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Mahatittha (Mantai) | Ancient Port Site

Ketheeswaram temple
Mahatittha (Sinhala: මහාතිත්ථ) is an ancient port site situated in present Mantai (Tamil: மாந்தை) in Mannar District, Sri Lanka. It is considered one of the rare, surviving and clearly identified urban and port centres of the Anuradhapura Period with a stratified deposit of 10 m or more containing sequences from Prehistoric Times to the end of the Anuradhapura Period and beyond (Bandaranayake, 1990).


Name: Mahatittha & Mantai

Mahatittha was a renowned seaport throughout the east in ancient and medieval times (Nicholas, 1963). Sri Lankan chronicles including Dipavamsa (4th century A.D.) and Mahavamsa (5th century A.D.) frequently mention Mahatittha as the main seaport of Sri Lanka (Bohingamuwa, 2017). In the Pali language, Maha-tittha means "the Great Port" (Bohingamuwa, 2017). In many ancient literature and inscriptions, Mahatittha is called by variant names such as Mahatottha and Mahatirtha in Pali and Sanskrit sources, Mahavoti, Mahaputu, Mahavutu, Mavatutota, Mahapatana and Matota in Sinhala sources and Matottam in Tamil sources (Bohingamuwa, 2017; Indrapala, 1965; Nicholas, 1963). Ptolemy's account of Sri Lanka in the 2nd century A.D. names this port Modutti in Northern Taprobane (Bohingamuwa, 2017; Nicholas, 1963).

Mantai is the recent name for the Mahatittha and it does not occur in any of the early works (Indrapala, 1965). It is evidently an abbreviation of Matottam, the Tamilised form of the original name of the port (Indrapala, 1965).

Mahatittha in chronicles

The first reference to Mahatittha in Mahavamsa is found in the story of the arrival of Prince Vijaya in Sri Lanka in the 6th century B.C. (Bohingamuwa, 2017). It is mentioned that Vijaya landed at Mahatittha and proceeded to Tambapanni (Bohingamuwa, 2017). According to Rajavaliya, South Indian invader Elara (205-161 B.C.) landed at Mahatittha and his supporter Bhalluka who is said to have come with an army of 60,000 in 161 B.C. in support of Elara during his war against Dutugemunu (161-137 B.C.) also stepped on the port at Mahatittha (Bohingamuwa, 2017). In the first regnal year of King Valagamba (103 B.C.), a Tamil army led by seven generals who landed at Mahatittha captured the kingdom and ruled the country until Valagamba re-captured the kingdom in 89 B.C. (Bohingamuwa, 2017). King Ilanaga (33-43 A.D.) who fled to Kerala through Mahatittha sought assistance from the kings of South India (Bohingamuwa, 2017).

Travel between Mahatititha, Tamralipata (in ancient Bengal) and Suvannabhumi (unidentified) were common by the time the Samanthapasadika was written (5th century A.D.) and the merchant named Nandi and the minister Siva who is mentioned in Sahassavatthupakarana is thought to be lived at Mahatittha (Bohingamuwa, 2017).

Mahatittha is again mentioned in the chronicles during the time of Manavamma (684-718 A.D.) who with the military assistance of Pallava kings Narasimhavarman I (630-668 A.D.) and II (690-725 A.D.) twice invaded Sri Lanka, landed each time at Mahatittha (Bohingamuwa, 2017). During the reign of King Aggabodhi VII (772-777 A.D.), Prince Mahinda is said to have been stationed at Mahatittha and King Sena II (853-887 A.D.) sent an army through Mahatittha to invade the Pandya Kingdom (Bohingamuwa, 2017). The army dispatched by King Kassapa V (914-923 A.D.) to join Pandyan forces to battle against Cola forces left Sri Lanka through Mahatittha (Bohingamuwa, 2017). The port is also thought to be the landing and embarkation of the Pandyan king Rajasimha and the Cola king Parantaka I (873-955 A.D.) who invaded Sri Lanka around 946-947 A.D. (Bohingamuwa, 2017).

