Heritage in Peril


In the account of Nagadeepa, the chronicles mention a Rajayathana Chethiya. This is the Rajayathana tree that was brought from India to Sri Lanka when Buddha visited Nagadeepa. The chronicles say that this tree was planted in Nagadeepa and was venerated as the Rajayathana Chethiya.

Identifying this chethiya has not yet been done exactly, yet two places are assumed to be the ancient Rajayathana Chethiya. While some say it is at the Nagadeepa Temple, some assume that must have been at the Kadurugoda Ancient Temple. Kadurugoda is today known as Kandarodei in Tamil.

The temple known as Nagadeepa is situated at the little islet beyond the Jaffna peninsula and Kadurugoda is situated within the peninsula. As we presented in the last week’s article, the entire Jaffna area was known as ‘Nakadiva’ or ‘Nagadeepa’ in historical times. A Yuva Raja, a minister or a Deepa Raja was in charge of this area of the island and he was under the king of Anuradhapura. In our future articles, we shall explore how the name Nagadeepa changed into modern-day ‘Yapanaya’.

Before we visit the Nagadeepa Temple and travel towards Kadurugoda, let us first briefly understand the position of Deepa Raja or the Yuva Raja who was in charge of Nagadeepa during historic times and we will also see in which sources this name is mentioned.

The Northern area of the Anuradhapura Kingdom (Anuradhapura was the capital city) was known as the Uttara Passa. The area stretching towards Dambakola Patuna from Anuradhapura belonged to the ancient Rajarata area (the land of kings). Therefore, when we say the ‘ancient Rajarata civilisation’ it means the entire Northern and North Central provinces in a modern sense.

Deepa Raja

Former Assistant Director of the Department of Archaeology (DoA), Archaeologist Sirisaman Wijetunga in Wallipuram Ran Sannsasa Saha Hela Urumaya writes that according to Sammoha Vinodani (Vibhanga commentary – these are attakatha or commentaries) the Nagadeepa area of Sri Lanka was ruled by Deepa Raja. The Deepa Raja mentioned in this commentary was a son of the king of Anuradhapura.

He further writes that there is an inscription at Mihintale about an offering of a cave by a daughter of a Deepa Raja, to the monks. This cave inscription is dated to the time between the 2nd century BCE and the 1st century CE by prof. Senarath Paranavitana.

Wijetunga argues that as the Jaffna peninsula was known as Nagadeepa during the early historic times and the historic times, the term Deepa Raja in ancient texts (Pali and Sinhala) and inscriptions, could mean ‘Yuva Raja’ kings who ruled Jaffna who was under the King of Anuradhapura.

We shall explore the tragic history of Jaffna in our future travels. Before we visit the two temples today, allow us to quote two Sri Lankan archaeologists and historians.

Prof. Paranavitana, in the seventh volume (1961) of the Royal Asiatic Society (Sri Lanka), clearly proves and confirms that an independent Tamil kingdom did not exist in Jaffna prior to the 13th century CE.

Prof. Sirimal Ranawalla writes to Sahithya (1981) that, according to chronicles found in Sri Lanka and inscriptions, there is no doubt that, an independent Tamil kingdom did not exist in Jaffna during historic times or prior to the 13th century CE and that, starting from the historic times to the end of the 13th century, Jaffna was in the ruling hands of the Sinhalese.

It is after the 13th century, due to the rising powers of the Dravidian kingdoms of South India and the decline of Buddhism in India, that Tamil settlements grew in Jaffna and the Northern parts of Sri Lanka. And due to the military power of Dravidian invaders, and the Jawakas the Sinhalese kingdoms gradually moved towards the Southwest along with Sinhala settlements.

Although King Parakramabahu VI of Kotte was successful in defeating the Aryachakravartins of Jaffna, after the arrival of the Portuguese the authority of the Sinhalese was once again threatened. However, Portuguese records and Dutch records suggest that even during their times, the Jaffna Kingdom was to a great extent surrendered to the Sinhala king and later to the king of Kandy during the Dutch. We shall further study these records and see what happened to Jaffna after the Rajarata Civilisation.

Until that, let us journey back in time, towards the historic times when Buddhism flourished in Jaffna.

Nagadeepa Temple in Nagadeepa islet

In our last week’s article, we told the story of Buddha’s visit to Nagadeepa to settle a fight between the two kings at Nagadeepa. Although a large area was known as Nagadeepa during ancient times, today, only the little islet close to the peninsula is known as Nagadeepa or Nainativu in Tamil. However, when studying ancient texts including Tamil Buddhist literature of South India, the ancient name of this islet is revealed to be Maninaga Divayina or Mininak Divayina.

Therefore, it can be seen that over time, the name of the Jaffna peninsula changed from Nagadeepa to Jaffna, and the little islet known as Maninaga Divayina was called Nagadeepa.

This islet has a large number of religious places, including two Buddhist temples, a large number of Hindu kovils dedicated to various gods and goddesses, two catholic churches, and one Muslim mosque.

