Two legendary women in Lankan history

| by Rajitha Weerakoon

( May 07, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian ) The high-profile commemoration of the Sambuddhathva Jayanthi continues to show an unparalleled vigour among Buddhist devotees in the observation of Vesak - The Thrice Blessed Day which commemorates the Buddha's Birth, Enlightenment and Parinirvana. Pilgrims in their thousands are seen this Vesak making their trek to Anuradhapura as they have done for thousands of years. And in Anuradhapura, the first sacred place they will venerate undoubtedly is the Jaya Siri Maha Bodhiya as it was under its parent Tree that the Buddha attained Enlightenment in Buddhagaya on a Vesak Day 2601 years ago.

Solias Mendis’s paintings of Princess Hemamala  and Sanghamitta Theri
In Kandy, the pilgrimage is made to the Temple of the Tooth Relic. But are we aware of the iconic missions undertaken by two legendary women – Sanghamitta Theri and Princess Hemamala that made the veneration of these places of worship possible for Sri Lankan Buddhists?

The bringing of the Bo Sapling by Sanghamitta Theri and the Tooth Relic by Princess Hemamala from a foreign land across high seas and amidst political turmoil had by no means been an easy task.

The risks, the uncertainties and the dangers encountered by these two women in undertaking the missions and the sacrifices they had made, speak volumes of unshakable devotion to Buddhist teachings of Asian women in our early history.

Sanghamitta Theri brought the Bo Sapling in 236 BCE from Buddhagaya to Sri Lanka on the invitation of the Sri Lankan ruler – King Devanampiyatissa to establish the Bhikkuni Order. The Bo Sapling was the Southern Branch obtained from the Sri Maha Bodhiya under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment on a Vesak full moon day.

In the absence of the parent Bodhi Tree in India, what our own Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura means to people is aptly described by scholar Paul E. Pieris : the influence of what the Tree represents has penetrated into the innermost being of the people till the Tree itself has become almost human.

The Bo Sapling was planted on a high terrace above ground in the serene Mahamega gardens in the then capital city of Anuradhapura in a ceremony of marked devotion, veneration and celebration. The event was described by historian Sir James Tennent as “the planting of which formed the grandest episode in the sacred annals of Ceylon.”

The retinue sent by Emperor Dharmashoka to accompany Sanghamitta Theri which comprised members of 24 clans of varied trades performed the religious customs, practices, offerings and rituals associated with the Sacred Tree. Their artistic skills impacted on the architecture, the construction of massive sthupas and statues setting off a cultural renaissance while the elevation of the status of women brought about with the establishment of the Bhikkuni Order by Sanghamitta Theri saw women’s participation in scholarly and socio-cultural activities – all of which together with the Teachings and advice of Mahinda Thera resulted in the country taking a new turn in history.

Probably the mission of Princess Hemamala was even more daunting. With enemies almost on the doorstep, she found herself fleeing her country at the behest of her father, King Guhaseeva of Kalinga State, concealing the most sought after object– Buddha’s Left Tooth Relic in the coils of her hair. Princess Hemamala along with her husband Prince Dhantha hurriedly left home disguised as Brahmins to unknown territory with the objective of preventing the Tooth Relic from falling into the hands of rulers in the surrounding kingdoms who were attacking the Kalinga Kingdom to take possession of the Buddha’s Tooth Relic.

History records the young couple as having boarded a vessel just leaving for Lankapattanaya from the Eastern port of Thaamralipta. On reaching the vicinity of Anuradhapura, they had taken up residence in Meghagiri Vihara when they informed the then reigning King, Kirthi Shri Meghavanna (Kithsirimevan – 301-328CE) of their mission through a Bhikku.

The King’s father Mahasena in fact had sent a mission before his demise to the Kalinga ruler asking for the Tooth Relic. It is recorded that King Kithsirimevan – a devout Buddhist, on seeing the Tooth Relic, fell on the ground, worshipped the Relic and offered the whole island to the Buddha. He carried the casket thereafter on his head under the shade of a white umbrella and travelled to the capital in a grand chariot drawn by a pair of white horses. On reaching Anuradhapura, the King it is documented, had deposited the Relic in the Dhammachakka Vihara and transferred the possession of the Relic to the Abhayagiri Vihara. The King had besides, made all provisions for Princess Hemamala and Prince Dhantha to reside in Sri Lanka.

The Tooth Relic from then onwards, was regarded as the most sacred object and the symbol of sovereignty, so much so that whichever ruler who possessed the Relic was recognised as the King of Sri Lanka. The Tooth Relic as a result, became constantly tied up with the country’s politics and whenever the Capital changed, the first to be shifted to the new Capital was the Temple of the Tooth Relic.

According to historical documents, the Tooth Relic together with the Bowl Relic during the invasion of Aryachakravarti, had been removed to the Pandyan kingdom which King Vijayabahu had later brought back to Polonnaruwa. The Tooth Relic ever since, had been moving from one Capital to the next, finally resting in the Temple of the Tooth Relic in the last Capital, venerated as one of the two most sacred Relics located in Sri Lanka.