Was Nallur the capital of the Nagas in ancient Nakadeepa?
Posted on August 19th, 2011

by Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana, Ottawa, Canada

Romesh Jayaratnam, has writen in the Sri Lanka Guardian of the 17th August (www.srilankaguardian.org/2011/08/in-veneration-of-nallurs-vira-ma-kali.html), about Nallur’s Vira Ma Kali devotional tradition. He mentions that the Temple in Nallur was `built by a king in pre-colonial Jaffna’, and also makes a timely plea against animal sacrifices and calls for reform in such Hindu practices.

The more well known aspect of the Nallur temple is the Kandaswamy Kovil, (or Nallur Murugan Kovil), probably constructed in the 10th century CE. Subsequently, Sapumal Kumaraya’s name has also been associated with the restoration of this temple (regarding “Sapumal Kumaraya”, see the Sri Lanka Guardian article: www.srilankaguardian.org/2008/12/sapumal-kumaraya-and-puran-appu-later.html).

In this brief note I wish to touch on a topic that has intrigued many scholars including Gnanaprakasar and Rasanayagam – namely, the origin of the place name Nallur. Much of the speculative writing has evolved around the prima facia interpretation of Nallur as having something to do with “nalla-(p)ur”, or “good-city”, a suggestion attributed to Fr. Gnaprakasar as well as to Pandit W. F. Goonawardena. In a similar vein, Pandit A. M. Gunesekera, a Sinhala scholar of the 1890s had suggested that Nalluruva was originally ‘Yahapura’. There is of course, little or no literary support for such views, and they lead to no associated historical context.

A much more likely explanation of the name is obtained when we notice that variants of the placename Nallur seems to occur in areas which were attributed to the Naga people of ancient Lanka, as well as in India. Their capital would naturally have been named “Nagapura”. The evolution of the placename Nagapura ƒÆ’‚¢”‚ “‘ Nakpura ƒÆ’‚¢”‚ “‘ nakpur ƒÆ’‚¢”‚ “‘ nakkur ƒÆ’‚¢”‚ “‘ nallur is a natural and etymologically reasonable proposition. The Nagas lived in many parts of Sri Lanka including the Maaya Rata, with the capital near the mouth of the Kelani river

Not only do we have many instances of Nallur, Nagpur, but also Nakur in India, confirming the “evolutionary fossil record” of the toponyms. Many sinhala forms like Nakkala, Naagamunna, Naagakovila, Nagaseehathota etc., as well as their corresponding Tamil forms (e.g., Nagarkovil) exist. The Tamil forms are in common use today (see our place-names website for details: dh-web.org/place.names/ ) especially in the North of Sri lanka. Of course, the historical references to the Nagas are mainly contained in the Pali Chronicles, and such ancient texts and traditions. These are undoubtedly enshrouded in myth and legend. However, one can discern a substratum of pres-history in these legends, and they in turn make sense of some of the puzzles that we encounter in trying to elucidate the origins of place names.

The Pali chronicles referred to the Northern peninsula by the name Naagadeepa, and it recounts disputes between the Naga kings, and even miraculous visits of the Buddha, not only to Nagadeepa, but also to Kalyani pura (Kelaniya) which was the capital of a Naga prince whose domain extended well into today’s Western province. Thus, even today, there is a Nalluruva further south of Colombo. The Deegavapi-Mahiyangana area is also claimed to be a region of the Nagas, and it was important enough to have been assigned a visit by the Buddha.

The Nagas seems to have venerated the Serpent spirit, the “Naga Deviyo”, or Naaka Deviyo, who is today better known as God Natha. Naaka Deviyo was also associated with the Ironwood tree, i.e., “Naa tree” in Sinhala, and “Nagakeshara” in Tamil (Messua nagassarium). A clear association of God Natha with the Serpent God is found in the Anuradhapura-Mihintale inscription (Epigraphica Zeylanica, 1904 vol. 175 – 155) where he is “Nai-inda” (Naka- indra). It is natural to conclude that the earliest shrine at Nagapura (i.e., modern Nallur) would have been dedicated to the God Naka. Futher more, almost all such shrines tend to have Ironwood trees grown around the temple. The ancient (the 5th century) Damingamuwa Devala, or the Dodanwala Devala, still follow this tradition. The Natha Devala in Kandy, positioned just oppsite the Temple of the Tooth also has Naa trees near it. There is also a belief that serpents live beside Naa trees.

