Posted on May 2nd, 2020


Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka during the time of the Buddha in the 6th century BC. The Maha Sangha however, was established 300 years later, when by prior arrangement, Arhat Mahinda brought in the Upasampada to the island.

Arhat Mahinda was directly linked to Arhat Upali who had presided over the first Buddhist Council. Mahinda’s Upasampada was therefore considered exceptional.  The Upasampada brought by him to Sri Lanka was therefore equally exceptional.

Arhat Mahinda introduced ordination to Sri Lanka. The first to receive ordination was Suman Samanera who had come from India with arhat Mahinda. The second was Ariththa, a relative of king Devanampiyatissa and also a minister of the king’s government. Later Queen Anula and her retinue also took robes. This ensured immediate acceptance and a high social standing for the new Sangha.   It was also in keeping with the Buddhist strategy of obtaining the support of the rich and successful first.

From this ordination came Sri Lanka’s first Nikaya, the Maha vihara nikaya.  This has remained the leading fraternity of the Anuradhapura period and thereafter too. No other nikaya ever took its place. Maha vihara was the sole royal monastery in Sinhala history, as far as I can see. 

Maha vihara owned extensive lands, both near and far away.  These monasteries were closely monitored by Maha vihara. They were subject to a weekly, monthly, annual financial audit which, RALH Gunawardene said, would have done credit to any modern accounting firm.

The 32 Bhikkhus who presided over the Maha vihara are listed in the Nikaya Sangrahaya, starting with the well known Iththiya and Uttiya.   (For the full list see TG Kulatunge’s Buddhist Nikayas in Sri Lanka p 8.) Several chief priests of Maha vihara are also mentioned in other literature. Ven. Mahasiva is mentioned in the Dighanikaya attakatha. When Samantapasadika was being written, the chief incumbent of Maha vihara was Ven. Sanghapala.  Kulatunge gives many other instances.

Two hundred years later, came the first separation from the Maha Vihara, the creation of the Abhayagiri nikaya. This is not as awful as it is made out to be. A second monastery would have been created in Anuradhapura   eventually. A single monastery could not have coped with all Buddhist activity.

However, the popular story is that King Vattagamani Abhaya   caused this division by building Abhayagiri vihara, despite the opposition of the Maha vihara. Kulatunge provides another explanation which is far more acceptable. He quotes Vansatthapakasini which says that King Vattagamani Abhaya built Abhayagiri and gave it to Ven.  Kupikkala Tissa, who had helped the king when he was in hiding. The king had also known Ven. Hambugallaka Tissa .

 Thereafter a disagreement arose in the Mahavihara, regarding the interpretation of the Khandaka Parivara of the Vinaya Pitaka. Ven. Hambugallaka Tissa broke away with five hundred bhikkhus and went to live at Abhayagiri.  Kulatunge noted that Maha vihara did not take any action against Hambugallaka Tissa.

Vansatthapakasini   observed that there were no big differences in Vinaya between the Mahavihara and Abhayagiri. The differences were on procedures such as higher ordination through messengers and small details, such as use of ivory handled fans.

Kulatunge noted that the information on Abhayagiri is one sided, it is all from Mahavihara sources. Abhayagiri did issue its own history, ‘Uttara vihara vamsa’ but this is no longer available. We know of its existence only because there are references to it in the literature.

The ‘Uttara vihara vamsa’ is seen by Christian analysts   as a rival vamsa to the Mahavamsa. It is nothing of the sort. It is simply an addition to the vamsa tradition of Buddhist historical writing.  Projection of hostility between Maha vihara and Abhayagiri is a Christian interpretation. The Buddhist attitude to disagreement is different.  The different schools of   Buddhism do not fight with each other.

Abhayagiri was a vast complex far exceeding the extent and buildings of the Mahavihara. Fa Hien who visited in 410-412 said that Mahavihara had 3000 monks while Abhayagiri had 5000 monks. That is because it was carrying out a bigger task. Abhayagiri was like a modern University, said Kulatunge, with four fraternities, Uttaramula, Kaparamula, Mahanetpamula, and Vahadumula. But it had only one chapter house, the Ratnapasada where they all assembled to perform Vinaya karma.

 Inscriptions show that Abhayagiri had monasteries all over the island.  Kantaroda in Jaffna and Ramba vihara in Hambantota were Abhayagiri monasteries. Abhayagiri temples were established at Nedunkerni and Ottimalai in Vanni, also at Badulla, Yapahuwa and Panduvasnuwara.

Excavations at Abhayagiri have shown much evidence of Mahayana. Several Avalokitesvara images were discovered. Abhayagiri started to teach Mahayana in the     4th century. The Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang who visited India in 7th century said that Abhayagiri taught both Mahayana and Theravada doctrines. Abhayagiri taught Sanskrit as well as Pali.  Abhayagiri was also a centre for Tantra.

