JAYAWARDHANAPURA: The capital of the kingdom of Sri Lanka 1400-1565 A. D.

JAYAWARDHANAPURA Kotte, as its name indicates was originally a fortified city; the word Kotte, is derived from the Malayalam word Kottei  (fortress). Jayawardhanapura  meaning victory enhancing city in Sinhala, was the name assigned to the place by its founder Nissanka Alagakkonara (Prahhuraja)  (1340-1380)1.

This fortified city was constructed with a view to facing a possible attack from the King of Jaffna who had declared himself to be the supreme ruler of Sri Lanka and thought that by collecting tribute from the rulers and chieftains of the South; and with the help of a large naval force he could exercise his authority forcefully 2. His forces and agents were stationed at various ports of the island in order to collect revenue and to take part in the lucrative inter­national trade 3. By about the year 1350 the King of Jaffna was the unrivalled chief of Sri Lanka 4. Nissanka Alagakkonara who was the chieftain at Rayigama, launched an ambitious plan, with the blessings of Vickramabahu III (1444-54), the Sinhala King of Gampola, to challenge the authority of the King of Jaffna 5.

Nissanka Alagakkonara spent the first twenty years of his rule building the fort. He followed the traditionally accepted principles in fort building known to him 6. Contemporary writers have compared the fort of Jayawardhanapura with Miyulunuwara which is described in the Ummagga Jataka 7. The Nikayasangrahaya  and the Saddharmaratnakaraya  while describing the fortification arrangements made by Alagakkonara, bring to memory the shrewdness and cunning of Mahausada, found in the Ummagga Jataka  story of the fortification of Miyulunuwara. Mahausada has been regarded by the Sinhala monarchs and rulers as a successful ruler.

Nissanka Alagakkonara did his very best to imitate this well-known Bodhisatva. This is reflected in his arrangements regarding the building of Jayawardhanapura Kotte.10

The place where Jayawardhanapura was built was previously a village known as Darugama 11. Although demographic statistics are not available it is possible that the entire village was populated by one extended family numbering about one hundred people12 .This village was surrounded by marshy land and bordered by two rivers on three sides. The Diyawanna Oya and the Kolonna Oya joined into one river at Darugama. On the South there was a narrow stretch of land connecting the village to the mainland. Thus Darugama was protected by nature because of its inaccessibility. The contemporaries called it Panka Durga  13. The location was also important. It was in proximity to the busy port of Colombo and was within a reasonable distance from Rayigama where the Alagakkonara family resided. It was also possible to control, from this place, the trade route from Colombo to the hinterland where most of the trading commodities were produced 14.

Nissanka utilized local labour as well as foreign expertise, which he probably received from South India. The tradition embodied in the Ummagga Jataka  with regard to the building of Miylunuwara the new capital of King Brahmadatta refers to the moats around the city15 . They were moats one filled with water, another filled with mud and the other a deep empty ditch. The moat with water was the one that was closest to the city wall. Nikayasangrahaya, however, while referring to the fortification arrangements does not mention anything other than a canal filled with water 16. The width of the moat varied according to the landscape. Crocodiles were put into it thus making it difficult for the enemy to cross the waters 17.

Defensive arrangements were made on the wall that was constructed at the end of the moat. At the outside edge of the top arrows were planted so that the enemy would find it hard to tread on it. There were also, what is known as pulimukam  (tiger’s face) i. e. a sort of a trap built on the top of the wall 18. It was a deep pit, the mouth of which was covered so the enemy could not know there was a barrier. A catapult like weapon known as idangani  was set up on the wall in order to aim at targets on the other side of the moat 19. On the wall there were watch towers called attala  at reasonable intervals 20 .A soldier inside it, could keep a watch over the enemy outside. There was also a kind of cavalier called vatta vettam  built on the wall for the soldiers to hide so that they may not be seen by the enemy. Four devales were built on the four corners of the rampart and were dedicated to the four guardian gods’ of the Island of Sri Lanka.21 The names of these gods are mentioned as Kihirali, Saman Boksal, Vibhisana and Skandha Kumara.22 These names, however, are different from the names tradi­tionally assigned to them Drutarashtra, Virudha, Virupaksa and Vaisharavana.23 The devales were large enough to accommodate a crowd of about two hundred people. Drummers, singers, players of musical instruments and dancers were assigned places in these buildings. The Brahmins who were appointed to look after the devales were provided accommodation, within the fort.24

