Traditional sri lankan drummers performing at Kotte Rajamaha viharaya, revealing the stories behind the kingdom of kotte

Among the number of eras of the glorious history of  Sri Lanka such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambadeniya, Gampola and Jaffna, Kotte was a kingdom that flourished in several facets. The Northern and Eastern areas were the Kingdom of Jaffna, whereas, the central highlands were namely the Kandyan Kingdom. The areas belonged to the ancient kingdom of Kotte were the western and southern coastal areas of Sri Lanka.

Having shone brightly in the domains of religion, trade, literature and military during the 15th century, the story behind the ruins of the ancient Kingdom of Kotte unravels another graceful era of ancient Sri Lanka. Of course, it is worth exploring. Therefore, we thought of sharing with you its delight, highlighting its grandeur and significances.

Foundation of the Ancient Kingdom of Kotte

The Minister Nissanka Alakesvara (1370–1385) who belonged to the Alagakkonaras of the Gampola kingdom built a fortress in Kotte. It was in the 14th century during the reign of Vickramabahu III of Gampola. The reason to make it was to battle against Aryachakrawarthi-the King of Jaffna (You can find a full description about this fort under the unique places in Kotte towards the latter part of this article).

Besides, the geographical location of Kotte was also exceptional to select it as a kingdom. There were many swamps and lagoons around the place which provided a natural defense. However, ParakramabahuVI became the King of Kotte in 1415 after the demise of the Kingdom Gampola. Thus, considering its significant features, the King turned the fortified city of Kotte into a capital city in the name of “Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte’, with the meaning of “Victory increasing city”.

Flag of the ancient kingdom of Kotte

During the olden days in Sri Lanka, each kingdom had a flag. Similarly, Kotte also had a flag for its territory. 

The Kotte flag had a plain white background. Further, it had an ornate blue and red border of leaves around. The said border had a thorn-like frame in black and red. Furthermore, at the flag’s centre, there was a red-faced white lion, carrying a whip in its front left paw.

Rise of the Kingdom and the King Parakramabahu VI

During his reign as the King of Kotte, there was a significant rising and prosperity visible in the country.

The rise of the kingdom of Kotte started in the 15th century. It was with the reign of Parakramabahu VI. The Ceylon was politically stable at that time due to the unification of all Ceylon under one rule by the King. It was with the unification of Jaffna in 1450. Moreover, Parakramabahu VI was the last native King to unify the whole Ceylon.

Let us have a detailed look upon the development and the results of the said domains as follows.


In the Kotte era of ancient Sri Lanka, there was a lot of encouragement for literature and poetry. Many poets and poetry popular today in Sri Lankan history of literature came to life during this era. Not only classical literature but also the rock inscriptions and patent letters (sannas). Those pieces of literature reveal many facets of the ancient kingdom of Kotte, the social life of people and the marvel of nature back then.

Here are some of the great poetry that came to life during the Kotte era under the rise of literature.

  • Selalihini sandeshaya
  • Gira sandeshaya
  • Kokila sandeshaya
  • Guththila Kawya
  • Loweda sagarawa
  • Buduguna Alankaraya
  • Kawyashekaraya
  • Parakumba Siritha
  • Saddharmathnakaraya

Moreover, many great poets became broadly famous for creating excellent literature in the ancient Kotte era. Among them, there were monk poets as follows.

  • Thotagamuwe Sri Rahula
  • Weththewe
  • Weedagama Maithree

The sandeshayas and anthology created by them are of highest value even at present as masterpieces of Sri Lankan literature history. Moreover, the literature education in Sri Lanka even at present utilize and teach those great pieces of literature.


The Kotte era was an era which gave the religion a prominent place. It is also well visible through the literature that connects religion into it. The majority of the population were Buddhists; thus, Buddhism had enough Royal patronage.

The most respected of the Buddhists was the Tooth Relic. Therefore, a temple was built for the Tooth Relic closer to the Palace. According to the king’s advice, there was an annual Esala perahera pageant in honor of the Tooth Relic. King Parakramabahu VI enshrined the Kotte Rajamaha Viharaya to conduct the pageant. Not only that, Parakramabahu VI repaired the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara with many other monasteries in the country.

