Of all the two hundred or so kings who have ruled Sri Lanka over the past millennia, none is as revered as the semi-legendary Dutugemunu (reigned 161–137 BC), the great warrior prince turned Buddhist king whose personality – a compelling mixture of religious piety and anti-Tamil nationalism – continues to provide inspiration for many Sinhalese today.
Dutugemunu grew up during the reign of the Tamil general Elara, who seized control of Anuradhapura in around 205 BC and reigned there for 44 years. Much of the island remained outside the control of Anuradhapura, however, being ruled by various minor kings and chiefs who enjoyed virtual autonomy, although they may have professed some kind of token loyalty to Elara. The most important of these subsidiary kings was Kavan Tissa, husband of the legendary Queen Viharamahadevi. From his base in the city of Mahagama (modern Tissamaharama), Kavan Tissa gradually established control over the whole of the south. Despite his growing power, the naturally cautious Kavan Tissa demanded that his eldest son and heir, Gemunu, swear allegiance to Elara. On being asked to make this oath, the 12-year-old Gemunu threw his rice bowl from the table in a fury, saying he would prefer to starve rather than declare loyalty to a foreign overlord, and subsequently demonstrated his contempt for his father by sending him items of women’s clothing – all of which unfilial behaviour earned him the name of Dutugemunu, or “Gemunu the Disobedient”.
On the death of his father, Dutugemunu acceded to the throne. Having fought off an insurrection by his brother Saddhatissa (a clash marked by the great dagoba at Yudaganawa), Dutugemunu raised an army and set off to do battle armed with a spear with a Buddhist relic set into its shaft and accompanied by a large contingent of Buddhist monks, thus casting himself not only as a military leader, but also as the religious liberator of his island – the leader of a kind of Buddhist jihad. Dutugemunu’s campaign was a laborious affair. For some fifteen years he fought his way north, conquering the succession of minor kingdoms which lay between Mahagama and Anuradhapura, until he was finally able to engage Elara himself at Anuradhapura. After various preliminary skirmishes, Elara and Dutugemunu faced one another in single combat, each mounted on their elephants. A mighty tussle ensued, at the end of which Dutugemunu succeeded in spearing Elara, who fell lifeless to the ground.
Dutugemunu buried Elara with full honours, decreeing that anyone passing the defeated general’s tomb should dismount as a sign of respect – this decree was still apparently being obeyed in the early eighteenth century, some two thousand years later, though curiously enough, no one now knows where Elara’s tomb is located. His conquest complete, the new king began an orgy of building works at Anuradhapura, including the mighty Ruvanvalisaya dagoba, which Dutugemunu himself did not live to see finished. He is supposed to have looked on the unfinished structure from his deathbed and said, “In times past…I engaged in battles; now, singlehanded, I commence my last conflict – with death, and it is not permitted to me to overcome my enemy.”
As the leader who evicted the Tamils and united the island under Sinhalese rule for the first time, Dutugemunu is regarded as one of Sri Lanka’s great heroes (at least by the Sinhalese). Despite his exploits, however, the fragile unity he left at his death quickly collapsed under subsequent, less able rulers, and within 35 years, northern Sri Lanka had once again fallen to invaders from South India.