How An Odia Queen Became Medieval Sri Lanka’s Greatest Politician

Sundara-Mahadevi, an Odia queen in medieval Sri Lanka who was called its greatest politician, ended up in Lanka due to marriage.

Near the ruins of the royal palace at Polonnaruwa—Sri Lanka’s most important medieval city—is a rather unassuming open-aired hall. On one of its stone slabs is an inscription of a queen called Sundara-Mahadevi, or Sundari, from the distant land of Kalinga (present-day Odisha). Her unassuming stone inscription reveals a wild history of dynastic intermarriage and international political wrangles, behind which loomed the growing power of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Sangha.

Marriage and the mainland

To understand how an Odia queen ended up in Lanka in the first place, we need to note that such exchanges are not exactly surprising. As seen in an earlier edition of Thinking Medieval, the island was deeply integrated into South Asian movements of goods, people, ideas, and capital. One of the most visible aspects of this was the sheer degree of intermarriage between the island and mainland dynasties.

Up to the 7th century CE, notes historian Thomas Trautmann in Consanguineous Marriage in Pali Literature (1973, cited in Gornall 2020, page 20), Sri Lankan royalty married almost exclusively among themselves. The island’s governors, generals, and officials all came from within the same family tree (or family bush). But as exchanges with the mainland grew in the 8th and 9th centuries, political and matrimonial alliances were made with dynasties from South India, especially the Pallavas of Kanchipuram. In the 11th century, the Cholas emerged as an existential threat to Lankan sovereignty, extinguishing the island’s line of kings at Anuradhapura. Lanka’s political structure shattered, and new chiefs rose to take control of its different regions. It is in this context that queens from Odisha begin to rise to prominence, appearing in monastic chronicles such as the Culavamsa as well as in the inscriptional record.

In the colonial era, archives received generous support from public and private sources, but after Independence came apathy and neglect, which is leading to the custodial death of Indian history.

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