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Archaeological sites in East and Presidential Task Force Archaeological sites in East and Presidential Task Force

(Courtesy of The Island)

The recently established task force, for the survey and preservation of archaeological sites, in the eastern province of Sri Lanka, is a worthwhile endeavour as the preservation of a peoples’ cultural heritage is an important one. The implementation of this project requires a proper understanding of the historical background in which these structures, i.e. Buddhist Stupas and Vihares, and Hindu Temples were built, and the composite Buddhist/Hindu heritage of the earlier era. While Buddhism, with its lofty philosophy, provided a religious ideal and an ethic, the worship of Hindu Gods also continued. Sri Lanka’s closest neighbors were the South Indian kingdoms and hence the religious influences, from there, was felt in Sri Lanka, as a whole, and in the northern and eastern areas of the country. It must be kept in mind that Buddhism was prevalent all over South India, including in what was then known as Thamizhaham (an area larger than the size of the present Tamil Nadu state) especially in the period from the 2nd Century BC to the 14th Century AD. Hence, we can infer that a section of the Tamils living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka were also Buddhists, and many of the archaeological sites would have a shared Sinhala and Tamil Buddhist heritage just as much as that of the Hindu sites. There is evidence from stone inscriptions, around Sri Lanka, and in South India, which confirm this.

Today, the Vikkirama Calemekan Perum Palli, in the eastern province, also known as the Velgam Vihare/Natanar Kovil by the present-day Tamils, stands out as an example of a Vihare or Palli (As they were called in Tamil) which had such a shared heritage. Dr. Paranavithane describes it as an ancient Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people. The Tamil inscriptions, at the site record donations made to the shrine and are dated in the reign of the Chola kings’ Raja Raja Chola and Rajendra Chola, who had extended their rule over a large part of Sri Lanka, at the time, 993-1070 A.D, i.e. almost three-quarters of a century. It was the view of Dr. Paranavithana that the date of the original foundation was considerably earlier. There are also ancient Hindu temples built by the Cholas in Sri Lanka, to the number of 120. Though the Cholas (probably the most powerful Tamil dynasty to rule over and spread their influence in South India, Sri Lanka and South East Asia) are portrayed as Hindu, or Saivite, as they built great Hindu temples, they are also known to have built, contributed and supported Buddhist sites, in South India, as well as in Sri Lanka.

In the historical context, we have to keep in mind that Buddhism came to South India before the 3rd Sangam period, in the 2nd century BC as also mentioned by Pandit Hissele Dharmaratne Maha Thera in his book “Buddhism in South India”. This is confirmed by Stone inscriptions of Emperor Asoka which refer to Buddhist missionaries going to the Chola and Pandya (Tamil) countries along with Tambapanni (Sri Lanka). The Mahathera also states that there is evidence that the Ven Mahinda Thera, Emperor Asoka’s son, also spread the Dhamma in Tamil Kingdoms in South India which makes up most of the present Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Buddhism continued in South India through the early years of the Christian era and up to the 14th century when it died out, amidst a decline of the long-standing dynasties including the Cholas and Pandiyas who had ruled during its rise and spread, a revival of Hinduism (Vaishnavism) and the beginning of Islamic conquest.

During the period of the Palava kings 400-650 A.D in South India, Buddhism flourished. The Chinese monk scholar Hsuan Tsang, who visited the city of Kancheepuram, in the 7th century, states that most of its population was Buddhist, with about 100 monasteries and thousands of monks, among whom he mentions monks from Sri Lanka. He states that Emperor Asoka had many centuries earlier erected a stupa in Kancheepuram which was still existent in his day. Kanchipuram was also the native city of Rev. Dharmapala, the Rector of the famed Nalanda University. It appears that the merchants and traders were the main supporters of Buddhism and hence cities such as Urraiyur the ancient capital of the Cholas and home of Ven. Buddhadutta and Nagapattinam a thriving port known of since Greek times were among the centers of Buddhism. In the 7th/ 8th century, there was a Hindu revival, and commentators have noted Tamil Buddhist monks fleeing to Sri Lanka, just as some centuries later during the invasion of Magha of Kalinga, Sinhalese Buddhist monks fled to monasteries in Tamil Nadu. During the Chola period from the mid 9th century to early 13th century Buddhism continued to be prevalent but the royal patronage was not so evident. The Mahavamsa mentions that in the 13th Century king Parakramabahu of Dambedeniya got down monks and scriptures from the Chola (Tamil) country to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Chief among these monks was the Rev. Dhammakitti who wrote the continuation of the Mahavamsa from the time of king Srimevan up to his time. Dharmaratna Maha Thera concludes that this points to the presence of monasteries and centers of learning being still existent in Tamil Nadu, even up to the 14th Century.

Golden threads between the Buddhists, in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, were the learned Tamil Buddhist monks who came to Sri Lanka, among them Ven. Bhuddhadatta, Ven. Buddhagosha and Ven. Dharmapala. They lived and wrote their works such as the Visudhimagga of Ven. Buddhagosha, at the Mahavihare in Anuradhapura. This is mentioned by Dr Shu Hikosake, Director and Professor, Institute of Asian studies at the University of Madras, in his book “Buddhism in Tamil Nadu a new perspective”, citing these exchanges as the golden threads between Buddhists in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. However in this article, I would like to concentrate on another aspect and that is the role played by Tamil traders and Merchant Guilds in supporting Buddhism, in Sri Lanka, as well as in the countries of Indo China and Indonesia. This fact is evidenced in the inscriptions found in Thailand, West Sumatra, Myanmar, South China and Sri Lanka. The earliest reference to the association of Tamil merchants with Buddhist institutions comes from Sri Lanka. The label inscription of Brahmi characters dated to the 2nd Century BC, carved on a boulder in the area to the northwest of the ancient Abhayagiri dagoba at Anuradhapura. The label inscription states “dameda vanija ga(pa) ti-Visakahaline” translates as “The cave of the householder Visaka the Tamil merchant”.