The rampart had four gates facing the four directions. These gates were referred to as vasal.  The main gate and the one, which was mostly in use, was the one that faced the south. This gate and the street that led from there to the palace were called Magul veediya  and magul doratuwa. The entrances were decorated with pandals with makara  designs on it. Large wooden gates covered the visibility of the interior of the fort 25. The moat had to be crossed by way of the bridges placed at the gates. The bridges were raised when not in use. They were nevertheless; strong enough to bear the weight of royal elephants, carts, horses and armies. A sharp look was kept over the people who crossed the brkiges.26

The people who lived within the fort were mostly service personnel. They were connected with the armed forces in some way. They had sufficient food to sustain long sieges by the enemy. The storage for food was provided in the fort. There were separate buildings for the storage of rice, coconut, salt and chillies.27 Firewood was collected in a separate building. Some large wells were also dug so that the city would be self-sufficient in its water supply. The fort was used in Alagakkonara’s war against the King of Jaffna. The ability of Alagakkonara to repel the repeated attacks of the enemy proved that Kotte was up to the standards of traditional fort building 28.

Jayawardhanapura became the metropolis in the political, cultural and economic fields of Sri Lanka after 1414 when Parakramabahu VI made it the capital of his kingdom.29 He took three years to prepare the fort and to upgrade the city to the standard of the capital of the kingdom 30. During that period he lived at Rayigama and supervised the building work.31

The symbols of kingship at that time were the throne and the sacred tooth relic.32 In order to house them; he built two separate three storied palaces. Apartments for the royal family and the household servants of the king were also constructed.33

The king’s palace was the largest building. It was also, the central place in the capital. It also consisted of three stories 34. The royal chambers were at the top most floor of the palace. The sleeping apartments of the royal family were in it. The queen and her children lived with the king in this floor 35. The royal treasury where precious metal, gems and ivory were stored was in the first floor of the palace 36. The gold silver and copper coins were also stored in it. The ground floor was set aside for the king’s court and the throne.37

The temple of tile tooth relic was built adjoining the royal palace. There was direct access from the royal palace to the temple. The tooth relic was placed on the topmost floor. The contemporary poets have often mentioned the golden casket placed at the top of this building 38. The incumbent priest of the temple and his assistants also were able to reside in the living quarters built for them inside the fort 39.

There was a system of roads built within the fort. They were wide enough for two horse drawn carriages to travel. The roads were cart tracks and became muddy during the rainy season and dusty during the drought. Palanquin-bearers, horse riders and pedestrians also used these roads. The roads connected the king’s palace with’ the four main gates of the fort.40 The popular road was the one that led to Pita Kotte (outer city) through the southern gate of the city.

The four gates were blind gates made of iron and wood. They were opened only for authorized vehicles or a person with royal permission. The outer gates formed a bridge. When they were opened it was possible to cross the city moat. The members of the royal family, the courtiers and the workers in the city were allowed entry to the inner city (antahpura)  under normal circumstances.41

The gates of the fort were heavily guarded by armed soldiers. The royal palace also had guards. In addition the gates of the fort and the doors of the palace could be locked so that it was impossible for an enemy to enter without breaking open the doors and gates.42

Jayawardhanapura, being the capital of the chief kingdom of Sri Lanka had a vast amount of treasure stored in it.43 The tributory kings brought precious metal and other valuable items when they came annually, to Kotte to pay homage to the King.44 The pearl fishers at Chilaw, elephant catchers in the Vanni and gem cutters in Sabaragamuwa had to send the king’s dues to Jayawardhanapura.45 They were collected in the coffers and boxes in the royal treasury.46

Most of these treasures were lost, however, in 1521 when the famous looting incident referred to as Vijayaba Kollaya (looting of Vijayaba) took place.47 The king’s treasury was looted by the people who gathered into the city when Mayadunne entered the city with his followers to kill Vijayabahu VI. (1513-1521). When the looting turned out to be a menace, orders were dispatched to stop it. But it was too late.48 Most of the valuable treasures were already lost and were never replaced afterwards.

Another such event took place in 1551, when Bhuvanekabahu VII (1521-1551) died. The Portuguese Viceroy in Goa, Affonso da Noronna, who was well known for greedy plunder, arrived in Kotte on hearing, the news of Bhuvanekabahu’s death. He took away whatever he could lay his hands on. One writer cynically says that even the gold spittoon of the late king was stolen by him.49

One could argue that Jayawardhanapura ceased to be the metropolis in Sri Lanka after 1521 when the kingdom of Kotte was partitioned into three rival kingdoms. The territorial limits of the kingdom shrank. So did the revenue. The latter deteriorated further on account of unending war with the king of Sitavaka. The Portuguese guardians of the kings of Kotte also took a large share of income from Kotte as tribute. 50

