The State of Theocracy: Defining an Early Medieval Hinterland in Sri Lanka

Article excerpt

The ancient Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura is currently the subject of one of the world's largest and most intensive archaeological research projects. Having traced its growth from an Iron Age village to a medieval city, the research team now moves to the task of modelling the surrounding landscape. Three seasons of fieldwork have located numerous sites of which the most prominent in the urban period are monasteries. Here is a clue about how the early urban hinterland was managed which has implications well beyond Sri Lanka.

Keywords: Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, heterarchy, monasticism, survey, theocracy


The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Anuradhapura is one of Asia's major archaeological and pilgrimage centres. The Sri Lankan capital for 1500 years until AD 1017 (Coningham 1999: 15), its rulers constructed monasteries and lakes, and attracted merchants involved in Indian Ocean trade. Although excavations have traced its growth flora an Iron Age village to a medieval city (Coningham 1999; 2006), we know almost nothing of the role played by communities in its surrounding plain. As a result, a team of archaeologists, geoarchacologists and archaeological scientists from the Universities of Durham, Bradford, Kelaniya, Leicester and Stirling developed a project to model pre-urban and urban networks within the plain and to assess the impact of urbanisation on non-urban communities. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, we completed our third field season in the summer of 2006 and identified three main categories of sites: shallow ceramic scatters, shallow metal-working sites and deeply stratified monastic sites. We have been able to attribute occupation dates to some of these sites on the basis of diagnostic pottery, architectural styles and other features and artefacts.


Textual evidence for the Mauryan state

The emergence of South Asia's first centralised empire in the second half of the first millennium BC (320-180 BC) is well recorded in textual and archaeological sources (Erdosy 1988; Allchin 1995; Kenoyer 1997), although alternative interpretations suggest that there is room for debate concerning the nature and extent of the centralisation of power (Fussman 1988; Sugandhi 2003). The Arthasastra or 'treatise of wealth' is a description of a South Asian state attributed to Kautilya, the chief minister of the first Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta Maurya (Rangarajan 1992). Although believed to have been altered in the following centuries, most scholars would agree that it serves as a very useful insight into the administrative framework of the Early Historic world in South Asia (Trautmann 1971). However the Arthasastra may have been written as an ideal or exemplar for many areas of political and social action rather than a record of the actual state of affairs (Sinopoli & Morrison 1995; 206-7). Sugandhi (2003) has explored Asokan edicts as a source of wider information about the nature and extent of the Mauryan Empire, and Fussman (1988) argues that rather than a strongly centralised empire, the Mauryan is in facta series of de-centralised units, based on local and provincial offices and officers. As the aim of this paper is to explore the nature of settlement in the Anuradhapura hinterland, rather than to offer a summary of position with regard to the understanding of political form of the Mauryan empire, we will here focus on the use of the Arthasastra and the results of Erdosy's archaeological survey in northern India in order to construct a useful model of urban development to test with our own data.

In the Arthasastra, Kautiliya advises the king to settle the people of his kingdom in a strict hierarchy on a base formed by 800 villages of between 100 and 500 families of agriculturalists (Arthasastra IV.i). Every group of ten villages or gramas was to be served by a sub-district headquarters, or Sangrahana. Every group of 20 Sangrahana were then served by a district headquarters, or Karvatika, and every two Karvatika were served by a divisional headquarters or Dronamukha. …