When Buddhism was a bridge between
Lanka and Tamil Nadu
CLOSE TIES: Today, in the context of the raging Tamil-Sinhala
conflict in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are seen as being
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
Manimekalai 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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. Vijayabahu III facilitates return Later, in the same
century, King Vijayabahu III (1232-1235 AD) brought the Buddhist
refugees back, after having established peace in Sri Lanka. He had set
up a kingdom in South Western Sri Lanka. But, as Prof Pathmanathan
notes, ties with Tamil Nadu continued to be maintained.
King Parakramabahu II (1236-1271 AD) invited leading monks like
Dhammakitti from the Chola country "to render assistance in
re-establishing the community of monks on a formal basis." The Mahawamsa
lauds Dhammakitti as being "radiant in the glory of moral discipline."
Prof Pathmanathan quotes fellow Sri Lankan historian, Amaradasa
Liyanagamage, to say that King Parakramabahu II revived Buddhism in Sri
Lanka by bringing all the religious texts from Jambudvipa (India).
"Although Jambudvipa meant the entire Indian sub-continent and even
much more, in this context, in all probability, it meant the Chola
country, where Theravada Buddhism was very much alive during this
period," Liyanagamage says. Sri Lanka preserves documents By the 5th
century AD, confrontation between the Maha Vihara, Abhayagiri Vihara and
Dakkhina Vihara orders ceased, and they started documentation and
preservation of texts for mutual benefit.
There was a regular exchange of visits between the three orders and
between Sri Lanka and South India. Monks from South East Asia also came
to study and hold discussions. "It is significant that in the
conservation and transmission of Buddhist literary heritage the Buddhist
establishments of Anuradhapura held a unique position," says Prof
"The whole range of Early Buddhist literature that had been
transmitted to them from India during the early stages of their
development were preserved, copied and distributed among leading
monasteries where they were deposited and studied with assiduity by
generations of learned monks." "These could not be preserved in the
monastic centres in India because of political upheavals and sectarian
rivalries among Buddhist orders," he explains.
"Early Buddhist literary heritage, which is also an important
component of Indian cultural heritage, was preserved almost in its
entirety in the island, and transmitted from Sri Lankan monasteries to
Myanmar, Thailand and other South East Asian countries."
"Another notable contribution by the Sri Lankan monastic orders was
the development of a wide range of commentarial literature," he notes.
Sri Lankan monks pioneer recording history It was in Sri Lanka, that the
recording of history commenced in a systematic way, following an early
Buddhist tradition of chronicling the life and work of the Buddha.
The Sri Lankan Pali chronicles "Mahavamsa" and "Dipavamsa" have
helped historians with valuable material on the life and times of
ancient Sri Lanka and India. "A notable feature of this tradition was
the development of a scheme of chronology reckoned from the 'parinibbana'
(pari nirvana) of the Buddha," says Prof. Pathmanathan.
"This tradition was the precursor and the prototype for historical
traditions that were developed in the island," he says. (Hindustan
Times) The sinews and bones of the Buddha's body are revealed beneath
the barest amount of flesh that still remains.
The realism characteristic of this work, and in particular the
familiarity with the details of human anatomy, is inherited from the
Hellenic worlds in which there was a preoccupation with detailed
depictions of physical reality.