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Bridging the Sri Lanka-Tamil Nadu gap

Till the 14th century, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka had close ties. Thanks to Buddhism, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: May 22, 2006 22:51 IST

Today, in the context of the raging Tamil-Sinhala conflict in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are seen as being adversaries.

The history that is remembered now is the history of invasions from the Tamil country across the Palk Strait, and the threat the Tamil invaders posed to Buddhism in the island.

The Palk Strait, which lies between the Indian 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, between the early years of the Christian era and the 14th century, when Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka enjoyed very close ties, thanks to a shared interest in Buddhism.

At that time, the Palk Strait was not seen as a divider.

It may seem to be rather unreal today, but Buddhism had many adherents in Tamil Nadu, especially in the influential urban cum trading centres.

As the religion of the elite, Buddhism contributed tremendously to Tamil Nadu's art, literature and culture.

This was so even when the Tamil Nadu kings, namely, the Pallavas, Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas, were Hindus.

Contrary to the general impression, the non-Buddhist Tamil kings patronised Buddhism.

Close ties developed between the Buddhist monasteries, monks and scholars in Tamil Nadu and those in Sri Lanka, which was already a Buddhist country.

The interactions between Buddhist scholars and institutions across the Palk Strait helped sustain Buddhism and develop Buddhist thought and action in both countries.

The fascinating story of the historical links between the Buddhists of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka was narrated by Dr S Pathmanathan, Professor of History at the University of Peradeniya, in his Fourth Vesak Commemoration Lecture delivered under the auspices of the Deputy High Commission of Sri Lanka at Chennai on May 14.

Buddhism in Tamil Nadu

Buddhism began to make an impact on Tamil Nadu only in 4th century AD, says Prof Pathmanathan.

According to him, Buddhism flourished in Tamil Nadu in two phases: (a) The early years of Pallava rule (400-650 AD) (b) The Chola period (mid 9th to early 14th century AD).

During the Pallava period, Tamil Nadu boasted of "outstanding" Buddhist monks who had made "remarkable" contributions to Buddhist thought and learning, he says.

The commentaries of Buddhadutta (5th century AD) had won him "wide and enduring" reputation in the history of the Thervada school of Buddhism, which in subsequent years, became the predominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

During this period, the other great Buddhist commentator from Tamil Nadu was Dharmapala, a resident of Kanchi or Kanchipuram, near Chennai.

Nagapattinam, further south, along the Tamil Nadu coast, was another major seat of Buddhist learning.

This was where Dharmapala wrote "Paramatta Dipani" and the "Paramatta Manjusha", the latter a commentary on Buddhaghosa's "Visuddhimagga".

Dinnaga (early 6th century AD) and Bodhidharma were two other renowned Buddhist scholars associated with Kanchi.

An adherent of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, Dinnaga occupies a "special" position as the founder of Buddhist logic.

Bodhidharma was an exponent of the Dhyana school of thought.


The 6th century Tamil Buddhist work "Manimekalai" by Sattanar, is perhaps the most famous of the work done in Tamil Nadu.

"The Manimekalai is a product of a tradition of learning cultivated in the leading monastic centres in Tamilakam (another name for Tamil Nadu).

It is essentially a work expounding the doctrines and propagating the values of Buddhism," says Prof Pathmanathan.

"The Manimekalai does not seem to have been written with a view to promoting the claims of any particular sect of Buddhism to superiority over others.

It is essentially synthetic in character and the emphasis is uniformly on the fundamentals of Buddhist teaching and practice," he notes.

Manimekalai was not about individual salvation only. It stressed the need for giving relief to those who were distressed and in want.

"Kuntalakesi" was another great Tamil work written to propagate Buddhism.

Decline and subsequent revival under Cholas

Buddhism declined in Tamil Nadu in the 7th.century AD. The monasteries in Kanchi and Kaveripattinam were almost abandoned.

But under the Cholas (9th to the 13th century AD)  Nagapattinam became a major centre of Buddhism.

Pathmanathan says that Rajaraja Perumpalli and the Rajendra Chola Perumpalli were the principal monastic establishments during Chola rule in the Coromandel coast.

These were named after Chola Kings who were worshippers of Shiva.

These establishments were handsomely funded by merchants and artisans as well as royalty.

Under the Cholas, the Tamil Nadu Buddhists produced exquisite bronzes for which the Tamil country is well known even now.

Among the great religious works of this period, Pathmanathan mentions  "Veeracholiyam" a treatise on grammar and poetics.