Some of the Pirivenas built during the reign of Parakramabahu VI are as follows.

  • Keragala Padmavathi
  • Pepiliyana Sunethradevi
  • Totagamu Vijayaba
  • Vidagama Sri Gnananda

Along with Buddhism, the Kotte era gave considerable space to the nourishment of Hinduism. Most of the Buddhist temples had Hindu God shrines. In the latter part of the Kotte era. the prince Sapumal built a shrine at the Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya and renovated the Nallur shrine in Jaffna.


Another domain which flourished in the era of the ancient Kingdom of Kotte was trade. The trade brought so much profit into the Island at that period. Even at that time, Sri Lanka was the prominent landmark for foreign exchange. Many ships from East, West and North came to the Sri Lankan ports for trade.

The location of the ancient Kingdom of Kotte also benefited trade in the Kingdom. It was closer to the Colombo Port, and the trading was done with Moorish merchants from India and Arabia. However, the exports brought wealth to the country in significant amounts. Some of the primary means of export were spices (cinnamon, cardamon, black pepper), gemstones and pearls. 

Besides, it can be this prosperity which later attracted the Europeans to invade Sri Lanka. 

Military power

The Kotte kingdom further possessed to a strong military power. Nevertheless, the military regime was prominent both at the rise and the demise of the Kingdom.

As you might already know, in the beginning, before the Kingdom was established, Nissanka Alakeswara built the fortress. That purpose behind building this was also to be militarily strengthened to fight back Aryachakrawarthi-the King of Jaffna. Subsequently, towards the year 1410,  there was a war between Ming dynasty of China and Kotte King Alakeshwara. Ming China’s treasure fleet returned to Sri Lanka, and the war power of Alakeswara was insufficient to face Ming Chinese. It was after that King Parakramabahu VI came to reign. 

However, from then until the Portuguese invasion, there was no requirement of war fire in the Kingdom. 

Although, there were four leading military regiments available to react to any possible attack of an enemy to the Kingdom. 

  • Ath – Elephants
  • As – Horses
  • Riya – chariots
  • Pabala – infantry

Unique places in the Kingdom of Kotte

When you are heading through the busy streets of Kotte today, it is unimaginable that it has been a fortified capital city with moats, draw bridges, watchtowers and a palace. 

There were many archaeological and historically significant places in the ancient Kingdom of Kotte. Here is a list of such sites along with an overview of each.  

  • The fortress
  • The moat
  • The Tunnel
  • Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya
  • Inner City and Outer City
  • Baddagana Veherakanda Ruins
  • Archaeological museum
  • Alakeswara Ruins

Of course, knowing them by name would not be sufficient. Let us explore them in detail.

The fortress 

As mentioned in the article’s opening under the part “foundation of the ancient city of Kotte”, Nissanka Alakeswara (Alagakkonara) built this fortress in the 14th century. It is said that the reason for creating this was to defend the Jaffna King or may as a stronghold to resist the tax collectors from Jaffna. 

However, it can be believed to a certain extent by looking at the fort’s geographical location. The land where the fort is situated provides natural defence. The reason is that three waterways are surrounding the premises. They are Diyawanna Oya, Kolonnawa Oya and another marshy land. The area of the fortress is about one square mile as per records of the  Saddharma Ratnakaraya. According to the site description, the wall’s height was 8 feet, and the width was 35 feet. Also, there have been inner and outer mud moats, wells and watchtowers for the fortress. The main wall and the peripheral walls are made of kabok stones. By looking at the details of the ancient fort of Kotte, we can imagine how well it must have served the purpose of Nissanka Alakeswara.

The Esala Perahera pageant of Kotte, carrying the sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, had circled the periphery of this fort.  

However, during the European colonization followed by Wijayaba Kollaya most of the fort was destroyed. Thus, it is only the ruins of the bottom part of the fort wall are left at present. It is visible that those remains of the wall run through the residential areas and temples in Kotte. Also, the remaining fort wall, a 10 feet stretch at the outside, and the 5 feet stretch inside the wall are named as an archaeological monument, by the department of archaeology under the Ministry of the national heritage of Sri Lanka. 

