (Ancient Ceylon) pages 237 and 240 specifically asserts, "According to the Mahavamsa, Vijaya died soon after despatching the ambassadors to Sihapura, and the Regent had settled down at another early town called Upatissa, to the north of Anuradhapura and on the bank of the Malwatuoya, then known as the Kadamba river (Mahavamsa i p.34). The returning members of the mission could not be aware of these facts, and evidently landed at the usual port near the capital.


The Mahavamsa states (page 36) they arrived at the mouth of the Maha Kandara river and, Mr. Turnour has apparently added from the Tika or Commentary 'at Gonagama tittha' the port of Gonagama...... The name of the river, Maha Kandara, is of little use in the quest without further collaboration of its position, there being several Kandura streams in Ceylon.

Where is there a Gonagama landing-place in southern or south-eastern Ceylon? Four miles inland from the mouth of the Kirinda river which runs past Magama or Tissa there is a natural pool still termed Gonagama-wila. I suggest that, taken with other evidence, it proves that the mouth of the river was the landing place in question. If so, Maha Kandara river is the present Kirindi river, the old name of which in the Mahavamsa was Karinda."

This was also the port at which Bhaddakacchayana and her retinue of women landed (Mahavamsa viii pp 23 - 24). This is the same port of Gongama Bhaddhakaccayanas brothers too landed and founded the Aryan settlement of Dighavapi or Digamadulla (Ampara of present day).

Buddha Dhamma in Mahagama

The Visuddhimagga records that the story of the last seven Buddhas was beautifully painted in the Kurandakamahalena near Mahagama, the residence of Cittagutta Thera. The Cittalapabbata vihara (modern Mulkirigala) was a great vihara of the time, as now.

Regular expositions of the Dhamma (daham desana and chanting of pirit such as Ariyavamsa sutta desana were held in most of the leading monasteries of Mahagama. In Anuradhapura (Nuwarakalaviya) Mahavihara, Abhyagiri Vihara, Isurumuni Vihara, Jetavana Vihara etc., were the leading monasteries and educational institutes. Similarly Tissamaha-vihara of Mahagama (Rohana) was the leading monastery and educational institute in the principality.

In the Tissamaha-vihara in Rohana there were 363 parivenas in the 9th and 10th centuries. The fame of the Silapassaya-parivena at this great monastery finds place in the literature. (Nikayasangrahaya p.12 & Rasavahini ii. p. 59).

Thus from time immemorial Rohana or Ruhunu as at present excelled in education, even leading to a Matara era of Buddhist (including Sinhala literature) revival under the British colonial rulers. The two leading lights of the period were Anagarika Dharmapala (Don David Hewavitharana) and Hikkaduwe Sumangala Maha Thero and several other erudite bhikkhus. It was through a literary controversy between two cousins.

Mudliyar Sebestian Jayetilleke Dias Abeysinghe of Atapattu Walawwa, Galle and Mudliyar Don David De Saram of Matara, Sinhala-Buddhist for the first time had access to the print media. The controversy was called 'Sav Sat Dam Vadaya'.

With the construction of the Hambantota (Sampantota, Sampans being large flat boats used by merchants of the Far East) Commercial harbour Rohana and Mahagama would become the most prosperous commercial centre of Sri Lanka. In order to solve the drought situation in the Hambantota district, the old tanks must be reactivated and a massive irrigation project initiated with the waters of the Kirindi oya, Walaweganga, Kumbukkanoya and Nilvala, even with foreign assistance