BUDDHISM IN THE NORTHERN PROVINCE (1990-2019)
Posted on April 25th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

This essay presents some events relating to Buddhism in the north in the last three decades.  But first some news from the Eastern province. In January 2019 it was reported that construction work on the tallest Buddha statue in the Batticaloa district at Mahindaramaya, Mayelankarachchi in the Koralai Pattu West, Valaichchenai has commenced. The 60-foot statue will be the tallest in Batticaloa said Mahindaramaya Chief Incumbent Ven. Kaddukasthodda Mahindalangara.

Some new temples were erected during the period under review. Admiral Sandagiri, then Commander Northern naval area   built a Buddhist temple, Sanghamitta Seya,   at Dambukola patuna, where Sanghamitta is said to have   landed in Sri Lanka. The foundation for the Sanghamitta Seya   was laid in 1997. The pinnacle was unveiled in 2005, again by Sandagiri, then Chief of Defense staff and Commander of the navy.

The origins of Kankesanturai Thaiyiddi Tissa Viharaya could be traced to 1946. ‘The deed had been written in 1946’, the media reported. The last Wesak festival celebrated there was on 1954, it was damaged during the Eelam war. The temple was repaired in 2018 and there are plans to construct a sanghawasa (monastery) and a dharmasala.

Navatkuliya Sri Samiddhi Sumana Viharaya also had a rough ride. In 2009 57 Buddhist families were brought in and settled in Navatkuli.  They were Sinhala families that had been driven out of Jaffna in 1984 and 1990. Navatkuli is located 6 km from Jaffna. There was a fairly large Sinhalese community in Jaffna at the time. The Jaffna Sinhala Vidyalaya had 250 students. Life was pleasant with the Tamils and Sinhalese getting along like one family. Our family had roots in Maniyamthottam and Kankesanthurai and I knew Jaffna district like the back of my hand, said one returnee.  Eight generations of her family had lived in Jaffna.

Demonstrations were organized against the settlers.   Two Tamil politicians S.Sritharan and Suresh Premachandran said this was government-sponsored Sinhala colonization.  A temple was constructed in 2013. It was promptly bombed.  In 2017   the residents wanted to start work on a new stupa. The Chavakachcheri Pradeshiya Sabha refused permission and also went to courts against the construction of the stupa. Chavakachcheri Magistrate S. Chandrasekeran  disagreed with this . He  ordered the Chavakachcheri Pradeshiya Sabha to permit the construction of the temple’s stupa without any hindrance. His verdict was publicly applauded by the sangha.

The main temple in Jaffna town today is the well known modern Naga Vihara. I am unable to find out the year in which the modern Naga Viharaya in Jaffna was established. My guess is that it would have been built in the 1950s or possibly late 1940s. The Vihara somehow survived the Eelam wars. It had ‘resumed’ religious activities from 1997,  including Katina puja.   The first ever Buddhist Perahera organized by Naga Vihara in Jaffna was held on Esala poya day, 2003, with participation of Sri Lanka army, said the media. 

The pinnacle  for Naga Vihara chaitya was handed over to the viharadhipathi in 2002 by two Catholics, Dr Jayalath Jayawardene and Fr. Ranjan Silva. Buddhist organizations objected. It should have been done by a monk or Buddhist leader, they said. The signatories were National Council of Buddhist women, ACWBC, International Buddhist centre, Dayake Sabhawa, Sadaham charika, SUCCESS Colombo, Dhammacharini, Lanka Buddha Sanrakshana Sabhawa, Dharmavijaya Foundation, and Buddhist Doctors Society.

The media reported that the Katina Puja  at Naga Vihara was resumed in 2009.   The next available news is that the Katina puja was held on a grand scale in 2012. It attracted thousands, said the media. The religious activities were conducted by the Naga Vihara Development Foundation, Jaffna, and the Tamil Buddhist Association. The Nandarama Tamil Dhamma School under the auspices of the Association also participated.  The army helped. Bhikkhus from many parts of the country participated. There was also a Perahera in 2012, with elephants and dancers.  The elephants were sent from Gangaramaya in Colombo.

A group of 12 lawyers   had gone to courts to prevent the last rites of the late chief incumbent of the Naga Vihara, Ven. Meegahajandure Gnanaratana, being performed at the Jaffna Fort Sports Ground. The restraining order had been sought on two grounds. Permission had not been obtained from Jaffna Municipal Council and secondly,  the cremation of bodies could damage the environment. Jaffna Magistrate Katheeswaran  did not agree. He refused to issue a restraining order.

Wesak celebrations were organized in Jaffna in 2005 by army commander, Jaffna  and his   team.  Religious activities were at Naga Vihara and Kadurugoda temple. Large crowds had thronged  to Jaffna for Wesak to view the celebration. There were lanterns and dansalasa at the Alfred Duraiyappah stadium.

