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The Tamil Buddhists

Ancient Buddhist links between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

By Cholan

(June 27, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Today, the Palk Strait which lies between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan land masses, is seen as a divider, separating two different distinct ethnicities, religions, cultures and political entities but there was a phase in history when Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka enjoyed very close ties, thanks to a shared interest in Buddhism.

During the early period, the Palk Strait was not seen as a divider but it was a unifier. At that time Buddhism was a bridge between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.

The fascinating story of the historical links - Golden threads between Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka was narrated by Dr. Shu Hikosake, Director and Professor of Buddhism, Institute of Asian Studies in Madras in his book 1989 Buddhism in Tamil Nadu: a New Perspective. Dr. Hikosaka's study is based on his doctoral dissertation.

The earliest inscriptions in Tamil Nadu belong to the third century BC. They are written in the Brahmi character of the time, on the walls of the natural caves in the Tamil districts of Madura, Ramnad and Tirnnelveli. They are of considerable interest to students of South Indian Buddhism. It is learnt from these Brahmi inscriptions, which paleographically belong to the 3rd century BC, that Buddhism had come into Tamil Nadu even then. It was to Asoka and his son Mahinda that the introduction of Buddhism into Tamil Nadu may be attributed. Epigraphical evidence seems to confirm this statement. In his Rock-Edict No. 3, Asoka says that his Dharma Vijaya prevailed in the border kingdoms of the Colas, Pandyans and at Tambapanni. But it was his son Mahinda who was responsible for the introduction of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

In this task, he was helped by Maha Aritta, a nephew of the Sri Lankan king Devanampiyatissa. Mahinda is said to have erected seven viharas at Kaveripattinum while he was on his way to Sri Lanka. Some Indian scholars are of the opinion that Aritta or Maha-Aritta might have lived in the caves of the village of Arittapatti in Madura, which is in Tamil Nadu. According to Dr. Hikosaka, Buddhism might have gone to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu, contrary to the general impression.

Buddhism might have gone to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from Tamil Nadu by sea-route, a route by which one can reach Ceylon (Sri Lanka) easily. Since there existed very close cultural affinities between Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Tamil country from time immemorial, the Buddhist activities in India could have easily influenced in some way or other the Buddhism of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), says Dr. Hikosaka.

Although Buddhism has become almost extinct from Tamil Nadu, it has contributed a great deal to the enrichment of Tamil culture and has exerted a significant influence, both directly and indirectly, on the Tamil religious and spiritual consciousness, present as well as past.

According to Historians, Buddhism began to make an impact on Tamil Nadu only in the 3rd century AD. During the period from 3rd Century AD to 6th Century AD, Buddhism had spread widely in Tamil Nadu and won the patronage of the rulers. The remains of a Buddhist monastery excavated at Kaveripattinum which could be assigned to the fourth century, are believed to be the earliest archaeological relics of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu. The major urban centers of Kanchi, Kaveripattinam, Uraiyur, and Madurai were not only centers of Buddhism, but these were also important centers of Pali learning.

The Tamil Buddhist monks of South India used Pali languages in preference to Tamil in their writings. This is because the Buddha spoke in Magadi Prakrit (Pali) which was considered to be the sacred language of the Buddhists.

It was at this time that Tamil Nadu gave some of its greatest scholars (both Theravada and Mahayana) to the Buddhist world. Tamil Nadu boasted of outstanding Buddhist monks, who had made remarkable contributions to Buddhism thought and learning. Three of the greatest Pali scholars of this period were Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta, and Dhammapala and all three of them were associated with Buddhist establishments in the Tamil kingdoms.

Buddhadatta or Thera Buddhaatta as he is called lived during the time of Accyutarikkanta, the Kalabra ruler of the Cola-Nadu. He was a senior contemporary of Buddhaghosa. He was born in the Cola kingdom and lived in the 5th Century AD. Under the patronage of this ruler, Buddhadatta wrote many books. Among his best known Pali writings are the VINAYA-VINICCHAYA, the UTTARA-VINICCHAYA and the JINALANKARA-KAVYA. Among the commentaries written by him are the MADHURATTHA-VILASINI and the ABHIDHAMMAVATARA. In the Abhidhammaratara he gives a glowing account at Kaveripattinum, Uragapuram, Bhutamangalam and Kanchipuram and the Mahavihara at Ceylon (Sri Lanka). While he was at Sri Lanka, he composed many Buddhist works such as Uttara-viniccaya Ruparupa Vibhaga Jinalankara etc. Buddhaghosha, contemporary of Buddhadatta also composed many Buddhist commentaries.