There is  an Abhayagiri Vihara in Ratu Boko in Java ( Indonesia) .An inscription dated 792 AD says the complex was constructed for the Sinhala bhikkhus of Abhayagiri vihara of Sri Lanka .’  It is a huge complex, situated in a prominent location. There are magnificent doorways, meditation caves and a stupa which resembles those at Kantarodai. The southeastern part of the complex resembles the padhanaghara in Thapovana, Abhayagiri.

The third nikaya, the Jetavana Nikaya, of the Sagalikas, was a breakaway group from Abhayagiri. They left, according to Vamsattapakasini, due to disagreement with Abhayagiri on the interpretation of the Vinaya pitaka.  This Sagalika group moved to Jetavana which had been built in the premises of the Mahavihara itself, by King Mahasen, despite the objections of Mahavihara. They would have been a most unwelcome presence in the Mahavihara.

Vijayabahu I (1055-1110) found that Buddhism    had declined in Sri Lanka during the Chola occupation and the Upasampada was under question.  He got down the Upasampada from Ramanna (Lower Burma). This Upasampada was considered to be the Sinhala Upasampada, since it was from Sinhala bhikkhus who had migrated to Ramanna or their pupils. Therefore no separate nikaya was created. 

The next development was the disappearance of two of the three Nikayas. That was done by Parakrama bahu I (1153-86) under the guise of unifying the three Nikayas. The method used was quick and simple. There was a purification of the Sangha. The bhikkhus of each nikaya were examined. Then the corrupt monks were expelled and the pious monks sent to Mahavihara. In this way all were brought under the Mahavihara. Never again, says Kulatunge, were bhikkhus indentified as Abhayagiri and Jetavana.

 However, there had to be subdivisions in the Sangha, for the purpose of management at least. By this time, teacher-pupil lineages had emerged called Mula and the temples within a Mula were known as ayatanas. The Mula groups were now utilized for managing the   Maha Sangha. 

There were eight mulas in the Anuradhapura period.  Abhayagiri had Uttara mula, Mahanethpa mula, Kapara mula and Vahadu mula. Jetavana had Vilgam mula, Senevirat mula, Galaturu mula and Dhakkina mula.  Some historians say that Galaturu and Vilgam mula were in Mahavihara.  This is probably correct. It is absurd to say that Mahavihara had no Mula. The teacher-pupil lineage would have been very important for Maha vihara too.

The eight mulas developed in Anuradhapura were formalized by Parakrama bahu I. Mahavamsa says he build eight palaces for the eight mula institutions. (astayatana.)  Four out of the eight astayatana or astamula which became powerful after Parakrama bahu I came from Abhayagiri, noted analysts.

The literature of the time mentioned these mula. Vidagama said he belonged to Mahanethpa mula. Sri Rahula said he was Uttara Mula.  Vilgammula said he was Galaturu mula. Palkumbura sannasa refers to Senevirad mula.

A Pali sandesa titled Vuttamala, praised the chief monks of Galaturu, Senevirad, Mahanethpa and Vilgam.  Dathopatissa II had a grandson who became a monk and lived at Selantara mula in Rohana.  Analysts noted that after the Polonnaruwa period, there was no mention of Kapara mula or Vahadu mula.

During the Portuguese and Dutch occupation, Buddhism declined, bhikkhus became corrupt and the pure Upasampada disappeared.    Several Udarata kings got the Upasampada from abroad, but they did not last. Sri Lanka at last succeeded in getting a stable Upasampada during the time of king Kirti Sri Rajasinha (1782-98)

Kirti Sri Rajasinha sent a mission to   Ayuthya in present day Thailand, using Dutch ships. He sent   a mission consisting of Pattipola Atapattuwe Mohottala, Allepola Vedikkara Mohottala, Vilbagedera Naida, Iriyagama Muhandiram, and Ayittaliyadde Muhandiram to handle the negotiations. Another 62 persons from different castes and professions were also sent.  The delegation took with them two messages, from Ven. Saranankara of Malwatte and from Ven. Golahanwatte Dhammadassi of Asgiri. 

King Boromkot of Thailand received the mission. A delegation of Thai monks was dispatched to Sri Lanka in one of his own ships. The   Sinhala delegation return in the ship they came in.  They got home first.

The Thai delegation led by Ven. Upali arrived in Trincomalee in May 1753.   Vilbagedera, whose account is available, stated that the Thai mission consisted of 18 Upasampada bhikkhus and 7 samanera. The group also contained clerks, physicians, chefs, musicians, drummers, pages and servants.  Before they left, this group went on pilgrimage   to many places in the island.  This shows that Sri Lanka was still considered an important place of Buddhist worship, with Tooth Relic and Sri Maha Bodhi.

