Midweek Review
The Persian connection
ELARA: Wonderful saga of travellers tales – I

by D. G. B.de Silva
The legendary ruler, Kosraw I Anosharavan, who, it is said in the Persian tales, had a bell of justice hung in his bed chamber with a rope attached with its end in the street which man, beast or bird whoever was aggrieved could pull seeking justice from the ruler, say the ancient Iranian poets, had decreed that a mausoleum must be built for him ‘ "like a goodly palace and in a secluded place where men do not pass and the swift- winged vulture does not fly". The structure, he ordained, ‘must be a lofty one adorned with inscriptions telling of his court, nobles, and warriors of his army; it must be enriched with tapestries and strewings of every kind, colourful decorations and perfumes’.

When I came across these tales both written and orally transmitted, during my wondering for three years in the pastoral steppes of the land of Shehrazade looking for traces of the ancient caravan tracks that linked the lands of Cathay and Hind with those of the Mediterranean, the so called Silk Route; many times following the migratory track along the Caspian Sea through which Aryan hordes reached the West; and even tracing part of the terrifying snow bound route that Xenophan followed in his retreat, I was struck by their familiarity. In our own and in the Tamil Sangam tradition we had read about the king with the bell of justice, the story of the cow seeking justice and the punishment meted out to the king’s son for killing the calf (Sangam), the complaint of the bird, that of the old woman who could not dry her paddy. They are also preserved to varying extent in the Persian memory. Above all, it was the record of the funerary rites ordained for Persian monarchs which attracted my greater attention because of its seeming affinity with the elaborate account given in Mahavamsa about the funerary rites accorded to King Elara. The Chronicle gives the following description:

"In the city he caused the drums to be beaten, and when he had summoned the people from a yojana around he celebrated the funeral rites for king Elara. [The exact terminology used (pujam Elara rajino) should mean that King Elara was honoured (pujam)]. On the spot where his body had fallen he burned it with the catafulque, and there did he build a monument and order worship/ And even to this day the princes of Lanka, when they draw near to this place, are wont to silence their music because of this worship."

The Mahavamsa Tika gives additional information that the king had ordained that princess in future should honour the edifice by perambulating it and offering flowers and incense.

Elara ‘Sohona’

Commenting on the Mahavamsa account Dr. James Rutnam, who observed that the ancient king’s decree was followed to the British days quoted Marshall in his book on ‘Ceylon’ recording that Keppetipola, the Kandyan chief running away from pursuing British forces after the failure of the Rebellion getting off his litter when nearing the spot where Elara’s monument was and walking the distance until his bearers informed him that he had passed the place. Dr. Rutnam saw Dutthagamani’s action as sheer chivalry on the part of the Sinhalese king. His purpose however, was more to expose how modern man had disregarded the ancient king’s decree in the pursuit of partisan ethnic objectives. It would seem, for him even Keppetipola’s action may have appeared to have something to do with his Tamil ancestry. Didn’t he chuckle over this ancestry when he said Keppetipola, the Kandyan hero was not the only one?

Dr. Rutnam has a point on his reference to Dutthagamani’s chivalry but one cannot agree with his latter argument. This chivalry on the part of the king is an aspect that had been overlooked in the process of building up his personality in the chronicles and other texts, by placing emphasis exclusively on his military exploits and contribution to the Buddha Sasana. Aren’t the ancient compilers as well as modern writers guilty of this distortion? The result is that chivalry, which distinguishes Dutthagamani from many a sovereign round the world who sat on their respective thrones, and the noble human quality in the king’s personality which should have stood above all other attributes had got sidetracked and forgotten. Bhikku Dhammavihari [formerly, Prof. Jotiya Dheerasekara], pointed out in a learned discourse which he repeated in the newspapers recently, how even modern writers had contributed to building up the war-like qualities of Dutthagamani. For example, he showed how Bhikku Walpola Rahula had ‘thrilled’ his Sorbourne audiences by introducing the idea that King Dutthagamani uttered a ‘war cry’ before going to war with Elara!