Buddhaghosha is a Tamil monk, who made a remarkable contribution to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He stayed and studied Buddhist precepts at Mahavihara in Anuradhapura. The Visuddhimagga was the first work of Buddhaghosha which was written while he was in Ceylon.

After Buddhaghosha, the important Theravada monk from the Tamil country was Dhammapala. Dhammapala lived in the Mahavihara at Anuradhapura. He composed paramathadipani which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha s work on Khuddaka Nikaya and Paramathamanjusa, which was a commentary on Buddhaghosha's Visuddhimagga. A close study of the three Buddhist monks viz Buddhadatta, Buddhaghosha and Dhammapala shows that Tamil Buddhists were closely associated with the Sri Lankan Buddhists around the 5th century AD.

The author of NETTIPAKARANA is another Dhammapala who was a resident of a monastery in Nagapattinam. One more example is the Cola monk Kassapa, in his Pali work, VIMATTI-VINODANI, this Tamil monk provides interesting information about the rise of heretical views in the Cola Sangha and the consequent purification that took place.

There are so many other Tamil monks who are attributed to the Pali works some of them were resident at Mayura-rupa-pattana (Mylapore, Madras) along with Buddhagosha. The well known Tamil Buddhist epics, on the other hand, were MANIMEKALAI and KUNDALAKESI.

The 6th century Tamil Buddhist work Manimekali by Sattanar, is perhaps the most famous of the work done in Tamil Nadu. It is a work expounding the doctrines and propagating the values of Buddhism. The interaction between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan monks finds mention in Manimekalai, which is set in the Tamil towns of Kaveipumpattinam, Kanchi, and Vanchi.

There is mention about the presence of wondering monks of Sri Lanka in Vanchi, which was the capital of the Chera Kings of Tamil Nadu. The Chinese traveller, Tsuan Tsang, wrote that there were around 300 Sri Lankan monks in the monastery at the Southern sector of Kanchipuram.

As Buddhism was one of the dominant religions in both Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, naturally there were very close relations between the two regions. The monks from Sri Lanka, too, went across to the Tamil kingdom and stayed in the monasteries.

As Dr. Leslie Gunawardana says, `The co-operation between the Buddhist Sangha of South India and Sri Lanka produced important results which are evident in the Pali works of this period`. He also says that the Tamil Buddhist monks were more orthodox than their counterparts in Sri Lanka.

Indeed, the relations between the Tamil and Sinhala Buddhist monks were so close that the latter sought the assistance of the former in political turmoil.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Buddhists who followed Theravada Buddhism shared the common places of worship with the Sinhalese, but there were also Tamil Buddhists who were following the Mahayana Buddhism and they had there own Mahayana temples.

There are still some Tamil Mahayana Buddhist establishments (Palli) in the east and possibly in the Jaffna peninsula. The best known was Velgam Vehera (see details below), which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli after the Cola emperor. Another was the Vikkirama-calamekan-perumpalli.

Some ten miles northwest of Trincomalee off the Trincomalee - Horowupothana road is an ancient Buddhist shrine with origins dating back to the years before the second century. It is a historical fact that among the many ancient Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka Velgam Vehera which was renamed Rajaraja-perumpalli, also called Natanar Kovil by the present day Tamils stands out as the only known example of a `Tamil Vihare or Buddhist Palli` or as the late Dr. Senerath Paranavithana described it in his book `Glimpses of Ceylon`s Past` as an `Ancient Buddhist shrine of the Tamil people`. Some of the Tamil inscriptions found at the site record donations to this shrine and are dated in the reigns of the Chola Kings, Rajaraja and Rajendradeva. It was his view that the date of the original foundation of the vihare was no doubt considerably earlier than the reign of King Bhatika Tissa II.

The situation in Tamil Nadu, however, began to change towards the beginning of the 7th Century AD when the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism posed a serious challenge to Buddhism and Jainism. There was a significant increase in Brahmanical influence and soon the worship of Siva and Visnu began to gain prominence.

The Buddhist and Jaina institutions in Tamil Nadu came under attack when they began to loose popular support and the patronage from the rulers. One result of this was the migration of Buddhist and Jaina monks and devoted lay members to kingdoms where they could find refuge. While the Jainas were able to go to Kannada and Telugu regions, the Buddhists turned to Sri Lanka and assimilated with the local Buddhist population.

The majority of the early Tamils of Sri Lanka (before the 10th century Chola invasion) were Buddhists. The Buddhist remains in the North East are the remnants left by the Tamil Buddhists and not anybody else.

