Queen Anula of Anuradhapura - A Reign Born of Poison
Anula was a queen of Anuradhapura, an ancient kingdom that ruled over Sri Lanka. Anula is recorded as the first queen in Sri Lanka who wielded a significant degree of power and authority. In addition, she is said to have been the first female head of state in Asia. Most, if not all of the information that we have regarding Anula comes from the Mahavamsa, in which the queen is represented in an extremely negative light.
Anula is believed to have lived during the 1st century BC. At that time, the island of Sri Lanka was ruled by the Kingdom of Anuradhapura. According to historical records, this kingdom was established around the 4th century BC and lasted until 10th century AD. The capital of the kingdom was Anuradhapura, a city in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province, situated about 127 miles 205 kilometers north of Colombo, the island’s current capital.
The City of Queen Anula
This city, which is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was not only a political capital, but also a religious one. Anuradhapura was a major center of Theravada Buddhism and played a major role in the development and propagation of the faith into Southeast Asia.
According to the archaeological evidence, the site of Anuradhapura was already occupied by human beings as early as the protohistoric Iron Age, which lasted from around 900 to 600 BC. Archaeologists have also found that by 700 to 600 BC, the settlement covered an area of at least 50 hectare.
The development of Anuradhapura as a major city, and later into the capital of a kingdom, may be attributed to its strategic location. For a start, the city was surrounded by fertile and irrigable lands, which would have been able to support a large population. Beyond that was a dense jungle, which provided the city a natural defense against invaders.
As a matter of fact, during the 1,300 years that the city was inhabited, Anuradhapura was only seized by invaders on four occasions. Lastly, the city was placed between the major ports of the island’s northwest and northeast coasts. These ports allowed the inhabitants of Anuradhapura to conduct trade with the outside world.
The major ports and towns of Sri Lanka during the Anuradhapura period. (Chamal N / CC BY-SA 3.0)
In addition to the archaeological evidence, there are also textual sources regarding Anuradhapura, one of the most important being the Mahavamsa. This is a historical chronicle dealing with Sri Lanka’s history from around the 6th century BC to the early 4th century AD.
It is traditionally believed that the Mahavamsa was written by Mahanama, a Buddhist monk from the island, around the 5th or 6th century AD. Although an important source of information for Sri Lanka’s history, it should be noted that the Mahavamsa places more focus on the history of Buddhism and with dynastic succession, rather than political or social history.
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This 8 th century, gilded bronze, Bodhisattva Tara was found on the east coast of Sri Lanka and is evidence of Buddhism during the Anuradhapura period. (Gryffindor / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Kingdom of Anuradhapura
In any case, according to the Mahavamsa, the Kingdom of Anuradhapura was established during the 4th century BC by a king called Pandukabhaya. In the text, the site was once the dwelling place of Pandukabhaya’s great-uncle, Anuradha, who had handed over his palace to the king. Having consulted a soothsayer, Pandukabhaya founded his capital near the site.
Since the site used to be the dwelling place of two Anuradhas, and that the capital was established under the constellation Anuradha, the king named the city Anuradhapura, which literally means ‘City of Anuradha’. The city was laid out according to a well-organized plan, as the Mahavamsa relates,
“He laid out also four suburbs as well as the Abhaya-tank, the common cemetery, the place of execution, and the chapel of the Queens of the West, the banyan-tree of Vessavana and the Palmyra-palm of the Demon of Maladies, the ground set apart for the Yonas and the house of the Great Sacrifice; all these he laid out near the west gate.”
The city is said to have been permanently abandoned after 993 AD, following an invasion by the Cholas, a Tamil dynasty of southern India. The kingdom lingered on until the death of its last king in 1017. Following its abandonment, the city was largely uninhabited, and was reclaimed by the jungle.
Rulers of Anuradhapura
Pandukabhaya belonged to the House of Vijaya, the first recorded Sinhalese dynasty of Sri Lanka. This dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Anuradhapura for much of its history until the 1st century AD. According to legend, the dynasty was founded by Vijaya, a prince from the Kingdom of Sinhapura, in northern India.
There were many rulers of Anuradhapura before Queen Anula came to power. (MediaJet / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The prince had been banished from the kingdom by his father, King Sinhabahu, for some misconduct. Vijaya, along with 700 of his followers, was placed in a ship and put out to sea. Eventually, they landed on the island of Sri Lanka and the prince established his kingdom there.
During the 1st century BC, the Kingdom of Anuradhapura was ruled by a descendant of Vijaya called Chora Naga, known also as Mahanaga. According to the Mahavamsa, Chora Naga was the son of Vattagamani Abhaya, and that he “lived as a rebel” during the reign of Mahaculi Mahatissa, his father’s successor. Following Mahaculi’s death, Chora Naga became the new ruler of Anuradhapura.
Chora Naga is recorded to have reigned for 12 years, and it is evident that the author of the Mahavamsa had a low opinion of the king. The Mahavamsa states that “Those places, where he had found no refuge during the time of his rebellion, eighteen viharas (Buddhist monasteries), did this fool destroy”. In addition, the chronicler refers to Chora Naga as an ‘evildoer’, and that after his death, he “was reborn in the Lokantarika-hell”.
Representation of Chora Naga of Anuradhapura, husband to Queen Anula of Anuradhapura and descendant of Vijaya. (KylieTastic / Public Domain)
Chora Naga is reported to have died after consuming poisoned food given to him by his consort, Anula. The queen is held in an equally low regard by the author of the Mahavamsa, who claims that she poisoned her husband because “she was enamored of one of the palace-guards”. Chora Naga was succeeded as king of Anuradhapura by his son, Kuda Tissa, who reigned for three years.
