Vijaya and Kuveni: Two Legendary Figures of the Pali Chronicles

Chandre Dharmawardana

“This may confuse some since Madura became a part of the Chola kingdom, and that Vijaya called for a Chola princess after rejecting Kuveni. In reality, many south Indian kings sought North Indian brides as they were fair-skinned”.**

Cholas, Pandyas, and Cheras, are mentioned in the Ashokasthamba (Asoka-Pillar) inscriptions (3rd century BC although some historians think the pillar inscriptions may have been even earlier). When did Vijaya come to Tambrapanni? Is Vijaya even a real person?

I believe there have been many invasions (basically, not necessarily invasions, but people coming in even to farm, fish or trade, and by boats and settling down). Even Vijaya’s landing as described in the Pali chronicles was accidental.

The kinship words used by the Sinhalese indicate that these migrants were mostly from both Gujarat area (Western India) as well as Bangladesh area.  Sailors coming to the Island from these regions are probably consistent with the wind patterns and trade winds during the two monsoons.

So, there were probably many Viyaja like individuals (leaders of groups), and the dates could have been anything from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century BC. However, one of the later individuals may have been most outstanding in provoking a figure who received apotheosis as a founding chief, and he is named Vijaya in the chronicles, meaning, “the one who triumphed”.

So, even the name Vijaya is probably a honorific construct, but it is found both in the Deepawamsa and the Mahawamsa. The story of his ancestry, relating to a co-habitation between a lion and a princess is also typical of early genesis stories where the ancestry is not reduced to descent from mere humans. The founders of Rome were similarly identified as noble wolves. In the ancient Hellenic period and pre-Hellenic (Vedic) periods such origins from animals, transformations between animals and humans, were common in genesis legends.

The Mahavamsa writer constructed a grand historical epic poem of the sort written during the time where fact, myth and legend were all mixed in, dipping into the Deepwamsa story, as well as common legends of the Indo-European and Far Eastern traditions that were common along the silk route at the time.

So, the Kuveni legend is very similar in certain key components to the legendary story of Cerce who lived in an Island. Odysseus visits her island of Aeaea on the way back from the Trojan War and she changes most of his crew into swine. He manages to persuade her to return them to human shape, lives with her for a year and has sons by her, including Latinus and Telegonus.

CERCE or CIRCE

Kuveni also had two children, and was an enchantress like Cerce.  She lures any who land on the island to her home with her lovely singing while weaving on an enormous loom, but later drugs them so that they change shape. The Homeric legends date to the 8th century BC or earlier and state how the companions of Odysseus were sent to the “underworld” and later brought back. Vijaya’s followers were also sent into a “chasm” by Kuveni. There are of course many versions of the Cerce legend and the Mahawamsa author picked up one of them and adopted it to his needs.

Circe

Just as the name “Vijaya” is designed to make him the “triumphant prince”, the name “Kuveni” was probably introduced by the Mahavamsa writer with a purpose. Other more standard Elu-language names like “Leelawathie” and “Sesapathi” are down-played and ignored  by the Mahavamsa author who may have invented the name Ku-veni (“kaala-varni”) with a literary purpose in mind. It is a Pali rendering of Kaala-Varni, meaning dark-skinned, in order to accommodate the tradition that Vijaya, a North Indian prince of fair complexion called for a princess from India and got rid of the swarthy-complexioned Yakka princess that he had befriended to get a foothold in the Island. In some ways, this “justifies” Vijaya’s action. Interestingly, the Deepawamsa does NOT mention that Vijaya sought a princess from India.

The chronicle says that Vijaya sent a message to Madurai to obtain a princess. The  Silappadikaram as well as the Sangam literature mentions Madurai and the king Karikalan, one of the earliest Chola Monarchs of legendary quality. He is said to have brought Lankan hydraulic engineers to build the “grand anicut” (Kallanai in Tamil, ie., “Gal aeniya” or Sto ne Dam in Sinhala) constructed on the Kaveri river. Lanka had already developed a reputation for hydraulic works. But was this the same Karikalan of the Silappadikaram? Historians believe that there have been several Karikalans. The Karaikalan who built the grand anicut may have lived around 90 CE, according to the renowned historian Neelakanthi Shastri. However, the Karikalan of the Silappadikaran may have been several centuries earlier. He may have been the one in the mind of the Mahawamsa author.

The early Chola kings were strongly influenced by the royal styles already set by the North Indian monarchs and emperors like Asoka and his predecessors. They adopted their administrative models and regarded them as their peers. In fact, some of the early rulers may have had partial kinship with North Indian kingdoms. They looked for kinship and links with the North, and the declining Northern Kingdoms also found that to be of mutual interest.

We are told that Karikalan’s queen came from the clan of the sage Agastiya, alleged to be an author of hymns in the Rig Veda (e.g., see Wendy Doniger, Rig Veda, an Anthology, 1981). Thus, Agastiya’s pedigree and north Indian origins are clear. Even the depictions of queens in Chola iconography and literature present them as fair skinned or as white as “sandlewood”.

Even today, newspaper advertisements of south Asian men seeking brides express clear preferences to fair-complexioned brides. In Jaffna, it is said that if the bride is dark complexioned, a larger dowry may be required to give her away in marriage.

The chronicle story has also been interpreted to mean that Prince Vijaya called for a Pandya princess., and not Chola.  Given that the time-frame is at least several centuries before the common era, this can only mean the mythical Pandya kingdom in the mountains mentioned in the 3rd book of the Mahabharata. These are also linked to the palaces of Agastiya and Varuna, and are presumably in North India although shrouded  in legend.