I do not agree with Dr. Rutnam’s other suggestion that Dr. S. Paranavitana meant to slight the memory of Elara by identifying the site of so called ‘Elara Sohona’ as Dhakkinathupa, or with his caustic remark that probably the Medical Officer was sleeping over Elara’s remains. Obviously, Dr. Rutnam did not know that it was Hugh Nevill, a former Assistant Government Agent at Anuradhapura, who first contested the popular belief about ‘Elara Sohona’ and suggested that the Medical Officer was probably sleeping over the grave, and Paranavitana only continued the research scientifically. Hugh Nevill was also the one who pointed out the grave error of mixing up the identification of Jetavanaramaya and Abhayagiriya by H. C. P. Bell. But, Bell carried on regardless until it was corrected by his successors.

Dr. Rutnam also failed to see that there was no Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist in the uncompromising hard professional that Dr. Paranavitana was, and that he was no Buddhist to have any such sentiments but a Christian who seems to have benefited in his Department by belonging to that faith during the days of the British raj. Many are silent on this point. If at all, it was when he identified ‘Abhiseka Buddha’ referred to in Culavamsa as an image of Jesus Christ that the hidden Christian in him showed up! Dr. Rutnam could have found this when he collected Dr. Paranavitana’s personal papers after his death and carried them to Jaffna [Now in the Jaffna University]. The very fact that no Sinhalese was interested in his personal papers should go to show that they did not see any thing other than true professionalism in him.

Dr. Rutnam also overlooked the fact the physical desecration of the so called ‘Elara Sohona’ had begun with a largely non-Sinhalese new population moving into the township of Anuradhapura when they had begun to use the trench that H. C. P. Bell had cut into its mound, [This was later discovered to be the Dakkhina Thupa], as a common toilet so much so that Dr. Paranavitana’s men who reopened it had to remove layers of human excreta before they could reach the soil level. And Ponnambalam Ramanathan had been claiming [in the latter part of the 19th century] that Jaffna Tamils had colonised Anuradhapura! Did these new settlers when using the trench ever think that they were defiling the tomb of Elara, the ‘Tamil’ hero, whom Dutthagamini honoured by ordaining worship, or, as Dr. Rutnam said, whose name Tamil fishermen glorify to the refrain of "E..-l-l-a -l..o." while pulling their fishing crafts ashore? [The Sinhalese heard the same refrain differently in their popular version: ‘He-la-he..ley- Hele-y-yo’ and I believe that any wording would be a solace to relieve the weary fishermen!]. What chivalry on the part of the modern man who had come to make quick money when it comes to his basic needs? Perhaps, the men on the trench at Anuradhapura at dawn had no time to think of Elara but enjoy the pleasure of relief like the proverbial monkey in similar circumstances and get away from the spot before the guards came for duty!

Of all the rulers who ascended the throne in Sri Lanka, Elara, who was a ruler of foreign origin [‘a prince’ (Khattiyo) named Elara, according to Dipavamsa, and Uju jatiko’, i.e., hailing from the ‘Uju’ tribe or from the land by that name according to Mahavamsa. The latter also refers to him as a ‘Damilo’ who came from the Cola country. He has the singular distinction of being mentioned in the Great Chronicle as having received the honours fit for a king after his fall in battle with Dutthagamani. One is reminded of the Indian ruler Poros [Puru] whom Alexander vanquished after a hard fought battle when asked how he should be treated told Alexander that he liked to be treated ‘like a king.’

The suggestion is not that other Sri Lankan rulers may not have received such honours but the Sri Lankan Chronicles and other records make no reference to the manner their mortal remains were disposed of. This is very intriguing. The chronicler’s account of King Dutthagamani’s end is enveloped in superstitious and miraculous beliefs rather than in reality.

Except for this the chronicles are silent about the way the mortal remains of other rulers were disposed of. Even if one may explain this as typical Buddhist approach to the subject of death, one does not find that lion-valoured king, Rajasimha of Sitawaka who in search of a way to expiate the sin of patricide converted to Hinduism and even handed over Adam’s Peak to the Yogis getting any mention even in that poem Parangi Hatana as far as his last rites were concerned. There is only a popular ballad which refers to the way that his death was caused by a bamboo splinter; and the sorrow of the people, not so much for him but at the loss of a leader. The reference to ‘Adahana-maluwa’ in Kandy seems to suggest that there was a particular place assigned for the cremation of bodies of rulers. That is all!