It was written by the monk Puttamittirar (Buddhamitra) of Ponparri during the reign of Vira Rajendra.

Chola rule also saw the revival of the Theravada school in terms of the growth of study centres.

Prof Pathmanathan notes that this also led to the revival of Pali studies in Tamil Nadu.

The monk Anuruddha from Kaverinagara of Kanchi, was one of the earliest exponents of Theravada Buddhism in Tamil Nadu. He summarized the "Abbidhamma" in two works called "Paramattha-Vinicchaya" and "Namarupa".

Kassapa, from the Chola country, also won acclaim. A Brahmin, he was a strong advocate of the strict observance of Vinaya rules. Kassapa wrote "Vimativinodani" the third commentary on the "Vinayatta katha".

Tamil Nadu-Sri Lanka interaction

Prof.Pathmanathan delineates the course of very fruitful interaction between the monastic establishments in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka from the earliest times.

The interaction between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan monks finds mention in "Manimekalai" which is set in the Tamil towns of Kaveripumpattinam, Kanchi and Vanchi.

There is mention about the presence of wandering monks from "Irattinativu" (Island of Gems or Sri Lanka) in Vanchi, which was the capital of the Chera kings of deep south Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The Chinese traveler, Tsuan-Tsang, wrote that there were around 300 Sri Lankan monks in the monastery at the southern sector of Kanchipuram.

The "Pattini" cult, which was mentioned in "Manimekalai" was later to become a major cult in Sri Lanka.

Pattini, the heroine of another Tamil classic "Silapadikaram" was deified in Tamil Nadu. Later, she went on to become one of the "Guardians" of Sri Lanka like Vishnu.

Appearance of schisms

Sri Lanka had been, and is, the bastion of Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhism appeared on the scene in Sri Lanka quite early in the first four centuries of the Christian era.

Prof Pathmanathan attributes this to South Indian influence.

Mahayana Buddhism created schisms in Anuradhapura, then the seat of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

The schism led to the emergence of three "Nikayas" or chapters, namely, Maha Vihara, Abhayagiri Vihara and Dakkhina Vihara.

The Maha Vihara was the conservative one. But it lost ground after King Mahesena (278-301 AD) withdrew his patronage and promoted Mahayana.

The conversion of Mahasena to the Mahayana school was brought about by Sanghamitta, a monk from Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu, who had been invited by Mahasena's father, King Gothabhaya (253-266 AD) to teach his two sons.

The arrival of the disciples of the South Indian monk, Dhammaruchi, from Pallavarama (probably Andhra Pradesh), made a great deal of difference to the Abhayagiri Vihara. It became a seat of Mahayana Buddhism.

Thanks to royal patronage, the orthodox Maha Vihara declined, and the non-orthodox Abhayagiri Vihara and the Dakkhina Vihara prospered. According to the Chinese pilgrim Fa-Hsien, the non-orthodox orders had 5,000 monks while Maha Vihara had only 3,000.

The arrival in Sri Lanka of Vajrabodhi, (7th.century AD) a monk from South India, was a shot-in-the-arm for the Mahayana school in the island.

His disciple, Amoghavajra, who came to Sri Lanka after visiting China, is credited with "having fixed the Mahayana doctrine in its final form," says Prof Pathmanathan.     

The Maha Vihara too had a Tamil Nadu connection. It was associated with the famous Tamil monk-scholar Buddhadutta (5th century AD).

Hailing from Uraiyur in Tamil Nadu, Buddhadutta was ordained at the Maha Vihara in Anuradhapura.

He later became a great exponent of Theravada Buddhism and the Pali language in Tamil Nadu.  

"A Sri Lankan tradition attributes to Buddhadutta the authorship of Maduratta Vilasini and the Jinalankara. The former is a commentary on the Buddhavamsa, which is a compilation of legends dealing with the lives of Gotama," says Prof Pathmanathan.

Tamil Nadu gave shelter to fleeing Lankan monks

When Magha of Kalinga persecuted Buddhists during his rule in Sri Lanka in the early 13th century, monks from the island fled to Tamil Nadu.

The great Pali chronicle of Sri Lankan history, the "Mahawamsa" mentions this exodus and says that monks found shelter in the land of the "Pandus" "Cholas" and "other peoples".

The Sinhala monks were looked after by Chudaganga, a Vanniyar feudatory of the Pandya king of Madurai.  

A Sinhala monk, Bhadanta Ananda, who had sought refuge in Gunakara Perumpalli, had left for posterity valuable information on Buddhism in Tamil Nadu.