The kings of ancient Anuradhapura set great store by their shows of piety and beneficence – though in reality they often fell somewhat short of the ideals that they claimed to embody. The true murkiness of the Anuradhapuran royal character is famously encapsulated by the story of King Yasalalakatissa (reigned 52–60), who had seized the throne by murdering his brother. Yasalalakatissa had a weakness for practical jokes. Upon discovering an uncanny resemblance between himself and a palace gatekeeper called Subha, he swapped clothes with Subha in order to enjoy the spectacle of the island’s nobles paying homage to a lowly servant. So greatly did this amuse Yasalalakatissa that he had the prank repeated several times, until one day Subha, playing the role of king, ordered the execution of his “gatekeeper” for impertinence. Yasalalakatissa’s claims to be the real king were met with disbelief, and he was promptly murdered. It says something about the debased standards of the Anuradhapuran monarchy that even when Subha’s deception was unmasked, he was allowed to rule for a further six years before being assassinated in turn.

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