Copper massa coin of Līlāvatī. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Louise Gay

Līlāvatī was the agra-maheśī (principal wife) of Parākramabāhu I, ruler of the medieval kingdom of Lanka (current Sri Lanka). She was placed on the throne, and subsequently deposed, not twice but three times, ruling c. 1197-1200, 1209-1210 and 1211-1212.

Seemingly forced to associate a general with each of her reigns, she employed the arts to strengthen her position. Under her patronage, new literary works like the Dāṭhavaṃsa, or the reconstruction of religious monuments such as the Potgul Vihāraya, enhanced her queenship.

Nevertheless, the accession to the throne of a woman was not obvious, as evidenced by the language of power. The absence of explicit royal titles on Līlāvatī’s inscriptions indeed questions the gender of royal authority, as well as how historians have translated its terms.

To the specialist Bruno M. Shirley, the vocabulary used in the sources (textual, epigraphic, numismatic) testifies to the difficulties in qualifying a female monarch.

Masculine terms do not seem to have a feminine equivalent, requiring Lilavati to use other qualifiers or, remarkably, to present herself as a man. Her coinage indeed designated herself as ‘Śrī Rāja Līlāvatī ‘.

Recommended Reading

Bruno M. Shirley, “The Age of Queens in Medieval Lanka,” on Team Queens

Bruno M. Shirley, “Power, Succession, and the Politics of Gender in Medieval Sri Lanka, c. 1186-1215,” at IMC Leeds 2022

Stefan Amirell, “Female Rule in the Indian Ocean World (1300-1900),” Journal of World History 26. 3 (2015): 443–89.

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