Now, let us ask why is Sri Lanka`s Past Hidden from its Own People??? Why does the Sinhalese believe that the Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka belong only to them (Sinhala heritage) and not to the Tamils??? Why are the Sinhalese ignorant about the early Tamil Buddhists of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu??? Why do the Sinhalese think, in Sri Lanka if you are a Buddhist then you should be a Sinhalese and if you are a Hindu then you should be a Tamil???

Unfortunately, today there is neither Tamil Buddhists nor Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala-Buddhist Maha Sangha will not accept any Tamil Buddhist monks. Buddhism in Sri Lanka is monopolized by the Sinhalese and they call it Sinhala-Buddhism which is Theravada Buddhism (Tripitaka) mixed up with the 'Mahavamsa.' It is actually a violent barbaric form of Buddhism, in which killing Tamils is a part of the Sinhala (Mahavamsa) Buddhist scriptures created by its author.
-Sri Lanka Guardian


Unknown said...

'Counter Revolution'

There are other studies that shed light in this. Dr. B.R Ambedkar , who renounced Hinduism and became a Buddist with 500,000 others, most from low castes,k wrote extensively on wiping out of Buddhism in India. One of his essay's is entitled " Revolution and Counter Revolution in India. By revolution he meant the social change brought about by Buddhism, which undermined the caste system and the position of Brahmins.
By counter-revolution was meant the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism which brought Brahminism back. All Buddhist places of learning and other Buddisht centres were taken over by the Vaishnavism and Saivism. This happened through out India and there is great deal of published works on this. This would have spread to the North of Sri Lanka also. Together came the Caste system of the Tamils.

But, what happened in rest of Sri Lanka was more interesting. Here the Vaishnavism and Saivism and Buddhism were incorporated. Caste system was also incorporated to the Sinhala society. What now called Sinhala Buddhism has three elements- Buddhism + Vaishnavism and Saivism + Caste system. Naturally these three elements are in conflict. However, the compromise helped to prevent the wiping out process that as happened in India.

Perhaps it may be during this time that cultural distancing of Sinhala areas from Tamil areas happened, mainly for the prevention of complete "Counter-Revolution", which spread from India.

sgenome said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jan said...

The writer of this article is unfortunately a victim of the propaganda of the christian church which was the sponsor of tiger terrorism which wanted to undermine buddhism in SL. His statement that the sinhalese practice a barbaric form of buddhism is far from the truth. Sinhalese buddhist of course had to respond to the violence perpetrated by terrorism that was sponsored by the christian church and the christian dominated influence from tamilnadu not forgeting the west who wanted to balkanise india.

jan said...

This writer exibits blatant ignorance of the ethnic make up of SL. Tamils and sinhalese are ethnicaly hybrids.A sinhalese is a person who speaks sinhalese majority of who are buddhists and sinhalese is unique to SL and hence is the language of the country.Tamils on the other hand speak tamil and are Hindus or christians. There are no Tamil Buddhists. So it stands to reason why Buddhism in SL is the religeon of the Sinhalese and not the tamils

jan said...

Since you do not have the courage to publish my comments I would like to tell you that you are completely ignorant about sri lanka , its ethnicity and buddhism. Pl do not write rubbish.Your comments are only meant to cause more disruption. Pl keep your comments to yourself. If you are a indian you and your country has caused enough damge.

Anonymous said...

Historical research in contemporary Tamil Nadu often lacks rigor. This article seems to reflect that. While it repeats several well known facts, it also misplaces the context.

The author claims that Buddhism may have traveled to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu. While this may not be incorrect, it is also possible that the development of an urban civilization in Anuradhapura led to strengthened trade links across the Palk Straits leading to Buddhism moving from Ceylon to Tamil Nadu instead!

For example, the Buddhist inscriptions in Tamil Nadu in the 3rd century BC were sponsored by merchants who had traded with Sri Lanka as the votive records themselves indicate!

Sri Lanka was the custodian of Theravada Buddhism. It is here that the Tripitaka or the Pali canon was first put down in writing in the 1st century BC. Indian monks traveled to Sri Lanka both to learn the Tripitaka and more importantly to study the commentaries on the Buddhist scriptures. Buddhagosha was one. Dharmapala was another.

In other words, the impetus for Buddhism in Tamil Nadu often came from the Sinhalese, not the other way around.

The Buddha spoke in Magadhi Prakrit. This was refined, systematized and standardized into Pali in the monasteries of classical Sri Lanka.

This explains the linguistic discrepancy between the Buddhist and Jain scriptures despite the fact that both the Buddha and Mahavira, the 'founder' of Jainism, used the identical Prakrit in their daily discourse. The current Buddhist canon is in Pali while the current Jain canon is in Ardhamagadhi! Grammatical Pali was likely schematized in Sri Lanka.

