Posted on August 2nd, 2020


Buddhist shrines and temples are not accepted by the non-Buddhists in the north .Here is an example. 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. The public had now turned against this community. Demonstrations were organized against the settlers.   Two Tamil politicians S.Sritharan and Suresh Premachandran said this was government-sponsored Sinhala colonization. 

Navatkuliya Sri Samiddhi Sumana Viharaya 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. The Chavakachcheri Pradeshiya Sabha filed the case against the construction of the Chaitya. It was taken up for hearing at the Chavakachcheri Magistrate’s Court. Chavakachcheri Magistrate S. Chandrasekeran ordered the Chavakachcheri Pradeshiya Sabha to permit the construction of the temple’s stupa without any hindrance. Her verdict was publicly applauded by the Sangha. The Magistrate has said that she respects Buddhism even though she is a Hindu devotee, reported Ven. Sooriyawewa Sumedha.

A Buddhist priest from Anuradhapura, Ven.Tissapura Gunaratana has started constructing a temple in the Kokkilai region,  on a piece of property owned by local Tamils, complained Tamilnet in 2011 and again in 2015. He justifies his project pointing towards a Bodhi tree in the plot. A local Tamil says the project has displaced at least five families. The monk is adamant that he will build the temple here in our land. He has offered money to buy the premises, but the owners do not want to sell. This is their family land and they want to stay here.” Tamilnet complained thereafter that the same monk,  was also building another Buddhist temple nearby. Land belonging to the post office, the base hospital, a Hindu temple and a public road have been taken for the temple, said Tamilnet.

The Supreme Court issued re-notice on the Vice Chancellor and several other officials of the Jaffna University, in 2018 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 alleged arbitrary treatment and a denial of their right to abide by the religion of their choice and asserted a violation of Article 12(1), 12(1), and 14(1) (a) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. They have requested the Court to direct the VC to allow them to enter the university premises and declare that their fundamental rights have been violated by the respondent university authorities.

Buddhist places of worship have been attacked and vandalized. A Buddhist   shrine room erected by the army in its camp at Kanagaarayakulam, Mankulam, was vandalized in 2016 and Buddha statue broken into pieces. There is no camp there at present, said the media. The shrine room at Mankulam had also been vandalized in 2016. It was erected by the army in its camp at Mankulam.  This was not an isolated incident, said the media. 

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 Northern Province are also under threat said the petitioner.

In January 2019 a group of about 200 persons led by northern politicians stormed the precincts of Gurukanda Raja Maha Viharaya in Nayaru, claiming that the temple had been built on a land belonging to Hindu devotees, reported the media. The group included local politicians and devotees of the adjoining Neeraviadi Kovil. 

There was a clash between the Chief Incumbent of the temple and the intruders. They demanded the deeds of the temple. The Buddhists could complain to any one they liked but they would not allow the Gurukanda temple to function, said the intruders. The intruders threatened to cause bodily harm to the temple’s Chief Incumbent.  If the chief priest disturbed the day to day affairs of the kovil, he would be killed, together with all present there. 

The mob was so strong that the police found it extremely difficult to bring the situation under control. The intruders attempted to snatch the mobile phones of  those who were videoing the scene.  Mullaitivu police filed action in the courts against both parties for breach of peace.

The Mullaitivu police dismantled the CCTV cameras installed at the Viharaya .the CCTV system had been installed by a private company as a security measure since the Chief Incumbent of the temple Ven. Mihindupura Ratanadevakitti didn’t live in the temple most of the time. Police said that there was a court order to the effect no constructions or installations would be allowed in both the temple and the adjacent kovil premises.

The matter went to courts, Director General of Archeology, stated in court that Gurukanda Raja Maha Viharaya in Nayaru, had a history of over 2,000 years with so many Buddhist artifacts and an ancient monastery.  Also that it was against the law to build a Hindu place of worship in the place where there was an ancient Buddhist temple.

Officers of the Archaeological Department M.V.G.K. Asanga and I.P.S. Nishantha had   visited Gurukanda Raja Maha Viharaya. They found ruins of a monastery, remains of a stupa, bricks, roof tiles and  pot shards. They dated the temple to Anuradhapura period. A road has been built bifurcating the temple premises  and land plots have been demarcated. Several Buddhist  artifacts were found during the road building. A stupa which had been bulldozed, had a diameter of 10 meters. There was a new temple there at present. A small Hindu temple,  Neeravi Pillaiyar  temple  is also located on same site, the report said.

TNA leader R.Sampanthan made a statement in Parliament on the matter. Neeraavi Pillaiyar Temple at Chemmalai in the Mullaitivu District was a site of controversy as the Sinhalese in the area tried to take over a Saivite temple, he said. Gurukande Viharaya had been forcibly constructed between 2004 and 2009 when no civilian was permitted to visit the area.

 “More recently an attempt was made to restore that temple. This led to unrest in that area between the people who are all non-Buddhists and the monks who had come there. Upon this matter being reported to the relevant Magistrate, an order was made prohibiting the reconstruction of the temple. The Chief incumbent of the temple filed an application in the Provincial High Court of the Northern Province district of Vavuniya and the matter is still pending, Sampanthan said.

Suren Raghavan said that the boundary of the temple was under dispute. Though  the Gazette notification of 2016 said the temple was an archaeological site, the boundary was not mentioned. A problem arose when new measurements were taken to mark the boundary. While the measuring was going on, ‘both parties had a debate  regarding their historical heritages.” There was an army camp there during the war.  They had a set of buildings which they had handed over to the chief priest, added  Raghavan.

