Buddhism in Ancient Jaffna



According to the Mahavamsa, the Buddha visited Sri Lanka thrice. His second visit was to Nagadipa to settle a quarrel between Chulodara and Mahodara. .Nagadipa is therefore one of the solosmastana venerated by the Buddhists. The present Nagadipa is located at ‘Nainativu,’ a small islet, two by one and a half miles wide, adjoining the Jaffna peninsula. E.T .Kannangara (1984) observed that the meeting between Chulodara and Mahodara would not have been on such a small islet when the Jaffna peninsula was within easy reach. . Nainativu had no historical buildings whatsoever when I visited in the 1950s. Paul. E. Pieris looked for the real ‘Nagadipa’. The main embarkation point to north India in ancient times was Jambukola in ‘Nagadipa’. From Jambukola it took seven days to get to Tamralipti, a port at the mouth of the Ganges. Jambukola therefore had to be in the Jaffna peninsula. Pieris looked at the available sources and stated in his paper ‘Nagadipa and Buddhist remains in Jaffna’ (1917) that Nagadipa referred to the Jaffna peninsula and its islands. The Vallipuram gold plate, found around 1936, clinched the issue. It confirmed that ‘Nakadiva’ was the ancient name for Jaffna. Jambukola is Sambiliturai today.

Jaffna was a part of the ancient Sinhala Buddhist civilization. Sanghamitta arrived with the Bo sapling at Jambukolapatuna. Mahavamsa records many Buddhist shrines at Nagadipa. Devanampiyatissa had built several viharas at Jambukola. Mallaka naga had founded Sali pabbata vihara and Aggabodhi I built the relic house, Rajayatana. Mahavamsa also records that Mangala vihara was restored by Dhatusena, Vijayabahu I repaired Jambukola vihara and Voharaka tissa built walls around the vihara named Tissa. Kanitta tissa had repaired a temple at Nagadipa

Kannangara (1984) has provided a list of the places in the Jaffna peninsula where Buddhist remains have been found in modern times. Several Buddha images were found at Puttur. Some were in Dhiyana mudra, one was eight ft tall. Remains of a dagoba and Buddha statue were found at Mahiyapiti. Buddha images, shrine and yantra gala were found at Mallakam Buddha image, moonstone, door frame, pillars and three mounds of earth were found at Vavunikulam. A Buddha image and dagoba was found at Koddiyawattai, a hamlet in Chunnakam. Buddha image was found in the village of Navakiri at Nilavarai. A Buddha footprint was found at Puloli, two miles from Point Pedro. Remains of dagobas have been found at Nilavarai, Tellipali, Uduvil and Uruthirupuram. There is evidence of a Buddhist vihara in Keerimalai. Buddhist ruins were also found at Anakottai, Chulipuram, Uruthirupuram and at Delft.

Kannangara stated that place names also showed that Jaffna had been Buddhist. There is ‘Pinwatte’ and ‘Buddhawattai’ close to Kantarodai. . Places named Sakkavattai (sangha watta) are found at Kankesanturai, Mawatapuram and the adjacent villages. Until the 1980s a hamlet close to Tellippalai was known as ‘Buddha Walauwwa’. Puttur is ‘Budugama’. ‘Ur’ means village in Tamil. There is ‘Gothamaluwawatta’ about a quarter mile from Ponnalai.

Kannangara says that there were Buddhist temples on the sites of some present day kovils. Kandasamy kovil at Nallur, built by Sapumal Kumaraya, was earlier a Buddhist shrine with an altar for Skanda. Buddha images were found quarter mile from this kovil. The Hindu kovil at Mawatupuram, a village near Kankesanturai, was earlier Mawatupura vihara. An ancient Buddhist vihara near the 9th mile post along Jaffna-Karaingar road across Manipay is now a Hindu kovil.

P.E.Pieris in 1913 investigated a mound at Chunnakam and found it to be a dagoba. It was the first dagoba to be found in Jaffna. Then he excavated at Kantarodai (Kadurugoda,) six miles southwest of Kankesanturai, adjoining Uduvil. He found a vast area containing mounds of dagobas. No attention had been paid to this complex and instead it was getting systematically erased. The villagers were regularly removing stones from the site to use for other purposes. The materials and images were used as doorsteps, stepping stones, aids for washing at wells and for Hindu worship.

Pieris also found several badly destroyed Buddha images at Kantarodai. A Buddha image of ‘heroic size’ was found abandoned, in sections, in a field. Another large Buddha statue measured nearly five and a half feet across the shoulders and weighed nearly three quarters of a ton. The size indicated ‘the high degree of sanctity once attached to this place’. There was evidence of a huge building complex. One building had a floor area of 56 feet by 36. A religious establishment of great importance had been established here, said Pieris. It had extended on to the adjoining lands as well. The complex was within a shout’s distance of Uduppili tank. "Kantarodai appeared to be a miniature Anuradhapura buried in Tamil country"

Pieris renovated some of the dagobas . Total cost was Rs 100. Three acres of this complex were later declared an archaeological reserve and excavated further. The site had been in use from about the 2nd century BC to about the 13th century AD. Today, there are only 20 complete stupas. The pinnacles found indicate that there would have been many more. The largest stupa is about 23 feet in diameter and the smallest about six feet. The base of each stupa is made of coral stone moulded into four bands and the domes are made of coral rubble coated with plaster fashioned to look like blocks of stone. The hamikas and spires are made of stone, with the pinnacle fitting into a hole in the hamika.

D.G.B de Silva (2002) stated that the complex would have extended well beyond the three acres recovered. . The available stupas, which have not been precisely recorded, are clearly only a part of the total number of stupas in the original complex. The stupas are different to the usual stupas and merit closer examination. He asks, is there a similarity between Kantarodai and Borobudur? Could Kantarodai have been a centre for Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism?

Pieris, in 1917, noted that Kantarodai, Uduvil and Chunnakam are in the centre of an extensive Buddhist ‘chunk’ located in the Valikamam division. Valikamam is ‘Weligama". A chain of other Sinhala place names, like Tellipalam, Vimankam, Chunnakam and Kokuvil can be seen in the division, going up to Kankesanturai. John M Senaveratne (1917) said that Vallipuram should also be investigated. There seems to be another centre of Buddhism there. Vallipuram had sand heaps with masses of broken blocks extending three miles in length. Kannangara (1984) stated that Vallipuram contained old bricks, foundations of buildings, damaged Buddha images, ruins of a Buddhist vihara and a place named ‘sakkawattai’. A beautiful Buddha image found at Vallipuram had been donated to the King of Siam by the British Governor in 1906.

Ven. S Dhammika (2007) says that nearly all the Buddhist remains in the Jaffna peninsular have now disappeared, due to neglect, pilfering or deliberate destruction.. D.G.B. de Silva (2002) said that even after Kantarodai was declared an archeological reserve, some stupas disappeared and others are in ruins. He said the extensive ruins at Chunnakam, with stupa, monastery and several large Buddha images were not there now.

The government is now engaged in preserving the `national heritage’ of Jaffna. The most important part of the National Heritage of Jaffna is its Buddhist civilization. This must be preserved first. Jaffna is Nagadipa. Therefore Jaffna must replace Nainativu in the list of ‘solosmastana’. Facilities must be provided for Buddhists to worship in Jaffna. Buddhists should have asked for this long ago. Jaffna must be given back its original name ‘Nagadipa’.

The writings of D.G.B. de Silva, Ven. S. Dhammika, E.T.Kannangara, S. Paranavitana and P.E. Pieris were used for this essay.

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