Among the merchant guilds, the names we see in the inscriptions were the Ainurruvar and the Nanadesi. The Ainurruvar (the 500) was the most prominent. There are inscription with donations to Buddhist temples in different parts of the country, as in Matale, Kurunegala district, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The Anuradhapura slab inscription of Queen Lilavati 1197-1212 one of the consorts of Parakramabahu 1 provides information about the link between the Tamil merchant community in Anuradhapura the Nanadesis, and the Buddhist establishment. The Lankatilleke temple inscription in Tamil, records an endowment made by a Tamil merchant community to the temple, and similarly at the Jetawanarama site. Inscriptions of the Ainurruvar are found at Padaviya which mentions that they were building Buddhist shrines and Hindu temples. Another Tamil inscription from Morakavelai in Tampankadavai area adjoining Trincomalee district dated 28th year of Jayabahu 1 i.e. 1138 AD, mentions that the donor was giving land to the Buddha, and threatens that violaters would be destroyed by the Mundru Koyil (Tri Ratna and by the Mundru Kai (three Arms) of the Army i.e, the Velaikkaras. The Polonnaruwa inscription states that the temple of the sacred Tooth relic at Polonnaruwa was guarded by the Velaikkara (Tamil) army employed by the Sinhalese kings. At Mayilankulam, about 58 kilometers to the north of Trincomalee, a Tamil inscription states that the king Sri Jayabahu summoned the Velaikkarar of the Vikkirama Calemekan and placed the Vikkirima Calemecan Perum Palli (Great Temple) under their protection. The Polonnaruwa slab inscription reveals the involvement of the Velaikkarar in the protection of Buddhist institutions and the possible relationships between the Merchant Guilds and the Royal Army. In this inscription, the Velaikkarars took an oath to protect faithfully the great Buddhist temple of the Tooth relict in Polonnaruwa.

From all these inscriptions, it is clear that the Tamil kings, Theras, merchant communities and the Tamil soldiers, or Mercenaries (the Velaikkarers), played a vital role in protecting and promoting Buddhism and Buddhist establishments including the Temple of the sacred tooth relic. In the context that Tamil Nadu has had a longstanding link to Buddhism and there was the interaction between the Buddhist monks as seen from the above, it follows that the Tamil people in Sri Lanka including those in the north and east have had a long-standing connection to Buddhism and many professed it as did the Sinhala people. In the Manimekalai the 6th century Tamil literary classic by Seethalai Sattanar which expounds Buddhism and Buddhist values, mention is made of Tamil Buddhists in Nagadipa (Nainathivu) off the coast of Jaffna. We may thus infer that many of the archaeological sites in the Eastern province which will now come under the Presidential Taskforce have a shared heritage of the Sinhala and Tamil speaking people, and are as much the cultural heritage of the Tamil speaking people as they are of the Sinhala people.

The Task Force has the task of surveying and preserving all these sites. At these sites, there would be inscriptions in many languages including Pali, Sinhala, and Tamil, and in ancient forms, hence persons qualified in linguistics and with a knowledge of the shared histories of the peoples and the languages should be incorporated into the Taskforce which, at present, is almost entirely mono-ethnic and mono religious in composition and hence having an exclusivist viewpoint. Archaeologists from the Universities in the East at Batticaloa and Oluvil as well as from other Universities in Sri Lanka such as Kelaniya with competent archaeological departments, as well as experts from India should be consulted, and some of them could also be members of the Taskforce. Members of the Muslim community, which is a major constituent of the eastern province should also be involved in this project so that the Task Force is not regarded as inimical to any group and as a cooperative effort of all communities.

Furthermore, as ‘Archaeological sites’ and ‘historic monuments’, are also a subject in the Provincial Council List, as set out in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the eastern provincial Council, should also be given a consultative status by the Taskforce. Lastly and very importantly the cooperation of the village community in these areas of the Eastern province must be sought, in order to carry out successful excavations and conservation of these sites. It must be kept in mind that the land and cultivation of the farmers in those areas where excavations are taking place should not be interfered with as far as possible, and lands of these people should not be taken over except where it is essential and that too with due compensation paid.

I am indebted to Dr D. Dayalan of the Archaeological Survey of India for much of the information from his article on “Role of Trade and Tamil Traders in promoting Buddhism”. Dr Dayalan is also the author of a Book “Remains of Buddhism in South India”. The launch of this book took place in Colombo in May 2017, under the distinguished patronage of Dinesh Gunawardene. The Task Force would do well to invite such experts who could enrich its work to join its team.

The objective of the Task Force, as I see it is to build trust and amity between the communities in the Eastern province by showcasing the common cultural and religious bonds between the communities while adhering to the principles of compassion and tolerance advocated by the Lord Buddha in their interactions with the local people. They should eschew the crusader approach of the colonialists of former times, keeping in mind that religious doctrines such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism cannot be the sole preserve of any one group as they are doctrines, of universal applicability and belong to Sri Lankans of all communities and to all humanity.

By Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan
LL.B(Cey) , LL.M (Cantab), Ph.D (Col). Attorney-at law



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