The Age of Queens in Medieval Lanka

By Bruno M. Shirley (Cornell University)
Twitter: @brunomshirley

Lanka’s long twelfth century has been called many things: the “Augustine Age” of Sinhala-language literature; an Age of Reform for Buddhist institutional and intellectual lineages; a Golden Age of growing internal stability and external influence across the Bay of Bengal, at least under the long reign (c. 1153-86) of Parākramabāhu I. Mindful of the rapid succession of increasingly vulnerable monarchs following Parākramabāhu’s death, others have seen this period as one of gradual decline from instability into outright chaos, culminating in the eventual invasion of Parākramabāhu’s former capital Poḷonnaruva in c. 1215 and a permanent shift of power towards the island’s south.

But there is another way we can view this period: an Age of Queens, in which powerful women were able to assert their places in a shifting political and social order. Lanka had seen female monarchs before, of course. The story of Anula, a queen-consort from the first century BCE who poisoned her way through multiple proxy-king lovers before claiming the throne herself, is a perennial favourite in modern Sri Lankan history books. But the thrilling details of Anula’s story are related to us only through the c. fifth century Mahāvaṃsa, a narrative of the island’s past intended to speak more to its then-present religious and political concerns than it was to simply record “historical details.” The women of the twelfth century also feature in medieval extensions to the Mahāvaṃsa narrative, but even here, as Kathleen Nolan has argued for medieval France, “…reading women’s lives, especially powerful women’s lives, through the words of suspicious male monastics, requires careful sorting through the biases and motivations of the author” (13).

The statue of Viharamahadevi, Wikimedia Commons.

For the twelfth century queens, unlike their earlier counterparts, we have the luxury of complementary sources – textual, epigraphic, numismatic – which offer us more nuanced pictures of their lives and reigns. Each view is only fragmentary, of course; the remaining shards of long-broken mirrors, each set up to reflect a very particular angle. But taken together these glimpses give us insights into some of the most fascinating women in medieval Lankan history.

How can we account for the sudden prominence of queens in this period? I suspect that the answer lies in the very duality of stability and chaos between which the Poḷonnaruvan kingdom fluctuated. Consortial relationships with powerful monarchs like Parākramabāhu or the prolific self-publicist Niśśaṅka Malla (r. c. 1187-96) secured political capital, military connections and economic means; moments of instability offered opportunities to those willing to take them. These opportunities were no accident: in one of Niśśaṅka Malla’s most rightly famous inscriptions, the remarkable Galpota (“Stone Book”), he writes that in the absence of (male) princes, the stability of the realm should be left in the hands of the royal consorts (bisova). This is no proto-feminist moment: he goes on to suggest that in the absence of bisova, even a royal slipper placed on a throne would make a better king than his lower-caste political rivals (a reference to the Arthaśāstra, Kauṭilya’s classic political treatise). Niśśaṅka Malla’s concern here seems to be more with the continued dominance of his own caste and direct lineage than with the wholesale succession of women to the throne; but his words seem to have been taken firmly to heart, including by his own principal wife (agra-maheśī) Kalyāṇavatī (r. c. 1202-1208).

Perhaps the most noteworthy of these medieval queens is Līlāvatī, the agra-maheśī of Parākramabāhu I himself. Līlāvatī was placed on the throne, and subsequently deposed, not twice but three times, ruling c. 1197-1200, 1209-1210 and 1211-1212. Each assumption of the throne was associated with a (different) general, suggesting to some scholars that Līlāvatī was merely a puppet queen, ruling in name alone to further the ends of these powerful men. The Mahāvaṃsa’s treatment of her reigns might appear to support this interpretation; in the unusually terse description of her first reign, for example, she is not even grammatically treated as the direct subject. The general Kitti merely “caused the sovereignty to be done” by her (Līlāvatyā… rajjaṃ kārāpayī, MV 80:31); the wording is similar in the description of her second reign. Again, Nolan’s “suspicious male monastics” come to mind!

It is in our other sources that we get a clearer glimpse – if not of the woman herself, who left behind no diaries or other private insights into her own mind, then of the public face she crafted alongside her advisors and courtiers. We know, for example, that she patronised new literary works like the Dāṭhavaṃsa, a Pali-language history of a sacred Buddha-relic which praises her extensively as “a mother unto her subjects.” We also know she took particular care to rebuild religious monument originally erected by her late husband Parākramabāhu, like the (almost certainly misnamed) Potgul Vihāraya just south of Poḷonnaruva proper, suggesting that her matrimonial connection remained central to her queenly project.

