The stone ruins of the Palace of King Nissanka Malla, the Great Ruler from Sri Lanka!
The Palace of King Nissanka Malla, the Great Ruler from Sri Lanka!

Monarchy is an administrative system that is present only in a few countries nowadays. However, it was the ruling system in most of the countries in the past. In Sri Lanka also, there used to be a long line of monarchical rule until the early 19th century. As a result, Sri Lankan history books are rich with stories about Sri Lankan kings and their contributions to the country. From this monarchical rule, certain rulers are highly honored owing to their greatness. One such eminent Sri Lankan ruler is the Great King Nissanka Malla!

He is also popular as Keerthi Nissanka and Kalinga Lankeshwara. He ruled the Polonnaruwa kingdom, the second ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka, from 1187 to 1196 AD. King Nissanka Malla is also famous for his unique architectural creations and stone inscriptions. So, here’s all you need to know about this significant ruler from Sri Lankan history!

Ancestry and Family of King Nissanka Malla

History reveals that King Kirthi Sri Nissanka Malla is a descendant of the Kalinga dynasty. He was born in 1157 AD in Sinhapura.

As you may know, Sinhapura is an area in India. And yes, there are mythological stories that introduce this place as the birth land of the Sinhalese nationality as well. However, Nissanka Malla belongs to a royal lineage as his father is a regional king. His father is King Jayagopa who is a regional king of Sinhapura and his mother is Queen Parvathi.

Besides, historians have many arguments on the location of Sinhapura. Indeed, its location is simply a mystery according to the modern map. Nevertheless, there are claims that Sinhapura could be modern-day Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, or Jharkhand. There are also claims that Sinhapura could be in Malaysia or Thailand.

Kirthi Sri Nissanka Malla came to Sri Lanka upon the invitation of King Parakramabahu of Polonnaruwa. As you may already know, King Parakramabahu has the honor of being the greatest King of the Rajarata kingdom.

King Parakramabahu had a daughter named Princess Subhadra from his wife Queen Rupavathi. She was his favorite daughter. Further, King Parakramabahu chose Nissanka Malla as a suitable partner for his daughter, Subhadra. As a result, Nissanka Malla arrived in Sri Lanka through the Trincomalee harbor at the age of 23. He married Princess Subhadra and this marriage made him the son-in-law of great King Parakramabahu.

Besides, the young prince got the name ‘Keerthi Nissanka Malla Parakramabahu Chakravarthi’ after his father. Also, King Nissanka Malla had two wives named Kalinga Subadradevi and Gangavamsa Kalyanamahadevi. This is how this Indian prince joined the Sri Lankan royal lineage!

How Nissanka Malla Ascended the Throne

In the Sri Lankan monarchy, usually, a son of a king became the heir to the throne. But, King Parakramabahu had no sons to name as his heir. So, he named his nephew, Prince Kittisirimegha as his successor.

After the marriage between Prince Nissanka Malla and Princess Subhadra, Nissanka Malla got the honor of the ‘Aepa’ of Pulathisipura. ‘Aepa’ is the Sinhala term for sub-king or the royal standing. After the demise of King Parakramabahu, Prince Kittisirimegha ascended the throne in the name of Vijayabahu Ⅱ. Under the rule of King Parakramabahu, the Polonnaruwa kingdom was at its best state. However, King Vijayabahu Ⅱ was not competent enough to maintain that state. His inefficiency invited an insidious campaign against him from the royal court officials of the Govigama caste.

During this time, Nissanka Malla was in Sinhapura, getting ready to ascend the throne there, as his father King Jayagopa was sick. But upon the request of King Vijayabahu Ⅱ, Nissanka Malla came back to Sri Lanka and Vijayabahu Ⅱ appointed him as a sub-king.

