The unsustainable claims made by Sinhalese and Tamils over language, religion and ethnicity have confused Sri Lankan politics in the post-independence era.
The Sinhalese proclaim loud and clear that Buddhism is in essence and exclusively a “Sinhalese” religion. Tamils, on the other hand, claim with the same vehemence, that they have always been pure Hindus, who never had anything to do with Buddhism, which they identify with “Sinhala hegemony”.
Sinhala-Buddhist radicals claim that the Buddhist archaeological sites in the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces are relics of a Sinhala-Buddhist past there, and therefore, Sinhalese ownership of these lands should be recovered.
The Tamils, on the other hand, believe that these archaeological finds will defeat their claim to the lands in question as they too identify the Buddhist relics with the Sinhalese and see the discovery of such relics as a threat to their existence.
In some cases, they reportedly destroyed the relics, forcing the government to consider ways to protect them. In May 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa formed a presidential task force under the leadership of the Secretary of Defense to conduct a full investigation of the archaeological sites in the east and take action to protect them, with several parties expressing concern. concerning the destruction of historical monuments. Significantly, the working group was entirely Sinhala Buddhist.
Dr Gintota PV Somaratna, former head of the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Colombo, in his article titled: Tamil Buddhism in Sri Lanka argues that Sinhala-Buddhists claim these relics are ‘Sinhalese’ and Tamils insecure on the matter, are both unfounded if the story is viewed from the right perspective.
The point is, the majority of Tamils were also Buddhists in the past. Sinhala Buddhism, as practiced, had, and still has, many elements of Tamil Hinduism. Sri Lanka has always had a syncretic culture. Both Buddhists and Hindus have coexisted peacefully and have clashed through the ages. In fact, there was never a clear division between the two because beliefs and practices were shared.
For example, Lankan monarchs of Indian descent could practice Hinduism in private as long as they were nominally Buddhists and steadfastly protected Buddhism in their kingdom. The Kandyan kings of the Nayakar dynasty (1739-1815) were Hindus but they were accepted by the Sinhalo-Buddhist majority because they protected Buddhism.
Historian KMde Silva says that before the advent of the British there was virtually no evidence of ethno-religious tension. Catholic church historian V. Perniola noted that in Dutch times there was no racial distinction between Sinhalese and Tamils, only caste divisions.
According to Dr Somaratna, it was because of the introduction of the decennial population census in 1871 and the institution of universal adult suffrage in 1931 that ethnic identity began to be used to gain political support. .
Buddhism in Sri Lanka was closely linked to Buddhism in Tamil Nadu, points out Dr Somaratna. Buddhism flourished in Tamil Nadu in three phases: (1) between the 3 rd. and the 7th. Centuries); (2) during the reign of Pallava (AD 400-650); and (3) in the Chola period (mid 9th to early 14th century AD).
The edicts of Asokan Rock II, V and XIII mention the kingdoms of Kerala, Chola, Pandya and Chera in Tamil Nadu outside of Tambapanni (Sri Lanka). These were places where Emperor Asoka had sent Buddhist missions. A number of caves with inscriptions in Brahmi script have been discovered in Madurai, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli, Tanjaur and in several other districts of Tamil Nadu.
The Brahmi script had come to South India through the Asoka missionaries. There is evidence that Mahinda Thera, the son of Emperor Asoka, spread the Dhamma in Tamil Nadu before he arrived in Sri Lanka.
He had traveled by sea from a port in northern India and called at Kaveripattinam on the coast of Tamil Nadu before heading to Dambakolapatuna or Jambukolapatuna (the modern Sambuthurai) in Jaffna. The delegation of King Devanampiya Tissa to the Mauryan court of Emperor Asoka (c. 230 BC) had embarked from the port of Jambukolapatuna.
Among the greatest Pali scholars of Tamil Nadu were Buddhaghosa, Buddhadatta and Dharmapala. Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Hsuan Tsang, who visited India in the 7th century AD, describes Kanchipuram, the capital of Pallava, as a thriving Buddhist city with over 100 Buddhist monasteries and over a thousand monks.
The interactions between the monks of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka are mentioned in the 2 nd. Century AD Tamil Classic Manimekalai, written by Seethalai Sathanar, a Buddhist. The protagonist Manimekalai’s request to King Chola to convert prisons into places of worship with Buddhist monks is mentioned. Buddha’s teachings on the compassionate lifestyle are presented.
Other Tamil literary epics that show the influence of Buddhism include the Silappadhikaram, Valaiyapathi, Kundalakesi, and Jivaka Cintamani. Tolkappiyam, the first Tamil grammar (3rd century BC), was written by a Buddhist. A section of Tamils continued to patronize Buddhism until the 10th century.
Dr Somaratna points out that Hsuan Tsang recorded cases of Tamil Buddhist monks fleeing to Sri Lanka as they fell victim to religious debates and feared the repercussions of their leaders changing their religion.
The Chulavamsa states that in the 13th. Century, King Parakramabahu VI of Dambadeniya (in the North West Province) brought down Buddhist monks and scriptures from the Chola country to resuscitate Buddhism in his kingdom.
The Mahavamsa is cited to show that several Buddhist Viharas existed in the Jaffna Peninsula. Devanampiya Tissa himself built two Viharas near Jambukolapatuna – the Tissamaha Vihara and the Pachina Vihara. Monks from Piyangudipa (Pungudutivu) participated in the meritorious acts of Dutthagamani. King Dhatusena (455-473 AD) restored Mahanaga Vihara.
There are remains of Buddhist settlements dating from the first centuries of the Christian era in Kandarodai, Vallipuram, Ponnalia, Makiyapini, Nilavarai, Uduvil, Nainativu, Punkuditivu and Neduntivu in Jaffna. Buddhist archaeological ruins found at Vallipuram near Velvettiturai show the historical presence of Buddhism in Jaffna. Kandarodai has very rich archaeological remains which indicate the first settlements. It was probably a department store in the early centuries AD, says Dr Somaratna.
In 1917, an administrator and historian, Paul E. Pieris, identified the ruins as the ancient Kandarodai Vihara. This group of Dagobas located close to each other on the site, served as a monastery for Buddhist monks.
Pieris found the remains of a hall of the shrine, several images of Buddha, coins, around 60 small and large stupas (pagodas), pieces of stupa pinnacles, pieces of stone with imprints of Buddha’s foot and site tiles. Black and red ceramic Kandarodai pottery shards with Tamil Brahmi scriptures dating from 300 BC.
Manimekalai and Mahavamsa both depict the Buddha settling a dispute between two Naga princes of Jaffna over a gem-set throne in Nainativu.
However, Dr Somaratna claims Sinhala writers regard these findings as evidence of the “Sinhalese” presence in the region assuming that all Buddhists at every period in Sri Lanka were Sinhalese. We forget that the majority of Tamils were Buddhists at that time.
“The discovery of Buddhist places in the Jaffna Peninsula today created tension in the minds of Sinhalese and Tamils because of its political implications. “
Cover photo: The relics of Buddha