Jaffna celebrated Wesak in 2009 too. Families of the forces personnel in Jaffna observed sil at the Naga Vihara Jaffna. The  celebration lasted for three days. Wesak lanterns were lit along the main trunk roads,  main junctions and at the army camp. Wesak was also celebrated   at Lumbini Vihara, Kilinochchi.  Daily News carried a photograph showing the Perahera there.

In 2014 , Wesak celebrations were organized in Jaffna  by the Jaffna Buddhist Society” with  the assistance of the army. This too attracted large crowds. There was a special Wesak zone  with a giant pandal  and a dansela run by the army.   The Wesak zone attracted over 100,000 on first day.  Bhakthi Gee were sung by soldiers, students of Jaffna schools and the students of the  Manipay Nandarama Tamil Buddhist Dhamma School.

Wesak celebrations organized by the Jaffna Security Force Headquarters in 2018 were very popular, judging from the crowd turnout.  The Wesak Dansela catered to over 15,000 people each day. The Wesak pandals attracted large crowds. Previously, if a person from Jaffna needed to witness the Wesak celebrations, they would have to travel either to Anuradhapura or Colombo, but now with the Wesak celebrations being held in the North, the Northern people too could enjoy this festival,”   the public said .  Both the young and old come for the Wesak celebrations. They enjoy seeing the lanterns and pandals and it also gives them an understanding of the Buddhist culture. Tamil  politicians, however,  objected to the Wesak celebrations .

In 2010 Sunday Leader said that  Wesak is a modern Buddhist festival started in 1950. Celebration is centered on the display of lights and lanterns and  elaborate sponsored displays in the streets.  In 2010 the military had organized Buddhist celebrations in traditionally Tamil Hindu areas of the country including Jaffna. They are trying to show that the north is a Buddhist area said Jaffna MP Suresh Premachandran. This could be seen as communal triumphalism. It ‘confirms the fear that this is a Sinhala Buddhist country’’   concluded                                   the report in Sunday Leader.

There appears to have been two Tamil Buddhist Associations, in Jaffna   one after the other. A Tamil Dhamma Buddhist Association was started around 1959 by Maruthar Vairamuttu (1918- 2012). He lived in Manipay and was a handicrafts teacher. He had converted to Buddhism and had associated with Ven Akuretiye Amarawansa, Madihe Pannaseeha, Kanaweththewe Nandarama and Ganegama Saranankara.  Vairamuthu had worked with Nissanka Wijeratne when Wijeratne was    Government Agent, Jaffna. He had also helped individuals from depressed castes  obtain jobs.

This Association   seems to have died a natural death. A second Tamil Buddhist Association started by A. Ravi Kumar of Manipay, Jaffna. This was launched in 2010 at the All Ceylon Buddhist Centre in Colombo.  ‘Divaina’ newspaper, May 11, 2014   told his story.

Arunnethwaraththam Ravi Kumar’s father was an Inspector of Police. The permanent residence of the family was in Jaffna, but he studied till Grade 10 in Bandarawela.  I associated mostly with the Sinhalese”. He thereafter lived in Jaffna where he clashed with Prabhakaran, received death threats and for his safety went to India.  He lived in Chennai and Mumbai, working as a travel agent. His wife was abducted and his daughter was taken in by relatives. He was depressed and looked for solace. He tried Hare Krishna, Pentecostal and Sikhism. ‘One day I chanced upon a meditation centre. I practiced meditation for ten days. I liked it’. He then turned to Buddhism.

On his return to Sri Lanka, he wanted others also to share ‘the feeling of the soothing peace of mind Buddhism brings’. He  founded the Jaffna Buddhist Association. Tamil politicians had  told the Tamils in Jaffna that Buddhism is a Sinhalese Religion. They misled the Tamil people, and made them keep away from Buddhism and the temple. They should not be deceived any longer. They should experience the Dhamma for themselves, he said.

Ravi Kumar started Nandarama Tamil Dhamma School, in Chunnakam in 2012 in his home..  It is  the first Buddhist Dhamma School in the Tamil Language. When I started the Buddhist Dhamma School, Suresh Premachandran accused me of trying to destroy the Tamil culture by doing so. I pointed out that the Christian religion had already done that.

 Ravi Kumar carries on with his work by himself, said Divaina in 2014. 50 Tamil children are taught the Dhamma at this school. The school manages with difficulty. It lacks a suitable building. They study under a thatched roof.  There is no offer of help, Ravi told Divaina.  11 students  of this school, under the patronage of Chief Incumbent of Naga Viharaya Ven. Megahajadure Siri Vimala went on a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya in 2013. In 2014 the  students observed sil on the Poson poya day. Around 53 children participated in the sil progamme. The  progamme was    organized by Naga Vihara, ACBC, Sambodhi Vihara, Colombo with the help of the security forces in Jaffna.