The situation further deteriorated after the death of Bhuvanekabahu VII in 1551. His successor, Dharmapala was a weak king. He depended on the Portuguese for his security. The Catholic Church became the custodian of and adviser to the king. At this juncture the political and religious balance maintained by Bhuvanekabahu VII collapsed. The Buddhist monks had to seek refuge elsewhere.51 Most of them migrated to the Sitavaka and the Kandyan kingdoms. One important symbol of the Sinhala Kingdom, the Sacred tooth relic, was smuggled out of Jayawardhanapura and taken to Sitavaka.52

The final blow, however, came from the formidable army of the Sitavaka kingdom led by Rajasinha I. In 1565 he besieged Kotte and Colombo.53 The Portuguese found it difficult to offer resistance in two places. Thus they abandoned Kotte and concentrated their attention only on Colombo, which was also on the verge of collapse. The Sitavaka army leveled the city of Jayawardhanapura to the ground. The city walls, moat, and the palaces were demolished and burnt. Within a short time after this event, jungle took over the ruined city.54

G. P. V. Somaratne

The above article has been reproduced from ‘The Sri Lanka Archives’, Vol II, 1984. A Singhalese translation of above also appears in the Guide Book on Kotte published by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.


  1. The original Sanskrit word for fort is Koshta. The Alagakkonara family being originally from kerala were familiar with the Malayalam word Kottei. See for further information N. Mudiyanse, The Art and Architecture of the Gampola period, Colombo, 1968 pp.7—11; Ray, H. C. (ed.) University of Ceylon, History of Ceylon, Vol.1, Part II, 1960, pp. 691—702 ; K. M. de Silva, A History of Sri Lanka, Delhi, 1981, P. 86.
  2. S. Pathmanathan, The Kingdom of Jaffna, Colombo, 1978, pp. 218-255.
  3. S. Patanavithana, “The Arya Kingdom in North Ceylon, ”Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series, Vol. VII, Pt. 2, 1961, p. 212 (Hereafter JRASCBNS) Mahdi Hussain, tr. The Rehla of Ibn Batuta, Gaekward’s Oriental Series, No. CXXII, Baroda, 1953, PP. 217—8 and p. 224.
  4. Alakesvarayuddhaya. ed. hy A. V. Suravira, Colombo, 1965, p. 19; JRASCBNS, Vol. VII 1961, pp. 197—200.
  5. H. W. Codrington, “The Gampola Period of Ceylon History” JRASCB, Vol. XXXII, 1932, pp.272—277; Paranavitara, JRASCBNS, Vol. VII, 1961 ; p. 214.
  6. Ray, H. C., University of Ceylon, History of Ceylon, Vol. 1, pt. 11, p. 645 An account of traditional fort building is found in the contemporary Sinhalese work. Ummagga Jataka ed. by Batuvantudave, revised edition, Colombo 1978, p. 70, JRASCB, Vol. XXXII, 1932 p., 275.
  7. Ummagga Jataka., p. 70, p.89, and p. 117 Nikayasangrahaya,ed. by Munidasa Kumaratunga, Colombo.1929, p. 23.
  8. Nikayasangrahaya P., 23.
  9. “Niyanagampaya inscription of Saka Year, 1295,” Mudiyanse, Gampola Period, p. 183.
  10. Alakesvarayaddhaya, pp. 19—20.
  11. Saddharmaratnakaraya, ed. by K. D. S. S. Devanandabhidana, Colombo, 1955, p. 316 Nikayasangrahaya, p. 22; Rajavaliya, p. 207.
  12. The village is known as Darugramaya in the Nikayasangrahaya. The suffix gramaya is an indication of the fact that it was inhabited by people. Rajaratnanakaraya ed. by P. W. Tissera, Colombo, 1929, p. 42.
  13. Culavamsa, Part II, Tr. by W. Geiger, Colombo, 1953, chap. 91, V. 7 The village is called Darurugama in this work.
  14. K. M. de Silva, A History of Sri Lanka, p. 86.
  15. The History of Ceylon, from the earliest times to A.D. 1600 as related by, Joao de Barros and Diogo de Couto tr.ed. by Donald Ferguson,JRASCB, Vol.XX 1908, p. 216 Ummagga Jataka, p.70 and p. 117.
  16. Girasandesaya; ed. by Kumaratunga Munidasa, Colombo, 1963, V. 15; Nikayasangrahaya, p. 22; Saddharmaratnakaraya, p. 316.
