BUDDHISM IN ANCIENT JAFFNA
Posted on May 30th, 2016
According to the Mahavamsa, the Buddha visited Sri Lanka thrice. His second visit was to Nagadipa to settle a quarrel between the two Naga kings, Chulodara and Mahodara, over the possession of a gem-studded throne. Nagadipa is therefore a part of the ‘solosmastana’, the 16 places of worship to which Buddhists go on pilgrimage.
Paul. E. Pieris wanted to find out the location of ‘Nagadipa’. He researched into the subject. He found that 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 concluded that the name given to the Jaffna peninsula and its islands was ‘Nagadipa’. Jaffna was also an island separated form the mainland by a narrow strip of water. Jaffna was linked to the mainland only in the 18th century
Pieris read a paper before the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, saying that ‘Nagadipa’ was the name given to the Jaffna peninsula and its islands. John M Senaveratne present at the talk said that Pieris has ‘confirmed for us what was for long suspected and indicated’ by B. Horsburgh and J.P.Lewis that Jaffna was a part of the ancient Sinhala Buddhist civilization. The paper was published as ‘Nagadipa and Buddhist remains in Jaffna’ (1917). The Vallipuram gold plate, found around 1936, settled the matter. It confirmed that ‘Nakadiva’ was the ancient name for Jaffna.
However, today pilgrims are worshipping at a small, insignificant island, far away from the mainland, called “Nainativu’. This is a small islet, 2 by 1 ½ miles wide. It is smaller than Delft, Karaitivu or Kayts. 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. Jaffna is the largest of the islands and the one closest to the mainland. Nainativu had no historical buildings whatsoever when I, then a schoolgirl, visited in the 1950s with my parents. It only had a small temple which definitely was not ancient. There is nothing of archaeological interest there.
The Buddhists must insist, without delay, that Jaffna be given back its original name ‘Nagadipa’. the Nainativu temple should be relocated to Jaffna and the worship conducted there. Jaffna must now replace Nainativu in the list of ‘solosmastana’ and facilities must be provided for Buddhists to worship in Jaffna on a ‘solosmastana’ pilgrimage. Buddhists should have asked for this long ago. They must not delay any longer.
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.
A stone image of the Buddha about 8 feet in height was unearthed near Vishnu temple in Vallipuram, in 1903, together with ruins of buildings, pottery and coins. The statue was kept in the lumber room of the temple. J.P.Lewis, then Government Agent, Jaffna, placed it in the Old Park at Jaffna. Another image of the Buddha found at Chunnakam was also placed there. In 1906, the Vallipuram Buddha was presented by Governor, Sir Henry Blake, to the King of Siam who was particularly anxious to have it, owing to its antiquity. It is now in Bangkok.
Paul.E.Pieris traveling by train to Jaffna in 1913 had spotted an interesting mound at Chunnakam. He investigated it 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 and several badly destroyed Buddha images. 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’.
“Kantarodai appeared to be a miniature Anuradhapura buried in Tamil country,” Pieris said. A religious establishment of great importance had been established here. It had extended on to the adjoining lands as well. The complex was within a shout’s distance of Uduppili tank. There was evidence of a huge building complex. One building had a floor area of fifty six feet by thirty six. The site had been in use from about the 2nd century BC to about the 13th century AD. Pieris renovated some of the dagobas. Total cost was Rs 100.
Pieris observed in 1917 that no attention had been paid to the Kantarodai complex and 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 found a large fragment of the torso of what must have been at one time a gigantic stone statue, being used at a well for washing clothes.
Three acres of this complex were later declared an archaeological reserve and excavated further. 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 saw some similarity between Kantarodai and Borobudur and asked could Kantarodai have been a centre for Tantric (Vajrayana) Buddhism?
Ven. S. Dhammika (2007) observed that the pinnacles found at Kantarodai indicate that there would have been many more stupas than the ones seen today. The largest stupa is about 23 feet in diameter and the smallest about 6 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.
Pieris 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 3 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’.
E.T. Kannangara in his book Jaffna and the Sinhala heritage (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 8 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 Nilavari, Tellipali , Uduvil and Uruthirupuram. There is evidence of a Buddhist vihara in Keerimalai. Buddhist ruins were also found at Anakottai, Chulipuram and Uruthirupuram. Ceylon Observer (14.October 1949) noted that Buddhist remains were found 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 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. Pieris (1917) had discovered a remarkably fine image of the Buddha at Makayappiddi, in the courtyard of the Meenachchi Amman Temple.
D.G.B. de Silva (2002) said that even after Kantarodai was declared an archeological reserve, some stupas disappeared and others are in ruins. The extensive ruins at Chunnakam, with stupa, monastery and several large Buddha images were not there now, he added. Ven. S Dhammika (2007) pointed out that there were only 20 complete stupas now at Kantarodai. Nearly all the Buddhist remains in the Jaffna peninsula have now disappeared, due to neglect, pilfering or deliberate destruction, he said.