When Lanka embraced Buddhism, Naaka Deiyo and many other animistic Gods, and Brahaminical Gods like Vishnu were inducted into local Buddhism as Bodhisatvas, i.e., future Buddhas. The Naga temple at Nagapura (Nallur) became a Buddhist temple with God Natha recognized as a Bodhisathva. The shrine in Keeramali (ancient Vakulakanda), dedicated to the spirit of the mongoose became accepted as an early shrine to Vakula, a Mahayana Bodhisatva. When Hinduism replaced Buddhism in the North, God VakulaƒÆ’‚¢”‚ “‘ Nakula became the Hindu deity Nakulesvaran who is worshipped today at Keeramalai. The Puranas describe Krishna’s victory over the Naga king Kaliya, and the suppression of the Natha cult by main-stream Hinduism.

King Gajaba (second century CE) raised God Natha to the status of a Guardian Deity of Sri Lanka itself. More recently, God Natha has even become topical in the news, due to claims that God Natha has made revelations via a medium, leading to chemical investigations of pesticides. This claim has come from Kelaniya, a pre-Christian principality of the Nagas!

5 Responses to “Was Nallur the capital of the Nagas in ancient Nakadeepa?”

  1. AnuD Says:

    Does Sri Lanka have any studies based on excavations at these areas ?

  2. thurai Says:

    We came from Monkeys, we can´n´t go to the forest and be friend of Monkeys. History says us the truth. Sometimes may be fault. Noone can refuse that many Tamils changed as Sinhalese in the south and some Tamils in the North were Sinhalese. At the moment we need to forget the Past and begin a new life. We are Sri Lankans.The SLG has responsibly to built unity and Peace among all communities, and destroy the racist elements which exploit the communities. Take the best side of History only which assit us grow freindship.

  3. Sri Rohana Says:

    Thurai your comment on 20th is excellent. Totally agree with you. If we have majority of northern Sri Lankans similar to your attitudes we will be the luckiest nation in this planet. Sinhalas always treat tamils as our brothers and sisters. We only don’t agree with tamil racism.
    As far as I heard Nallur Kovil was built in 1749 by a tamil mudliar. As we all know most of the tamils brought by Dutch as tobacco farmers in 17th Century. Any one can noticed this was not a building of Naga era. This is a modern Kovil with a clock tower. This story is another created,bogus and imaginary tamil history, to justify tamil racist terrorism and tamil expanism in Sri Lanka.

  4. thurai Says:

    I enjoyed with Sinhalese and and Sinhala Police officers in Jaffna like many other Tamils before 50 years. LTTE Terrorism and the Tongues of Tamil politicians were Dangerous. Tamils in the north are misguided and destroyed
    by their own leaders. Their life depends only in inciting Tamils against Sinhalese. The future of Sri Lanka
    in the hand of Majority Sinhalese and SLG. Peacewilling people of Sri Lanka from all communities
    must work hard to defeat our enimies within us.

  5. oldfarm39 Says:

    I am not going to agree or dispute the learned professors hypothesis on the origins of Nallur’s name. What really concerns me is the number similar articles by various Sri Lankan authors in the last few years trying to in a very subtle way to to discredit long established historical facts. Most articles are empty of sound academic research.

    Neither Tamils nor Sinhalese can claim to be pure race or original Sri Lankans. Migration has been going on for many centuries. Indian population has evolved over many centuries from ancient Indus valley settlement ,Jenhis Khan invasion to mogul emperors to modern day population movements. Naturally, Sri Lankans are a mixture of such population movements over centuries in India. Who is a true Sinhalese, Kandiyan’s or Southerners . We know many ancient Kandiyan royal family had connection to South India. In the case of Southern Sinhalese the connection to Kerala Malayalee’s is very strong. The northern Tamils are probably a splinter group from ancient waring factions in Sri Lanka, who happens to speak Tamil and follow Hinduism.

    I do not care who came from where and how. What really matters is to develop and strengthen the common links. Both communities features are similar, eat rice,there are common words in the language,not a huge difference in religious beliefs, after all Buddha was born Hindu, and for the Hindus he is another incarnation. I would go as far as to say that Indians,Pakistanis,Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans have far more in common than Chinese with these countries.
    Finally, we all are living in a fragile universe, unless we put aside our differences imagined or real and work together for democracy,freedom of speech and economic well being we will be forever be a failed nation due to our own stupidity and failure to grasp the opportunity to be self reliant and not depend on hand outs.


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