Queens of Valour
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
“I look those haters straight in the eye, keep my chin up and shoulders back. Because I know I’m a fierce queen – and they know it, too.”
– Alyssa Edwards
Sri Lanka has a long list of monarchs who ruled the island for more than two millennia. Out of this long list we only have very few queens who reigned. Although our history of queens is overshadowed by the bravery of Viharamahadevi and Somadevi, we have a few more queens who actually ruled as the queen of the country and who displayed extreme valour and courage, not being second to Viharamahadevi or Somadevi.
It is sad that as the tale of this little island has been narrated by male writers and later interpreted and reconstructed by male historians, our female warriors, queens, leaders, poetesses, writers and bhikkhunis are forever hidden in the darkness of history. It is not an easy task to embark on a journey to the unknown past, to meet these brave women as sources are scarce.
As we are very much aware of the stories of Viharamahadevi and Somadevi, today we shall not make an attempt to meet them. Therefore, Ceylon Today Heritage page will present you a list of crowned queens of Sri Lanka, whose identities are still veiled in the darkness of time. As we embark on this difficult journey to meet our valorous heroines, despite the fact that we have very little sources, let us hope this little spark of light shall one day shed light on the portraits of these women warriors of the ancient Sinhalese.
Anula, the first Sinhalese queen
The first known crowned queen of Sri Lanka is Queen Anula (47-42 BCE), and she can also be identified as the first queen in Asia to rule a kingdom. The accounts of our first queen are not pleasant as anyone would expect. She is portrayed as a ruthless murderous queen. She is also portrayed as a seductress. According to the Pali chronicles, she had murdered six of her husbands, mainly by poisoning them and had thirty two lovers. However the chronicle does not state why she committed all these murders. According to the chronicles, she had crowned these men as king of Anuradhapura before killing them.
After the death of King Walagamba, his brother’s son Mahachulika Mahanaga (76-62 BCE) ascended the throne. Walagamaba’s son Naga, later known as Chora, which means thief, led the life of a rebel. The reasons for his rebellious behaviour are not clearly given in the chronicles.
Anula was the queen consort of Chora Naga (62-50 BCE). It is said that Anula poisoned Chora Naga and later married Kuda Tissa. After Chora Naga’s death, the son of Mahachulika Mahanaga, Kuda Tissa (50- 47 BCE) became king.
Kuda Tissa was murdered by Anula. Six of her husbands were crowned as king of Anuradhapura and after the final one she herself was crowned as queen. King Maha Chulika Mahanaga’s son, Kutakanna Tissa killed Anula and ascended the throne. It is said that he cremated the queen but we do not know how she was assassinated. According to some legend, she was burnt alive in her palace.
According to the Mahavamsa she had killed all her husbands by poisoning them, but the reasons we still do not know. The chronicles say that she would lust for any man she encountered; therefore she would kill her previous husband and make her new lover the king. If these accounts are true, she is the first known female serial killer of Sri Lanka. However, according to Shramana Dootha Kavya, a text composed by an Abhayagiri monk, she was crowned as queen as per the request and acceptance of the generals and it does not portray her as a vicious woman.
Her first husband, King Chora Naga was not a follower of the Mahavihara sect. He had even demolished 18 temples that had not supported him (given shelter) during his early days. Hence he was named as a ‘thief’ by the author of the Mahavamsa. Also according to the above mentioned Abhayagiri text, Anula had performed religious rituals at the Abhayagiri monastery, which means she was in favor of that sect. Therefore, a fair doubt rises about the unbiasedness of the account of the Mahavamsa about this queen.
For five years (her period of reign is debated) she continued what she was doing and no prince or general nor a bhikkhu stood against her power, as far as we know.
Sivali (35 CE)
The second crowned queen in Sri Lanka is Queen Sivali of the 1st century CE. Although her reign did not last for long, and little is known about her, she is honoured as the second Sinhalese queen to ascend the throne. She was daughter of King Amanda Gamini Abhaya (21-30 CE), the Sinhalese king who enforced a new law to stop animal slaughter all over the island.
She succeeded her brother Chulabhaya and ruled for a few months; the chronicles say only for four months.
Sangha (434-435 CE)
Sangha is known for her valour. She ascended the throne after assassinating her half-brother Svatisena or Sottisena. She was the daughter of King Mahanama (412-434 CE). The Mahavamsa says that she got her husband crowned as king. His name was Chattaghaka and the Pujawaliya states his name as Lamanitis.
