Ancient Buddhist links between
Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka
Lakshman JAYAWARDANE in Chennai
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.