BY YASHASVI KANNANGARA
Although matriarchy is discussed and debated among the many scholars of history in the western world, it is a topic that has only marginally evoked the interest of the South Asian historian. While some believe a maternal social system is a myth founded on the communal organization and structure of Cretan, Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations of pre-historic Greece, others argue that its existence is signified by the queens and leaders of the ancient Egyptians, Spartans and Hopi of Native America.
Before the time of the Sinhala
When examining matriarchal characteristics in early Sri Lankan sovereignty, one finds that royalty predominantly preferred a paternal throne. However the system of governance prior to the arrival of Vijaya and his 700 followers from West Bengal, India, was not dominated by patriarchy. At the time, the island was inhabited by the ancient tribes, Yakkha and Naga. Vijaya's men upon arrival came upon the Queen of the Yakkhas, Kuveni. Thus, according to the script of Mahavamsa, it was a queen who held the role of ruler and tribe leader in 5th Century BC, Sri Lanka. Her marriage to Vijaya, led her to bear a son, Jivahata, and daughter, Disal, marking the beginning of the Sinhala race. Even today Kuveni is venerated as Maha Loku Kiriammaleththo by the Veddah community. She is still looked upon as a woman of great power and influence.
The reign of the kings of Lanka was established with the crowning of Vijaya in approximately 543 BC. Many kings and prices followed his sovereignty. Four renowned queens also governed the Island between the periods of 47 BC - 1210 AC. Although social order during their time in power was not ideally matriarchal, female rulers were accepted, honoured and respected similar to their male counterparts. Historians believe that the chief queen played a significant role in royal succession and participated in the coronation of the king. It is also acknowledged that the development in the ruling system required the king be royally connected in both the father and the mother's lineage in order to inherit the throne. Buddhist stupa and vihara were named after royal women such as the Somavati cheitya in honour of his Queen Somadevi and the Anula pavata after Queen Anula. They were also heirs to imperial assets and land that they donated to the sasana at their discretion.
Queens of Sri Lanka
Queen Anula, the first queen of Sri Lanka, and perhaps Asia, reigned between 47 BC – 42 BC during the Kingdom of Anuradhapura. The consort of King Chora Naga, Queen Anula rose to power, ruling for a period of five years before being killed by King Kutakanna Tissa. She poisoned and killed her spouses and consorts, marrying four times in the course of five years, thereby ruling in her own right. Another female monarch of Anuradhapura, Queen Seevali, also known as Revati, ascended the throne in 33 AD and ruled for 35 years. She succeeded her brother Chulabhaya as Queen of Anuradhapura and the rightful heir of the ruling house.
By 11 century AD, the capital of the island was shifted to Polonnaruwa from Anuradhapura owing to south Indian invasions. The third queen who governed the country, Queen Leelawathi, is said to have reigned during this period. The wife of King Parakaramabahu, Queen Leeelawathi 's time of governance occurred in three separate stages and totalled five years as a whole. She ruled for three years from 1197 - 1200 AC, for an year in 1210 AC, for seven months in 1212 AC, and once again, for an year from 1211 - 1212 AC. Leelawathi was praised in the writings of Sasadavata and the Dhatuvamsa. She is said to have established an alms house in Anuradhapura in order to feed the poor which was funded with the taxes levied from South Indian traders operating in Sri Lanka. Her successor Queen Kalyanawati, ruled after Lilavati's second time as queen between 1202 - 1210 AC. She presided over the islanders for eight long years during the kingdom of Polonnaruwa and is said to have been the second queen of King Nissanka Malla. According to the Batalagoda inscription, Kalyanawathi ruled over three autonomous provinces. She was also recognized as a just and pious leader devoted to the cause of Buddhism. While she constructed many stupa during her sovereignty, the country benefitted greatly through her peaceful reign. Coins were issued under the patronage of both these queens.
Elements of female supremacy
While some members of the female royalty did not ascend the throne, they were active participants of the country's political history. Instances of political influence exhibited by the queens of Sri Lanka are noteworthy; such as the rebellion led by the Queen Mother of King Sena II against him or the civil war executed by King Vijayabahu's sister, Mitta, and her sons, after his demise.
While the absolute essence of true matriarchy, that being of a family, community, or society that is ruled by women, especially one in which women also own and control property, is not wholly evident in ancient Sri Lanka, matriarchal sovereignty or the representation and acceptance of female rulers by society cannot be disregarded nor overlooked.