Buddhist Jaffna


The Naga Vihara in Jaffna was much in the news recently as the Minister Jayalath Jayawardene took a highly publicized pinnacle from the South. The TV coverage muted as it went through the Tiger controlled Vanni. The Naga Vihara is a recent temple only decades old. It was destroyed a few years ago; and by last year, the temple complex was fully repaired, except for the pinnacle, the chief incumbent Ven. Ven. Ovitigamuwe Bodhiratana Thera tells The Buddhist Times. Temple circles also do not believe that the temple had been destroyed by the LTTE in the first place; they point the finger at Christian forces.


A recorded history from 3rd century B.C.

But Buddhist presence in the Jaffna peninsula dates much earlier than the modern Naga Vihara. It is as continuous and old as any area of Sri Lanka with a highly documented heritage from at least the 3rd century B.C. There are documents, inscriptions and archaeological remains that bind Jaffna culturally with the rest of the country. Jaffna, whose name is derived from the relatively recent Yapa Patuna is the ancient Nagadipa.

Nagadipa is first mentioned in the Mahavamsa in connection with the arrival of the Buddha there. During this period of the 6th century B.C., the residents there, were of Naga clan and related to those by the same name living in Kelaniya.

Jambukola was the port in the Jaffna peninsula at which King Devanampiya Tissa’s nephew Arittha and his delegation embarked for the Mauryan court of Emperor Asoka around 230 B.C. It took 11 days to reach Tamalitti (Tamluk) at the mouth of the Ganges, and 12 days for the return. (It was also at Tamluk that in the 5th century A.C. the Chinese traveller Fa Hsien set sail from India and reached Jambukola, also in 12 days). The port of Jambukola is best known, however, for the landing with the Bodhi tree of Emperor Asoka’s daughter Theri Sanghamitta , the sister of the Thera Mahinda, just six months after the latter’s arrival. Jambukola has been identified by historians as modern Sambilthurai, near Kankesanthurai.


Early viharas of Jaffna

The Jambukola Vihara was built by King Devanampiya Tissa at the spot he received Theri Sanghamitta along with the Bodhi tree. A sapling of the tree was planted there. Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) later restored the Jambukola Vihara. The remains of a Vihara, such a Buddha Footprint stone and a Vatadage that were seen up to recent times, do not exist there any more.  But just a few months ago, a commemorative Vihara has been built which should find a place in the modern pilgrim route in Jaffna.

According to the Mahavamsa, several other ancient Viharas existed in the Jaffna peninsula. Devanampiya Tissa himself built two more Viharas close to Jambukola – Tissamaha Vihara and Pacinarama Vihara. According to the Mahavamsa, monks from Piyangudipa participated in the meritorious acts of Dutthagamani.  Also according to the Mahavamsa, King Bhatikatissa (143-167 A.C.) built the Palu-da-ge at the foot of the Rajayatana (Kiripalu) tree in Nagadipa. King Dhatusena (455-473 A.C.) founded two Viharas in the North, Thupavitthi and Dhatusena, the remains of which have not been located. King Dhatusena  also restored the Mahanaga Vihara. The Kelasa or Kolasa Vihara was associated with the Mahanaga Vihara. Salipabbata was a Vihara founded by King Mahallaka Naga. Aggabodhi II (571-604 A.C.) presented the Unnalomaghara dwelling to the Rajayatanadhatu Vihara (same as Palu-da-ge), as well as an umbrella to the Amala Cetiya and the Rajayatanadhatu. At one time, twelve thousand monks had resided in Nagadipa. 


Jaffna under Kings of Anuradhapura

The gold plate inscription found at Vallipuram near Point Pedro, written in the reign of Vasabha (65-109 A.D.) records that Piyaguka Tisa (Tisa from Piyagu) built a Vihara at Badakara (modern Vallipuram) while the Minister Isigira was Governor of Nagadipa.  

The Vallipuram inscription demonstrates that during the second century A.C., the whole of Sri Lanka was under the king in Anuradhapura, and the Nagadipa (Jaffna peninsula) was administered by a Minister of the reigning king. Piyagu or Puvagu is an island referred to in the Pali commentaries of the fifth century A.C., as well as in the Mahavamsa. The Ramesvaram inscription of Nissankamalla (1187-1196) refers to Puvagu-divayina and several other islands in the Northern province.


