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Ancient Lankans offered their wives as slaves to temples

A recent study on ancient Sri Lankan epigraphy dating back to the 5th and 7th centuries AD have uncovered a peculiar practice in vogue during that time of laymen offering their wives and family members as slaves to temples and then pay for their release to accrue merits.

The study carried out on special type of inscriptions commonly known as Vaharala inscriptions found that kings, ministers, rich as well as those engaged in artisan professions offering various persons including their beloved family members as slaves to the temples and thereafter paying for their redemption.
The monies given so are meant to be used for the expenses of those temples or for the maintenance of the slaves who could not be freed, said Mangalika Rajapakshe, Research Officer of Abahaygiriya Stupa Project of the Central Cultural Fund.

"This specific type of inscriptions are known as Vaharala epigraphy among researchers but it is not established as a different genre scientifically. Those inscriptions are commonly known so because each of them have the word vaharala or its synonyms such as viharala, veherila, viharalaya, veheralaya along with another Brahmi term known as Chithavi. Several scholars starting from Dr Senarat Paranavitana to modern times have studied them and posited various opinions. According to Dr Paranavitana, those epigraphs had been meant to announce the donating of slaves to temples and thereafter freeing them by settling their dues," Rajapkshe who carried out the study told The Island yesterday.

"An analysis of this type of inscriptions indicates that all of them have five common information in each of them. They are the name of the donor who offers slaves to the temple, his village, his position or social status, what he offered, the amount he paid for the redemption of the slave and a blessing," she said.

"There are names of kings, ministers, generals, teachers as well as tile makers who donating slaves to the temples and thereafter buying their freedom. In most occasions 100 kahavanu (kahapana) had been paid to secure the freedom of one slave. There are cases of paying more than that amount," Rajapskshe said.

Senior Lecturer Chandima Ambanwala of the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Management of the University of Rajarata said that most of those inscriptions known as Vaharala epigraphy were found in the lowest rung of staircases or nearby the Sanadkadapahana (the moonstone) and it could be surmised as an indication of ascribing lower status for the slaves.

"The slavery in practice during those times could in no way be compared to the slavery in ancient Rome or black slaves in the US in later times. The period of serving the temple by those slaves had been vary some have served only several hours before they were freed, according to literary sources. Offering slaves for temple service had been considered a meritorious act and setting them free had been considered more meritorious," he said adding that the end of those inscriptions there is a dedication of merits.

"Some of them ends with a prayer wishing that the merits acquired by freeing the slaves should help the donor to achieving nibbana or attain buddhahood. Such wishes show more of a mahayana tendency.

Ambanwala said that the script of those inscriptions were not neat and refined as in the case of those found in the Anuradhapura period by various kings. It could be surmised that these inscriptions were inscribed by those who have no such training in script.

Ambanwala said there were diverse opinions postulated by various archaeologists on Vaharala inscriptions but the theory posited by Dr Paranaviatana in this regard still stood strong.