According to the Mahavamsa, “And for love of this same palace-guard Anula now killed Tissa also by poison and gave the government into the hands of that other”. Therefore, after the death of Kuda Tissa, this palace guard, whose name was Siva, became the new king. Siva, however, did not last long on the throne, as he too was murdered (by poison) by Anula after ruling for only a year and two months.
The Mahavamsa claims that the queen found another lover, a Damila (Tamil) carpenter by the name of Vatuka. Like Siva before him, Vatuka ruled for a year and two months and was poisoned by the queen. Subsequently, Anula fell in love with a wood-carrier called Darubathika Tissa, who had come to her house. Therefore, she poisoned Vatuka and gave the throne to him.
Having ruled for a year and a month, Darubathika Tissa was poisoned by the queen, who had found a new lover. This time, it was a Damila by the name of Niliya, a brahman who was the palace priest. Niliya became the new king and ruled for six months.
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According to the Mahavamsa, Queen Anula of Anuradhapura was ruled by her sense of pleasure. (Oleksii Sergieiev / Adobe Stock)
Finally Queen Anula Rules
Finally, Anula herself became the ruler of Anuradhapura. According to the Mahavamsa, “When the princess Anula (who desired to take her pleasure even as she listed with thirty-two of the palace-guards) had put to death Niliya also with poison, the queen ANULA herself, reigned four months”.
Anula’s reign ended when she was deposed by Kutakanna Tissa, the second son of Mahaculi returned to Anuradhapura. Kutakanna had fled from the city for fear of Anula, and took the pabbajja, which is a Buddhist rite whereby a layman becomes a novice, the first step to becoming a monk. Having raised an army, Kutakanna returned to Anuradhapura and seized the throne from Anula.
The Mahavamsa reports that Kutakanna “burned the licentious Anula in the palace (upon the funeral pyre)”. This has led to two interpretations, i.e. either that Anula was slain and her body burned on a funeral pyre or that the queen was burned alive in the palace. In either case, Kutakanna became the new king and reigned for 32 years. This is where the story of Anula ends.
Queen Anula of Anuradhapura was burned on the palace funeral pyre. (Unibond / Public Domain)
The Evil Queen?
Unfortunately, apart from the Mahavamsa, there does not seem to be any other source of information regarding the life of Anula. For example, there are no other historical sources to make a comparison with the account of the queen found in the Mahavamsa. In addition, epigraphy, art, and archaeology seem to be completely silent with regards to Anula.
The lack of other evidence may lead to the suggestion that the queen did not exist, and that she was an invented character. This, however, does not seem to be the case, as the author does not seem to have a motif to do so.
As an example, if the chronicler had intended the story of Anula to be a morality tale, i.e. that women should not be allowed to rule, then one may expect him to write about the negative effects of Anula’s rule on the kingdom. Instead, he focuses solely on her erratic nature when it comes to love, i.e. that she easily falls in love with random men, and its consequences, i.e. that he murders her current husband so that her lover may become king.
This results in a somewhat far-fetched scenario, as a palace guard, a carpenter, a wood-carrier, and a brahman all become kings thanks to Anula’s scheming. It is also rather puzzling that there is no mention of any opposition whatsoever to the elevation by Anula of her lovers as kings, who, incidentally, had a cumulative reign of almost four years. It may perhaps be speculated that despite Anula’s flightiness, she might have been a capable ruler, and that the kingdom prospered during the reigns of her lovers, hence there was no need to rebel.
Needless to say, since the Mahavamsa considers Anula to be an evil character and is bent on portraying her as such, her positive contributions to the kingdom (if there are any) would have been ignored. In comparison, the good deeds of just and pious rulers are mentioned in the Mahavamsa.
It may, however, be noted that the chronicler makes specific reference to the contributions made by these kings to Buddhism. This may be seen, for instance, in the case of Mahaculi, who “reigned for fourteen years with piety and justice”. According to the Mahavamsa,
“Since he heard that a gift brought about by the work of a man's own hand is full of merit, the king, in the very first year (of his reign), went in disguise and labored in the rice harvest, and with the wage that he received for this he gave food as alms to the thera Mahasumma. When the king had labored also in Sonagiri three years in a sugar-mill and had received lumps of sugar as wage for this, he took the lumps of sugar, and being returned to the capital he, the ruler of the earth, appointed great almsgiving to the brotherhood of bhikkhus. He bestowed clothing on thirty thousand bhikkhus and the same on twelve thousand bhikkhunis.
When the protector of the earth had built a well-planned vihara, he gave the six garments to sixty thousand bhikkhus and to bhikkhunis likewise, in number thirty thousand. The same king built the Mandavapi-vihara, the Abhayagallaka (vihara), the (viharas) Vankavattakagalla and Dighabahugallaka and the Jalagama-vihara.”
As there is such a dearth of information about Anula, it allows much speculation about the queen’s ‘real story’ to be made. This may be seen, for instance, in Rajina, written by the Sri Lankan novelist Mohan Raj Madawala.
Speculations aside, however, it is perhaps likely that we will only have a limited view of the ‘real’ Anula, considering that we have only the Mahavamsa as our reference point for the life of this queen. Of course, if new evidence comes to light, we may be able to gain a better understanding of this ancient Sri Lankan queen.
Top image: Queen Anula of Anuradhapura poisoned her lovers and positioned her new lovers to rule. Source: Caribia / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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