Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pre-colonial Sri Lanka – Singapore Relations

Although most people know Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles as the founder of Singapore, he would not have preferred to see the accolade being bestowed upon him. In contrast, he would have preferred to be known as the one who revived an ancient and vibrant city.

In the early 19th century, the British considered more than one option as a possible site of an outpost at the southern end of the Strait of Malacca. The decision to select Singapore was taken on several grounds, and the romantic image of the revival of an ancient city could have played a role.

Temasik, ancient Singapore, occupies an important place in the history of the Malay people, according to the Malay Annals written somewhere in the 15th century and afterwards. The oldest surviving Malay Annal, now known as Raffles MS 18, was written in 1612. The intention of the Malay Annals was to bolster the popularity of the ruling family. Raffles, who came across the manuscript, must have found its story interesting.

According to the Raffles MS 18, the city of Temasik was found by none other than the legendary Sri Tri Buana, the first great Malay king. The Annals tell of several succeeding rulers after Sri Tri Buana. Accordingly, Singapore was a thriving city throughout the 14th century.

Interestingly, Singapore is one of the prominent cities to have been subjected to considerable archeological excavations. A large quantity of 14th century artifacts, including pottery, beads, ‘mercury jars’ and coins speak of a thriving city, based on trade.

According to Malay Annals, the city is thought to have been attacked by Majapahit in Java or Ayuttaya in Thailand at the end of the 14th century. Thereafter, the city declined, culminating by the early 1600s.
A coin from Leelavati (1197-1200) era

Among a number of artifacts found in Singapore are two Sri Lankan coins, both belonging to the reign of king Buwanekabahu I (1272-84). One coin was found during excavations at Parliamentary House Complex before the new Parliamentary House was constructed in the 1990s. The other was unearthed at the grounds of the St. Andrew’s Cathedral. These copper-alloy coins showed a standing figure on one side and a seated figure on the other. Meanwhile, similar coins belonging to the reigns of queen Leelavati (1197-1200) and king Sahassamalla (1200-02) have been discovered in Sumatra.

While archeologists have discovered more than a hundred Chinese coins from Singapore, the two Sri Lankan coins indicate some interesting facts. It could mean that 14th century Singapore was a sophisticated market where more than one type of money was accepted. Furthermore, along with the findings in Sumatra, it is a clear indication that Sri Lankan coins were accepted as legal tender in South East Asia, including Singapore.

The acceptance of the Sri Lankan coins may have been due to its design. The coins with a standing and seated figures were issued in Sri Lanka from the late Anuradhapura era to the late 13th century and follows the similar design of the coins of Rajaraja Chola. The Chola Empire dominated South Asia and even had a direct role in decimating the once powerful Srivijaya Empire in South East Asia. Therefore, its currency was an internationally accepted currency in this part of the world. The Sri Lankan coins had a similar design and used Sanskrit characters. Therefore, they must have also been internationally accepted.

Discovery of Sri Lankan coins in Singapore does not mean that Sri Lanka had diplomatic relations with the Singapore rulers in the 14th century. The political history of Sri Lanka during most of the 14th century is unclear and the indication is that the central government was weak after the Kurunegala period in the 1320s. However, the coins indicate that the trade links connected the island of Sri Lanka and Singapore during this period.

Singapore declined from the beginning of the 15th century. Other ports including Melaka overtook it in the Malacca Straits. During the early colonial era, the Portuguese had plans of constructing a fort in the island. However, this plan did not materialize and the island remained inconspicuous until Sir Raffles chose to establish a trading post.

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