The Govigama caste became stronger and their chief, Mahendra killed King Vijayabahu Ⅱ after leading a campaign against him for a year. Then, he appointed himself as the King of Rajarata in the name of Mahinda Ⅵ. However, he could only rule Rajarata for 5 days. Because, Vijayan, the commander of Nissanka Malla killed Mahinda Ⅵ, and then in 1187 AD Nissanka Malla became the King of Rajarata.

Reign of King Nissanka Malla

By now, you clearly know that King Nissanka Malla was an Indian prince who ascended the throne of Sri Lanka. So, this fact made him face some resistance from the court officials and the people.

Dravidians had a bad reputation of invading Sri Lanka several times before as well. Therefore, the first challenge that Nissanka Malla had to face as the King was to establish himself as a pure Sri Lankan ruler in the Rajarata kingdom.

Due to the accusations that Nissanka Malla received for his Dravidian lineage, he developed an inferiority complex. As a result, he followed several strategies to prove his right to the throne such as claiming to be descended from Sri Lanka’s first King Vijaya and declaring only a Buddhist can be the ruler of Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, King Nissanka Malla had to carry on his rule under the shadow of late King Parakramabahu. He tried his best to surpass King Parakramabahu’s state of administration. In fact, Nissanka Malla used stone inscriptions to prove his value as a member of the Kalinga dynasty. He also claimed that he is a distant relative of the mythological Buddhist character of ‘Akashachari Kalinga Chakravartin’ to gain Buddhist’s attraction. Further, he successfully hid the fact that he is a foreigner within a few years. Besides, during his reign, Nissanka Malla had to shut down several schemes against him from the Govigama caste.

Apart from that, there are many areas from which this King gained popularity. In fact, he is highly popular for his iconic architectural creations. Also, King Nissanka Malla refurbished several old temples and irrigation tanks during his reign. So, all these contributions indeed added more value to his reign at Polonnaruwa.

Kingship of King Nissanka Malla

Under the rule of Nissanka Malla, the economy of the kingdom faced drastic changes. First, he reduced the heavy taxes that were imposed by King Parakramabahu. Then, he often held donation ceremonies in the palace where he donated gold, money, cattle, and land to the people. King Nissanka Malla used this as a strategy to put down robbery and also to gain a good reputation of the people.

On the other hand, he almost made the kingdom bankrupt due to his construction projects. Of course, his intentions had been to outdo King Parakramabahu. He also issued coins replacing King Parakramabahu’s symbols. Further, King Nissanka Malla tried to build up his image by renaming late King Parakramabahu’s creations with his name ‘Kalinga’.

However, King Nissanka Malla maintained friendly relations with countries like Ramanna, the Khmer empire, and Cambodia. Nissanka Malla built a temple named ‘Nissankesvara’ in Rameswaram. Then he invaded the states of Pandyans and Cholas in South India. Both these empires were subordinated to the rule of King Nissanka Malla. On his return to Sri Lanka after these invasions, he built the tank of ‘Padivijayakulam’ as a monument for this victory. So, all these things prove that throughout his reign, he was trying to outgrow the legacy of great King Parakramabahu.

Great Inscriber of Sri Lanka

King Nissanka Malla is infamously known as the great inscriber of Sri Lanka. Mostly, he used these stone inscriptions to build up his image as a legitimate king of this island, and then to control the schemes against him.

King Nissanka Malla’s strategy of using stone inscriptions for his own benefit is a good example of the famous metaphor that ‘a pen is more powerful than a sword’. For instance, he created stone inscriptions against the Govigama caste mentioning how important it is to follow the rules of the kingdom. He even created stone inscriptions at every gawwa (roughly 4 miles) from Rajarata kingdom to Ruhuna kingdom mentioning each of his services provided to the people of Ruhuna.

You can find below some examples of King Nissanka Malla’s famous stone inscriptions!

In his most popular stone inscription in Galpota, he declares that only a Buddhist has the right to rule Sri Lanka. It also carries information on his birth year and his parents.