Other References

An interesting foreign reference is recorded by Soleyman, the Arab merchant travel writer of the pre-ninth century when Baghdad was at its "highest prosperity". After a detailed description of Adam’s Peak and the products of the Island, he describes how on the death of the chief ruler hits body was disposed of in the following terms:

"The body was placed on a low carriage, with the head declining till the hair swept the ground, and, as it was drawn slowly along, a female, with a bunch of leaves, swept dust upon the features, crying: "Men, behold your king, whose will, but yesterday, was law! Today, he bids farewell to the world, and the Angels of Death has seized his spirit. Cease, any longer, to be deluded by the shadowy pleasure of life." At the conclusion of this ceremony, which lasted for three days, the corpse was consumed in a pyre of sandal, camphor, and aromatic woods, and the ashes scattered to the winds. The widow of the king was sometimes burnt with his remains, but compliance with the custom was not held to be compulsory." [Emerson Tennent].

There are in this account of Soleyman, features which are Buddhist as well as non-Buddhist. The advice ‘not to be deluded by shadowy pleasure of life’ very much sounds like the sermon that Buddhist monks deliver at funerals emphasising the ‘impermanence’ of things. In fact, the didactic verse in the chapter ending Magha’s account in the Culavamsa very much resembles this passage. However, the reference to the Sati practice followed by widows of rulers in India is not supported by evidence in Sri Lanka. It is possible that the Arab writer had mixed up his information.

Robert Knox writing in the 17th century gives greater details of funeral practices of the Sinhalese including those of noble persons but not of rulers. There has been a rudimentary form of embalming and preserving bodies before disposal in the case of important personages, perhaps, a relic of a more elaborate ancient custom, but the practice does not seem to accord with strict Buddhist practice, or with the popular superstition about dead bodies. [‘Killa’ or agent of pollution]. After describing the manner in which women lament at the death of their husbands the same authority states that the ‘women do so [lament] more for fashion than affection, never overwhelmed with grief and affection, and their care is to get other husbands."

Singular Distinction

It is this manner of honouring the monument, i.e., sepulchre or the ‘Astodan’ as the Greeks called it, that deserves greater attention. What does one make out of this singular distinction shown in honouring the mortal remains of Elara and the way funerary rites were carried out? Can it be explained away as a case of sheer chivalry?

It is easy to understand the reference if one were to take a peep into the customs followed in respect of Persian rulers about which we are in possession of some interesting accounts, the only difference being that the Persians did not cremate their dead bodies because that would be polluting their all important fire god. Elara’s cremation took place in a land where cremation was the normal practice followed in respect of the disposal of remains of the royalty and Buddhist monks.

The following description by a tenth century Persian poet on arrangements made for preservation of the body of the deceased king of his land in times of yore should give an idea of the then prevalent concepts about the disposal of mortal remains of their royal personages:

Embalm my corpse with camphor and arrange

A crown of musk upon the head thereof,

Bring forth five pieces never handled yet

Of cloth of gold and of Chinese brocade

And garb me in them royal mode (brasm-I kayan)

In the tradition of Sassanian kings.

Prepare an ivory throne, also in the same mode

With crown suspended over the throne,

And let the golden vessels that I used

The goblets and censers and the cups -

A score filled with rose-water, saffron, wine,

Ten score with camphor, musk and ambergris -

Be set upon my left hand and my right,

No more or less, for such is my command.

Drain from my trunk the blood, and afterwards

Let the dry space be filled with musk and camphor,

Then block the passage of the tomb

Let no one see the king (again). "

The time to which Dutthagamani and Elara belonged [2nd C.B.C.] was contemporaneous with the rule of mighty Persian emperors of the Parthian dynasty who succeeded to the fortunes of the Achaemeneid [Hakamanish] emperors. The Parthians [Aracids] like their predecessors controlled the inland caravan routes to India and China and had penetrated into the Indian Ocean trade which went through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Their vessels were already traversing deep into Eastern lands and their coins were in circulation in India. One coin of Mitradates Eupator [113-6 B.C.] has also been discovered in Sri Lanka. By the Sangam age in the early Christian era the presence of Yavana [a term used loosely] soldiers in the city of Madura was noted and is confirmed also by the Roman coins found in South India and Sri Lanka. In the Deccan, contemporaneously with Elara and Dutthagamani, the Satavahanas, a people, probably, with foreign roots to the North-west of India who intermarried with local ruling families, had established themselves on the ruins of the Sunga empire. The links with West Asia should not, therefore, come as a surprise.

