An ancient ship on an Intaglio-Rock Crystal-Embilipitiya

Ship Building in ancient Sri Lanka


A long with developments in irrigation, art and architecture and city planning, there had been progress in ship building technology in Sri Lanka from pre-Christian times. Due to perishable nature of materials used, ships and various kinds of other vessels have completely disappeared without any trace, but technology of construction has passed from generation to generation until recent times. More recent constructions of ships, rafts, canoes, vallams, catamarans etc. have been studied in detail and even presented in illustrations by Vini Vitharana, Somasiri Devendra and Girhard Kapitan. But in the absence of surviving specimens, details pertaining to ancient ship building have to be reconstructed by perusing inscriptions, chronicles, literary texts and accounts of foreigners.

A figure of a ship with high prows and a single mast has been inscribed in a pre-Christian Brahmi inscription at Duvegala in the Polonnaruva District. Two other pre-Christian Brahmi inscriptions at Parmakanda in the Puttalam District and Maligatenna in the Kurunegala District contain the term navika which means mariner. This indicates that from the earliest times of recorded history there existed specialists in navigation in Sri Lankan Society.

The Sammohavinodini, a Commentary of Buddhaghosa states that during the Brahmana Tissa Famine (102 BC-89 BC) ships comprising three decks were constructed at Jambukolapattana (present Sambiliturai) for Buddhist monks who wished to escape to India. The lowest deck outside of which was immersed in water, was not used, travelers occupied the second deck and their belongings were placed in the upper deck. A century later, the Roman writer Pliny has mentioned that ships of Taprobane could carry 3000 amphorae or about 75 tons. His account indicates that by his time, as a result of advancements in rigging, Sri Lankan ships had improved from former times in both capacity and speed. Pliny also has stated that mariners of Taprobane navigating in the Indian Ocean, took birds out to sea with them, let them loose from time to time and followed the direction of their flight as they approached land.

In the sixth century, the Egyptian monk Cosmas, recorded that many ships regularly went to Sri Lanka (Sielediba) for purposes of trade from different countries such as India, Maldives, China, Persia and Ethiopia and that Sri Lankans too dispatched many of their own ships to foreign ports. He attributes this to the central location of the Island in the Indian Ocean.

Largest ships

By the end of the eighth century, South Asia including Sri Lanka has had a reputation for building the largest ships in the Asian waters. According to the early ninth century Chinese bureaucrat and writer, Li Chao, of the many ships that arrived in the ports of Annam and Canton in China “the ships from the Loin Kingdom (Sri Lanka) were the largest”.

He has also stated that there were stairways for loading and unloading in those ships. Corroborating Pliny, he further mentions that the mariners of the island, kept white pigeons on board these ships.

In 1155 AD the Arab geographer, Al Idrisi, stated that Arab ships from Oman and Yemen came to Sri Lanka and other islands in the vicinity (most probably Laccadives and Maldives) to obtain ropes, coconut trunks and timber and also to place orders for ships constructed there. Coconut trunks were used for masts and ropes for hanging sails and anchoring. R.A.L.H. Gunawardena has pointed out that timber from del tree (Artocarpus nobilis) because of its resistance to ship worms, domba (Calophyllum inophyllum) because of its flexibility and kos (Atrocarpus heterophyllum) because of its hardness were in demand among shipwrights. All these were abundantly available in Sri Lanka.

According to the Mahavamsa, Parakramabahu I (1153-86) of Polonnaruva, in order to launch a war against lower Myanmar in 1165, made preparations in advance. The war was conducted to avenge the humiliations suffered by Sri Lankan envoys and merchants during the reign of Alaungsitu in Ramannadesa or Myanmar. The historicity of the event is corroborated by the Devanagala inscription datable to the

12th year of Parakramabahu I. This inscription records a land grant to commander Kitnuwaragal for rendering valuable services in the Myanmar campaign. For this retaliatory expedition ships were constructed during a period of five months. According to the chronicle the entire coast resembled one great workshop. This statement of the chronicler may be an exaggeration but the fact remains that the long standing tradition of building merchant vessels was harnessed at this time to transport troops, nursing attendants, arms, food and medicinal supplies.

Trade contacts

According to an Arabic document of the thirteenth century, Bhuvanekabahu I (1272-84) of Yapahuwa sent an envoy named Al-HAj-Abu-Uthman to Mamluk Sultan of Egypt and expressed his desire to establish trade contacts. The document states that Buvanekabahu I desired an Egyptian ambassador accompany his envoy on his return and that he could supply trade commodities like gems, pearls and cinnamon and also twenty vessels to the Sultan annually. Although outcome of this mission is obscure, the record confirms that Sri Lanka at the time possessed advanced nautical construction techniques.

The globe trotter, Ibn Batuta who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1344 A.D. stated that the Aryacakravarti of Jaffna at the time, owned a fleet of ships which he utilized for trade with foreign countries. Circumstantial evidence indicates that at least some of these ships were built in his kingdom itself.

Parakramabahun VI (1412-67) of Kotte also had his own trading vessels. The Rajavaliya states that when some of the Sri Lankan ships were robbed in South India, he sent an expeditionary force in retaliation to the port of Ativiraramapattana (Adraimpet) and punished the culprits.

Thus ancient Sri Lanka was not only a shipping hub in its own right but also an island which could boast of an advanced ship building industry. The Sinhalese, Tamils as well as Muslims have contributed to the development of this industry in various ways.


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