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Mahasena (277 - 301 AD), also known in some records as Mahasen, was a king of Sri Lanka who ruled the country for twenty-seven years as king.[1]

He started the construction of large tanks or reservoirs in Sri Lanka,[2] and built sixteen such tanks.[3]

Destruction of the Mahavihara

After becoming king, Mahasen discriminated against Theravada Buddhists in the country, and destroyed several temples including Mahavihara, the main Theravada temple, before his chief minister led him to realise his mistakes.[4]

Mahasen was the younger son of King Gotabaya, who ruled the country from 253 to 266. His elder brother and predecessor to the throne was King Jetthatissa, who was the king from 266 to 275. Mahasen and Jetthatissa were educated by a Buddhist monk named Sanghamitta, who was a follower of the Vaitulya doctrine. Mahasen also became a follower of this doctrine, which was associated with Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism was traditionally the official religion of the country. However when Mahasen acquired the throne, he ordered the Bhikkhus of Mahavihara, the largest Theravada temple in the country, to accept Mahayana teachings. When they refused, Mahasen prohibited his countrymen from providing food to the Theravada Bhikkhus, and established a fine for violating this. As a result, the Buddhist monks abandoned Anuradhapura and went to the Ruhuna municipality in the South of the country.

Mahasen destroyed the Mahavihara, and the materials obtained from there were used for building the Jethavanaramaya. Lovamahapaya, which belonged to the Mahavihara, was also destroyed. After this incident, the king’s chief minister and friend, Meghavannabaya, rebelled and raised an army in Ruhuna against him. The king came with his army to defeat Meghavannabaya and camped opposite the rebel camp. On the night before the battle was to be fought, Meghavannabaya managed to enter Mahasen’s camp and convinced him to stop the violence against Theravada Buddhists. Mahasen agreed to stop the violence and made peace with Meghavannabaya, and later reconstructed the Mahavihara.

Many buildings shifted to Abhayagiri

Mahavansa/Chapter 37 tells ...An adherent of the thera Samghamitta, the ruthless minister Sona, a favourite servant of the king Mahasena, and (with him) shameless bhikkhus, destroyed the splendid Lohapasada seven stories high, and carried away the (material of the) various buildings from hence to the Abhayagiri (vihara), and by means of the many buildings that were borne away from the Mahävihära the Abhayagiri-vihara became rich in buildings. Holding fast to his evil friend, the thera Samghamitta, and to his servant Sona, the king wrought many a deed of wrong. The king sent for the great stone image from the Päcinatissapabbata (vihära) and set it up in the Abhayagiri (vihra). He set up a building for the image, a temple for the Bodhitree, a beautiful relic-hall and a four-sided hall, and he restored the (parivena) called Kukkuta. Then by the ruthless thera Samghamitta was the Abhayagiri-vihara made stately to see.

Constructions of tanks and irrigation canals

The Jethavana stupa was built by Mahasen in the land belonging to Mahavihara.[5] This is the highest stupa in Sri Lanka, and is among the tallest in the world. It is also the largest brick building ever built. He also built other temples such as Gokanna, Minneriya and Kalandaka. His countrymen regarded him as a god or deity after the construction of the Minneriya tank, and he was named Minneri Deviyo (God of Minneriya).

The Mahavamsa, chronicle of Sri Lanka, states that Mahasen constructed sixteen large tanks and two irrigation canals. The largest among these is the Minneriya tank, which covers an area of 4,670 acres (18.9 km2).[6] The tank has a circumference of 21 miles (34 km), and its 44-foot (13 m) high bund is 1.25 miles (2.01 km) long. The Minneriya tank provides water for a large area, and its water supply is maintained by the Elahara canal. Henry Ward, a governor of Sri Lanka when it was a British crown colony, had stated;[7]

No wisdom and no power in the ruler can have forced such efforts even upon the most passive oriental nations, without general persuasion that the work was one of paramount necessity and that all would participate in its benefits

The sixteen tanks given in the Mahavamsa as built by Mahasen are as follows.[8] Some of these tanks have been identified, and the present names of the ones that have been identified are given in brackets.

  • Manihira (Minneriya)
  • Mahagama
  • Challura
  • Khanu
  • Mahamani
  • Kokavata
  • Dhammarama
  • Kumbalaka
  • Vahana
  • Ratmalakandaka (Padawiya)
  • Tissavadamanaka (Kawudulla)
  • Velangavitthi
  • Mahagallaka
  • Cira
  • Mahadaragallaka (Nachchaduwa)
  • Kalapasana

In addition to these, Mahasen also built the canal Pabbathantha ela, and also completed the canal Elahara ela, which was started by King Vasabha.[9]

Relations with the countrymen

During Mahasen’s anti-Theravada campaign, his countrymen turned against him and this opposition even led to rebellions against him. Even the Commander of his army Meghavarnabaya turned against him. These led to the killing of several royal officials, including the monk Sanghamitta, the teacher of the king who led him to this campaign.[10]

However, after Mahasen reconstructed the Mahavihara and constructed and repaired several tanks in order to improve agriculture in the country, the people’s opposition toward him was reduced. After the construction of the Minneriya reservoir, Mahasen was regarded as a god or deity, and was called Minneri Deviyo (God of Minneriya).[11] After his death, a shrine was built for him near the Minneriya reservoir, the remains of which can be seen to this day.

Mahasen died in 301, and with his death, the Mahavamsa written by the Buddhist Monk Mahanama also ends.


  1. Mahavansa/Chapter 37
  2. "Country Profile". The High Commission of Sri Lanka - Singapore. Archived from the original on 2008-06-25.
  3. Derrick Schokman (2004-03-20). "Exploring the Sigiri-bim". Daily News.
  4. "King Mahasen". Translated Online Mahavamsa.
  5. "King Mahasen". Translated Online Mahavamsa.
  6. "Constructions of King Mahasen". Translated Online Mahavamsa.
  7. "Constructions of King Mahasen". Translated Online Mahavamsa.
  8. "King Mahasen". Translated Online Mahavamsa
  9. "Irrigation Systems" (PDF). University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.
  10. "King Mahasen". Translated Online Mahavamsa
  11. Gamini G. Punchihewa (2003-07-16). "Three cornerstones of local culture". Daily News