A brief historical background to coinage
of the Anuradhapura Period
Lanka - 5th century BC to 8th Century AD

The Mahavamsa records the traditional history of Lanka as it was conceived in the fourth century AD. The account is based in large measure on an earlier work that brought the history of Lanka down to the time when Ashoka despatched his son Mahinda to convert Lanka and was completed by addition of a fourth century revision continuing the history of the island down to the reign of King Mahasena (337-364). The Mahavamsa, as it now exists, includes a few later additions inserted about the turn of the first millennium.

The first literary links between Pandyas of Madura and Lanka appear in the semi-traditional part of the Mahavamsa which tells of the founding of the Sinhala monarchy by Vijaya who arrived on the island of Lanka in the year of Buddha's nirvana (486/483 BC).
Having arrived in Lanka Vijaya sent for a Pandyan wife.
But the ministers, whose minds were eagerly bent upon the consecrating of their Lord (Vijaya), and who, although the means were difficult, had overcome all anxious fears about the matter, sent people, entrusted with many precious gifts, jewels, pearls and so forth, to the city of Madhura in southern (India), to woo the daughter of the Pandu king for their Lord, devoted (as they were) to their ruler; and they also (sent to woo) the daughters of others for the ministers and retainers. When the messengers were quickly come by ship to the city of Madhura they laid the gifts and letter from the king. The king took counsel with his ministers and since he was minded to send his daughter (to Lanka) he, having first received also daughters of others for the ministers (of Vijaya), nigh upon a hundred maidens, proclaimed with beat of drum: 'those men here who are willing to let a daughter depart for Lanka shall provide their daughters with a double store of clothing and place them at the doors of their houses. By this sign shall we (know that we may) take them to ourselves' ....... Then Vijaya consecrated the daughter of the Pandu king with solemn ceremony as his queen.   (Mahavamsa VII,48-74)

The earliest reference to the usage of coins in Lanka is found in the Buddhist Literature which mentions types of coins issued in the 3rd century BC. These earliest known coins were small pieces of metal, generally of silver, punched with a common Royal mark. The metal were thereafter subjected to further punching with marks of various institutions. These punched marked metal are referred to as `purana' (Sanskrit for old) and Englished as `eldling'. The eldlings were manufactured by subdividing bars of metal or strips cut from a hammered sheet, the weight being adjusted where necessary by clipping the corners of each coin so formed.

The next coinage of Lanka shows many parallels with that of the Pandyas, by which it was inspired. The initial Pandyan issues have been divided into two consecutive series of multi-type coins (240-210 BC and 210-175 BC) that preceded the Pandyan campaigns in Lanka during the second century BC. The earliest coins struck in Lanka bear designs derived from the second series of Pandyan multi-type coins struck during the period (210-175 BC) and bear a group of symbols on the obverse among which an elephant normally figures. The Pandyan fish symbol is also borrowed and appears on the reverse of these earliest Sinhala issues. During the period of Pandya domination over Lanka which lasted from the time of the initial Tamil occupation about 177 BC until the period when the kings of Lanka were able to exert their independence in a definitive manner from about 28 BC the Elephant coinage of the Pandyas was current both in Madura and in Lanka.

The next indigenous coinage of Lanka dates from the resumption of independence in 28 BC and consists of a new series of multi-type copper coins bearing a prominent Elephant symbol. But these new coins are quite different from the early issues of Lanka and from all Pandyan coinage. Moreover, this distinctive new coinage (infra) appears to have circulated only on the island; not in the lands of the Pandyas. The railed Svastika found on the reverse of these coins also appears as a symbol on the reverse of contemporary rectangular plaques showing the figure of a Goddess on the obverse. Whether the plaques subserved currency requirements or whether they were more in the nature of temple votive pieces is still a subject of discussion.

The distinctive local currency of Lanka came to an end sometime in the third century AD when the island fell under some form of domination by the Pallavas of the mainland. According to the Mahavamsa when the Sinhala king Sirinaga I died in AD 275 he was succeeded by his son Voharaka Tissa: but another son named Abhaya Naga collected an army on the mainland, invaded and took control of Lanka in 297. Be that as it may the period is marked by an influx of Pallava coins to the island where specimens of the 'lion/Wheel' issue have been found in substantial numbers.

During the 360's AD Lanka was ruled by Sri Meghavarna (364-392), son of Mahasena, who is recorded to have brought the Buddha's tooth relic from Kalinga and to have sent an embassy to Samudragupta. Lanka was later visited by the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hsien in 411-412, during the reign of Mahadharmakathin and by the Buddhist writer Buddhaghosha when Mahanaman (409-431) was king. Soon after the end of Mahanaman's reign the Sinhala king Mitrasena was killed by a "Damila named Pandya".

The Pandya occupation of northern Lanka lasted some 27 years (433-460), until they were expelled by the Sinhala king Dhatusena (460-478). In 478 Kasyapa usurped the throne, after imprisoning his father Dhatusena, but he was eventually de-throned in 496 by his brother Maudgalyayana, who brought an Indian army from his exile in the Penninsula. The island remained at peace under Maudgalyayana (496-513) and his son Kumaradasa (513-522). Family struggles then supervened until Maudgalyayana II(537-556) brought a new period of peace. After Maudgalyayana's death his son Kirtisrmegha was quickly de-throned by Mahanaga (556-559), a former official from Southern Lanka. When Mahanaga died he was succeeded by the heir apparent, his sister's son Agrabodhi (559-592). The throne then passed to Agraboahi's sister's son Agrabodhi 11 (592-602).

Subsequent conflict for the throne was at its height when the rebel Silameghavarna (608-617) and later his son, Agrabocihi III (617-632), were in conflict with Jyeshthatishya, son of a previous ephemeral king (Sanghatishya). Silameghavarna had his stronghold in the north of the island, while Jyeshthatishya sometimes controlled the south and also enjoyed Tamil support. Struggles for the throne persisted throughout the remainder of the 7th. century and there was substantial Tamil influence on the island, mainly in the form of mercenaries and their descendants, some of whom rose to high office. One of the rival kings, Manavarman (Mana: Manaha), spent some time in exile at the court of Narasinthavarman Pallava and took part in the Pallava victory over the Chalukyas in 642. Narasimhavarman then supplied Manavarman with an army to enable him to regain the throne of Lanka. But the attack was unsuccessful and it was not until four more kings had sat on the disputed Sinhala throne that Narasinthavarman Pallava provided a second Tamil army with which Manavarman (668-703) eventually regained his throne in 668.

Lanka was then ruled by the family of Manavarman for several generations. During the middle years of the 8th. century there was anarchy while Mahendra II (765-785) sat on the throne he had usurped from his uncle Agrabodhi VII. Order was re-established by Mahendra's son Udaya (785-790) who brought southern Lanka (Ruhuna) once more within the sphere of Royal authority.

Text edited from
* Oriental Coins: Michael Mitchiner, London, Hawkins Publications, 1978.