In another inscription in Dambulla, King Nissanka Malla claims that he belongs to the Kalinga dynasty and that he is a descendant of King Vijaya.

In an inscription at Ruwanweliseya, he has mentioned that he is a member of the royal family of Kalinga and was born in Sinhapura.

Anyhow, the stone inscriptions are a great source of administrative records of King Nissanka Malla’s reign. Besides, this tradition of King Nissanka Malla reveals the influence that he has got from the stone inscriptions of Indian King Ashoka of Maurya as well.

Architectural Creations of King Nissanka Malla

Nissankamalla spent large sums of money on these creations and his other refurbishments. Some of his iconic architectural creations are Nissanka Latha Mandapaya, Hetadage, and Rankoth Vehera.

  • Nissanka Latha Mandapaya is a unique building with some valuable artistic features. The king used it as his palace back then.
  • Hetadage is a Buddhist temple that was created by King Nissanka Malla. This temple sheltered the sacred relic of the tooth of the Lord Buddha during his reign.
  • The Rankoth Vehera is also a creation of King Nissanka Malla and it is the fourth largest stupa in Sri Lanka.

One of the major refurbishment projects carried out by King Nissanka Malla is at the Dambulla cave temple. Under that refurbishment, the interior of the temple was gilded which gave it the name of Ran Giri, which means the golden rock. The king also gilded 500 Buddha statues and included a statue of himself as well in the temple. According to the stone inscriptions at the temple, the cost of the refurbishment of the Dambulla cave temple exceeded seven lachs.

Besides, King Nissanka Malla has also refurbished several old temples and irrigation tanks. He faced much criticism for spending large amounts of money on these creations. However, his creations are significant highlights from his reign, and important architectural sites in the present as well.

King Nissanka Malla’s Palace

Vijayanthi Prasada was King Nissanka Malla’s royal palace, and King Parakramabahu built this. However, King Nissanka Malla refused to live in this place. So, he took steps to build his own palace.

The palace that he constructed later, is indeed one of the most unique architectural creations by King Nissanka Malla. It took a very unusual design unlike the royal palaces of before.

King Nissanka Malla’s palace or the Nissanka Latha Mandapaya had 8 granite pillars. These granite pillars were to support the roof of the palace. These pillars were also carved into the shape of a lotus stem and the top of the pillar was like an opening lotus bud. The granite pillars were positioned on a platform. According to historians, the palace was a two-storeyed building and the top floor was a wooden one. 

You can find the ruins of King Nissanka Malla’s palace close to an artificial lake. Even in the present, these ruins stand in a very aesthetic manner close to this lake.

With the prevailing ruins, it is clear of the presence of a royal bathing pool at the south of the palace. There was also a King’s council chamber. In the pillars that support the chamber roof, there are carvings with the names of the ministers. However, the ruins of this palace are not in a good state now. Besides, King Nissanka Malla refusing to live in the usual royal palace and building his own extravagant palace depicts his deep-rooted jealousy with King Parakramabahu.

The Bottom Line

King Nissanka Malla died in 1196 AD, and unfortunately, it was an untimely death, as he was just 39 years old by then. His successor was King Vira Bahu Ⅰ.

However, King Nissanka Malla is a highlight of the Polonnaruwa Kingdom, especially in accordance with his contribution towards the Polonnaruwa architecture and his unique stone inscriptions. However, he is also famous as the king who couldn’t keep up the great kingdom built by King Parakramabahu. The legacy of King Parakramabahu was a challenge to this king during his reign. Nevertheless, it is not a secret that he had to live under the shadow of great King Parakramabahu.

However, King Nissanka Malla holds an eminent place in Sri Lankan history as a compassionate and efficient ruler. Moreover, history appreciated his diplomacy. Besides, a visit to Polonnaruwa will surely reveal to you many things about King Nissanka Malla. So, this read is surely going to help you to travel with facts. Happy and safe traveling!