Persian funerarv customs

To come to more reliable sources, the Vendidad, the Zorostrian t

ext, ordains that the corpse, since it is possessed by the Death - demon, and is capable of defiling the "holy creations" of fire, water [ap] and earth, and as such, it must be carried to the highest places [daxmas] where corpse devouring dogs and birds may swiftly remove all that is corruptible of the body, leaving only the cleansed bones; and these are to remain exposed to sun and rain for one year when they are considered non-polluting and may be taken to a receptacle [Usdana glossed as Astodan], built of permanent materials, set in a place inaccessible to dogs, wolves, foxes and rain water. If such a place is far away and they find it easier to remove their hut or tent, they leave the body on the spot and abandon their dwelling.

The Persians were nomadic tribes who originated from central Asian steppes and for whom cleanliness of the environment where they pitched their tents and grazed their flocks was very important. They considered the human corpse to be a great source of pollution and had evolved the practice of carrying the dead bodies far away from their habitations. Perhaps, corpses were also likely to attract predatory animals which could have become a threat to their flocks.

This relic of the nomadic custom of leaving the corpse in an isolated place to be devoured by scavenging animals and birds had its exceptions in ancient Iran. According to Yenidad, the building of an orsuary, embodying the remains was obligatory only to the wealthy. People without means were allowed to bury the cleansed bones in the ground.

With the evidence of Greek historians one moves on to more reliable information on Persian funerary customs. Herodotus observed the practice of embalming when he wrote that "dead bodies are covered with wax and then buried in the ground." Arrain, who describes that the coffin of Cyrus the Great [Kurush] was made of gold, says that the body of the king "was laid in a golden sarcophagus, placed upon a divan with feet of wrought gold, and underneath the divan were purple rugs, and its coverlet was of Babylonian carpets. The following items were placed on the divan: a tunic and vests, also of Babylonian workmanship, Median trousers and robes dyed blue, purple and other colours, swords, two Scythian bows, a shield, earrings of stones set in gold, and necklaces; and a table with cups stood by the divan".

Archeological excavations in ancient Persian sites have revealed evidence of exception to the custom in the form of buried corpses in many places confirming that the religious belief of causing pollution to the earth and water through such burial was not fully observed. Perhaps during war campaigns the ceremonial could not be observed and the dead had to be buried, cremation being out of question as that would pollute the all important fire god. Perhaps, the Megalithic custom of burial of bones in earthen pots with lids or in circular sealed chambers was the result of the efforts to minimize the pollution of the environment. The megalithic people who left their skeletal remains in buried pots in Persia, India and even in Sri Lanka [near Trincomalee and at Pomparippu] seem to present evidenee of problems faced by a migrant population in interring the remains of the dead fiollowing their own customs. As Dr. Karthigesu Indrapala observed, those who came for the pearl fisheries [and trade] in Sri Lanka probably left behind the megalithic evidence.

Adding to this knowledge are the number of rock-cut tombs of the royalty found in Naqsh-i-Rustam near Persipolis [I visited these now empty tombs cut on the cliff a few meters above present ground level several times] and several other places, the contents of which have been removed by invaders and vandals. A late Achemeneid bronze coffn was found in Susa and bath-shaped copper coffins were discovered in Ur. This is in contrast to the situation in Egypt where the evidence of burial of preserved bodies is overwhelming. In China too the bodies of Ming emperors lie underneath the series of tombs some miles North-West of Beijing one of which was accidentally exposed [I had the privilege of being one of the first to enter this tomb when it was exposed in the late 1950s].

As for the Parthian rulers of Persia who were contemporaries of Elara, again we have the evidence of foreign writers. Justin who while reporting on the common method of disposing of the dead says, the Aracid [Parthian] kings were entombed in royal sepulchers/tombs first in Nisa and later near Arbela. Since their predecessors, the Achemeneids and successors, the Sassanians were embalmed, it is likely, that that method of embalming bodies was used in respect of Parthian rulers too. In the case of Elara the body had been cremated which makes the only difference. That was done in a foreign country and on the command of a foreign ruler.

What is the conclusion? Is the correspondence I have shown convincing enough to decide if Elara received a Persian funerary service? If not please wait for my next article on the Elara- Dutthagamani Saga. That is provided the Editor would concede space.