It is in the text of her inscriptions and coins that we gain perhaps the most interesting insight. Līlāvatī’s inscriptions, in contrast to those of her male counterparts, feature a glaring absence of any explicit and appositional regnal titles. Male monarchs, such as Līlāvatī’s husband Parākramabāhu I, would use terms like maharajān (“great king,” EZ II 41: 6) in grammatical agreement with their own names. Līlāvatī’s predecessor Niśśaṅka Malla used an entire string of these: in EZ I 19, for example, he names himself vīrarāja Niśśaṅka Malla laṅkeśvara KāliṅgaParākramabāhu cakravartin (“Heroic king Niśśaṅka Malla, Lord of Lanka, [of the] Kaliṇga, Parākramabāhu, the wheel-turner”). However, Līlāvatī takes no such descriptive terms in her own self-appellations besides the honorific prefixes svāmin and vahansē.

A number of the terms we often translate “queen” – bisova, agramaheśī, rājñī, devīare present in Līlāvatī’s inscriptions, or the inscriptions of other noblewomen of the period (such as Kalyāṇavatī, or Līlāvatī’s co-wife Candavatī). But all are either used indiscriminately to refer to any royal, or even noble, woman (such as devī and rājñī); or they are only used with oblique cases to suggest a relationship to a royal husband (“the bisovarun of a king,” “the agra-maheśī of Parākramabāhu”). This suggests, perhaps, that no grammatically feminine term adequately captured the notion of a female monarch; Līlāvatī was forced to rely on adjectival clauses to describe her queenly stature. In her coinage, however – too minute a medium to accommodate such lengthy workarounds – she remarkably refers to herself using the masculine title: Śrī Rāja Līlāvatī.

I am well aware of the dangers of an “exceptionalist” argument, so thoroughly criticised by Louise Gay on this very blog. But the apparent openness to female succession of the late Poḷonnaruvan period does indeed seem to be an exception. Later Lankan kingdoms, established in the more readily defensible south, seem to have been (almost) entirely androcentric, even in periods of similar crisis and instability. An increasing eroticisation of royal masculinity, well-documented by Stephen Berkwitz, may be at least partly the cause: as these norms of gendered performance became more and more well-established, female succession likely seemed less and less plausible. Later queens would have had to accommodate more difference than a single grammatically-masculine regnal title. But if the twelfth century Age of Queens is an exception in the longue durée of Lankan history, it is the exception that undermines the rule: the apparently normalcy of later hyper-masculine kingship is belied by the willingness of twelfth century women to claim new social positions, to subvert inscriptional conventions, and even to assert themselves not as queens, but as rāja – (female) kings in their own right.

The remains of the royal palace at Polonnaruwa, Wikimedia Commons.

Suggested for further reading

Amirell, Stefan. “Female Rule in the Indian Ocean World (1300-1900).” Journal of World History 26, no. 3 (2015): 443–89.

Berkwitz, Stephen C. “Divine Kingship in Medieval Sri Lanka: Dynamics in Traditions of Power and Virtue in South Asia.” Entangled Religions – Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Religious Contact and Transfer 8 (2019).

—. “Strong Men and Sensual Women in Sinhala Buddhist Poetry.” In Religious Boundaries for Sex, Gender, and Corporeality, edited by Alexandra Cuffel, Ana Echevarria, and Georgios Halkias. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2019.

Blackburn, Anne M. “Buddhist Connections in the Indian Ocean: Changes in Monastic Mobility, 1000-1500.” Journal of the Economic & Social History of the Orient 58, no. 3 (September 2015): 237–66.

Gornall, Alastair. Rewriting Buddhism: Pali Literature and Monastic Reform in Sri Lanka, 1157–1270. London: UCL Press, 2020.

Hallisey, Charles. “Works and Persons in Sinhala Literary Culture.” In Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by Sheldon Pollock. California: University of California Press, 2003.

Strathern, Alan. “Sri Lanka in the Long Early Modern Period: Its Place in a Comparative Theory of Second Millennium Eurasian History.” Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 4 (July 2009): 815–69.

Taylor, Keith. “The Devolution of Kingship in Twelfth Century Ceylon.” In Explorations in Early Southeast Asian History: The Origins of Southeast Asian Statecraft, edited by Kenneth R. Hall and John K. Whitmore. Michigan: The University of Michigan Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 1979.

Thompson, Ashley. Engendering the Buddhist State: Territory, Sovereignty and Sexual Difference in the Inventions of Angkor. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2016.

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