Before History was Written...
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
Stupas are the most common architectural structures of the ancient Buddhist world. Although the origins of these structures are non-Buddhist, later they were adopted by Buddhists for religious purposes. According to Prof. Senarath Paranavithana, stupa worshipping spread towards countries South and East of India.
Although popular belief is that Thuparama was the first Buddhist stupa built in Sri Lanka, our historical chronicles reveal that the Mahiyangana Stupa was built centuries before the Thuparama Stupa. After the first visit of Buddha, a stupa was built at Bintenne or Mahiyangana to commemorate the event enshrining his hair relics. It is believed that Buddha visited Kataragama during his last visit and the stupa at Kiri Vehera was built by Mahasen, King of Kataragama. These stories reveal that there were Buddhist stupas in the country centuries before Thuparama was built.
We will explore four Buddhist stupas that are believed to have been built before Thuparama, which are the stupas at Nagadeepa, Kelaniya, Deeghavapi and Kiri Vehera. Before we start our voyage to the past through chronicles, folklore and archaeology, it is important to keep in mind that the Pali chronicles are not the comprehensive history of the island and there are many chapters of history which are not recorded in these Pali chronicles.
Stupa and chethiya at Nagadeepa
According to chronicles and folklore, Buddha visited Nagadeepa in order to reconcile a war between two mighty Naga kings, Chulodara and Mahodara. The two kings were on the verge of a great war against each other for the ownership of a grand gem seat that was inherited by Chulodara.
Chulodara, ruler of Nagadeepa
According to historical texts, Chulodara was the son of Kanha, sister of King Mahodara. Princess Kanha’s mother (in some texts it is her father) owned a priceless gem seat which was later given to Kanha. Her brother Mahodara was raged by this and declared war against Kanha’s son Chulodara in order to own the gem seat.
After Buddha’s visit he was offered the gem seat and it is said that he preached the Dhamma to everyone. When Buddha visited Nagadeepa he was accompanied by a Deva called Samiddhi Sumana who held a Kiripalu tree as an umbrella.
The first Paribogika Chethiya of Sri Lanka
Later, the Kiripalu tree and the gem seat were named as paribogika chethiyas for veneration. Some scholars suggest that the Naga kings built a stupa enshrining the gem seat. Historians also believe that the two Naga kings built the Rajayathana Chethiya at Nagadeepa.
Monuments built for enshrining images or to commemorate places or other religious objects are chethiyas, which means ‘in memory’ or ‘to remember’; to commemorate. There are examples of sacred trees which were called chethiyas.
Identifying Nagadeepa Stupas at Kadurugoda
At present Nagadeepa is known as an island located off Jaffna peninsula. Yet, archaeologists and historians suggest that the ancient Nagadeepa Kingdom was the entire peninsula, not only one island. According to some researchers, the place which Buddha visited is the ancient Buddhist temple at Kadurugoda. Coins of Sinhala monarchs such as Queen Leelavati (1197-1200), King Sahassamalla (1200-1202) and King Dharmashoka (1208-1209) were found in large quantities at Kadurugoda. What is unique about this place is the large number of small stupas built in a cluster.
Nakadiva or Nagadeepa and Wallipuram Ran Sannasa
The discovery of the Vallipuram Ran Sannasa was a remarkable finding. According to this gold sannasa, Nakadiva or Nagadeepa was under the rule of Isigiri, a minister of King Vasabha (61-105), of Anuradhapura.
Punkuduthiv, an island of monks
Rasavanihi, a historical text says that there were 12,000 Buddhist monks at Puwangu-deepa, present day Punkuduthiv.
Stupas at Delft
There are ruins of a huge monastery with two stupas at the island of Delft.
Island of Nagadeepa
The island that is called Nagadeepa at present is a part of the once vast spread Naga kingdom, Nakadiva or Nagadeepa.
Stupa at Kalyani
In his eighth year after enlightenment, Buddha made his third and final visit to Sri Lanka accompanied by 500 bhikkhus. It is said that he visited Kelaniya to fulfil a request by the Naga King Maniakkitha who was the ruler of Kelaniya. Reliable sources such as the Mahavamsa, Deepavamsa, Vansaththappakasini, Poojawaliya and Saddharmarathnakaraya refer to this event. The Jataka tale, Valahassa, also mentions the Naga kingdoms at Kelaniya and Nagadeepa. It is recorded in these historical sources that after three years of Buddha’s visit to Nagadeepa (Jaffna), King Maniakkitha met Buddha and invited him to visit his kingdom.
The Naga king had prepared a spectacular seat adorned beautifully for Buddha. It is said that the Kelaniya stupa was built at the place where this seat was kept.
Pali chronicles do not mention about the construction of the Kelani Stupa. Yet, historical texts written in Sinhala mention this stupa. According to the 13th century text Poojawaliya, the stupa at Kelaniya was built by King Yatalatissa. It is also mentioned in the same account, that King Kavantissa built a stupa at Kelaniya.
It is fair enough to assume that the Naga King Maniakkitha built a chethiya to commemorate the Buddha’s visit to Kelaniya and later kings such as Yatalatissa renovated it. Another argument is that, Yatalatissa and Kavantissa were rulers at Magama, Rohana kingdom.
Kelaniya is also known as the kingdom of King Kelanitissa, and his valiant daughter Princess Viharamahadevi. The eminent scholar Prof. Senarat Paranavitana, challenged this belief when he discovered and interpreted some inscriptions and said that Viharamahadevi was not from Kelaniya of the Western province of the island, but from a kingdom named Kelaniya in the ancient Ruhunu-rata. Therefore, the exact location of the real Kelaniya kingdom is yet to be solved. It could be that there were two ancient Kelaniyas, one in the West and the other in the South. If so, the Kelaniya of Maniakkitha to which Buddha visited is different from the Kelaniya at Magama, where Yatalatissa built a stupa.
Stupa at Deeghavapi
When Buddha visited Kelaniya on a Vesak full moon day he visited Deeghavapi too, and he was accompanied by 500 arhats. Deeghavapi was under the power of a local ruler named Mahasen (according to the Mahavamsa he was a Deva named Mahasen). This Mahasen is believed to be the ruler of the Rohana Kingdom. During the time of the Buddha, Kacharagama was ruled by King Mahasen.
Stupa at Kataragama, Kiri Vehera
When Buddha visited the island he visited Kataragama too and met Mahasen. At this point, Mahasen became a follower of the Buddha. Later, Mahasen had built a stupa at the location where he met Buddha. Also it is believed that the golden sword Prince Siddhartha used to cut off his hair on the day of Abhinishkramana is housed inside this stupa. This stupa is identified as the Kiri Vehera.
According to the Dhathuwamsa and Jinakalamalini, Buddha visited the location where the Kiri Vehera stupa is located today and sanitised the land making it one of the major holy places of worship for Buddhists.