The main Buddhist temple is the ancient and famous Nagadeepa Temple and another ancient temple known as the Buddha Walawwa is situated on the islet.

Manimekhalai the Tamil epic tells that goddess Manimekhala visits the Manipallawam islet and worshiped the place where the precious gem throne was enshrined. The Tamil epic further says that Rathnadeepa, a beautiful prosperous island situated next to Manipallwam Island and a sacred mount named Samanthakuta where Buddha’s footprint is, is located in Rathnadeepa. Taking all these accounts into consideration and analysing them, scholars say that Rathnadeepa is Sri Lanka and Manipallawam is Nagadeepa islet.

In the Most Ven. Kadawatha Wijithadhamma Thera’s book, Nagadeepaya Eda – Ada the Thera points out interesting and important facts. These are the Tamil place names of the Nainativu islet used today. The names such as Puththarthottam, Puththar Kovil Kani, Puththar Pallam, and Puththar Thidal are place names in the Nagadeepa or Nainathivu islet today. These Tamil words mean as follows; Putthartottam and Putthar Kovil Kani as the garden or area of Buddha’s temple, Puththar Pallam as the pond in which Buddha had a bath, Puththar thidal as the building in which Buddha stayed.

As the Thera says these names are mentioned in official state documents too, which according to him proves that these are more evidence to prove the Buddha’s visit to Nagadeepa.

The Thera further points to identifying the pond where Buddha had a bath with the sacred pond mentioned in Manimekhalai and another ancient pond named Gomukhi in ancient texts. According to him, today this pond is nowhere to be seen and the location of the ancient pond is private land today. Also, the large and ancient Kiri Palu tree mentioned in ancient texts was located about 400 meters to the west of the Naga Pushani Amman Kovil. This tree has helped sailors to locate land during historical times. However, the tree was cut down in the recent past. Hence only ruins of an ancient wall can be seen here today.

According to Mahavamsa, King Mahallaka Naga (135 – 141CE) of Anuradhapura built a monastery at Nagadeepa. This king was also known as Mahalu Naga.

King Kanitta Thissa (165 – 193CE) renovated the image house of Nagadeepa.

King Voharika Thissa (215- 237CE) has done many renovations at the Nagadeepa Temple and also built a rampart for the temple. This king’s father (King Siri Naga) and brother (Abaya Naga) both had Naga as their names.

Nagas in the Sinhalese culture and in Buddhism

The story of Buddha’s visit to Nagadeepa and the war that was about to break between the two Naga kings Chulodara and Mahodara is narrated in Deepawamsa, Mahavamsa, Vansatthappakasini, Mahabodhi Vansaya, Saddharamalankaraya, Samanthakuta Warnanawa, Dharmapradeepikawa, Saddharmarathnakaraya, Pujawaliya, Dhathuwansaya, Datawansaya, and Manimekhala Tamil Buddhist epic of South India.

According to these narratives, another Naga king Maniakkhitha from Kelaniya also joined this war to support king Mahodara.

These Nagas are interpreted by some scholars as tribes that lived in Sri Lanka prior to the rise of an organised race. It also must be noted that many later Sinhalese kings, provincial leaders, village heads, and ordinary citizens of the Anuradhapura period had used the term Naga along with their names.

According to the above-mentioned ancient Pali and Sinhala texts, the Naga kings were rulers of the sea and Nagadeepa and Kelaniya are both described as kingdoms situated in or on the banks of the ocean. The authority of the above-mentioned three Naga kings was spread across a vast area of the ocean.

During the Anuradhapura period and after, the Sinhalese considered Nagas to be protectors of water bodies; thus large Naga carvings are found near large ponds, water tanks, and irrigation work. Small statues of Nagas and other aqua creatures such as tortoises, fish, and crabs are found buried beneath ponds and tanks, as good luck charms. Nagas are also considered by Sinhalese to be protectors of religious places; hence they are carved at the entrances of temples.

Early Buddhist arts in India such as in Sanchi and Bharhut Naga carvings are found and large Naga carvings are also found at Buddhist monasteries.

King Maniakkhitha of Kelaniya embraced Buddhism and he even invited Buddha to visit his kingdom in Kelaniya. According to chronicles, and local belief, this Kelaniya is situated in the Western Province and today, this place is known as the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara.

Stories about beautiful Naga maidens coming to visit and worship the Kelaniya are still among the locals.

The large seated Buddha statue at the entrance of the Nagadeepa Temple is a beautiful work of art. The Buddha is seated under a gigantic Naga which has seven hoods and is seated on its giant coils. This is not a rare or uncommon scene in Buddhist arts. Statues and paintings of Buddha seated under a giant Naga can be seen among Buddhist arts in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the Buddhist world.

In Buddhist literature and legend, it says that Buddha was given shelter by a giant Naga named Muchalinda when he was in Gaya, India. He was also a Naga who lived in a lake. Once again, the link between water and Nagas is notable here.

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy