Heritage in Peril


“Respect for the truth comes close to being the basis for all morality. Something cannot emerge from nothing.”

—Frank Herbert, Dune

The little silver stupa is shining bright under the scorching sun. The vast blue sea, glittering like a bright diamond, spreads endlessly. The little jetty is always a busy place due to a large number of Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims, villagers, and travellers. Buddhists come here to worship one of their most sacred places, also known as one of the 16 most sacred Buddhist places in Sri Lanka, the Nagadeepa ancient temple.

It is a place where Gautama Buddha visited, thus making it extremely sacred for Buddhists.

For Hindus, it is the Nagapooshani Amman kovil situated close to the temple, which is an 18th-century kovil.

To think this is a place where the Buddha visited 25 centuries ago to settle a fight between two kings, was at the centre of a brutal war which spanned for 30 decades, actually gives one Goosebumps.

Today, everything seems to be peaceful. The two religious places coexist in harmony, setting an example to the once war-torn country.

Last week we travelled back in time to know the history of Jaffna and visited the Dambakola Patuna Vihara or the Sri Sanghamitta Temple. It is not possible to narrate the entire history of Jaffna in one article, and therefore, while we are traveling to see historical places in the Northern Province, we shall narrate the history of Jaffna and of the entire Northern Province.

Ancient Nagadeepa

Nagadeepa ancient temple is one of the most prominent Buddhist places in the Buddhist world as it is considered a place visited by the Buddha. While some think the Nagadeepa islet is the ancient Nagadeepa, some say that the entire Jaffna peninsula was referred to as Nagadeepa. Today, Nagadeepa islet is also known as Nainativu in Tamil.

The ancient Nagadeepa temple is situated on this islet. However, as archaeological evidence suggests, Nagadeepa was not merely an islet but a name to refer to the peninsula. To know more about this, we need to go back in time.

Wallipuram Ran Sannasa and the identity of Jaffna

In the year 1936, a remarkable discovery was made. In the village named Wallipuram, in Wadamarachchi, there was construction work going on at Visnu kovil premises. During digging the ground a small gold Sannasa (plate) was discovered. It is reported that the length of this sannasa was about three inches and the width was about one inch. As it was discovered in the Wallipuram village, it was known as the Wallipuram ‘Ran Sannasa’ or Wallipuram Gold Plate.

The text was written in Brahmi script and in ancient Sinhala language. The Sannasa was handed over to Prof. Senarath Paranavitana by the Most Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera. An expert in epigraphy, prof. Paranavitana examined the sannasa and published his interpretation in Epigraphiya Zeylanica, and in Inscriptions of Ceylon.

What the expert genius said was that the Brahmi script belongs to the 2nd century CE and ancient Sinhala language.

Four lines and 49 letters were written on it. It says,

Sidha – Maharaja Wahayaha Rajehi Amethe

Isigiriye Nakadiva Bujameni

Badakara Athanehi Piyaguka Thisa

Wihara Karithe

Prof. Paranavitana gives two interpretations to this. In one he says that this means,

During King Vasabha’s reign, his minister Isigirya was in charge of Nakadiva (area), and whilst, at Badakara Athana, Piyanguka Thissa temple was built.

The second interpretation was,

During King Vasabha’s reign, his minister Isigirya was in charge of Nakadiva (area), and whilst, Piyanguka Thissa of Badakara Athana built a temple.

King Vasabha was a king of Anuradhapura who ruled from 67 to 111 CE. He was a powerful king and according to inscriptions, his power spread all over the island. He is also remembered for his large-scale irrigation work.

Vasabha’s minister Isigiraya was in charge of Nakadiva or modern-day Jaffna peninsula. The plate is about building a Buddhist temple. As per the inscription, the name is Badakara Athana and prof. Paranavitana explains that this could possibly be the ancient name for Wallipuram.

Piyangu Deepa and Punkudutivu

Archaeologist and former Assistant Director of the Department of Archaeology (DoA) Sirisaman Wijethunga writes in Wallipuram Ran Sannasa Saha Hela Urumaya, this suggests that a 2nd-century Buddhist temple was in Jaffna and if the name of the temple was Piyaguka Thissa, Piyaguka can be also explained as Piyangu Divayina, or the islet named Piyangu. The name of the temple is Thissa. He explains that thus, the name could be interpreted as Thissa of the Piyangu Divayina.

In the Mahavamsa it says that a monk named Thissa resided in Piyangu Deepa, during the time of king Dutugamunu.

Sihalawaththu (a Pali text) mentions about monks of Piyangu Divayina. Wansaththappakasini also narrates stories about monks at Piyangu or Puwangu Deepa and these monks are said to be arhats.

According to some scholars, this ancient Piyangu Deepa where a large number of monks resided is the islet today known as Punkudutivu in Tamil. Today, any of these Buddhist monastery remains are nowhere to be seen. However, as the authenticity and trustworthiness of these ancient pali and Sinhala texts and inscriptions are widely accepted by the scholarly world, the history and identity of the ancient Puwangu Deepa or Punkudutivu cannot be hidden or erased.