  17. ibid. The canal in the Ummagga Jataka on the other hand had fish and five types of water lilies planted in it. (p. 70).; Hansasandesaya, ed. by K. D. P. Wickramasinghe, Colombo, p. 955; V. 14.
  18. Nikayasangrahaya. p. 22; Ummagga Jataka, p. 70.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Alakesvarayuddhaya, p. 20.
  21. University of Ceylon, History of Cevlon, Vol. 1, pt. II, p. 645.
  22. Nikayasangrahaya, p. 23.
  23. Epigraphia Zeylanica, V81. IV, p. 266.; Sandakindurudakawa, ed. by Dhammananda, Colonibo, 1931, p. 391.
  24. Nikayasangrahaya, p. 23
  25. Hansa Sandesaya, V. 24.
  26. Hansa Sandesaya, V. 65.
  27. The Gate facing Kontagantota was approached by ferries;       Nikayasangrahaya, p. 23;       Alakesvara Yuddhaya, p. 20.       Ummagga Jatakaya, p. 70.
  28. Rajavaliya. p. 207.
  29. K. M. de Silva, A History of Sri Lanka, p. 87.
  30. G. P. V. Somaratne, Political History of the Kingdom of Kotte, Nugegoda, 1975, pp. 90—96.
  31. Alakesvara Yuddhaya, p.21.
  32. University of Ceylon. History of Ceylon, Vol. pt. 2, p. 758 Although the temple of the Tooth Relic was built next to the Kings residence for reasons of security, the military guard set up there is said to have been equal to that at the Royal Palace. The King went to worship the relic everyday. (Culavamsa, II ch. 71, VV. 31 if. “Kandavura Sirita,”; D. B. Jayatilake, Sinhala Sahitya Lipi, Colombo, 1965 ; p. 67.
  33. Alakesvarayuddhaya, p. 23.
  34. Alakesvarayuddhaya, p. 32.
  35. Rajavaliya, p. 216; Pepliyana inscription in D. B. Jayatilake’s Katikavatsangrawa, Colombo, 1955, p. 40.
  36. Alakesvarayuddhaya, p. 32; Rajavaliya, p. 216
  37. Hansasandesaya, VV. 49—64 ; Rajaratnakaraya, p. 43.
  38. University of Ceylon, History of Ceylon, Vol. I p. 61, p. 758 ; Culavamsa II chap. 91, V. 17.
  39. Rajavaliya, p. 209; Alakeshvarayuddhaya, p. 21.
  40. Alakesvaruyuddhaya, p.21.
  41. Rajavaliya; p. 216; Alakesvarayuddhuya, p. 31.
  42. ibid.
  43. Hansa Sandesaya, VV. 12—27.
  44. Gira Sandesaya, ed. by Munidasa Kumaratunga, Colombo, 1962, V. 132.
  45. Rajavaliya, p. 212.
  46. Alakesvarayaddhaya, p. 31.
  47. Political History of the Kingdom of Kotte, p. 188
  48. ibid p. 186
  49. P. E Peiris, Ceylon:The Portuguese Era, Vol I, Colombo, 1913, pp 120—123 ; De Queyroz, Fr. Fernao; The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, Tr. by Fr. S. G. Perera, Colombo, 1930, Vol. I pp, 299-305. G. Schurhammer and F. A. Voretzch, Ceylon, Leipzig, 1928, Vol. I, pp. 583—584 P. E. Peiris and M. A. H. Fitzler, Ceylon and Portugal, Lepizig, 927, Part I, pp. 257—258.
  50. C. R. de Silva, “The First Portuguese Revenue Register of the Kingdom of Kotte” Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, Vol. V, 975, pp. 75—151.
  51. On embracing Christianity, Dharmapala (1551—1597) confiscated the temple property and gifted them to the Franciscans in 1557. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XX, 1908, pp. 171—172; Queyroz, Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, Vol. I, pp. 339—331.
  52. Sulurajavaliya, ed. by D. P. R. Samaranayaka, Colombo, 1959, p. 33, Rajayaliya, p. 220. During the time of troubles, a courtier of Kotte known as Hiripitiye divanarala took the relic in secret to Mayadunne at Sitawaka. Mayadunne placed the relic at the Sabaragamu Vihara which was in a protected surrounding (Sulurajavaliya, p. 33).
  53. Alakesvarayuddhaya, p.42, Queyroz, Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, Vol. 1, pp. 420—421; Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol.XX, 1908, pp. 236—242, As Gavetas da Torre do Tombo. Lisbon, 1960, Vol. II, p. 710 C. R. de Silva, “Rise and Fall of the Kingdom of Sitawaka (1521—1593),”The Ceylon Journal of the Historical and Social Studies”, Vol. VII, 1977, p. 30.
  54. Queyroz, The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon, Vol. I, p. 421 ; Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society; Vol. XXI. 1908, pp. 240—241.