There are more references to Mahatittha in the chronicles during the reigns of Cola kings (1017-1070 A.D.), Vijayabahu I (1055-1110 A.D.), Vikramabahu I (1207 A.D.), Veeradeva (1111-1112 A.D.), Parakramabahu I (1153-1186 A.D.) and Nissankamalla [(1187-1196 A.D.) Bohingamuwa, 2017]. King Nissankamalla is said to have built an alms hall at Mahaputupa (Mahatittha) suggesting the presence of Buddhist pilgrims in the city (Bohingamuwa, 2017). The 13th-century text Saddharmalankaraya and the 15th-century Kokila Sandeshaya contain some vivid descriptions of the city at Mahatittha (Bohingamuwa, 2017).

Mahatittha in inscriptions

Ranawa Pillar Inscription of Dappula IV

#) Polonnaruwa Palace Inscription of Kassapa IV (898-914 A.D.): This inscription refers to the killing of cows at Mahavutiya (Mahatittha) Ranawella, 2001].
#) Mannar Kachcheri Inscription of Kassapa IV (898-914 A.D.): This inscription refers to an officer from Mahaputu (Mahatittha) Paranavitana, 1933].
#) Periyasenawatta Inscription of Kassapa V (914-923 A.D.): This mentions the killing of cows at Mahavutu [(Mahatittha) Ranawella, 2001]
#) Ranawa Pillar Inscription of Dappula IV (923-935): This refers to the killing of goats at Mahavutiya [(Mahatittha) Ranawella, 2004]. 
#) Kataragama Inscription of Dappula IV (923-935): This refers to the killing of cows at Mahavoti [(Mahatittha) Paranavitana, 1933; Ranawella, 2004]. 
#) Mahapali Alms-Hall Inscription (10th century): This refers to the killing of goats at Mahavutu [(Mahatittha) Paranavitana, 1933]. 
#) Thiruketheeswaram Inscription of Rajaraja I (c. 985–1014 A.D.): This records the construction of a temple named Rajarajesvaram at Matottam (Mahatittha) by a Chola agent called Tali Kumaran (Pathmanathan, 2005).
#) Thiruketheeswaram Inscriptions of Rajendra I (1012-1044 A.D.): This inscription records some information about social and religious conditions in the city of Matottam (Mahatittha) and the conquest of the whole of Ilam (Sri Lanka) and the capture of the Sri Lankan king and queen, and their crowns, and the Pandya crown that left in the custody of a king of Sri Lanka long ago by a Pandyan ruler (Pathmanathan, 2005).

Mahatittha as an international harbour

The importance of Mahatittha as a nodal centre of communications during the Anuradhapura Period and later is well reflected in historical and archaeological records (Bandaranayake, 1990). By the 6th century A.D., Mahatittha received ships from India, Persia and Ethiopia carrying cargo such as silk, aloes, clove wood, sandalwood and various other products (Bohingamuwa, 2017). They were redistributed along with other Sri Lankan products to ports in eastern India, Persia and north-east Africa, including Adulis in Eritrea (Bohingamuwa, 2017).

Despite military interventions since the 9th century, Mahatittha remained a main trading port of the Indian Ocean and the 10th-century Arabic text Hudud Al Alam mentions a trading city named Muvas in Sri Lanka which, according to many, is non-other than Mahatittha (Bohingamuwa, 2017).

Hindu & Christian elements at Mahatittha

Anuradhapura Cross

The population of Mahatittha included a large number of foreign traders, especially Hindus from India (Bohingamuwa, 2017; Nicholas, 1963). This cosmopolitan nature of the population is evident from the references to a Persian church at Mahatittha (see: Anuradhapura Cross) in Cosmas and a Hindu temple which is described in the 6th century A.D. poem of Sundaramurtu Nayanar (Bohingamuwa, 2017). The eminent scholar, Senarath Paranavitana has referred to the statement in the Pali Dathavamsa that there was a Hindu shrine at Mahatittha during the reign of King Sirimeghavanna (301-328 A.D.) and to the Tevaram hymns in which the Tamil saint, Nanasambendar, sings the praises of Siva who had his abode there (Nicholas, 1963). However, it has since been presumed that the particular stanza in the Pali Dathavamsa with the place name Lankapattana, refers to a site called Illankaiturai on the east coast and not to the Hindu shrine at Mantai (Fernando, 1990).