Early Sinhala words in Pottery

The Nam Pota is a book of important Buddhist centers in Sri Lanka compiled in the Kandyan period. Kantarodai in Chunnakam has been identified as the Kadurugoda Vihraya in the Nampota. Kantarodai appears to be one of the earliest historical sites in the North. A piece of black red pottery found in Kantarodai with words “Dataha Pata” (meaning Dataha’s bowl) written in Brahmi script is very similar to pieces of black red pottery found in the inner citadel of Anuradhapura inscribed with Brahmi script.   

A site of over 60 stupas, parts of Buddha statues, several kot kerali and satareskotu  and the remains of a Vatadage, were found in Kantarodai in 1919 during the first excavations by Paul E. Peiris.  A limestone standing Buddha statue found here is now in the archeological Museum at Anuradhapura. Tiles found in 1917 as well as in 1967 on a nearby mound are similar to the green/deep blue colored tiles found in Anuradhapura and Tissamaharamaya. These have been dated to the beginning of the Christian era.


A continuous Sinhala Buddhist history

A part of a pillar inscription found in Kantarodai by P.E.P.Deraniyagala contains Sinhala letters of the ninth century written on three sides of the pillar. This inscription records a donation made to the Vihara by King Kassapa IV (898-914 A.D.). The names of two members of the royal court, Agbo and Mahakiliggamu Kasaba are mentioned in the inscription. It is apparent that the Kadurugoda Viharaya was an important Buddhist Vihara in the country and its mention in the Nampota shows that its popularity as a key site of Buddhist pilgrimage continued at least up to the Kandyan period. In the 1960s, the Archeological Department began scientific excavation at the site and is now halted due to the war.

       King Paraklramabahu V1 of the 15th Century sent his own son Sapumal Kumaraya to defeat Arya Chakravarti of Kerala who was the ruler of the North at the time with an army of not only “Sinhala, Malala Doluwam”, but also “Demala” or Tamils. Arya Chakravarti fled Yapapatuna and victorious Sapumal Kumaraya took up his residence at Nallur as sub-king.

The glory of Sapumal Kumaraya is sung in the Kokila Sandesaya (Message carried by Kokila bird) written in the fifteenth century by the Principal Thera of the famous Irugalkula Tilaka Pirivena in Mulgirigala. The book contains a contemporary description of the country traversed on the road by the cookoo bird from Devi Nuwara (City of Gods) in the South  to Nallur (Beautiful City) in the North.

“Beloved Kokila, wing the way to Yapa Patuna [Jaffna]. Our Prince Sapumal has driven away from there King Arya Chakravarti, and has established himself in war-like might. To him, I offer this message”

“Arya Chakravarti beheld his glory, dazzling as the glory of the sun. He beheld his might which was poised throughout the eighteen ratas. Thereupon grief entered into his heart, he abandoned his realm and fled beyond the sea.”   

The return of the Prince to Kotte is sung by the greatest of the Sandesa poets,  Sri Rahula Thera of Totagomuva in the Selalihini Sandesaya (Message carried by the Selalihini bird) thus:

“Dear one, behold, here comes Prince Sapumal, the conqueror of Yapa Patuna [Jaffna].

Although Prince Sapumal left Jaffna, he is not forgotten there today. The Gods are reminded of him everyday by the Hindu priests in their chants at the Kandaswami Kovil in Nallur under his royal name of Buvanekabahu.      

And over the subsequent centuries, Buddhist pilgrims continued to visit Jaffna until rudely interrupted by the total ethnic cleansing of the Christian dominated LTTE. Today under the ceasefire, Tigers have allowed their favorite religionists Christians to visit the hundreds-of-years old Catholic shrine Madhu which is in the Vanni area controlled by them. But Buddhists are however denied to visit the very many thousands of years old Buddhist shrines in LTTE controlled Vanni areas. The Tiger-Christian evil nexus is showing even under a ceasefire.