By Gamini Gunawardane                             

This is a letter to the Editor of ‘The Island’ newspaper in response to the above mentioned nomenclature used by Prof. Hoole. Island editor did not publish it.

Dr. Sivasegaram, at the end of his response to the review of Prof. Rajan Hoole on Prof. Gananath Obeysekera’s book “Doomed King’, in The Island of 11th Maech has stated: “I would like a Sinhala scholar to explain the etymology of “devanampiya” which to me seems vastly different from what “deva-nambiya” means in Tamil. I would rather leave such matters to people of the calibre of the late Prof. Leslie Gunawardana or Prof. WI Siriweera.”

Since no scholar of the caliber preferred by Dr. Sivasegaram has responded so far, I thought I would venture the following explanation to the best of my knowledge, though I am by no means a scholar at all, but as a mere student of history.


If we break down the Pali word “Devanampiya”, it would be as follows:

‘Deva’ is a deity.

‘Devaa’ is deities, (plural).

‘nam’ is the dative or genitive case (plural) suffix giving the meaning: ‘to’ or ‘of’.

‘piya’ is pleasing to or a person of whom the deities are pleased with.

Thus, Devaanampiya + Tissa gives the meaning Tissa who is pleasing to the deities or Tissa of whom deities are happy with.

It is stated in the Mahavansa that when Arahant Mahinda encountered Tissa the king in the forest chasing after a deer on a hunt, he had called out to him saying “Tissa, Tissa”. The king stopped to see who it was who could call him by his name in his kingdom.

In the contemporary inscriptions, Tissa is mentioned as ‘Tisa maharaja’ in early Sinhala.


There is also a history as to how King Tissa came to assume the epithet ‘Devaanampiya’. It is said that King Tissa and Emperor Asoka were contemporaries. King Tissa is said to have sent a good will mission to call on King Asoka, with many valuable presents.  According to Prof. Sirimal Ranawella, formally Prof of History at the SJP, the King’s Envoy is reported to have left Sri Lanka by ship from Dambakola Patuna, the present Sambalthivu in Jaffna Peninsula, as stated in Mahavansa Ch.XI,20-24)     .

King Asoka is said to have been so pleased with the Mission that he had donated the paraphernalia for a coronation ceremony and requested King Tissa to coronate   himself afresh using this paraphernalia and also requesting him to adopt his own epithet “Devaanampiya” which King Tissa followed. This is how he is said to have become ‘Devanampiyatissa’. Thereafter, it seems, in the absence of present day Face Book  phenomenon, the two became ‘Adrstha Mitras’ meaning, unseen friends. There seems to be some significance in this story, on that, when Asoka became a Buddhist, he is said sent message to Devanampiyatissa that he had  embraced Buddhism and requested his friend too to follow suite. Their friendship is supposed to have been so thick that, when King Asoka started his Buddhist Missionary campaign, he  chose his own son Ven. Mahinda tocarry the Buddha’s teaching to his friend Devanampiyatissa. Later king Asoka followed this gesture by sending his daughter, Ven. Sanghamitta Their, carrying sapling of the Bo Tree from Buddhagaya, which again King Devanmpiyatissa travelled all the way down to Dambakola Patuna, waded into the sea up to chest level, to receive with great reverence. This incident in fact is parallely recorded among the bas-relief sculptures found in Sanchi believed to have been built by King Asoka. These incidents show that there probably was constant communication between the two friends with much mutual respect.

There is also more recent history around this epithet ‘devanampiya’ which had important implication on modern historiography in India. When the British archeologists ‘discovered’ the many Asokan Pillars strewn over in India in their excavations in the mid 19th century, they came across a word among the inscriptions which they could not understand. And that word was ‘devanapiya’. These archeologists were also unable to determine the possible date of the Indian Emperor Asoka as by this time Buddhism was wiped out from India.

About the same time the British Civil Servant George Turnor who was stationed in Sri Lanka then, ‘discovered’ a copy of the Mahavansa at the Mulkirigala cave temple deep down in the Southern Province and he translated it into English for the first time. Then, the Mahavansa account of the unseen friendship between the two kings and the historical significance of their close relationship came to light through the name ‘Devanampiya’. The British Archeologists in  India and then  were able to resolve the mystery of the word ‘Devanapiya’ found on the Asokan pillar inscriptions and that the reference to ‘Devanapiya’ was to none other than Emperor Asoka himself. This discovery also led these archeologists and historians to fix the dates of Emperor Asoka’s reign, and thereby straighten the early chronology in Indian History, by reference to Mahavansa. So much for the historicity of the much maligned Mahavansa.

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