Early Sinhalese history has many heroes but very few heroines – with the notable exception of the legendary Queen Vihara Maha Devi. According to tradition, Vihara Maha Devi’s father – a certain King Tissa of Kelaniya – unjustly put to death a Buddhist monk, whereupon the waters of the ocean rose up and threatened to submerge his kingdom. The waters abated only when he sacrificed his pious and beautiful young daughter to the sea, placing her in a fragile boat and casting her off into the waves. The brave young princess, who had patiently submitted to this ordeal for the sake of her father’s kingdom, was carried away around the coast and finally washed ashore in Kirinda, near Tissa. The local king, the powerful Kavan Tissa, came upon the delectable princess as she lay asleep in her boat, fell in love with her, and promptly married her. Their first son, Dutugemunu, became one of the great heroes of early Sinhalese history.

Quite what the story of Vihara Maha Devi’s sea journey symbolizes is anyone’s guess (although since the 2004 tsunami the part of the story describing the catastrophic flooding of Kelaniya – which was previously regarded as a piece of colourful but entirely fanciful story-telling – has acquired a new significance and credibility). Whatever the legend’s basis, it provided the Sinhalese’s greatest warrior-king with a suitably auspicious parentage, and created Sri Lanka’s first great matriarch in the process.

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