The Moats

There have been two moats along sides of the Kotte fort. Namely, they are inner moat and outer moat. Both the moats are of around 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

Both the moats have been built to seek extra protection from the enemies. The location was from the side where there was no natural protection from the waterways. Besides, it is a common feature of the ancient fort/palace plans in Sri Lanka. 

The inner moat was to protect the Northern side of the wall as per the site’s description—the inner moat connected to the Diyawanna Oya and the Kolonnawa Oya on either side.  The outer moat has been there nearly 1km away from the inner moat, to the Southern side. It connects to another stream that flows across Pita Kotte to the West. 

At present, the UNP’s  (United National Party) head office is located in these moats’ premises.

A majority of the fort and the moat have been destroyed by the Portuguese and Dutch during the invasion. Subsequently, these moats are now waterless and hidden in the civilian residential areas due to new construction. It is a pathetic sight that such ruins which reflect the ancient Sri Lankan architecture are not subjected to adequate preservation. 

The Tunnel 

The secret passageways are a common feature of  ancient Sri Lankan Royal architecture. The purpose of those passageways was to escape the Kingdom during an enemy attack. 

It is said that three such tunnels have been there in the ancient Kingdom of Kotte. Unluckily, the ruins of only one tunnel are left, due to destruction done during European invasion. These old tunnels are also a creation of Nissanka Alakeshwara, the founder of Kotte.

When the Kingdom of Kotte was Sri Lanka’s capital, this tunnel had run from the inner city towards the outer fort. According to research, it was there to exit from the Palace to Pita Kotte. It was, during the enemy attacks. However, some people believe this is the query of Kabok. They further believe that the Kabok to build the fort, city and the ramparts have been taken from this query.

Currently, the tunnel is located in the premises of a local school in the name of Kotte Ananda Sastralaya, sadly unpreserved. This tunnel is a creation with Kabok stone in full. The close observation shows that there are traces of decoration at the entrance/exit points. It can be a lion-head design or a dragon pandal. Kotte tunnel has had several exits; one has been at the current Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya.

In 2014, some excavation in the said school premises unraveled a kabok chamber cut in with a Stupa in the middle. The size of the said chamber is about 18 X 35 feet in dimensions. There are also the traces of steps and a moonstone below the steps which is impressive. However, the chamber floor is more than 10 feet under the natural ground level, which is an excellent indication that it is a carving.

 Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya

Among the historical places in the ancient Kingdom of Kotte, Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya holds a significant place.

The King Parakramabahu VI built this temple. Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya  was the main religious centre in the 15th century. Located closer to the King’s Palace, the Raja Maha Viharaya had constant Royal patronage. The chronicles reveal that the Temple was three-storeyed which held the sacred Tooth relic. There were also other places of worship such as a Bo tree, a stupa and a ‘Pohoya Geya’ (a building for sermons). 

The Portuguese invasion followed by the invasion of the Dutch harmed the original Temple in huge amounts. Subsequently, in 1813 a Thero in the name of Ven Pilane Buddha Rakkhitha Nayake discovered the ruins of the Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya. The Temple then regained its structure and opened for the public as a place of worship. The remains of the stone pillars and the stone stairs with moonstone of the original temple are still there in the premises even today.

Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya is famous for the painting it has on the walls of the image house. The pictures contain the art of the Kandyan Era. Further, there is also a portrait of Queen Victoria upon a door of the inner part of the image house.

As mentioned earlier, the sacred Tooth Relic was here in this temple for a certain time period. Thus, Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya hosts an annual Dalada Perahera Pageant to pay homage to the holy Tooth Relic even today.

Museum of the ancient Kingdom of Kotte

The Kotte archaeological Museum is under the govern of the Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka. its location is at Bangala Junction in Ethul Kotte.

The museum is a relatively small space. Nevertheless, there are plenty of exhibits which reveal the history of the ancient Kingdom of Kotte.

The exhibits include the maps, artefacts, clothes, armours, swords, pottery and many more. Most of these exhibits are the donation of Mr E.W. Perera, a lawyer and a famous freedom fighter. He is also famous by the name “The lion of Kotte.”

