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Ancient Buddhist links between
Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka

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, 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. Then Buddhism was a bridge between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. The land of the Tamils has been called Tamilakum, which means a land where the language Tamil is spoken.

Tamilakum was a region which had the north-east Ventcata hill or the Tiruppati hill, the southern part of the modern Andhra Pradesh, as its northern border, Kanniya Kumari or Cape Comerin as the southern border, the bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea as its eastern and western borders respectively.

The ancient Tamilakum encompassed modern Kerala too. Tamilakum was actually located in the southern part of the Indian peninsula. Present Tamil Nadu State is much smaller than the Tamilakum.

Now Tamil Nadu is the only land where the language Tamil is spoken. At present Tamil country is famous as Tamil Nadu. According to Historians, Buddhism began to make an impact on Tamil Nadu only in the 4th century AD.

Buddhism flourished in Tamil Nadu in Two phases. (1) The early years of Pullava rule (400-650 AD) (2) The Chola period (mid 9th to early 14th century AD). Buddhism had then enjoyed a very remarkable popularity in the Tamil soil.

Although Buddhism has 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.

It has expressed itself in exquisite artistic forms and given an enduring colour and richness to Tamil culture as a whole. It has exerted a profound influence on the existing religious and social institutions, language and literature as well as on art and architecture.

The fascinating story of the historical links - Golden threads between Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka was narrated by Dr. Shu Hikosake Director Professor of Buddhism, Institute of Asian Studies in Madras in his book “Buddhism in Tamil Nadu a new Perspective.”

Dr. Hikosaka’s study is based on his doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Madras. In the conclusion he explains: “Thus Buddhism remained orphaned in all spheres without proper patronage and encouragement.

The Buddhist monks looked for greener pastures in the neighbouring countries. They found propitious soil in Ceylon and South East Asian countries. A comparative study of the development of Buddhism in Tamil Nadu and the neighbouring countries clearly shows the fact that when Buddhism was in decline in Tamil Nadu, it witnessed tremendous growth in the neighbouring countries.

The monks of Tamil Nadu, who had left from their native land, have contributed a great deal for the growth of Buddhism abroad. In this sense we may say that the Tamil Buddhist genius was not destroyed but sublimated in another direction where it has grown with fresh vigour and vivacity.”

The earliest inscriptions in Tamil Nadu belong to the third century BC. They are written in 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 palaeographically belong to 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.

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.

“Taking all evidence into account, we may fairly conclude that Mahendra and the Buddhist missionaries who went to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) could have embarked for the island from the East coast of the Tamil country. So, it is quite probable that the Tamil country received Buddhism directly through missionaries of Asoka.

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 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.

It is interesting and appropriate to investigate the interactions of Buddhist monastic centres between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. 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.

During the Pallava period, Tamil Nadu boasted of “outstanding Buddhist monks who had made remarkable contributions to Buddhism thought and learning. A Buddhist writer Buddhadatta or Thera Buddhaatta as he is called lived during the time of Accyutarikkanta, Kalabra ruler of the Cola-nadu.

Under the patronage of this ruler, Buddhadatta wrote many books. In his book Vinayaviniccaya, he says that due to the patronage of this king he was able to compose this work.

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 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.

According to Mahavamsa, it is a summary of the three Pitakas together with the commentary. When Buddhaghosha had been staying at Granthakara Pirivena at Anuradhapura, he completed his task of rendering Sinhalese commentaries of Tripitakas into Pali.

After a considerable period of religious service in Sri Lanka, he returned to Tamil Nadu. 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 interaction between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lankan monks finds mention in “Manimekalai”. 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.

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