Prince Vijaya (Sinhala: විජය කුමරු) was the traditional first Sinhalese king of Sri Lanka, mentioned in the Pali chronicles, including Mahavamsa. According to these chronicles, he is the first recorded King of Sri Lanka. His reign is traditionally dated to 543–505 BCE. According to the legends, he and several hundred of his followers came to Lanka after being expelled from an Indian kingdom. In Lanka, they displaced the island's original inhabitants (Yakkhas), established a kingdom and became ancestors of the modern Sinhalese people.
Broadly, there are four distinct versions of the legend that explains the origin of Sinhalese people. In all the versions, a prince comes to the island of Lanka, and establishes a community that gives rise to the Sinhalese race. The Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa name the prince as Vijaya, while the other two legends have different names for the prince.
The Mahavamsa version, the most detailed of the above-mentioned versions, is described below.
The king of Vanga (historical Bengal region) married a princess (named Mayavati in some versions) of the neighbouring Kalinga (present-day Odisha). The couple had a daughter named Suppadevi, who was prophesied to copulate with the king of beasts. As an adult, Princess Suppadevi left Vanga to seek an independent life. She joined a caravan headed for Magadha, but it was attacked by Sinha ("lion") in a forest of the Lala (or Lada) region. The Mahavamsa mentions the "Sinha" as an animal, but some modern interpreters state that Sinha was the name of a beastly outlaw man living in the jungle. Lala is variously identified as the Rada / Rarh region of Bengal (a part of the present-day Indian state of West Bengal ) , or as Lata (a part of the present-day Gujarat).
Suppadevi fled during the attack, but encountered Sinha again. Sinha was attracted to her, and she also caressed him, thinking of the prophecy. Sinha kept Suppadevi locked in a cave, and had two children with her: a son named Sinhabahu (or Sihabahu; "lion-armed") and a daughter named Sinhasivali (or Sihasivali). When the children grew up, Sinhabahu asked his mother why she and Sinha looked so different. After his mother told him about her royal ancestry, he decided to go to Vanga. One day, when Sinha had gone out, Sinhabahu escaped from the cave along with Suppadevi and Sinhasivali. The three reached a village, where they met a general of the Vanga Kingdom. The general happened to be a cousin of Suppadevi, and later married her. Meanwhile, Sinha started ravaging villages in an attempt to find his missing family. The King of Vanga announced a reward for anyone who could kill Sinha. Sinhabahu killed his own father to claim the reward. By the time Sinhabahu returned to the capital, the King of Vanga had died. Sinhabahu was made the new king, but he later handed over the kingship to his mother's husband, the general. He went back to his birthplace in Lala, and founded a city called Sinhapura (or Sihapura). He married his sister Sinhasivali, and the couple had 32 sons in form of 16 pairs of twins. Vijaya ("victor") was their eldest son, followed by his twin Sumitta.
The location of Sinhapura is uncertain. It is variously identified with Singur, West Bengal ( a place situated within the Rada or Rarh region ) or Singhpur (near Jajpur) / Sinhapura, Odisha . Those who identify the Lala kingdom with present-day Gujarat place it in present-day Sihor. Yet another theory identifies it with the Singupuram village near Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh.
Vijaya was made the prince-regent by his father, but he and his band of followers became notorious for their violent deeds. After their repeated complaints failed to stop Vijaya's acts, the prominent citizens demanded that Vijaya be put to death. King Sinhabahu then decided to expel Vijaya and his 700 followers from the kingdom. The men's heads were half-shaved and they were put on a ship that was sent forth on the sea. The wives and children of these 700 men were also sent on separate ships. Vijaya had his followers landed at a place called Supparaka; the women landed at a place called Mahiladipaka, and the children landed at a place called Naggadipa. Vijaya's ship later reached Lanka, in the area known as Tambapanni, on the same day Gautama Buddha died in northern India. Those who believe that Vijaya set out from the west coast of India (i.e. Sinhapura was located in Gujarat) identify the present-day Sopara as the location of Supparaka. Those who believe that Sinhapura was located in Vanga-Kalinga region identify it with places located off the eastern coast of India. For example, S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar speculates that Supparaka might have been same as Sumatra.
According to Mahavamsa, after reaching heaven, the Gautama Buddha requested the lord of gods (identified as Indra) to protect Vijaya in Lanka, so that Buddhism could flourish there. Indra handed over the guardianship of Lanka to the lotus-colored god (Upulvan), who came to Lanka in the guise of an ascetic to protect Vijaya. Wilhelm Geiger identifies the lotus-colored god with Vishnu; uppala being the blue lotus. Senarath Paranavithana identifies him with Varuna.