In other words, Pali learning went to Tamil Nadu from the Sinhalese.

Buddhism was never dominant in classical Tamil Nadu. It was confined to the urban areas, not to the rural hinterland. It was patronized by merchants and the intermittent monarch. It was an urban phenomenon.

In Sri Lanka conversely, it was dominant both in the rural and urban areas. The rise of irrigated paddy cultivate led to its hold of the Sinhalese peasantry.

This crucial difference explains why Buddhism remained resilient in Sri Lanka and not in Tamil Nadu.

Tamils in Sri Lanka before the 10th century AD were not necessarily Buddhist as the author claims. There were sizeable Saivite Hindu centers of worship in Tiruketheeswaram and Thirukoneswaram. The Pallava links with the post 6th century Anuradhapura era led to a significant Tamil Hindu presence in the island.

In short, 'Cholan's' article is a rehash of the research of others without contributing anything new. It is moreoever based on several inaccuracies.

Its time that Tamil Nadu learns good rigorous history for a change.

Anonymous said...


B.R. Ambedkar was a polemicist, not a historian.

I recommend that Indians learn Buddhist history from Sri Lanka.

Ram Muni said...

Thank you for the article. My extremely limited knowledge re. Buddhism in southern India then, and its virtual disappearance today is to some extent now corrected. I am certai8n that the Sri Lankan and south Indian relations were far better tthen, than now.

Tissa said...

The above author is only quoting the study/research done by Dr. Shu Hikosake for his doctoral dissertation. It is Dr. Hikosaka who claims that Buddhism might have gone to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu, contrary to the general impression.

The author says, major urban centers in Tamil Nadu were not only centers of Buddhism, but also important centers of Pali learning where as if we see the ancient Buddhist centers in Sri Lanka, they were all close to the Royal Palace.

If Emperor Asoka's son Mahinda and the missionary monks arrived in Tamil Nadu before coming to Sri Lanka as per his research, then of course they must have introduced not only Buddhism but also the Pali language.

Buddhism remained resilient in Sri Lanka and not in Tamil Nadu due to many reasons. When Hinduism/Brahmanical influence posed a serious challenge to Buddhism and when Buddhism started to lose popular support and the patronage from the rulers, the Buddhist institutions in Tamil Nadu came under attack. One result of this was the migration of Buddhist monks and devoted lay members to kingdoms where they could find refuge. The Buddhists turned to Sri Lanka and assimilated with the local Buddhist population.

The events that took place in India against Buddhism prompted the Mahavihara monks in Sri Lanka to come up with a plan/strategy to protect Buddhism. They made Sri Lanka a Dammadeepa (chosen land of Buddha), they created a Sinhala race and made them the sustainers of Buddhism (Buddha’s chosen people). The main reason why the Pali chronicles were written by the Mahavihara monks was to protect Buddhism. The term Sihala/Hela came into existence for the first time only in the Pali chronicles. There is no evidence what so ever to prove the existence of the term Sihala/Hela before that. The Buddha’s three magical visits, Vijay’s visit on the very day Buddha passed away, and many other stories in the Mahavamsa are all created by the Mahavamsa author.

Just around ten few lines/verses in the Deepavamsa about the Elara/Dutugemunu episode was blown up into 11 chapters in the Mahavamsa just to glorify Buddhism and the Buddhist king against the Hindus.

The Mahavamsa author justifying the killing of around sixty thousand Tamils by Dutugemunu may be the reason for the author of the above article to comment that Sinhala-Buddhism is somewhat a violent barbaric form of Buddhism where killing Tamils is justified.

Unknown said...

I echo Raja's anlaysis.I think Cholan owes an apology for publishing distorted facts.The last paragraph is absurd.He seem to be a mouth piece for someone with an ulterior motive. Even today there are tamil speaking buddhist monks in the north and buddhism invites any one to join- and never by force.("Ehi passikko"-come and see). There are american, Canadian and British monks ordained in Sri Lanka,
I invite you to visit the Samadhi Stupa amongst many in Anurathapura and the headless body of some stupa's were the result of waves of Chola invasions in Sri Lanka since ist century BC continuing many centuries since then. There were times of peace in between them. they were not the result of the westerners who conquered in the 6th century AD.
The author has probably is not well read, and is unfortunately factually ignorant, and does not know the very essence of buddhism and its practice in Sri Lanka.
As a Buddhist, I have great pity for him and would advise to change his vocation.

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