According to Prof.Paranavitana, she was the mother of King Dhatusena (455-473 CE). After the death of Mahanama, Sangha arrived at Anuradhapura and assassinated Sena and crowned her son, the seven-year-old Dhatusena as king and appointed a general to rule. The Pali Chronicle refers to him as Mittasena Karalsora.
Sugala (12th century CE)
Among all the powerful and brave Sinhalese queens, only a few are known to have fought battles on the battlefield. After Viharamahadevi who had military and political power, well equipped with warfare skills, we come across the tale of Sugala, a warrior queen whose story is overshadowed by the story of Parakramabahu I.
Although Sugala did not combat against foreign invaders like Viharamahadevi did, she was one of the greatest challenges faced by Parakramabahu I to his ascending the throne. She fought fearlessly, till the end, for the sovereignty of her kingdom, for the honour of her husband and for her own honour.
Sugala was the wife of King Sri Vallabha who was the king of Ruhuna. King Sri Vallabha of Ruhuna was defeated by Parakramabahu I during his struggle for power. Parakramabahu I couldn’t become the king of the entire country whilst Sugala led a riot against him. He wanted all other royals and regional kings to accept his authority. Manabharana, Queen Sugala’s son was also the rightful heir to the throne. Hence, she did not surrender to Parakramabahu I and fought against the forcefulness of Parakramabahu I.
Many people, who supported King Manabharana, gathered around Queen Sugala in the effort of defending the Ruhunu Rata from the invading army of King Parakramabahu I. After many tiresome battles against the army of King Parakramabahu I, it was proved that the army of Queen Sugala was capable of defending the independence of Ruhunu Rata, against the army of Parakramabahu I. However later Sugala Devi lost to the best general of Parakramabahu I.
Leelavati (1197–1200, 1209–10, and 1211–12 CE)
Leelavati was crowned as the queen at Polonnaruwa after the demise of Parakramabahu I. It is believed that she was the daughter of the valorous queen Sugala.
It was the king’s general that supported her rise into power. Her period is known to be peaceful and prosperous. Leelavati was crowned as queen during a time of political instability within the island. Therefore her ascending to power was a ray of golden hope to the kingdom. It is true that she was not able to either sustain the declining Rajarata civilisation or save the Polonnaruwa kingdom, as the rising foreign powers in South India were high. The Sinhala kingdom couldn’t withstand the powers of the Pandyas and the Kalingas as we had no powerful local leadership during this time.
The chronicles don’t say much about Leelavati’s life, except for the fact that she was the mahesi or the chief queen of Parakramabahu I. After the death of this powerful king the kingdom had no stable ruler. Royals and generals were conspiring against each other, hungry for power. It was then Kitti, a powerful general, who removed the ruling King Chodaganga and crowned the widowed queen as queen.
Her successor was Sahassamalla (1200-1202 CE). Once again the powerful general Ayasmanta, removed Sahassamalla from power and brought another widowed queen to power. She was Kalyanavati (1202-1208 CE) queen consort of Nissanaka Malla (1187 to 1196 CE).
Leelavati became queen for the second time with the support of General Vikkantacamunakka. This time she could rule only for a year, from 1209–1210. For the third time Leelavati ascended the throne in 1211. She was thrown out of power by a Pandya usurper who was later brutally killed by Kalinga Maga in 1215 CE.
We do not know what exactly happened to the queen as nothing has been recorded about her death. She is the only queen of Sri Lanka to be crowned three times as queen and the last ruling queen until Dona Katirina (16th century CE); the tragic queen of Kandy.
Kalyanavati (1202 – 1208 CE)
Kalyanavati was the queen consort of Nissankamalla and she was brought to power by General Ayasmanta after the rule of Sahassamalla. She ruled for six long years and it is recorded as a time of peace and prosperity. The chronicles portrayed Kalyanavati as a queen who was religious and pious.
We actually know very little about our queens. Having the first crowned queen of Asia and brave and powerful women such as Viharamahadevi, Somadevi and Sugala to name a few, we nevertheless do not know much about their lives. Although our chronicles say very little about them, inscriptions shed light on their lives. According to inscriptions, scholars believed that Viharamahadevi spent her last years as a Buddhist nun. Prof. Paranavithana also says that according to inscriptions she and Kavantissa were brought up together since childhood. Also, inscriptions reveal that Kavantissa had two daughters from another queen. This is only one example. Hence, with the help of inscriptions and other archaeological remains we should make an effort to unveil our queens, warriors and brave women, who contributed immensely to the culture and civilisation of this land.
“She is a beautiful piece of broken pottery, put back together by her own hands. And a critical world judges her cracks while missing the beauty of how she made herself whole again.”
– J.M. Storm
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