The opposition to Buddhist temples has extended also to cremation of chief priests on  temple premises. Two such protests are on record. The first was in 2017.

 In 2017, 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.

The second   protest was  at Gurukanda Raja Maha Viharaya. The chief priest of Gurukanda, Ven. Colomba Medhalankara ,passed away in Colombo. Neeraavi Pillaiyar Temple promptly filed a police complaint that that if the body of the priest is brought to the  Gurukanda temple,   while a court case is going on, there will be trouble.. 

Mullaitivu Police informed  Magistrate’s Court. The magistrate ordered that the  body of the deceased priest should not be cremated or buried in  Gurukanda temple, until a final order was granted in the  court matter.

Court was informed that the  Buddhist  temple was willing to conduct the cremation ceremony at another location and  that the  Hindu temple was agreeable to this. Court  then ordered that the cremation  be conducted at the second location. Maritimepattu Predeshiya Sabha intervened to say  that arrangements were made for the cremation without obtaining permission in terms of the Cemeteries and Burial grounds Ordinance.

After the order was made a group of monks led by Ven. Galagodatte Gnanasara of Colombo,  took the body of the deceased chief priest to the  temple premises and cremated the body there. The cremation was attended by several monks   and took place amidst sadukara from a large crowd.

An equally large or possible larger crowd were there to oppose the cremation, observed the media. Television cameras showed heated arguments. Police were there. A clash occurred and the priest of the Hindu temple was severely injured. A lawyer appearing for the  Hindu Temple was  assaulted.

Several monks spoke to  Derana television  after the cremation. It is a Buddhist tradition to cremate a monk in the temple premises.     If Gnanasara did not go this cremation would not have taken place, they said.

Regarding the ownership dispute, the monks told Derana, that the Archaeological  Department should   point out that Gurukanda is on  protected territory. 3 acres at Gurukanda belong to the  Archaeological   Department. Court should be told this. Ven. Polonnaruwe Thilnakara  said there was no kovil there earlier.

This temple matter can escalate,  said  Bellanwila Dammaratana. Foreign forces are wanting to intervene and incidents such as this will be used for this.    TNA is behind this the monks said.  They scolded Yahapalana as well. We sacrificed ourselves to establish these temples. We went into jungles. It is we who looked after Buddhism in the north, the monks  told Derana, with emotion.

Former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran,  then led a protest opposite the Mullaitivu Divisional Secretariat against the cremation in the temple premises while a court  decision was pending. Several politicians, both national and local,    as well as lawyers, civil society activists and the public in Mullaitivu joined the protest. Some, including lawyers, wore black arm bands.

The protestors demanded legal action against the  cremation. It was violation of a court ruling.  Violating a court ruling  constitutes Contempt of Court. They  demanded the immediate arrest of Galagodaatte Gnanasara and others responsible for cremation. They were extremely critical of Gnanasara Thera’s involvement in the matter, and wanted to know  whether the country has a separate law for Buddhist monks. They  burnt an effigy of  Ven.Gnanasara .  

The Attorney General should take legal action within three days against all those who are involved in the incident including Ven.Galagoda Aththe Gananasara along with the other Buddhist monk who had openly protested against the court order.  Attorney General must assure them in writing that he will  do so. Unless swift action was taken, the demonstrations would continue, said protestors.

The demonstration then marched from Mullaitivu Divisional Secretariat to Mullaitivu District Secretariat and  handed over a memorandum to the District Secretary to be forwarded to the UN envoy in Sri Lanka. They also protested opposite the Mullaitivu Magistrate’s court.

All the lawyers of Northern and Eastern provinces led by Batticaloa Bar Association President K.Narayanapillai boycotted court duties in a black arm band protest outside the Batticaloa court premises. The Mullaitivu Trade Association closed shops and carried out a hartal in support of the demonstration.

TNA’s R. Sampanthan wrote to the President Sirisena, saying, the corpse was cremated in close proximity to the “Theerthakerni” tank in the Hindu temple premises containing Holy water for use by the Deity. The temple and the premises were  thus desecrated. .” He urged  President Sirisena to ensure that those who cremated a Buddhist prelate’s remains at Chemmalai, Mullaitivu in violation of a court order are brought to justice.”

In this ding dong battle there is a slim ray of hope. Ven. Meegahajathure Siriwimala, the Chief Incumbent of Naga Viharaya in Jaffna said that over 100 persons, including the Buddhist and Hindu clergy, gathered in Jaffna on 30th January  2020  to discuss problems faced by them and find mutual solutions. During the discussions, a committee to protect the Buddhists and Hindus was formed. Ven. Thirikunamale Ananda of the Amarapura Chapter, Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobhita, Prof. Agalagala Sirisumana from the University of Colombo, President of the Buddhist Monks’ Association Ven. Vengamuwe Nalaka participated in the meeting. Three Tamil Buddhist monks from Chennai as well as Ven. Bagawanthalawe Rahula, who was initially a Hindu Kurukkal, as well as Somasundara Paramacharya, the Chief Kurukkal of Jaffna were among those present.

It was suggested at a talk I attended, in 2019, that Tamil should be taught in the Pirivenas, so that they can teach Buddhism to Tamil speakers.  Ethnic discord may not have arisen,  if in the 30s and 40s monks learnt Tamil and preached the Buddha’s words in the North and East. The present objection to temples is because there is a distrust of Buddhist temples in Jaffna. Sponsoring Buddhism in the north east without enforcing Sinhala colonization could go a long way.  The presence of more Buddhists may have diffused the situation and prevented a war. So it should be Buddhisation and not Sinhalisation. ( continued)

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