Ehelepola Adhikaram, Angammana Dissawa, Hulangamuwe dissava, Kodituvakku mohotti rala, Vedikkara mohotti rala, Ahelepola mohottala, Viyalla Mohottala, Harasgama Muhandiram and Mahantara Ralahamy were sent to meet the delegation. They met the visitors at Tambalagama at Kantale and then proceeded to Godapola near Matale where the visitors rested a few days. The chief monks of Malwatte and Asgiri came to Godapola to meet them.

Then they all arrived at Senkadagala. The king had erected a new building at Senkadagala called Dhammikaramaya for the Siamese monks to live in. This is today the Pusparama of Malwatta.

The Thai team then got down to the business of the Upasasampada. A sima was established and on 19 July 1753 a Thai samanera was ordained by Ven. Upali. That was to show the Sinhala monks how an Upasampada was done. Then Upali invited the Maha thera of Malwatte to perform the    Upasampada the next day. Six monks were ordained with Ven. Upali as preceptor.

But some ganninanses refused to accept the Upasampada. The king then repaired the Dharmasala built by Vimaladharmasuriya II and fixed stones outside its eight corners to make a badda seema. Each stone was checked by Ven. Upali and the monks were re-ordained there. 97 novices from Asgiri and Malwatte were   ordained.

Ven, Upali set up another   sima at Asgiri. He then set up sima at 25 other places, including Sat korale Rajamaha vihara and at Vanamandava, Maddepola, Medawala, Mahiyangana, Arattana, Gadaladeni,  Velagama, Devanagala,  Diyasunnata, Vattarama,  Ridigama, Kandulava, Varavala, Angangala, Badagamuwa, Hambalagala, Maddepola, Tissava, Mavatapola, Veragoda, Aluvihara, Valala, Hurikaduwa and   Karavliyadda. This prevented the Upasampada from collapsing as it had done before.

Texts on dharma were received from Siam between 1753 and 1756. A   second team of bhikkhus arrived from Thailand in 1756 to train the Sinhala bhikkhus. The monks were trained in bhikkhu practice, observing vas, uposatha, kathina ceremony, training in meditation, chanting pirit. Ven. Upali gave the nikaya a katikawata, a code of disciplinary rules. This was superseded by the katikavata   issued by Kirti Sri.

The king declared Ven. Saranankara as Sangharaja, supreme chief of the Sangha, Siddhartha Buddharakkhita of Tibbotuwawe  as chief prelate of Malwatte and Uruluwatte Dhammasiddi  as chief priest of Asgiri. Kirti Sri entrusted the Tooth Relic to Asgiri and Malwatte. They were to be its guardians. this gave Asgiri and Malwatte great standing.  The Raja Maha viharas were also placed under them. The Siam nikaya was established.

All authority for the Siyam Nikaya was held by Malwatte and Asgiri in Kandy. Kandy was the centre. Asgiri and Malwatte had existed as two separate bhikkhu traditions before the Siyam nikaya was established. Asgiri, originally vanavasi, was older than Malwatte. Asgiri traced its origin to Dimbulagala in the 13 century, from where they moved to Valasgala and then to Senkadagala. Malwatte had greater prestige since Saranankara was based there, and Ven. Upali had resided there.  Initially there was a tussle for power between the two. Then authority was divided between them and matters settled amicably.

The Siyam nikaya was set up in the Udarata kingdom   when the low country was under Dutch rule. The Dutch started by suppressing Buddhism, but when things got difficult, they decided to   drop this and permit new temples. This unleashed a force that gained momentum under the British who took over the country in 1815.

The Udarata Sangha, was very contemptuous of the low country monks and refused Upasampada to them. Upasampada should be given only to those in the Udarata and not low country, Malwatte said.

The low country monks discovered this when they went up one day, in the 1880s, for ordination. Low country monks led by  Dharmakirthi Mangala chief Sangha nayake of Colombo, Ven. Valane Sidartha, Bentara Athtadassi and Parakumbure Vipassi as preceptors,  had taken a set of samanera to Malwatte,  for ordination, They  went in procession, in  bullock carts  ,from  Galle,  to Bentota, Panadura, Colombo and up to Kandy.(Date not supplied),

 When they got there, Malwatte refused to ordain them. The low country Sangha entered the sima and started to ordain.   The Udarata monks, including the chief monks had rushed in fuming with anger. There was ‘aggressive jabber’. The samanera had started sobbing.  Malwatte said that they objected to ordaining monks from low country. The low country group departed home. They had ‘walked down the Kadugannawa precipice’ . 

they met to discuss the matter at Butgamu vihara and founded Kalyani Samagri Dharma Maha Sangha sabha. This was probably the first breakaway sect of the Siyam Nikaya.

