His name will forever be associated with tragedy, the great king Dhatusena who met such a barbaric death at the hands of his son the prince Kasyappa. But on the stage of Sri Lanka's history ancient Ceylon he stands out like the proverbial colossus - a giant of a man, and in setting my thoughts on paper, I wonder if I am writing about a king, a superman, or a recorder breaker of sorts !
King Dhatusena ascended the throne in 460 AD and his reign ushered in a golden era in the island's history. Securing the country's defense was one of his priorities and the first thing he did was to construct twenty one fortressess in various parts of the island. These fortressess were manned by crack battle hardened troops commanded by brilliant generals to ensure the islands protection against further invasion from South India. It should be remembered that the four kings who ruled the island before king Dhatusena were soutn Indian Tamils, and Dhatusena reclaimed the throne after a long period of resistance and a titanic struggle. Even after he became king, there were pockets of resistance but with the aid of his brother Seelatissa Bodhi and elite army commandos he carried out a series of mopping up operations, thus liberating the entire island. Credit must be given where it is due, and it was Seelatissa Bodhi who helped him to establish law and order in the country. Unfortunately nothing much is known about Seelatissa Bodhi. His name is mentioned just once in the Culavamsa, and thereafter he fades from history.
King Dhatusena next established an efficient coast guard system, but it is in the field of agriculture that his name should be written in letters of gold. He embarked on a massive construction project of eighteen irrigation schemes. One of these was the giant Yodawewa tank in the Mannar district. The others were the Balalawewa, the Suruluwewa the Baduluwewa, and the Sangamuwewa. But the jewel in the crown was the mighty Kalaweva tank which tapped the Kalaoya, and supplemented the water supply to Anuradhapura and the environs of the city. The Kalaweva tank is a prodigious feat of engineering and is living testimony to the skill of the engineers of ancient Ceylon.
At a height of 40 ft. it has an embankment 3.25 miles in length with blocks of dressed granite morticed together . This tank irrigated an area of about 200 square miles. This was done by a canal known as the Jayaganga which was, and is even by todays standards and amazing technological feat, because the gradient in the first 17 miles of its length was only 6 inches to a mile. It must be mentioned that some of these schemes were completed after his untimely death, but the Kalaweva was completed during his rule. He then built new dagaba whilst rebuilding those that were damaged. The chronicler in the Culavamsa poses the question " Who can ever describe in detail the good deeds he has done.....?" Whilst renovating the three main dagabas in Anuradhapura, the Jetavanarama, the Abhayagiri , and the Ruwanvelisaya, he constructed 18 new viharas [ a record of sorts considering he ruled for only 17 years ] These viharas were built all over the island. For example, the Mangara Vihara, the Thupavithi Vihara, and the Dhatusena vihara were built in the northern province, and the Antaramega, the Devagama, and the Salavana viharas were built in Ruhuna. But king Dhatusena is best remembered for the Kalavapi Vihara, better known as the Aukana Vihara the world over, for the classic sculpture of the The Aukana Buddha.
Being a devout Buddhist, he safeguarded the Sangha and often distributed robes and other gifts to the Bhikkus. How many of those pilgrims visiting Mihintale are aware that the Ambathala Vihara just below the summit of Mihintale was founded by him . The Culavamsa further states that lightning conductors were installed on the pinnacles of the main dagabas. Astute politician and great visionary, King Dhatusena focused his foreign policy on expanding trade with the East, and despatched emissaries and religious missions to China. Buddhist missions and pilgrims were encouraged to travel abroad to centres of Buddhist worship. Because the island was an important port of call on the trade routes between the west and the far east , much prosperity by way of revenue was derived from international trade. He instructed his minister of trade and the treasury that foreign ships docking at the islands harbours were to be provided with every facility for the speedy unloading and loading of cargo. Perhaps one simple sentence written by the chronicler in the Culavamsa sums up king Dhatusena's rule ".....He did everything he could to make the people happy....."
In a cruel twist of fate King Dhatusena or "The lord of men" as he is referred to in the Culavamsa suffered a horrible death at the hands of his own son. The site of this ghastly murder is close to the bund of the Kalaweva tank, his irrigation masterpiece for which he is best remembered after 1500 years. I reflect sadly on the bitter irony of his destiny in life. The facts are recorded and known to history. Peruse the chapter on this great king in the Culavamsa, specially the section dealing with his resistance to the ursurpers of the throne, and the reader will see why king Dhatusena and his deeds should be enshrined in letters of gold.
Written by : Bernard VanCuylenberg Melbourne Australia