There are several Sinhala inscriptions dating to the 9-10th centuries A.D. that indicate Hindu religious activities at Mahatittha (Bohingamuwa, 2017). They speak about the great sins of killing cows and goats at Mahatittha illustrating the sacredness of it for Hindus during that time (Bohingamuwa, 2017; Ranawella, 2001; Ranawella, 2004). The famous Ketheeswaram Temple is presently located on the mounds of the ancient port city.


The popular theory is that Mahatittha was completely destroyed due to the Cola attack in 993 A.D. (Bohingamuwa, 2017). However, archaeological evidence found at the port city has clearly revealed the continuity of the port and its international trade at least until the 13th/14th centuries A.D. (Bohingamuwa, 2017).

The port city

Situated near the mouth of Malwathu Oya river, the site of the ruined city covers an area of about 50 ha (124 acres) and appears as a raised mound with a horse-shoe shaped or truncated ellipse plan demarcated by earthen ramparts and double-moat (Bandaranayake, 1990). The area inside the moat is about 30 ha and constitutes the main settlement (Bandaranayake, 1990). 


The first serious archaeological investigation at present Mantai was done in 1887 by W.J.S. Boake (Bandaranayake, 1990). He claimed to have located the remains of a palace and also mentioned that several structures and ancient roads were visible on the surface (Shinde, 1987). In 1907, the Assistant Commissioner of Archaeology John Still carried out a small-scale excavation at the site (Shinde, 1987). During the period 1926-1928, A.M. Hocart carried out several excavations and suggested large-scale investigations to understand the importance of the port city (Shinde, 1987). More extensive excavations were carried out at the site again in the early 1980s by Carswell (Bohingamuwa, 2017; Shinde, 1987). 

Investigations done by Oxford University at the site in the period 2009-2010 yielded a large number of archaeological materials originating from China, Southeast Asia, India, Arabia and Persia (Bohingamuwa, 2017). Radiocarbon dates deduced for 24 samples by them revealed the site's cultural sequence ranging from the 2nd century B.C. to 12 century A.D., although the earliest date secured was 1,600 B.C. (Bohingamuwa, 2017).


1) Bandaranayake, S., 1990. The architecture of the Anuradhapura period 543 B.C.-800 A.D. Wijesekara, N. (Editor in chief). Archaeological Department centenary (1890-1990): Commemorative series: Volume III: Architecture. Department of Archaeology (Sri Lanka). pp.13-14.
2) Bohingamuwa, W., 2017. Ancient "Mahatittha" (Mantai) in Sri Lanka: A Historical Biography. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, pp.23-50.
3) Fernando, W.B.M., 1990. History of the Department of Archaeology, Sri Lanka 1930-1950. Wijesekara, N. (Editor in chief). Archaeological Department centenary (1890-1990): Commemorative series: Volume I: History of the Department of Archaeology. Department of Archaeology (Sri Lanka). p.109.
4) Indrapala, K., 1965. Dravidian settlements in Ceylon and the beginnings of the kingdom of Jaffna. Doctoral dissertation, School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London). pp.33-34.
5) Nicholas, C. W., 1963. Historical topography of ancient and medieval Ceylon. Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series (Vol VI). Special Number: Colombo. Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch). pp.75-80.
6) Paranavitana, S., 1933. (Edited and translated by Wikramasinghe, D.M.D.Z.; Codrington, H.W.) Inscriptions on the stone canoe within the Citadel Anuradhapura. Epigraphia Zeylanica: Being Lithic and Other Inscriptions of Ceylon: Vol. III. Printed at the Department of Government Printing, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) for the Archeological Department. pp.100-113,131-137,219-225.
7) Pathmanathan, S., 2005. Tamil inscriptions in the Colombo National Museum: Spolia Zeylanica. Vol 47. (2010). Department of National Museums, Sri Lanka, pp.1-13,15-21.
8) Ranawella, S., 2001. Inscription of Ceylon. Volume V, Part I. Department of Archaeology. ISBN: 955-9159-21-6. pp.180-186,300-303.
9) Ranawella, G.S., 2004. Inscription of Ceylon: Containing pillar inscriptions and slab inscriptions from 924 AD to 1017. Volume V, Part II. Department of Archaeology. pp.31-35,98-103.
10) Shinde, V., 1987. Mantai: an important settlement in northwest Sri Lanka. East and west, 37(1/4), pp.327-336.

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This page was last updated on 9 January 2024

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