International trade in ancient Sri Lanka

Situated strategically, athwart the principal sea trade route in the Indian Ocean, the island of Sri Lanka could not but be a part of international commerce. Over millennia, this helped shape the country’s economy, culture and society. Although, historically, agriculture remained the mainstay of the economy, the sheer volume of trade had its effect

International commerce had a large part to play in the history and culture of this island, dating back to prehistoric times. The Valahassa Jataka relates that the Yakkhini inhabitants of Sirisavatthu lured and captured shipwrecked merchants, sometimes marrying them. Archaeological evidence of foreign trade goods from Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Ibbankattuwa suggests a thriving Iron Age agriculture-based civilisation, of which only hints come down to us through ancient documents. The products and markets of this culture would have attracted merchants, many of whom settled down – a story repeated by later generations of traders, such as Moors, who settled and married local women.

The stories of Sindbad the Sailor in ‘1001 Nights’ take place in the seas around Sri Lanka. The name Sindbad suggests a person originating in Sindh, indicating that Sindhis may have been involved in trade with the island from early times! The people who traded across the Indian Ocean, ranging from Egyptians to Chinese, must have been a fairly mixed lot, with a cosmopolitan culture. The first traders to have arrived on these shores may have been the Indo-Aryan (Prakit)-speaking people who probably originated in Gujarat, known for its shipping from early times. While Sri Lanka’s foundation-legend from the ancient chronicles tell of the Indian prince Vijaya, who married the Yakkhini Kuveni, according to the Divyavadana, a compilation of Sanskrit Buddhists tales, the legendary prince-colonist came from merchant stock. The Mahayanist Alokiteshvara Gunakarandavyuha Sutra also describes the migrant leader as a merchant-prince. The Prakrit-speakers settled in Sri Lanka, merging with the indigenous population to form the Sinhalese, and their language, Elu, which later developed into Sinhala and came to be known as the “island language”— this label surviving in the related language of Maldives, Dhivehi Bas. Similar communities of traders seem to have settled in South India, possibly even taking over the Pandya kingdom.

Later on, the Mahavamsa mentions the Damila (Tamil) rulers Sena and Guttika, “sons of a freighter who brought horses hither”, while stone inscriptions tell of Tamil traders. Many have Indo-Aryanised names, suggesting a cosmopolitan trading culture.

Stylised representations of ancient sailing vessels appear on early potsherds and inscriptions

The Brahmi script, ancestor to both the Sinhala and Tamil writing systems (as well as to a host of other, ranging from Devanagari to Khmer), first appears in Sri Lanka and South India. Some authorities consider that it developed from Phoenician-related scripts. If so, merchants trading with the Middle East must have made regular visits to this region.

Certainly, the Bible mentions that King Solomon received peacocks from “Tarshish” through traders from Phoenicia and Sheba (modern Yemen). The Mahavamsa also says that the 4th Century BC King Pandukabhaya laid out a Yona quarter. Yona, derived from “Ionia”, refers to Greeks or Hellenised Asians, but in this instance possibly refers to West-Asian merchants. After Alexander the Great, Greeks did begin trading here, as did the Romans later – evidenced by many caches of Roman coins found all over the island.

On the other hand, samples of Brahmi, in both Prakrit and Tamil, have been discovered at the sites of ancient Berenike and Myos Hormos on the Red Sea, suggesting the involvement of merchants from this region in trade with Egypt and Palestine.

The vessels used by the Indo-Aryan traders appear to have been yathra-dhonies, traditional outrigger sailing vessels used until the 20th century. The term dhoni, apparently originating from Telugu, may be related to Persian dani (yacht), Gujarati tarani (vessel) and Sinhala tarani (raft). Stylised representations of these sailing vessels appear on early potsherds and inscriptions.

In the 3rd century BC, Greek Ambassador to Pataliputra Megasthenes mentioned wooden ships built to transport elephants from Sri Lanka to Kalinga (modern Orissa). By the late Anuradhapura period, Sri Lankan ships grew to quite a size. The 9th century Chinese scholar Li Zhao, in his Tan Guoshi Bu (supplement to the state history of T’ang), wrote that vessels from Sri Lanka were the largest of those visiting Guangzhou and Vietnam, with stairways for loading and unloading.

The arrival of Prince Sinhala (Vijaya),mural from Ajanta

Unfortunately, the ancient chronicles, being more concerned with matters ecclesiastical than secular, give us very few clues about commerce. However, we do know from them that the main entrepôt for trade with India, Jambukola (modern Sambilthurai), came to be replaced by Mahatittha (Mantai).