Vijaya tied a protective (paritta) thread on the hands of all his followers. Later, a Yakkhini (a female Yaksha) appeared before Vijaya's followers in form of a dog. One of the followers thought that the presence of a dog indicated the existence of a habitation, and went chasing her. After following her for some time, he saw a Yakkhini named Kuveni (or Kuvanna), who was spinning thread. Kuveni tried to devour him, but Vijaya's magical thread protected him. Unable to kill him, Kuveni hurled the follower into a chasm. She did the same thing to all the 700 followers. Meanwhile, Vijaya came to Kuveni's place, looking for his men. Vijaya overpowered her, and forced her to free his men. Kuveni asked Vijaya to spare her life, and in return, swore loyalty to him. She brought, for Vijaya and his followers, food and goods from the ships of the traders whom she had devoured earlier. Vijaya took Kuveni as his consort.
As Vijaya and Kuveni were sleeping, he woke up to sounds of music and singing. Kuveni informed him that the island was home to Yakkhas, who would kill her for giving shelter to Vijaya's men. She explained that the noise was because of wedding festivities in the Yakkha city of Sirisavatthu. With Kuveni's help, Vijaya defeated the Yakkhas. Vijaya and Kuveni had two children: Jivahatta and Disala. Vijaya established a kingdom, which was named Tambapanni ("copper-red hands"), because the men's hands were reddened by the red soil of the area. The members of the community established by Vijaya were called Sinhala after Sinhabahu.
Vijaya's ministers and other followers established several new villages. For example, Upatissa established Upatissagama on the bank of Gambhira river, north of Anuradhagama. His followers decided to formally consecrate him as a king, but for this he needed a queen of Aryan (noble) descent. Vijaya's ministers, therefore, sent emissaries with precious gifts to the city of Madhura, which was ruled by a Pandu king. (Madhura is identified with Madurai, a city in South India; Pandu is identified with the Pandyas). The king agreed to send his daughter as Vijaya's bride. He also requested other families to offer their daughters as brides for Vijaya's followers. Several families volunteered, and were adequately compensated by king with gifts. The Pandu king sent to Lanka his own daughter, other women (including a hundred maidens of noble descent), craftsmen, a thousand families of 18 guilds, elephants, horses, waggons, and other gifts. This group landed in Lanka, at a port known as Mahatittha.
Vijaya then requested Kuveni, his Yakkhini queen, to leave the community, saying that his citizens feared supernatural beings like her. He offered her money, and asked her to leave their two children behind. But Kuveni took the children along with her to the Yakkha city of Lankapura. She asked her children to stay back, as she entered the city, where other Yakkhas recognized her as a traitor. She was suspected of being a spy, and killed by a Yakkha. On advice of her maternal uncle, the children fled to Sumanakuta (identified with Adam's Peak). In the Malaya region of Lanka, they became husband-wife and gave rise to the Pulinda race (identified with the Vedda people; not to be confused with the Pulindas of India).
Meanwhile, Vijaya was consecrated as the king. The Pandu king's daughter became his queen, and other women were married to his followers according to their rank. He bestowed gifts on his ministers and his father-in-law. He gave up his evil ways, and ruled Lanka in peace and righteousness.
Vijaya had no other children after Kuveni's departure. When he grew old, he became concerned that he would die heirless. So, he decided to bring his twin brother Sumitta from India, to govern his kingdom. He sent a letter to Sumitta, but by the time he could get a reply, he died. His ministers from Upatissagama then governed the kingdom for a year, while awaiting a reply. Meanwhile, in Sinhapura, Sumitta had become the king, and had three sons. His queen was a daughter of the king of Madda (possibly Madra). When Vijaya's messengers arrived, he was himself very old. So, he requested one of his sons to depart for Lanka. His youngest son, Panduvasdeva, volunteered to go. Panduvasdeva and 32 sons of Sumitta's ministers reached Lanka, where Panduvasdeva became the new ruler.
Within Sri Lanka, the legend of Vijaya is a common political rhetoric used to explain the origin of the Sinhalese, and is often treated as a factual account of historical events. Sinhalese scholars such as K. M. de Silva have used the legend to propose an Indo-Aryan origin for the Sinhalese, thus distinguishing them from the Dravidian Tamils. At the same time, some Sinhalese authors have also used the myth to oppose Tamil secessionism, arguing that the Sinhalese and the Tamils are one race, because their ancestors included the maidens sent by the Pandyan king of Madurai. Some Tamil nationalists, on the other hand, have claimed that their ancestors were the Yakkhas massacred by Vijaya. Tamil authors like Satchi Ponnambalam have dismissed the legend as fiction aimed at justifying Sinhalese territorial claims in Lanka.
The various genetic studies on Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils have offered differing conclusions. R.L. Kirk (1976), for example, concluded that the Sinhalese are genetically closest to the East Indian population of Bengal. N. Saha (1988), however, disagreed with Kirk's findings and concluded that the Sinhalese display a close genetic affinity with the Tamils.