In recent, there had been discussions by some that these were Buddhist monasteries and villages inhabited by Tamil Buddhists and not Sinhala Buddhists. However, our argument is that, why would the early inscriptions of these areas (out of the 10 inscriptions found in Jaffna, five are in the Sinhala language/ three are by Cholas and the other two are in Tamil by Sinhala kings) are in the Sinhala language and not in the Tamil language?

If these inscriptions were written to address the natives of then Jaffna and by the natives of ancient Jaffna, then the language they were written suggest the race of those natives.

The two Tamil inscriptions by Sinhalese kings are in Kytes and that can be explained as Kytes was the ancient port named Uurathota and by this time (11th century and onwards) Tamil language was an internationally used language in the South and Southeast Asian region. Therefore, these Tamil inscriptions which were basically about instructions to follow at the port, were in Tamil to make them understandable to foreign traders and foreign officers.

Also, names such as Puwagu Deepa, Naaga Deepa, Uurathota suggest the words are Sinhala words rather than Tamil or Dravidian. Also, names such as Isigiriya, Thissa, Chulodara, Mahodara, Kanha, Maniakkhitha, Daththa (an inscription found in Kadurugoda), Kevethe (inscription found at Aanaikotte) are also of Sinhala language origin. The historical names such as Uurathota (Kytes), Naagadeepa (Nainativu), and Puwangu Deepa (Punkudutivu) also suggest the Sanskrit and Sinhala language origin of these places.

Nagadeepa in Tamil literature of South India

Talking about Tamil Buddhists, Tamil Buddhists were there in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu. There had been Tamil Buddhist monks and lay scholars who composed many Tamil Buddhist books and poems.

Manimekhalai and Silappadhikaram are two renowned Tamil literatures to name a few.

Manimekhalai is a beautiful and classic composed by the Tamil poet Satthanar or Chirhalai Satthanar in the 6th century CE. He is also known as Kulavaanikan. This is the story of a Buddhist nun named Manimekhalai who was the daughter of Kovalan and the dancer Madhavi. Manimekhalai was written as a sequel to Silappadhikaram, the classic that narrates the tragic tale of Kannagi who later becomes goddess Pattini. Realising the harsh truths of life, young Manimekhalai leaves worldly pleasures and becomes a Buddhist nun.

Kundalakesi is another Tamil Buddhist epic written by Nathakuthunaar in the 10th century.

According to Manimekhalai, the goddess of the ocean Manimekhala brings the young girl to the island of Manipallavam where Buddhism flourished. This island is identified by some scholars as the Nagadeepa or Nainativu. Manimekalai also tells the story of Buddha settling the fight between the two Naga kings on the island.

Therefore, Manipallavam in the Tamil epic and Nagadeepa in Sinhala and Pali chronicles could be the same.

This epic also tells the story of a prince born to a princess in Nagadeepa (Manipallavam) by a Chola king, who later becomes a king in the Chola country and is also related to the early Pallava dynasty. This tale, we shall examine in the future.

Nagadeepa in Mahavamsa

According to Mahavamsa, Buddha visited Nagadeepa in the 5th year of his Buddhahood. This was to settle a dispute between two Naga kings, Chulodara and Mahodara over a precious throne. During this visit, a deva who was residing in the Jetavana monastery accompanied Buddha and it is said that he was a man in Nagadeepa at his previous birth. He followed the Buddha carrying the Rajayathana tree he was dwelling in Jetavana monastery.

Later the Rajayathana tree was venerated as the Rajayathana chethiya in Nagadeepa and the precious throne seat was also offered to the Buddha and a stupa was built to commemorate this event.

Now, some scholars question if the Buddha actually visited Sri Lanka or not. Some use modern technology such as satellite technology and attempt to say that the Buddha did not actually visit Sri Lanka nor did he travel outside of India. However, these ancient chronicles are widely accepted as authentic historical sources in the scholarly world and the story of the Buddha visiting Sri Lanka three times and visiting many places around the island has been in the consciousness of the islanders for more at least 17 centuries (if we calculate the years starting from the 4th century CE – the year Deepavamsa was written). Literature, stupas, monasteries, folklore, and belief systems are woven around this belief for more than 17 centuries. Thus, we cannot ignore and leave aside the story of Buddha visiting Sri Lanka merely as a myth or fable.

Ptolemy’s map and Nagadeepa

Based on the Wallipuram Gold Plate scholars suggest that Jaffna was known as Nagadeepa or Nakadiva during historical times. In the 2nd century Ptolemy’s map, Nagadib is mentioned to refer to the northern part of the island. This once again makes us understand that Jaffna peninsula was known as Nagadeepa and not merely the little islet that is known as Nainativu today.

As we said above, Tamil epics refer to Nagadeepa as Manipallavam. And the throne with precious gems owned by the kings of Nagadeepa is known in chronicles. In other ancient texts such as Rasavahini and Saddharmalankaraya, Nagadeepa is referred to as Maninaga Divayina and Mininak Diva.

Archaeologist Sirisaman Wijethunga writes that Sammohavinodaniya (another ancient text) says that there had been a Deepa-raja under the king of Anuradhapura who was in charge of Nagadeepa. He further says that Deepa-raja was the Yuwa-raja who ruled Nagadeepa or the peninsula.

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy