The Vihara Maha Devi Coins?
by Brig Siri Munasinghe
A coin is a piece of money, which is accepted at a glance for any transaction. To enable easy recognition those symbols placed must be familiar to the people for whom the coin is minted. The ancient Lankan coins had symbols on them but its value was not marked. Symbols that were a part of their daily lives or their beliefs were placed on them. The value of the coins was indicated by its size. These symbols were not confined to coins but used in common art and architecture of temples as well. The ancient Lankans also believed that these symbols brought them good luck and protection from known and unknown evil. This is evident from perforations found on coins that were used as talismans. Certain prestigious symbols continued to be used for longer periods. These symbols during its use may have conveyed different meanings to different groups of people at different periods of time due to changes in beliefs. Sometimes there are small variations, and modification are made to the symbol to cater for these changes in beliefs, interpretations, changes in mould making and minting technology. The female figure standing on a lotus is one of the prestigious symbols of the ancient period both India and in Lanka.
Symbols convey a message to the people using the coin, What is the message this symbol of a Lady standing on a boat convey to the people of ancient Sri Lanka?
The first piece of evidence of a female symbol is on a silver coin found in Gandara, North West India, inscribed both in Brahmi and Karosthi as ‘Puskaravati Ambi’. The lady is the divine mother of the Lotus pond. These icons can be traced back to art seals of the Indus Valley and the Babylonian civilisation. The Aryans on their long journey to the east may have absorbed these.
The next is a very uniform series of Coins of a dynasty of Pancala rulers, who are all named after Aryan deities. These according to A.Cunningham may be of the period after the reign of Emperor Asoka. On the reverse of the coins is a figure of a patron deity or a symbol representing the deity. The King Agnimitra (friend of God Agni, the god of fire) has a deity Agni represented by a figure, whose hair is represented by five flames. The coin of Bhumimitra has a similar figure, with the hair in the form of five Nagas. (Naga represents the earth [Bhumi personified] similar to the five cobra hooded guard stones found in Sri Lanka.) He holds a cobra in his right hand. The Coin of Bhadragosha has on the reverse a Lady standing on a Lotus. J. Allen, in his “Catalogue of Ancient Coins of India” identifies this as Bhadra. On the reverse of the coin of Ruler Phalgunimitra, is a female figure standing on a lotus holding on to a lotus bud and her hair is represented by five flames. She is identified as a personification of the Naksastra Phalguni.
According to Dr. S. Paranavitane’s “Inscriptions of Ceylon Volume I”, the ancient Sinhalese, not only sought the protection of the Buddha, Dhramma and the Sanga but also continued to associate themselves with their old Aryan deities. This is evident from the names found on rock inscriptions from 3 BC to 1 AD. Some of them were named Buda-rikata, Dama-rakita or Sanga-rakita, meaning protected by the Buddha, Dhamma and Sanga. Female Pauranic gods such as, Sri as Siriguta (protected by Goddess of fortune Sri ), Siripali (one who guards her fortunes).
In Sri Lanka too, human figures with various representation of the hair and other features similar to these coins af Pancala found on coins were discovered at Anurahdapura, Ruhuna and Jaffna. These were published by Henry Parker in “Ancient Ceylon” and by John Still and later by P.E.P. Deraniaygala. These could be classified into five or six different type of coins by H. Parker. A large collection of these coins too were found in the South of Ceylon recently. These coins are artistically better than those found in India as they are more proportionate and some what graceful [H. Parker]. The pencil tracing of coin with a railed swastika on the reverse with a five or seven cobra hooded deity holding a cobra in his right hand and those with five flames as a hairdo is shown above.
However Icongraphist believes that the origin of the emblem of a lady associated with a lotus may be traced to worship of the Divine Mother of the Indus valley as many figurines of the mother goddess Shakti is found there. This symbol may have been that of the Divine Mother, who had the unique power of procreation, with a symbolic assessment of expressing purity, fertility and morale structure. In the Brahmanic theology, where reincarnation or the introduction of new deities with the Ramayanaya characters was a popular practice. The symbol of the Lady on a lotus flower might have later manifested as Usha, Devi, Sri, Parvathi or Lakshmi. Seeing this image how will different people react ?.