Most ports stood at the mouths of rivers, for example Uruvela at the mouth of the Kala Oya, Salawata (Chilaw) on the Deduru Oya, and Kirinda on the Kirindi Oya. However, others came up in natural harbours: Gokanna (modern Trincomalee) and Galle.

Ships depended on the monsoons, and a voyage from Guangzhou to Baghdad could take up to two years. Therefore, it made sense to have a transhipment port in-between. It is possible that the port of Godavaya (Gota Pabbata Pattna) fulfilled this need between the 1st and 10th centuries. Situated at the old mouth of the Walawe River, it also fulfilled the task of shipping locally produced goods from the hinterland.

A German team excavated the site and discovered a jetty made of stone pillars up to 3.50 metres high, a customs house and the remains of an ancient monastery, as well as clay lion-seals used by customs officials, Roman coins, beads, bangles, pottery (including ceramics originating from China, the Middle East and Rome), bricks showing guild marks and richly decorated roofing tiles.

Obviously, a prosperous international port stood here, a fact affirmed by stone inscriptions. Archaeological examination of a wrecked ship discovered off Godavaya, dated between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD (the oldest in the Indian Ocean), has revealed a great deal about trade at that time. Among the finds were large storage and cooking pots, stone benches,grinding stones, and glass and iron ingots. The glass has tentatively been identified as originating from South India. However, the iron seems to have been produced by Ruhuna smelters – iron furnaces have been discovered upriver at Ridiyagama and Samanalaweva.

Archaeological evidence of foreign trade goods from Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Ibbankattuwa suggests a thriving Iron Age agriculture-based civilisation, of which only hints come down to us through ancient documents

Among the goods exported through Godavaya were dark red garnets. In 2009, an amateur British treasure-hunter in Staffordshire discovered a hoard of objects, mainly weapons-related, dating from about 600 AD. The treasure contained some 3,500 cloisonné garnets, and it is likely that the gems originated in Sri Lanka – illustrating how far the country’s trade links extended.

The island was known as “Ratnadveepa”, from the abundance of gems, which it exported. Most of the trade appears to have taken place with India – which remained, until the 18th century, one of the two largest economies in the world. Merchants traded ivory, both unworked and carved, with India and Myanmar. As already mentioned, Megasthenes wrote of the export of Sri Lankan elephants to India, reporting them to be larger, more powerful and more intelligent than the mainland variety. Pearls from the Gulf of Mannar fisheries also gained fame from as early as the time of Kautilya.

Sindbad the Sailor, the Episode of the Whale, by Edmund Dulac

Pearls also featured in the island’s trade with China. The embassy to Claudius had mentioned trade between Sri Lanka and China. Until the Ming dynasty, Sri Lanka may have been the terminus for ships plying from Guangzhou, Yangzhou and Quangzhou. The famed Chinese navigator, Zheng He sailed from the last-named, known to Europeans as “Zaiton”, and settled here the Sri Lankan prince he abducted – whose descendants live there to this day.

Trade in ancient times involved mostly luxury goods. Sri Lanka imported silks from China; horses, perfume and glass from India; wine and corals from the Mediterranean; and superior-quality ceramic goods from all over. Apart from gems, pearls, iron and elephants, the islanders exported rice, ginger, honey, beryl, amethyst, gold, silver, chanks, tortoise shells, spices and muslin cloth. The cinnamon trade did not receive a mention until the 12th century – possibly because the source of this valuable spice remained a closely-hidden secret. However, the bulk of trade volume may have been in transshipment and re-export. In the 6th century, Persian merchants bought silks in the island, crowding the Byzantines out, who had to buy silk from here in South India. The ports of the island were reportedly jammed with ships from India, Persia and Ethiopia.

Sindbad the Sailor by Gustave Dore

Such an abundance of shipping drew the attention of criminal elements, and piracy remained a threat to merchants for centuries. Most pirates were from Gujarat, Kerala or the Coromandel coast. However, some were indigenous: the Chola king Senkuttuvan came hither to defeat a pirate king, while Ibn Battuta relates that Arya Chakravarthi was a notorious pirate.

Apart from piracy and the weather, restrictions on trade appear to have been limited to customs tariffs and other taxes. This position changed with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505.

The European occupiers sought to create a monopoly on trade with the island, ending the consensual freedom of the seas that existed until then. This signalled the end of over two millennia during which trade was conducted for the benefit of all.