Weights and measures in ancient and medieval Sri Lanka
Information on the weights and measures used in ancient and medieval
Sri Lanka are found in Abhidhanappadipika, Navanamavaliya and the stone
inscriptions. Nagalavava village in Sigiriya-Dambulla region, surveyed
in the 1990s, was using measures that could be traced back to earlier
times. Its system of measuring grain and medicine was common to other
purana settlements and also certain urban areas.
Weights and measures used in ancient times
In medieval times the day was reckoned as 60 payas, height was in
terms of a tree and depth was in bamba. Bamba is used today as well. At
Nagalavava the length between a man’s outspread arms indicated a bamba.
A stick or rope of this length was used for measuring.
Distances were given in gavu and yojanas. Unit of measurement for
road ways was also gavva and yoduna. A gavva was a quarter of a yoduna.
Ariyapala looks at the scales and the distances given in Pujavali for
the distance from Kalutota to Bentota. He found that the yojana
distances tallied and concluded that the gavu and yojana were practical
and were used. In Nagalawewa, distance is also measured in terms of hoo
Land was measured as kiriya, amuna and pala in Anuradhapura period.
According to Vessagiriya inscription kiriya was the largest land measure
of the time. Kiriya was the square measure of land on which a kiriya of
seed can be sown. A kiriya was equal to four amunas. Amuna was
subdivided into four pala. Pala was the smallest land measure. Mihintale
plinth course inscription refers to a pala of rice. In medieval times,
land was measured by specific measures such as riyana and also according
to sowing extent.
At Nagalavava, the sowing extent was determined by the area over
which a laha or pala of grain could be sown. The extent was calculated
as the area over which a particular amount of bittara vee (seed paddy)
could be sown. Kiriya equalled 160 laha or 8 acres. Amuna was equal to
40 laha or 2 to 2 ˝ acres. Pala equalled the extent over which 10 laha
of paddy could be sown, approximately half and acre. However, it was
noted that this system of apportioning land was peculiar to Nagalavava.
A wide range of capacity measures have been noted. Rice was measured
in kareesa units. Kareesa was indicated by symbols in Nawa handa
inscription and given in numerals in Situlpavva inscription. Ranwella
refers to two other dry measures, lahassa and admana.
Polonnaruwa council chamber inscription refers to lahassa. He says
there were different lahassa measures for dry and liquid goods.
In the medieval period the measures for grain, were naliya and
kuriniya. Visuddhi magga sanniya refers to a mita of grain and the nali.
In Nagalavava, the measures used are pata, hunduva, naliya, seruva, laha,
pala, amuna and kiriya. Of these the pata, hunduva, naliya and seruva
are common domestic measurements, while, laha, pala amuna and kiriya are
used for wholesale transactions and measuring grain on the threshing
floor. Pata is amount of grain that can be held in the open palm.
Hunduva equalled three pata. Naliya equalled 2 hundus. A hunduva
weighed 650 mg.
Two naliya made one seruva and six seru made one laha. Five and a
half laha or three seru made a busal. A smaller hunduva, with hundu bage
and hundu kala was also used. The traditional hunduva was made of cane
The widely used measure of liquid capacity was the naliya. Ariyapala
says Saddharmalankaraya shows that naliya was used to measure ghee and
honey. Naliya and half nali (manava) were used in the modern period for
Nagalavava villagers used a pair of small scales, like an
apothecary’s scale and a bivalve mollusc shell that could hold approx
two teaspoonfuls of liquid. Two shells called ravana katta were kept for
this purpose. The dosage was two shellfuls for an adult and one drop for
This was followed until recently when the spoon was introduced.
Ariyapala noted that in the medieval period, seeds were used as measures
Three tala seeds equal three amu seeds and three amu seeds equal one
vee ata. Eight vee ata equal one madati. The standard weight of a majadi
was also used in time of Badulla pillar inscriptions of 10 century.
Gunawardane pointed out that in the Kandyan period goldsmiths, silver
smiths and those practising indigenous medicine, used twenty four maditi
seeds - l weighing from 3 to 3.9 grains.
Ariyapala noted that weights of kalanda and manjadi were used up to
the modern period when weighing gold and medicinal ingredients. Uragoda
says that the madati and olinda varied very little in weight, and were
equipped with a hard shiny outer covering which would tend to prevent
desiccation of their contents. They presumably had good keeping
qualities and were unlikely to alter their weight to any significant
extent with time. Nagalavava used the traditional system of measuring
medicine. One kalanda equalled one copper cent (sathaya), half kalanda
equalled half cent and one manchadiya equalled quarter cent.
Nagalavava used kirival wood, cane, jak wood, margosa wood, cow dung
and resin from the seeds of the timbiri tree for making measuring tools.
The traditional hunduva was cylindrical, 6-7 cm high and approximately
twenty centimetres in circumference. It had a base of jak, mango or
kolon wood. Perforations were made along the edge of the base. Pieces of
cane or kirival were fixed as uprights; cane strips were passed between
the uprights and interwoven to the width of about four fingers. A pata
of rice was poured in and the level checked.
The rim was given an extra overcastting of cane and paste of resin
from crushed timbiri seeds and paddy bran (hall kudu) was applied. Cow
dung was used to repair any damage. Cow dung acts as an insecticide and
its disinfectant properties were known from ancient times. In the laha
vessel the mouth was wider than the base.
(The writings of M.B. Ariyapala, Prishanta Gunawardane, S.
Ranwella and C.G. Uragoda were used for this essay).