Rama was believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu and so was Sidhartha who later attained enlightenment. With the advent of Buddhism in India, Siddartha’s parents, King Suddodana and Maya devi were identified as incarnations of Dasaratha and Devi, the parents of Rama. On the gateway at Sanchi stupa in India, the seated and standing lady been bathed by Elephant spirit was a symbolic representation of the birth of Buddha. This gateway was reserved only to depict the main events of Buddha’s life. Two or three other such symbols that depicted his enlightenment the Bo-Tree, his relics or the Passing away, the Chaitiya, are also depicted on ancient coins of Sri Lanka. All these have a common symbol–the railed swastika on the reverse of the coins.
The only standing figure bathed by elephants other than on coins, may have been at Abayagiri Dagaba at Anuradhapura. Unfortunately the standing figure between the two elephants has been mutilated. The seated figure in this same theme appears on the Thorane or Arch over the entrance to the shrine room at Issurumuniya or Vessagiri at Anurhadapura, as a relief at Nalanda Gedige and it also appears on the lintel in a window at Yapahuva and in many other Buddhist sites.
Coins of the standing and seated figure have been unearthed at most ancient sites in Sri Lanka. Most have been found at Salgaswatte, Anuradapura during the periods 200 BC – 100 AD. Most of the ancient coins of the Sinhala kings of that period depicted symbols auspicious to the Buddhists. These icons of the important events of Buddha’s life, the sacred animal quartet the Lion, Bull, Elephant and the horse, the auspicious symbols, the Swastica, the Srivatsa, the chank are represented on the ancient coins of Lanka. These are perhaps the oldest surviving examples of them. All these symbols occupy a prominent position on the Sanchi Gateways.
A queen of ancient Sri Lanka, who was held in high esteem was Viharamaha Devi, the mother of Dutthagamunu, the heroic king of Ancient Sri lanka. She was placed on a golden vessel and then was sent to the sea, to appease the wrath of the sea gods. A complete chapter on the Birth of Prince Gamini is reserved in the our great chronicle “The Mahawansa”. Queen Vihara Maha Devi gave alms to a sick Samenera, and who in turn wished to conceived in her womb. In a later chapter it is written that she accompanied the Prince during the liberation war, intervened on her son’s behalf in the battle with General Titthamba to win him over after four months of bitter fighting.
There is a similarity of her sacrifice–been set adrift in a golden vessel to many other stories such as the Greek myth of Danae and to the great Babylonian epic, where Gilgamesh seeks the secrets of immortality from an old couple who had been saved floating away in an ark, when gods decided to destroy the world by a flood. The latter has some striking resemblance to the Old Testament story of Noah, and to that of a Jataka Story of the Buddhists. The superficial resemblance does not mean that one story is borrowed from the other. The occurrence of this type of floods in and around Lanka became a reality with the recent Tsunami. A copper coin dated to around 1st Cent BC shows a standing female figure on a boat where the prow is prominently shown. This female figure is bathed by two elephants and a Railed Swastica on the reverse side of the coin is also mounted on a boat. “This coin could depict no other than Queen Viharamaha devi,” according to Mr. Dennis Fernando, a member of the Numismatist Society and an ardent researcher and writer of ancient history. This coin may have been issued by any of her progeny who ruled until the 1 Cent AD.
The Prows of ships were used on the reverse of 200 BC Roman republic coins of Janus the two headed God of beginning. The Prow represents the emblems of Commerce. This same tradition may have prevailed in Sri Lanka too. Dr S. Parnavitana believes that the standing Human Figure on all the Kalandas of Gold–would seem to stand on a sailing craft. These Kalanda of gold series of coin issued by the Manavamma dynasty [600-900 AD] of the later Anurhadapura kings, the craft is represented by a curved line partly consisting of dots and terminating in symbols at either ends of the prows. Viharamahadevi’s Statue at Viharamahadevi park in Colombo is depicted on a 50 Rupee note issued in 1970 during the time of Late Dr N.M. Perera, but this does not have her characteristic symbol, a Boat . The Sri Lankan Army Lady warriors depict her on their cap badge and flag, the Princess Vihare Maha Devi on a boat–the prow is in the shape of a Peacock. The cap badge having a close resemblance to the image on the coin.
The rare coins with a lady standing on a boat on the reverse which were dug up at Anurhadapura and Jaffna, have surfaced recently in the South of the island, near Ruhuna. Many are published in Raja Wickremasinghe’s book “Ruhuna–Revisited”. King Kavantissa and Queen Vihara reigned from Tissamaharama, Ruhuna and there are many rock inscriptions of that period, which refer to them, re-enforcing the story in the various Chronicles.