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Capital of the Nagas

Was Nallur the capital of the Nagas in ancient Nakadeepa?

by Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

(August 20, Ottawa-Canada, Sri Lanka Guardian) Romesh Jayaratnam, has writen in the Sri Lanka Guardian of the 17th August (Link 1), 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: Link 2).

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 → Nakpura → nakpur → nakkur → 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 Of course, the historical references to the Nagas are mainly contained in the Pali Chronicles, and such ancient texts and traditions.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 Vakula→ 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!

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