By: Prof. W I Siriweera,
The island was connected by sea routes with ports in the southern, western and north-eastern regions of the Indian Sub-Continent and also with ports in the Arab world as well as South-East Asian Kingdoms and through the latter with China. Several Sri Lankan ports played important roles in maritime trade carried through these sea-routes but the importance of some of these ports varied from time to time.
In the period prior to the thirteenth century Mahatittha or the great port, opposite Mannar on the north-western coast facing the Arabian Sea was the most important trading port of the Island. A large number of articles of foreign origin including coins and porcelain ware have been excavated at Mahatittha by archaeologists. In Sinhalese inscriptions and Pali chronicles Mahatittha is variously referred to as Mahavoti, Mahaputu, Mahavatu, Mahavatutota, Mahapattana and Matota while it is called Mattottam in Tamil. It was the most important port for vessels coming from South India and there was a strong South Indian element in the population of this port during most periods of history. Mahatittha located at the mouth of the Malvatu River had easy access to the capital Anuradhapura, which was located on the banks of the same river. However with the increased emphasis on the South-East Asian Sri Vijayan Kingdom as the main centre of entrepot trade after the seventh century A.D. the importance of the port of Mahatittha had diminished to some extent. Owing to this change even the capital Anuradhapura lost much of its attractiveness.
After the seventh century, the principle arena for the East-West exchange trade had shifted from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. Consequently there was an increasing interest in the north-eastern zone of Sri Lanka wherein was located Gokanna (Trincomalee) port. It is significant that between seventh and tenth centuries A.D. four Sinhalese Kings Aggabodhi IV, Aggabodhi VII, Udaya I and Sena I left Anuradhapura and ruled from the north-eastern city of Polonnaruwa, situated on the banks of the Mahaweli Ganga within easy access to Trincomalee.
Thus, the emergence of Polonnaruwa and the port of Gokanna is significant in terms of the changing patterns of trade in the Bay of Bengal and Sri Lanka’s interest in it. The South Indian Chola occupation of Polonnaruva (1017-1070) was partly motivated by the commercial policy of the Cholas aimed at controlling the western sea-board of Bay of the Bengal. The importance of Gokanna for the Bay of Bengal and South-East Asian trade was realized also by the Sinhalese rulers of Polonnaruva particularly Vijayabahu I (1070-1110) and Parakramabahu (1153-1186).
However Mahatittha did not completely lose its glamour in the period between the seventh and the twelfth centuries and it functioned as an important trading centre where South Indian merchants flourished. In addition to the ancient temple of Tiruketisvaram at Mahatittha another temple named Rajarajavarattu Mahadeva was constructed near the port in the eleventh century for the worship of the trading communities and soldiers living there by the Chola conqueror Rajarata I.
The new commercial policy of the southern Sung dynasty (1127-1278) of China deviated from the “tributary trading system” in south East Asian and South Asian waters. As a result, the role of the intermediaries in the Bay of Bengal trade declined drastically. Once again the coastal ports in India regained their eminent position in trade and the theatre of activity shifted from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea.
Mahatittha continued as the chief port of Rajarata at least up to the middle of the thirteenth century. The Rasavahini written in the Polonnaruva period implies that traders collected various commodities from Mahatittha and sold them in the interior. The Saddharmalankara refers to a merchant of Mavatupatuna who went eastwards for trade. However, by the fifteenth century Mahatittha appears no longer to be an important port. The Kokila Sandesa written during the reign of Parakramabahu VI of Kotte, in giving a description of the important places along the western littoral of the Island does not mention Mahatittha.
In the Jaffna Peninsula there were two important ports Jambukolapattana and Uraturai. Jambukolapattana which can be identified with modern Kankesanturai is not mentioned as a port of maritime commerce but was widely used as a port of embarkation and landing in the Anuradhapura period. Its importance is testified to by the fact that there was a connecting high road from Jambukolapattana to the capital Anuradhapura.
The other port in the Jaffna Peninsula, Uratota or modern Kayts attained importance as a port of maritime commercial activity especially during the time of the Polonnaruva kings. The Nainativu Tamil inscription datable to the reign of Parakramabahu I, suggests that foreign vessels laden with merchandise arrived at the port of Uraturai. This edict, besides proclaiming that foreign traders should be given the due protection, contains regulation regarding wrecked ships which brought in merchandise.
A Chola inscription datable to 1178 A.D. refers to the building of ships and the assembling of troops at Uraturai by Parakramabahu I during his South Indian campaigns. Both Jambukolapattana and Uraturai would have continued as important ports connecting South India and Jaffna even in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries A.D. as rulers of Jaffna maintained close contacts with South India.
Several other less important ports of the north, north western and eastern coast are referred to in the Culavamsa as ports of the Island in the twelfth century. The port from which Parakrambahu I’s expeditionary force set sail for Burma was Pallavavanka. This has been identified by Codrington as modern Palvakki four miles north of Kuchaveli. Although the Culavamsa reference is the only one made to this port it can be inferred that this was a port of some importance as it would not have been used as a base for a critical invasion had facilities for launching an invasion not been available there.
Colombo, the most important port of the island today was a town largely inhabited by Muslims whose presence there can be traced as far back as the tenth century A.D. According to Iban Batuta, Colombo (Kalanbu) was the greatest city of Serendib. When the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in the beginning of the sixteenth century Colombo was the island’s major port.