Jaffna was used as the venue for Buddhist conferences on two instances. The Karuna International Buddhist Convention organized by the Triple Gem Foundation, Bengaluru,   held its annual conference in 2015 at Weerasingham Hall, Jaffna.  The co-sponsors of the event are Tripitaka Tamil Foundation, Chennai, Dhamma Vijaya, Maha Vihara, Madurai, Buddhist Trust of Andhra Pradesh, East Godhavari, Sarvodaya Wisvaanikethan, Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Mahabodhi Society, Sri Wardanarama Purana Vihara and Naga Vihara, Jaffna.  Chief Organizer of Karuna International Convention   Ven. Bodhipala said he had been visiting Sri Lanka three times a year since 1999 and was a guest of Siri Perakumba Viharaya, Pita Kotte.

The very first Buddhist Congress in the North with the participation of Buddhist monks from the Northern Province was planned for March 22 2019 at Vavuniya Sri Bodhi DhakshinaramaTemple, under the patronage of the Chief Sanghanayaka of Northern and Eastern provinces, the Chairman of the Vavuniya District ‘Sasanarakshaka Balamandalaya’ Ven. But Suren Raghavan and North East Chief Sanganayaka Most Ven. Siyambala Gaswewa Wimalasara.

The Tamil Separatist politicians  objected to the construction of Buddhist temples in the north. Tamil Peoples’ Council, headed by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran said,  in a statement  issued in 2016    that Buddha Viharas are sprouting like mushrooms in areas where there are no Buddhists. Buddha statues have come up in front of the 2500 year old Thirukoneswara Hindu temple in Trincomalee and the Thiruketheeswaram temple in North West Sri Lanka.

A Buddha Vihara has come up in front of the hot water springs in Kinniya (Trincomalee district.) A Buddha statue has come up in Sambaltheevu with police protection. In Kokkilai in Mullaitivu district, a Buddha Vihara is coming up with army support despite a claim to the land by a local Tamil. There are nine Buddha Viharas being built in Mullaitivu district alone.

Other places in the Northern Province where Buddha Viharas are coming up are Omanthai, Semmadu, Kanakarayankulam, Kilinochchi, Mankulam, Paranthan and Pooneryn. A 67 foot Buddha statue is coming up in front of the Nainai Nagabhooshani Amman Hindu temple. Northern Province Governor Reginold Cooray   said in reply that there are only 13 Buddhist temples in the entire Northern Province and that there is nothing wrong in constructing Buddhist temples.

In 2016 there have been demands for the removal of Buddhist temples, statues, and shrines built in the Northern Province, reported the media.     In August 2016 TNA MPs met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and raised concerns about Buddhist temples and statues being built in the area. The Northern Provincial Council   passed a resolution in 2016  prohibiting the construction of Buddhist temples in the north.   The British Tamil Forum (GTF) launched in 2017, a book titled Proliferation of Buddhist structures in Tamil Homeland-sowing the seeds of disharmony.”

The Tamil Peoples’ Council (TPC),  invited people to join a mass protest in Jaffna on September 24, 2016 to demand a stop to the construction of Buddha statues and Buddhist temples in areas in the Northern Province where there are no Buddhists.  Wigneswaran issued a statement where he said, stop erecting Buddha statues and Buddhist temples illegally and in places where there are no Buddhists, except in the army camps.  He also objected to putting up Buddha statues and temples illegally on private lands.

Tamil National Alliance MP P. Raviharan said in 2018 that Buddha statues and temples had been built in areas where there were no Buddhists. This was done  to demonstrate the power of the Sinhalese.  There were 131 sites of Buddhist religious worship in the North, of which 67 were in Mullaitivu. These were ‘unlawful’ as there were no Sinhalese living in those areas. They must  be removed immediately.

DM Swaminathan responding to a complaint that there were attempt to build Buddhist temple and Buddhist statue in Kilinochchi, said that no one will be allowed to remove Buddhist temples or statues in the north and Buddhist monks and devotees had the right to built temples and statues in any part of the  Northern Province.

Buddhist places of worship were attacked and vandalized. Shrine room at Mankulam had been vandalized on or around August 31 2016. It was erected by the army in its camp at Mankulam.  This was not an isolated incident, said the media. The Bo tree and shrine room at Sambaltivu in Trincomalee was cut down and destroyed.  

A Fundamental Rights application was lodged in 2016 challenging the vandalizing of Buddhist statues in north.  There was specific reference  to the shrine room at Mankulam but  the petitioner stated that this was not an isolated instance. Over the past few months there have been constant demands for the removal of  Buddhist statues from Northern Province.The Buddhist  archaeological sites in the Northern Province are  also under threat.

The Supreme Court in October 2018 issued re-notice on the Vice Chancellor and several other officials of the Jaffna University, over a complaint made by five Buddhist Students of the faculty of Business studies.  The petitioner students said they were prevented from entering the campus premises because they had attempted to install an enclosure to house a Buddha statue in their hostel premises. They had been suspended. They have requested the Court to direct the VC to allow them to enter the university premises and declare the violation of their fundamental rights by the university.

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