The Mahawamsa writer pushes this North Indian connection of the queens to the extreme. Just as Sanskrit and Hindu writers linked the Chola queens to the lineage of the Hindu sage Agastiya, the Mahawamsa writer links the queens of the early Lankan kings to the Sakya clan of the Buddha.

We are told that even though Vijaya did not have a son, he turns out to a twin brother back in North India! The twin brother’s son comes from North India and becomes the Lankan king “Panduvasdeva”. So, Vijaya’s lineage is continued by his twin brother’s son and queen who are both “North Indian”, with the queen directly related to the clan of the Buddha. One suspects that the author of Mahawamsa himself may have believed that he himself is of North Indian descent and not of a “kaaka-varna” complexion.

Exploiting the fact that these queens were North Indian, and linking them to the Sakya clan strengthens the Mahawamsa author’s explicitly stated objective of writing an epic history of the kings of Lanka and their meritorious works to enhance the “piety and devotion of the reader towards Buddhism”.

As discussed by the renowned historian K. M. de Silva — even in his popular book  “History of Sri Lanka” (Penguin) — the early period (prior to the time of Emperor Asoka) of Lanka’s history is shrouded in uncertainty and legend.

However, from about the time of Asoka, the chronology of the kings given in the Mahawamsa have found remarkable consonance with Indian data and the Mahawamsa has helped immensely in dating events in Indian history. The Mahawansa author was a great and accurate historian, when compared to his contemporaries in India or Europe at the time, i.e., circa 5th century CE, even if his main objective was not writing accurate history.

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** Chandre is addressing a quotation from some source that has been lost … but that does not detract from the significance of his findings and speculative thoughts. I have taken the liberty of inserting EMPHASIS via colouring. Editor, Thuppahi

NOTE

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A  MEMO in RESPONSE from GERALD PEIRIS, 30 August 2021:

Chandre has produced an interesting piece. Thanks. Here’s my link of facts with Mahavamsa fiction.

As Chandre has mentioned, from prehistoric times migrants from all parts of the subcontinent came to our island and some among them became permanent settlers in Sri Lanka. My own hunch is that the group of migrants from Vanga Desha (eastern parts of present Bengal) constituted one of the more organised and aggressive among such early migrants, and they might have communicated in a language which gradually developed (with other linguistic influences) to become Sinhala.

That part of Bengal, as far as I am aware, had no lions. Then, how did the ‘lion’ enter the legend? My “theory” is that there would have been tribes of forest dwellers whose facial features were leonine. How? Peasants, when afflicted with leprosy and banished from their communities did not necessarily die of that disease. Those who survived became forest dwellers. They invariably had ‘deformed’ faces, some resembling the lions’ mug. They hunted for their food and engaged in brigandage raiding villages and waylaying travellers.

So, I wouldn’t rule out the possibilitythat the ‘leonine’ tribal chief who abducted Suppa Devi (the daughter of the ruler of a principality in the Vanga kingdom) and cohabited with her to produce Sinhabahu who, in turn, begat our hero Vijaya (playboy criminal) when exiled with his gang drifted across the Bay of Bengal, aided by the Northeast monsoon to land in Ceylon.

Although the Sinha symbol in our flag might have originated fairly early, have you noticed that none of our kings (over almost two millennia) until the 16th century in fact, had a ‘Sinha’ attached to his name? But Bahus were quite common.
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A NOTE from THe EDITOR, Thuppahi:

Professor Gerald Peiris, Professor of Geography at Peradeniya University,  has many publications to his credit — some of them being works that fall within the rubric of “Political Science” and/or “Political History.” Venturing into pre-historical periods, of course, is a different ball-game; but Peiris reveals his awareness of the pitfalls associated with any such enterprise. 

A RESPONSE from Chandre Dharmawardana,29 Augusst 2021:

Gerald Peiris has presented a very interesting and plausible hypothesis. I hadn’t heard of it before. The following medical article strongly supports his hypothesis….……..Reconstruction of the Face in Leprosy.
Reconstruction of the Face in Leprosy: Hunterian Lecture delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons of England on 17th April 1962

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3 responses to “Vijaya and Kuveni: Two Legendary Figures of the Pali Chronicles

  1. chandre DW

    Gerald Peiris’s has presented a very interesting and plausible hypotheis. I hadn’t heard of it before. The following medical article strongly supports his hypothesis.
    Reconstruction of the Face in Leprosy.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2311534/?page=6

    Hunterian Lecture delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons of England on 17th April 1962
    N. H. Antia
    Copyright and License information Disclaimer
    This article has been cited by other articles in PMC.

    Page 76 has a picture of a lion-like face of a person who had been deformed by leprosy.

    scanned image of page 76

  2. Alexander Van Arkadie

    Thanks to Professor Gerald Peiris – after near 45yrs. of migration from Lanka and living in Rome – I’m myself rewarded to read this ‘very interesting and plausible hypothesis’. I’ve been awaiting for some learned Lankan Scholar to share someday his/her comment on similarities between the ancient ‘Vijaya-Kuveni’ fable and the diverse versions of Antique Rome’s Cerce Legend.
    In fact, to this date, the symbolic logo of the Rome Municipality bears the image of the legendary She-Wolf, standing erect on her paws and feet while suckling two human cubs, Remus and Remulus !
    /alex.vanarkadie@gmail.com (Rome)

  3. Pingback: Exploring the Etymological Strands of the Word “Thiruketheeswaram | Thuppahi's Blog

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