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What Ptolemy understood but we do not


by Anura Solomans

Nagadipa, a place which in legend is referred to as a place where a dispute almost resulted in a war, is once again the subject of intense debate marked by claims and counter-claims.  TNA Parliamentarian M.K. Sivajilingam, who is also a relative of the slain leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran, has demanded that the name of this island off the Jaffna coast should be Nainativu.  Opposition Leader and the leader of the TNA, R Sampanthan, however has stated that there is no need to change the name and that he would oppose such moves.    

 The island has another Tamil name, Manipallavam and is believed to have been blessed by a visit of the Enlightened One, the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama in order to settle the aforementioned dispute over a throne encrusted with precious jewels between two Naga kings, Chulodhara and Mahodara.  The Mahavamsa mentions that this was the Buddha’s second visit to the island and that it took place six years after attaining Enlightenment.  The great Tamil poetic work, Manimekala, authored at the height of the Sangam period, also mentions the above conflict and states that the Buddha engineered his footprint to be marked in the island to commemorate the visit. 

 The two quarrelling Nagas, now reconciled, gifted the said throne to the Buddha and embraced the doctrine, it is stated.  In the Northern Province, it is believed that the dagoba in Nagadipa was originally built at the spot where the throne was buried.  However, in other parts of the country, the fervent belief is that it was enshrined in the Kelaniya Viharaya.  The latter legend has greater acceptance since the Buddha’s next visit was to Kelaniya on the invitation of the King Maniakkhita, who had come to Nagadipa to pay homage to the Enlightened One. 

The island at the centre of this controversy is only about two square kilometers in extent and is located a couple of miles off Jaffna, on the Western side of the peninsula.  From there to India is a mere 35 miles.  However, the Greek cartographer, Ptolemy locates Nagadipa further South.   Ptolemy’s map of the world is said to have been drawn in the 2nd Century AD and is based on the description contained in Ptolemy’s book, ‘Geography’, written almost 2,000 years ago.  Ptolemy calls the island ‘Nagadiba.  In fact he names the Northern part of the island ‘Nagadiba Magramam’ which could indicate a district that shows the political reach of that island. 

Ptolemy refers to what is now called Sri Lanka as ‘Taprobane’ and his map shows 20 islands that belong to the larger political entity, Taprobane.  It could mean that at the time the island was made of at least 20 principalities. 

 According to history, more than 2,500 years ago, this region was inhabited by the Nagas, a people with ancestry from what is now called India.  It is said that they spoke an Indo-Aryan tongue and worshipped a deity in the Hindu tradition that took the form of a Naga or a cobra.   Their closest political associates were the Keralites.  Legend has it that when the Nagas ruled that part of the island, other parts were controlled by the Yakshas, Rakshas and Devas.  The Yakshas are also believed to have had links to Thailand while the Rakshas were closer to what is today Malaysia.  The Devas were considered to be pious and peaceful. They were later deified in popular belief systems.  They are said to have fled to the Malabar coast during the Rama-Ravana conflagration and integrated with the peoples there. 

 The Nagas, according to caste-based belief systems, were tasked to protect borders.  However, the Nagas in Nagadipa and the Northern part of the island did not have to defend countless kingdoms as was the lot of their brethren across the Palk Straits.  The Chulodhara-Mahodara legend indicates that there would have been at least two powerful clans.  After the arrival of Vijaya, it appears that the stock of the Nagas fell and eventually they were restricted to the island Nagadipa.  In terms of Naga-worship, what remains is the Nagapushani Amman Kovil in the island with the image of the seven-headed cobra. 

 From ancient times the island was known as a trading point for conch shells.  During the war, it was the Navy that ferried passengers to the island.  Today countless pilgrims visit Nagadipa to worship at the Vihara as well as the Nagapushani Amman Kovil. The chronicles state that the kings Dutugemunu and Devanampiyatissa had repaired the Nagadipa Viharaya during their respective reigns.  The European invaders stopped Buddhists from worshipping at this temple.  Recent renovations began only in 1931 when the Ven Ampangoda Randombe Somatissa Thero visited the island and identified the ruins of the temple.

What is most interesting is that Nagadipa has special mention in both Sinhala Buddhist and the Naga Buddhist history.  The Nagas embraced Buddhism 2,600 years ago.  No doubt even then the island was called Nagadipa.  This is why in all likelihood the Hellenic cartographer Ptolemy used the name Nagadiba, which is but a mild corruption of ‘Nagadipa’.  It was clear to Ptolemy almost 2,000 years ago.  There’s no reason for it to confuse us, today. 

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