Kalyani Samagri erected a sima on a barge in Kalani River and did the ordination. They informed Malwatte that they had decided to cut themselves off from Malwatte.  The chief priest of Kelaniya Raja Maha vihara was not prepared to offer residential facilities there for future Upasampada. But a lay devotee, Mulhitiyawe Lekam had donated land by the river for the purpose. Nelligaswatte Kalyani Vamsikaramaya stands there today.

The low country monks thereafter assembled at Kotte Rajamaha vihara  and founded the Kotte Kalyani Samagri Dharma Maha Sangha sabha (1855) as a separate entity, independent of Malwatte. The leaders were Bentara Aththadassi of Bentara vanavasi vihara, Maligaspe Dharmakirti of Kotte raja Maha vihara, Panadure Sumangala of Maha Arukgoda Indasararama. Papiliyane Silavamsa of Galgoda Sri Maha vihara, and  Valane Siddhartha of Ratmalane Parama Dhamma Cetiya Pirivena. The Upasampada was thereafter transferred to   Kotte Raja Maha vihara, A sima was set in 1894 and this sima operates to this day. 

Kulatunge noted that Bentara Aththadassi had considered a separate ordination, even before the Malwatte incident. he had earlier made inquiries from Ramanna in   Burma about higher Ordination. 

However the earlier   Kalyani Samagri Dharma Maha Sangha sabha” did not disappear. it continued to function over the years. It consisted of   five groups, Ratmalana Mulleriyawa, Gampaha, Kakulandola and Rajarata. These were headed by Valane Sidartha, Pimbure Dhammananda, Avariwatte Jinaratana, Kalukondayawe Pannasekera, Halgastota Devananda,   and Batagama Pannananda.         

Later the names changed to Bentara Vihara group, Kotte vihara group , Arukgoda vihara group, Galgoda Vihara group , and Ratmanalana vihara group. Then Bentara created a second group, Daksina Vihara group to accommodate the  growing numbers.

In 2015 this Nikaya had 594 temples  in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa , Ampara, Trincomalee , Galle Matara, Hambantota,  Kalutara, Colombo, Gampaha Matale, Kandy Nuwara Eliya,  Badulla Monaragala , Kurunegala, Puttalam Kegalle and Ratnapura.  The Nikaya also has temples in America, Canada, India,  Japan Malaysia, Singapore and UK.

The Siyam nikaya in the  ‘low country’ had a long history of protests against Malwatte. From 1921 they had  been   saying that they did not recognize the degraded higher ordination of Malwatte.

 In 1942 Low country monks of Malwatte assembled at Jayamaha vihara pirivena in Kitulewela, Matara organized by Valivitiye  Sorata and Beddegama Piyaratna of Vidyodaya Pirivena . In 1954  low country Siyam nikaya monks decided to separate fully from  Malwatte and begin a separate higher ordination ceremony.

Siyamapali vanavasa nikaya had separated from Malwatte and performed their vinaya karma separately.  It has  its centre at Tibbotuvave vanavasaya at Vaturuvila, Elpitiya. it changed its name four times and was eventually registered in 1968.

In 1981, Ven Kamburupitiye Vanaratana called the heads of the second and third ranked  temples  in the area and founded the Matara district Pradesiya  Sangha sabha” of the  Siyam nikaya.

The formidable Sri Rohana Samgha Sabha  of the Siyam nikaya was formed in 1984. It had its own constitution and katikavata. Malwatte did  not object  to Sri Rohana carrying out its own Upasampada and the Sabha was registered for  Upasampada. Two ordinations were carried out in 1987, at Tihagoda, Tissamaharama and Randupata Raja Maha Vihara in Kotuwegoda, Matara.

Today, says Kulatunge,  Sri Rohana  has 555 viharas under it. they are in Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Monaragala, Ratnapura, Ampara Nuwara Eliya, Puttalam Gampaha, Polonnaruwa, Matale Kalutara, Anuradhapura , Colombo, Kandy, Kegalle and Kurunegala.

The Siyam nikaya did not continue as a monolithic Nikaya in the Udarata either.In the Udarata itself, it broke up into other nikayas, which  also went as Siyam.

Syam vamsika nikaya of Uva was started in 1939 at Kalabulu Landa vihara in Welimada. Since it was difficult for samanera to travel to Kandy for ordination, higher ordination was provided at Palugama and Kalabulu vihara which were considered ancient viharas.  This nikaya is still in existence. its viharas are mainly in Badulla and Moneragala districts with a few in Central, Saparagamu and Western provinces.

The best known Udarata Siyam nikaya sect today is Rangiri Dambulu samgha sabha. This was established in 1979 with Rangiri Dambulu vihara as its centre. Higher ordination was given for the first time in 1985 at a sima built on Kandalama wewa. The nikaya was registered in 1991 on a court order. ( continued)


  1. aloy Says:

    Many thanks for a very informative article. What we can understand from this is Buddhism has disappeared almost completely couple of times in SL.

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