The Monarchy of the ancient Kingdom of Kotte and the Demise

After the demise of the King Parakramabahu VI in 1186, the King Jayabahu succeeded to the throne. He was the grandson of King Parakramabahu VI.

Subsequently, Sapumal Kumaraya/Champaka Perumal, the adopted son of King Parakramabahu VI usurped the throne. He came from Jaffna and became the King in the name of Buwanekabahu VIII, overthrowing Jayabahu. The chronicles of Rajavaliya reveals this incident made way to a revolt among the Sinhalese people in the Kingdom. However, he could rule the Kingdom only for seven years. It was between 1472-1480 A.D.

Later his son Parakramabahu VII ascended the throne. Parakramabahu VII was on the throne between 1480-1484 A.D. He was succeeded by Parakramabahu VIII who ruled the Kingdom from 1484 to 1518. Next in line of the monarchy was Dharma Parakramabahu IX who was the son of Parakramabahu VIII. He led the Kingdom for 20 years in the 16th century. It was from 1519-1528. Then the King Vijayabahu VI of Kotte, the other son of King Parakramabahu VIII ascends the throne (1513-1521). It was another historical period in the history of the Sri Lankan monarchy.  

Vijayaba Kollaya

Vijayaba Kollaya is a famous riot by the three sons of King Vijayabahu VI. The three sons were Buwanekabahu, Mayadunne, and Pararajasinghe. After getting to know the father’s plan to kill them and offer the throne to their step mother’s son, the three sons fled away from the Kingdom. In 1521, the three brothers invaded the Kingdom of Kotte, killing their father. 

Subsequently, they divided the Kingdom among themselves and ruled it as three different Kingdoms. Bhuvaneka Bahu VII took the Kingdom of Kotte, Mayadunne took Sithavaka while Pararajasighe /Raigam Bandara became the King of Raigama. By this time the Portuguese started arriving  in Sri Lankan coastal areas to engage in commercial matters.

“Parangiya Kotte Giya Wagey” (As Portuguese went to Kotte)

It is a famous proverb in Sri Lanka, related to the Kingdom of Kotte. People use it even in the modern-day. 

The word “Parangiya” means “Portuguese”. This proverb is there to describe a situation like “taking a long route while there is a shorter route easier than that”. The history behind the saying was also fascinating. When the Portuguese first landed in Sri Lanka at the Colombo port, they wanted to meet the King of Kotte to go to a trade agreement with the King. Thus, the Sri Lankans took few of the Portuguese to Kotte to serve their request. Although the Kingdom was very close to the Colombo Port, they accompanied the group on a long and challenging road led by the Sinhalese. That was to let them feel that the Kingdom was too far inland.   

The Demise of the ancient Kingdom of Kotte

Whoever the King ascended the throne in the Kingdom of Kotte, the development could not be matched to what it was during King Parakramabahu VI. The downfall of the Kingdom started with the demise of the King Parakramabahu VI.

The most significant collapse of the Kingdom occurs with the reign of King Dharmapala in 1551. Following the footsteps of his Grandfather, King Dharmapala also started tempting to the baits of the Portuguese. He went to the extent of getting baptized as well. Meanwhile, the Kotte kingdom was facing attacks led by Mayadunne and his son from the Sithawaka Kingdom. Portuguese took advantage of the internal wars and persuaded Dharmapala to ascend the Kingdom to Portuguese in 1580. The King Dharmapala was the last Sinhalese King of Kotte. 

The Kotte kingdom, with a history of about 200 years thus marked it’s demise in the hands of Portuguese.

The Bottom Line

As a Tourist, who visits Sri Lanka – the pearl of the Indian ocean, one must be definitely looking for things to do on this beautiful Island. The reason to visit Sri Lanka is not only to feel the comfort of the sunny, golden sandy beaches or fascination of the greenery, but there are a lot more to discover in this amazing land for an explorer. Among them, Kotte Kingdom is somewhere to explore especially when the ruins are among the modern buildings! So, why not? Visit Sri Lanka, and explore its grandeur. Happy and Safe Travelling!