The Mandala State in pre-British Sri Lanka: The cosmographical terrain of contested sovereignty in the Theravada Buddhism tradition

Roshan De Silva Wijeyeratne (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Citation (Scopus)


As far as contemporary debates about devolution from the centre in Sri Lanka are concerned, the Indian Asokan (Buddhist) State model need not be as disabling of State reform as it appears in contemporary parlance. In symbolic terms, Sri Lanka’s recently ended civil war was about the organisation of space between the centre and the periphery, particularly those parts of the periphery occupied by minority Tamils. The Buddhist majority Sinhalese have defended the postcolonial centralised State by recourse to a highly modern and fetishised Buddhist nationalism that projects a simplistic understanding of sovereignty back onto the precolonial and particularly pre-British past. The idea of a unitary sovereignty however was the result of the administrative reforms initiated by the British colonial State in the mid-nineteenth century. The argument here suggests that classical Buddhist accounts of sovereignty which revolve around the imagery of a cakkavatti (wheel-rolling) universal king, once materialised within a given geographical territory, reveal an account of sovereignty (or kingship), which far from unitary manifests extraordinary devolutionary moments. In its Sri Lankan inscription, the cosmic order of Theravada Buddhism reveals phenomena which evolved over a number of centuries, harnessing the influences of both Mahayana Buddhist and South Indian Hindu cultural forms. The cosmic order of Sinhalese Buddhism, although hierarchical in intent, legitimised a number of highly decentralised administrative structures that characterised the daily routine of the mandala cum galactic polities that emerged in Sri Lanka, including that of the Kandyan Kingdom, the last of these galactic polities. Sovereignty then in its Theravada Buddhist incarnation in the Sri Lankan landscape reveals both centralising and devolutionary moments, moments that are captured in the Kandyan Kingdom’s architectural, administrative and ritual representation.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLaw, Culture and Visual Studies
EditorsAnne Wagner, Richard K. Sherwin
Number of pages26
ISBN (Electronic)9789048193226
ISBN (Print)9789048193219 (hbk), 9789401777261 (pbk)
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Caste Group
  • Architectural Form
  • Office Holder
  • Devolutionary Aspect
  • Cosmic Order

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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